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Anti-Rationalism and Rashi
Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Shaul Gold published a follow-up to his anti-rationalist article "Trembling Before Rashi," and expanded further upon his views in the comments section. He is not very precise as to what he is saying, but it appears to me that the editor of Cross-Currents is engaging in wishful thinking; the editor is trying to convince himself that Rabbi Gold is just saying that "whether accepting Rashi's pshat or preferring another, Rashi must always be approached with reverence." Nobody would have disputed Rabbi Gold's article if that was all he had said. But he made several much more extreme claims.
1. Rashi and science
Rabbi Gold claims that we cannot challenge Rashi's scientific pronouncements. In support of this, he cites a silly article from Dialogue (which I shall be posting about shortly) about the unreliability of modern science and a largely irrelevant Midrash about one of the Tanna'im deriving scientific information from Torah (which is countered by many other sugyos about Chazal not being able to do so).
In response to this, I would point out that few non-extreme-Charedi rabbis today would insist that we should believe in the existence of mermaids simply because Rashi believed in them. There's no shortage of Rishonim and Acharonim who say that even Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect - kal v'chomer for statements by Rashi. And no less an authority than Chasam Sofer is explicit about dismissing Rashi in cases where his lack of anatomical knowledge is apparent:
“What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna – even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this.” (Chasam Sofer to Nidah 18a)
Thus, while Rabbi Gold is entitled to personally believe that Rashi is infallible and scientists don't know what they are talking about, and to accordingly believe in the existence of mermaids and werewolves, it is totally inappropriate to make this into an obligatory fundamental of Judaism.
2. Rashi being influenced by his surrounding culture
Rabbi Gold writes "“I don’t accept that Rashi allowed any outside influences to color his understanding of Torah HaKedoshah. To accept such is to invalidate the essence of Rashi and calls into question the sanity and probity of a millennium of great scholars that venerated Rashi, agonized over an extra or missing word in his commentary and wrote tomes and theses based on exactitude of his commentary.”
But it’s pretty well accepted, by figures ranging from the Vilna Gaon to virtually the entire gamut of scholars of Maimonidean thought, that Rambam’s understanding of Torah HaKedoshah was colored by the outside influence of Greek philosophy. If Rambam was influenced by his surrounding culture, why couldn't Rashi have been? Are we supposed to tremble before Rashi, but not before Rambam?
(It goes without saying that every Jewish academic, including virtually all Orthodox Jewish academics, would reject as ridiculous the notion that Rashi was not affected by his surrounding culture.)
3. Rashi giving Midrash as Peshat
Rabbi Gold apparently condemns the idea that one can dispute Rashi for giving drash as pshat. As he says, "Rashi is very explicit when he is not explaining pshat or when he feels that the accepted understanding is not pshat... If Rashi says that Rivka was three, and he says so without qualifiers, he is then stating that this, according to his understanding, is peshuto shel mikra." And Rabbi Gold makes it pretty clear that we have no right to say that such interpretations are not peshat.
Yet there is a long history of Torah scholars criticizing Rashi for giving drash as pshat. Eric Lawee has a superb article on this topic entitled “Words Unfitly Spoken: Late Medieval Criticism of the Role of Midrash in Rashi's Commentary on the Torah,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Law, Thought and Culture, ed. Ephraim Kanarfogel. Here is an extract regarding Ibn Ezra (see the original for sources and extensive footnotes):
In one of his grammatical tomes, Ibn Ezra affirmed the ancient sages’ keen awareness of the distinction between peshat and derash and implied their preference for the former (their preoccupation with the latter notwithstanding). He then lamented the abandonment of scripture’s contextual sense by “subsequent generations” who made “each derash primary and paramount.” Nowhere was this regrettable trend more obvious than in the figure of “R. Solomon [Rashi], who explained the Torah, Prophets, and Writings by way of derash, though he thought it was peshat.” Weighing Rashi’s explanations against his twin standards of accuracy, grammatical precision and reasonability, Ibn Ezra determined that, aim notwithstanding, Rashi had successfully grasped and imparted the contextual sense “but one time in a thousand.” Yet he ruefully conceded that “scholars of our generation” (and ordinary Jews all the more, one presumes) “sing the praises of these [midrashically oriented] books.” Even allowing for exaggeration, here was an evidently acute critique.
Lawee discusses others who disputed Rashi's usage of midrash as pshat, and the cites the following sharp words from an anonymous Rishon:
In the Torah Commentary designated as belonging to “Rashi the Frenchman” I have seen rabbinic homilies (haggadot) and interpretations (perushim) that deviate from the way of the Torah’s intention in many places, in some being the very opposite of the correct intention and correct contextual meaning and the grammar and that which accords with reason (sekhel). I thought to record some of the places wherein he erred with haggadot and peshatim as my limited understanding allows...
So much for the claim that it is unthinkable to disagree with Rashi's concept of pshat.
