When people disagree with Rashi's approach
What’s the difference between Rambam and Rashi?
Of course, there are all kinds of ways to answer this question. Rambam was a codifier, Rashi was a commentator. Rambam was a philosopher, Rashi was whatever the opposite of a philosopher is.
But I would add that there is another difference. Rambam is revered; Rashi is beloved.
Of course, Rashi is also revered. In fact, I would say that for many people he is revered even more than Rambam. But I think that the reason for that is that Rashi is beloved.
Rashi is the first towering rabbinic figure that we meet as children, helping us understand Chumash. Then he accompanies us throughout adulthood, helping us understand Gemara. We bond with Rashi more than we do with any other rabbinic figure. I think that this may be one of the reasons why many people are more comfortable rejecting Rambam’s views as being problematic than those of Rashi.
Now, of course, you might respond that there’s a much more basic reason why people are more likely to reject Rambam’s views than Rashi’s - because Rambam really did have some very controversial views, and Rashi didn’t!
But in fact, this isn’t exactly true. Rashi’s approach is very problematic from a certain perspective. It’s just that he became so popular that the opposition to his approach died out, and the controversial aspects of his approach have been “reinterpreted.”
This is the topic of and fascinating new book by Prof. Eric Lawee, Rashi's Commentary on the Torah: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (and you can read some parts of the book here). Lawee quotes rabbinic scholars from centuries ago who had profound objections to Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. The reason was that Rashi’s “pshat” included what the more rationalistically-inclined Torah scholars considered to be drash. In other words, rabbinic exegeses which Spanish rationalists viewed as metaphorical (or as simply incorrect) were presented by Rashi as being the straightforward explanation of Scripture and thus true in their literal sense.
This week’s Torah reading includes a fascinating example of this, which I discussed in detail in my book Sacred Monsters. It says that Og’s bed was nine cubits long, “in the cubits of a man.” Rambam interprets this to refer to standard cubits, and explaining that beds were about as third again as long as a person, describes Og as being around six cubits - nine feet - tall.
Rashi, on the other hand, says that the “cubits of a man” refers to the cubits of that man i.e. Og. He does this in order to reconcile the verse with the Aggada about Moshe being ten cubits tall, leaping ten cubits in the air, stretching out a ten-cubit spear, and striking Og in the ankle. Accordingly, Og’s ankle alone would have been thiry cubits off the ground. And so the verse about his bed being nine cubits must be talking about Og’s units of measurements - the distance from his own elbow to his fingertips. Og’s bed was nine of his own cubits long, but he was hundreds of regular cubits tall (though, as Ibn Ezra and Mizrachi point out, with disproportionately short arms).
It’s not in any way ridiculous for people in antiquity to have believed in Moshe being fifteen feet tall, and Og having been hundreds of feet tall. In fact, they had good reason to do so. There was actually apparent skeletal evidence for such giants (the true nature of which I discuss in my book.) Still, taking such Midrashim literally was absolutely not the approach of the rationalist Torah scholars. They regarded it as not only incorrect but also demeaning to Torah.
And in some cases, it was downright offensive. Prof. Lawee draws attention to Rashi’s citation of a Midrash about Adam having relations with every animal before Eve was created. To many people today, it is “obvious” that this cannot be literal, because it would be so utterly distasteful. Accordingly, many explain that Rashi was not (here) speaking literally.
However, Rashi’s general approach (and that of the Rishonim of Ashkenaz in general) is certainly to understand Midrashic statements literally. And he specifies when he does not do so, which does not happen here. Accordingly, some of his interpreters understood him to be speaking literally. Of those, some did not voice any objection to it, while others highlighted it as an example of why they believed that Rashi’s approach in general was problematic.
But Rashi became so popular that the opposition died out. And nowadays, people would simply insist that those who understood Rashi to be speaking literally must have been wrong. “Rashi wrote with ruach hakodesh” - which is understood to mean that he was basically infallible.
In future posts, I will be discussing some of Rashi’s statements about zoological matters, and citing Rishonim and Acharonim who challenged them. But it’s interesting to note that even regarding theological matters, there were those who strongly disputed his approach.
And I doubt that many people today, no matter what they profess to believe, actually really believe that Moshe was fifteen feet tall and Og was hundreds of feet tall.
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