Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rashi's Radicalism

Rashi the Innovator

In a lecture at YU's recent Yom Iyun on Tanakh, R. Mordechai Cohen (link - audio, at minute 30) made the following point that I found surprising. He suggested that Rashi was an innovator of Bible commentary while Ibn Ezra was traditional. I think many readers will find this as surprising as I did. After all, Ibn Ezra is the literalist and grammarian who seems to be fiercely independent and original. Rashi quotes largely from rabbinic sources, including Midrash, Talmud and Targum. How could Rashi be the radical and not Ibn Ezra?

Click here to read moreR. Cohen explained that Ibn Ezra was following in the Spanish tradition of such grammarians and commentators as R. Yehudah Ibn Chayuj and R. Yonah Ibn Janach. They had developed a peshat approach to studying Bible and Ibn Ezra was following their methods, albeit with great brilliance and originality. Rashi, on the other hand, was the first (or one of the first) in the Ashkenazic lands to attempt a comprehensive peshat approach. He was breaking new ground and he had little direction from predecessors on how to proceed. As can be seen from those who came after him (e.g. Rashbam and R. Yosef Kara), his approach did not last long and was modified by his students. But that is not a sign of his failure but of his being the first in his tradition to attempt to methodically study the Bible according to peshat.

Rashi the Continuer

However, as it happens, I am making my way through R. Yonatan Kolatch's fabulous but extremely long 2-volume Masters of the Word (hopefully more on this when I finish vol. 2). The first chapter of vol. 2 is about Rashi and in it, R. Kolatch quote Prof. Avraham Grossman as saying that Rashi's predecessors in Germany studied Bible according to peshat (vol. 2, p. 19):

Germany: Very little is known about the method of Bible study in the eleventh-century yeshivot of the Rhineland in which Rashi studied. Nevertheless, from several of his quotations of his (German) teachers, it is evident that they focused on a simple, straightforward understanding of the text (peshat). This approach must have influenced Rashi's own.
This seems to undermine R. Cohen's point because Rashi was continuing the approach he learned in Germany.

I e-mailed R. Cohen and he suggested that if I read what Prof. Grossman wrote, I will see that R. Cohen's point still stands. That seems fair enough, since while I do not have the 1990 article that R. Kolatch quotes, I have sitting on one of my bookshelves Prof. Grossman's 2001 book Chakhmei Tzorfas Ha-Rishonim, which devotes an entire chapter to the subject of the approach to Bible of the pre-Rashi French Torah scholars.

In the chapter (ch. 8), Prof. Grossman states that we have almost no record of how the pre-Rashi scholars studied Bible. Almost nothing, but not entirely nothing. There are a number of occasions in which Rashi quotes a teacher of his in explaining a biblical phrase according to peshat. And there are a number of manuscript fragments of biblical commentaries that show a leaning towards peshat. Therefore, concludes Prof. Grossman, we can see that the Torah scholars who preceded Rashi studied peshat and provided the seeds of Rashi's approach.

Somewhere In Between

However, we need to add two caveats to this. First, Prof. Grossman has little evidence on which to base his conclusion, which is still valid but definitely speculative. There are academic scholars who dispute this conclusion. Second, even Prof. Grossman only states that the seed of Rashi's approach existed before Rashi (he actually puts that phrase in bold on p. 466). He certainly agrees that Rashi was the one to vastly develop the approach and apply it methodically to the entire Bible. Everyone agrees that Rashi created a new school of Bible study. The only question is whether it was out of nothing or based on a small foundation.

This is not meant to imply that R. Kolatch is wrong. He quoted from the top authority on this subject -- Prof. Grossman. And, in fact, R. Kolatch is extremely precise in his language. Had I read his words carefully none of this research -- or this post -- would have been necessary.

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