Reflecting on a Rabbi’s Legacy
By Sharon Goldman
Eleventh-century Spain was an auspicious time and place to be Jewish. Now hailed as the “Golden Age,” the period is known for its unprecedented tolerance between the ruling Moors and the resident Jews. Scholarship flourished on both sides of the religious divide; fear for one’s life was hardly the norm. Not so in France. Though the Jewish community had been well established since the days of the Roman Empire, Jews were excluded from citizenship and were regularly impugned as the source of myriad social and natural maladies. The order to convert came in 1017. In 1095 the First Crusade began its pernicious way down the Rhine, slaughtering thousands of so-called heathens with impunity. For Jews across Europe, martyrdom was not uncommon. Given the choice of conversion or death, many families elected to die by their own hands. Against this background of terror and grief, Rashi, the much-renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, produced voluminous commentary.
Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040–1105) spent the better part of his life in Troyes, France, where he established a world-renowned yeshiva. Though Troyes was fortunate to have fallen outside the bounds of the Crusaders’ path, there is little doubt that Rashi was well aware of the attacks, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel suggests in his latest book, Rashi: A Portrait, that this climate of extreme persecution shaped and colored Rashi’s hermeneutical lens.
Rashi is credited with having written commentary on most of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and the Midrash (the canon of legal explications and stories designed to elucidate and supplement the Tanach) and with an almost complete commentary (finished posthumously by his son-in-law) of the Babylonian Talmud. To this day, it is safe to say that no one studies these texts without consulting Rashi; he is considered to be a sine qua non for rabbinical students and laypeople alike. A translation of Rashi’s running commentary can be found in every version of the Babylonian Talmud printed during the last 500 years. The depth and breadth of his work has shed light on the overarching shape of the text and has parsed and decoded specific sections. It is no surprise that over the course of the millennium, many books have been written about this imposing scholar. What then does Wiesel’s have to add?
Wiesel begins with two questions: “Why Rashi?” and “Why me?” These questions lead us through a ramble into Rashi’s neighborhood in Troyes and through Wiesel’s childhood memories of Rashi-related discussions in his Yiddish-speaking, Hungarian home. Rashi is neither a straightforward biography nor an exegetical foray. Rather, it is a series of short, contemplative paragraphs landing somewhere between homage to Rashi and a reflective account of Wiesel’s personal relationship with him. Clearly, Rashi has inspired Wiesel in his own scholarly career, and he honors Rashi’s legacy both as a person and as a scholar. In the preface Wiesel writes: “I feel the need to tell him everything I owe to him. . . . He is my first destination. My first aid.” Throughout his homage, Wiesel reminds us of Rashi’s humility and patience: he is purported to have written “I don’t know” over 100 times in his commentaries.
Wiesel’s impressionistic, meandering style notwithstanding, he does crack open a window into Rashi’s hermeneutical approach. We see how Rashi freely breaks apart portions of text, inserting lengthy responses between selected phrases. We also see how Rashi extracts excerpts from their original context and juxtaposes them so that they appear to cohere and present a singular idea. Rashi is known to jump to later portions of the Tanach (both in terms of when they were written and their order within the canon) to explain earlier ones. For example, his biblical exegesis begins by questioning why Genesis starts with creation: ” . . . the Torah should have started with ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months’ . . . since that is the first mitzvah, the first commandment given to Israel. Why did it start with Bereshit or ‘In the beginning?’ ” Rashi doesn’t settle for the facile explanation, that the world had to be created prior to the creation of nations and their laws. Instead, in what could be construed as a proto-Zionist stance, he arrives at an answer by drawing upon an excerpt from the Psalms—”He hath shewed his people the power of his works, that he may give them the heritage of the heathen” (Psalm 111, verse 6)—and continues: “the whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. It is He who created it, who offered it to whomsoever He wanted. When He wanted. He gave it to them (first) and then in accordance with His will, He took it away from them and gave it to us.” By juxtaposing phrases from these two sources, Rashi is able to make the case that we start with creation, not because of the chronology of world history, but because by starting with creation, we assert a philosophical principle—that the world belongs first and foremost to its creator.
Rashi is known both for his adherence to the literal text and for his scrutiny into the hidden level of its meaning. Wiesel provides examples of his exegesis: In Genesis, the “us” in “Let us create man in his image” demonstrates God’s humility, and hence the supreme importance of humility even among the great. Rebecca’s statement, “I will go [to marry Isaac],” instructs us that women should never be forced into a marriage, but rather should enter into matrimony of their own accord. When God condemns Cain for spilling Abel’s blood, he speaks to Cain in the plural, implying that descendents can be implicated in the sins of their ancestors. As for the Garden of Eden, Rashi avers that Eve gives Adam the apple to share so that, if she dies, Adam will not outlive her to find another spouse.
Through Wiesel, we also learn of Rashi’s biases. Rashi chooses passages in the Midrash depicting other nations in their most negative light. While the Talmud itself will point out the patriarchs’ flaws, for Rashi they could do no wrong. He holds Jacob in highest esteem, despite the episodes of duplicity, while he excoriates Esau, Jacob’s brother, casting him as the ancestor of those who have persecuted the Jews. Could these biases be a reflection of the historical reality and the theological pressures of the time? Did Rashi feel compelled to contrast so sharply the glory of the patriarchs with the foreign element in order to find meaning and solace during the most devastating of times? Could it be that Rashi was a bit infected, understandably, by a blight of xenophobia?
Wiesel suggests that the answer to these questions is “yes,” but only faintly. Though offering us a historical framework, he resists a more invigorated historical analysis. There are points at which Wiesel could have taken a more decisive stance. For example, he underscores the fact that Rashi addresses the length of time it takes Abraham to get to Mount Moriah with Isaac. This three-day period reveals Abraham’s composure; he did not act capriciously or in a fit of insanity. However, Wiesel omits the fact that the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) served as an important touchstone in Europe during this period, as a justification for martyrdom at the hand of the Crusaders.
True to the book’s subtitle, A Portrait, Wiesel portrays Rashi the rabbi as much as Rashi the writer/exegete. People came from all over Europe not only to study with him, but also to seek his counsel on everything from matters of religious practice to business affairs. It is important to remember that rabbis did not assume the same role that we think of today. They were equally, if not more likely, to be found adjudicating legal decisions at a beit din (a court of law) as they were to be found conducting a religious service in the synagogue. Men (and they were exclusively men) did not become rabbis by going to rabbinical school (there was no such thing, other than the yeshivas), but rather earned their stature by demonstrating a keen understanding of text and a facility with applying that understanding to daily concerns.
Wiesel offers a friendly introduction to Rashi. The book, however, would be more compelling had he actually answered his two initial questions. Other than acknowledging the request of his publisher and noting that his family claims direct lineage from Rashi, Wiesel neither adequately addresses nor responds to these questions. Beyond reminiscing about Rashi’s inspiration to him personally, it is not clear exactly what is driving Wiesel to write this book and, more specifically, how this book is relevant to us now. From someone so adept at weaving together discourse across the disciplines and at bringing the past to bear so poignantly upon the present, we expect more.
Sharon Goldman, who received a master of theological studies degree from HDS in 2005, is a teacher in the Arlington, Massachusetts, public schools.