4. Rashi's literalist approach to Midrashim
Rabbi Gold also appears to sharply condemn the idea of rejecting Rashi's literalist approach to Midrashim. He is perfectly entitled to do so - no doubt Rashi would have felt the same way! He is not, however, entitled to claim that this represents the basic standards of Judaism.
There can be no doubt that many Rishonim in Ashkenaz interpreted many or even all Aggados literally. This is precisely what much of the Maimonidean controversy was about! As Bernard Septimus notes, “The one surviving polemical letter from French anti-rationalists equates non-literal interpretation of aggadah with rejection.” Rashi himself even adopted this approach in cases that offended the sensibilities of others. For example, in the opinion of some Rishonim (and of modern scholars untainted by bias), Rashi took a literal interpretation of the account of Adam mating with all the animals. And Rabbi Meir Abulafia, famed author of Yad Ramah, vehemently opposed Rashi’s literalist explanations of certain aggadic passages, considering them disrespectful to God.
So Rashi, along with many other Rishonim in Ashkenaz, generally interpreted Aggados literally. Some Rishonim, most famously Rav Moshe Taku, even interpreted anthropomorphic aggados about Hashem literally. And it is well known that Rambam and many others sharply disputed the literalist approach. So on what grounds does Rabbi Gold prohibit following the non-literalist approach of Rambam and others?
5. Is it forbidden to argue with Rishonim?
All the above already shows why Rabbi Gold's claims are wrong, and why it is irrelevant to talk about it being forbidden to argue with the Rishonim (Rabbi Gold even claims that one should not side with one Rishon over another). But, in any case, it is certainly not forbidden to argue with the Rishonim. There are even those who do so in halachah; certainly when it comes to parshanut, there is absolutely no grounds for saying that it is forbidden to disagree with Rashi's view.
6. More intelligent?
Rabbi Gold appears to argue that Rashi was not only a towering Torah scholar who lived much closer to Chazal than us (with which nobody would argue), but also that Rashi is orders of magnitude more intelligent than us - and that this is a fundamental axiom of Judaism. As he puts it, "we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom... It is a fundamental axiom that Rashi was on a higher plane than we are, both scholastically and spiritually."
He appears to be saying that Rashi and the other Rishonim were actually more intelligent than Homo sapiens of today - that they could solve a Rubik's cube in two seconds, build an atom bomb (as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel claims the Gra could have done), and so on. This is certainly not grounded in any reason or empirical evidence, and I do not know of any basis for making it a fundamental axiom of faith.
7. All in the tone?
At this point I am having deja vu over the controversial ban of my books. The opposition claimed that my views were heretical. Many moderate charedim, uncomfortable with the idea that the Gedolim could really be so opposed to Maimonidean rationalism, convinced themselves that the problem was in the "tone" of my books. But this claim was always left vague and unqualified. My response to someone who claims that the problem is all in the "tone", is that they should:
(a) give specific, real-life examples of unacceptable tone,
(b) present the acceptable alternative,
(c) explain the difference,
(d) and explain why it is critical.
The same applies here. As noted above, it seems that the Cross-Currents editor is trying to convince himself/his readers that Rabbi Gold is only objecting to the tone. As documented above, this is in any case clearly not true. But let's consider that claim.
The editor says that Rabbi Gold is "commenting upon the tendency of many to be dismissive of Rashi as hopelessly stuck in a primitive, literalist mode that is beneath enlightened moderns, chas v’shalom." But there can be no doubt that Rambam would indeed be dismissive of many of Rashi's comments as "hopelessly stuck in a primitive, literalist mode that is beneath enlightened moderns"!
Given the gap in time between us and Rashi, and our relative stature and position in Jewish history, it would indeed not be appropriate for us to speak in those terms about Rashi. But I don't know of anyone who does speak with such bluntness, so who was Rabbi Gold condemning? And there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with saying that Rashi's comments sometimes reflect the literalist approach of those medieval Ashkenazi Jews lacking exposure to philosophy and science, with which others may politely and respectfully disagree.
As in the controversy over my books, alleged objections to "tone" nearly always turn out to actually be objections to the underlying rationalist approach.
8. The real issue
After having said all the above, I must note that there one valid point that emerges from Rabbi Gold's article. I do not agree with the critical comments of Rabbi Gold's article that were posted by R. Netanel Livni, who wrote that "Intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context are the prerequisites to understanding. And understanding is the prerequisite to talmud Torah of any kind... a conduit of kedushah in this world."
The problem is that while intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context are the prerequisites to an accurate understanding of what Rashi meant and a proper evaluation of his words, they do indeed stand in contrast with religious feelings of reverence and awe. I have written about this in two previous posts: Traditionalist vs. Academic Torah Study and The Drawbacks of Academic Torah Study. So if Rabbi Gold were to merely be warning against the spiritual dangers of understanding and evaluating Rashi properly via intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context, I would agree. However, since doing so is entirely consistent with reason and with the approach of many great Torah scholars through the ages, it cannot be condemned as beyond the pale or inherently wrong.