The Rabbi Goes to Court
by Nina Caputo, illustrated by Liz Clarke
Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $19.95
It was a showdown: Our hero, outmanned and outgunned, the whole town against him, was up against the royally backed clerics and even the king. Nonetheless, he was determined. That’s how the prominent medieval rabbi and scholar Moshe ben Nachman, or Nachmanides, entered the Barcelona Disputation of 1263; or at least that’s how it feels in the colorful pages of Debating Truth, a new graphic history by Nina Caputo and Liz Clarke.
Christian scholars of the Middle Ages often learned and determined points of doctrine through disputations—formalized debates—a practice dating back to antiquity. Famously, they periodically forced Jews into participation, invariably for the purpose of proving the wrongness of Jewish belief. The great talmudic scholar and biblical commentator Nachmanides (widely known as Ramban—that is, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) was summoned by King James I of Aragon to debate Friar Paul (also known as Pablo Christiani) on whether the messiah had already come, whether he was human or divine, and, more generally, who had the “true faith.” Their three-day disputation was notable not because it was rigged but because Nachmanides demanded, and secured, permission to speak freely—and because Paul, like his namesake, was a Jewish convert to Christianity, who argued the Christian position from talmudic and midrashic texts.
Caputo, a historian of medieval Judaism, has scripted this graphic history of their clash, with illustrations by Liz Clarke. Properly, it’s a graphic chapter: The comic-book portion covers only 80 of the book’s 256 pages; the rest is devoted to translations of the primary source documents (including Caputo’s original translation of Nachmanides’s first-hand recollection of the event), concisely offered historical contexts, and summations of major scholarly debates. In short, as part of Oxford University Press’s Graphic History Series (most illustrated by Clarke), it’s the most inviting medieval sourcebook on persecution you’ve ever seen.
There are three extant first-hand accounts of the disputation, all found in the back of Caputo’s thoroughly researched book. Two are short retellings from the Church: an official record, brief and written in the medieval equivalent of press-release newspeak, and a brief recounting in a letter from King James giving his subjects permission to force Jews to attend public church sermons. And then there is Nachmanides’s own famous first-person account, whose circulation eventually forced him to flee Spain. Caputo’s script hews closest to this retelling, which lends itself naturally to the back-and-forthing of speech bubbles, each a new volley in the greater argument, each recontextualizing the previous line, almost talmudic in its intricacy.
From a visual perspective, the drama is still fundamentally limiting: Clarke’s task was to draw nearly four issues’ worth of a comic book with almost no physical action—just two people arguing. It’s a tall order, but the result is a beautiful book that can be enjoyed by medieval enthusiasts and bring enormous value to 21st-century undergraduate classrooms. The graphic portion brings the medieval debate to life; the translated primary texts and historiographical material provide everything an instructor needs to help students contextualize and engage with the subject.
Clarke fills the illustrated frames with gestures caught in midmovement. The most powerful moments are Friar Paul hovering over a frame with a crooked back and a cruel smile, and Nachmanides in his swooping robes and long hair leaping up in the throes of a passionate argument.
The illustrations use bright colors filling thick black lines, giving the effect of stained glass church windows—tableaus of actions caught in medias res. Clarke also takes full advantage of opportunities in the argument to break away from the protagonists with flashbacks and allusions to biblical or midrashic scenes.
Clarke’s evocation of the Christian medieval art of stained glass to illustrate the Church’s medieval persecution of the Jews subtly underlines the imbalances and ironies of the historical situation: A rabbi is forced to enter a theological debate he can’t win; a Jewish convert to Christianity attacks his former people using their own texts. Though the materials in the back of the book give sober historical contextualization, making the conflict less a matter of good guys and bad guys, it’s hard not to take the side of the underdog, Nachmanides. The rabbi’s white robes and red cape are always soaring from one corner of the frame like a superhero’s, while Friar Paul, all bad posture and awkward (if, I guess, historically accurate) haircut, jeers his way to an inevitable victory. Debating Truth isn’t the first popular account of the Barcelona Disputation. The British scholar Hyam Maccoby wrote a play, The Disputation, based on Nachmanides’s account, which was performed widely and later adapted as a television costume drama in 1986 with Christopher Lee. (Caputo’s version is, to say the least, more historically accurate.)
King James awarded Nachmanides 300 gold coins for his effort, but after the rabbi published his version of the disputation, he was forced to leave Aragon. Eventually, he arrived in Jerusalem, where he founded a synagogue in the ruins of an old home. Although the Ramban Synagogue has been closed, confiscated, or partially destroyed more than once in the ensuing centuries, it still stands.