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A new look at an old commentary by Rashi

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Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic by Eric Lawee (Oxford University Press)

The most widely read premodern Jewish author is still Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), who’s more commonly known as Rashi. Studying Talmud without his commentary is almost unimaginable. Rashi’s Torah commentary has become such an important part of Jewish study that many Jews aren’t certain whether some well-known Jewish stories are found in the Bible or in Rashi.

Rabbis and scholars have been writing about Rashi’s Torah commentary for centuries. Eric Lawee, a native Torontonian and a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, has just published an essential contribution to the discussion. (Before he moved to Israel, Lawee was my colleague at the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University.)

Lawee’s book, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic, is part of a growing new academic field called “reception studies,” which concentrates on how a particular work was “received” by later readers.

In Rashi‘s case, the reception and popularity of his commentary is central to the story. Shortly after his death, it was already treated with unprecedented respect. Eight hundred years later, it is still required reading in Jewish studies.

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Lawee’s research covers centuries of reactions to Rashi from Jews around the world. The bulk of the book is a study of “super-commentaries,” commentaries written on Rashi’s commentary. Dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of these exist and many are still being written today.

Jewish reactions to Rashi’s commentary fall into three categories. Most commonly, they praise Rashi and explain the brilliance of his commentary. Lawee analyzes this category to help explain Rashi’s appeal. Often, they highlight Rashi’s close readings.

For example, when Moses returns from Midian to Egypt to free the Israelites, the Bible says that he “took his wife and children and mounted them on the donkey (ha-chamor).” Following an old midrash, Rashi identifies the donkey: “the exceptional donkey, it being the donkey that Abraham had saddled for the binding of Isaac, and it being the one upon which the King Messiah will be revealed.”

Synthesizing the arguments of a number of interpreters of Rashi, Lawee writes that Rashi “seeks to clarify first why the Torah should at all bother to recount that Moses, on the cusp of his redemptive role, mounted his wife and family on the donkey. Second, Rashi responds to the Torah’s reference to ‘the donkey,’ as if a specific or previously mentioned ‘exceptional beast’ were meant.”

But Lawee also identifies two other philosophical approaches to Rashi’s commentary. Even though Rashi, like other northern French Jews of his time, was not familiar with philosophy, some of his interpreters alleged that his comments contained secret philosophical messages.

For example, in 14th-century Spain, Samuel Almosnino could not take Rashi’s account of the exceptional donkey at face value, insisting that Rashi’s discussion of the chamor was really a comment on the medieval philosophical concept of chomer (matter), and on the ability of great people like Moses and Abraham to “mount,” or overcome, matter. In Almosnino’s reading, Rashi was teaching that “the principal engagement of the wise is to understand and apprehend intellectually, for which purpose it is necessary that the powers of the intellect prevail over the corporeal powers”– thus “mounting” the chomer of corporeality.

But the most surprising element of Lawee’s survey is the third category that he uncovers: works – some of them relatively unknown and still in manuscript form – that neither praise nor “reinterpret,” but openly rebuke Rashi for misunderstanding the biblical text, or for having an overly primitive understanding of Judaism.

Lawee pays special attention to Rabbi Abraham ben David’s commentary on Rashi. (Rabbi Abraham ben David was a pseudonym used by an unidentified medieval rabbi who had no patience for Rashi.) To return to the example of the exceptional donkey, Lawee explains that Rabbi Abraham ben David “must have been tested sorely by the donkey’s longevity, let alone his appearance at key junctures in history over millennia, but he chooses to contest the midrash (cited by Rashi) that he calls ‘futility and a grave evil’ in terms of the validity of its textual spur rather than its substance. The supposition that a definite article (the donkey) invariably indicates determination is incorrect,” and Abraham ben David provides examples from the Bible to prove his claim.

That some traditional Jews did not like Rashi’s Torah commentary is not news. A few years after Rashi’s death, Abraham Ibn Ezra contended that while Rashi set out to explain the peshat, the plain or contextual meaning of the Bible, he succeeded only one out of a thousand times. In his own commentaries on the Torah, Ibn Ezra ignored Rashi most of the time.

What Lawee has proven in this excellent book is that early on, someone like Ibn Ezra could ignore Rashi’s commentary, but, after a short while, no one in the traditional Jewish world could. With all the disdain that resistant readers like Rabbi Abraham ben David had for Rashi, they felt they had to engage with his comments. This is perhaps the clearest sign that Rashi’s work has essentially been canonized by Jews. Even his most strident critics realize they cannot ignore it.

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