Avra­ham Gross­man; Joel Lin­sid­er, trans.

  • Review
By – February 13, 2013

Avra­ham Gross­man, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Jew­ish His­to­ry at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, has writ­ten a won­der­ful and com­pre­hen­sive study of Rav Shlo­mo Yitzcha­ki (RaShI), the great medieval Ashke­naz­ic Torah author­i­ty and com­mu­nal leader, whose com­men­taries on the entire cor­pus of the Bible and Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud con­tin­ue to be close­ly stud­ied by schol­ar and lay­man alike to this day. Gross­man care­ful­ly describes what can be cur­rent­ly deter­mined about Rashi’s social milieu, his per­son­al­i­ty, and the Yeshi­va that he estab­lished in Troyes. He also offers a care­ful study of the ideas, prin­ci­ples, and world­view that, based upon numer­ous exam­ples, the author argues are inher­ent with­in this icon­ic Rab­binic personality’s var­i­ous writ­ings. The author draws many of his con­clu­sions based upon nuances in Rashi’s inter­pre­ta­tions of bib­li­cal vers­es, not­ing when, in his opin­ion, a com­ment appears unnec­es­sary lin­guis­ti­cal­ly and there­fore pre­cip­i­tates spec­u­la­tion as to the true pur­pose of the insight. Gross­man presents his impres­sive learn­ing and eru­di­tion grace­ful­ly, mak­ing the book both easy to read and vast­ly informative.

Rashi is depict­ed as a hum­ble, yet strong­ly prin­ci­pled Rab­binic leader, who encour­aged his stu­dents to be open-mind­ed and ana­lyt­i­cal­ly crit­i­cal, even of their own teacher’s ideas and instruc­tion. Grossman’s descrip­tion of Rashi clear­ly shows him to be a prod­uct of his times defend­ing the Tal­mud Bavli against vari­ant local cus­toms, but also as some­one who was inno­v­a­tive in many ways that pre­saged the renais­sance of intel­lec­tu­al life in gen­er­al soci­ety in the twelfth cen­tu­ry, fol­low­ing his pass­ing. Since much of what we can learn about Rashi can only be inferred from his and his stu­dents’ writ­ings, schol­ar­ly debates abound with respect to the commentator’s method­ol­o­gy and per­son­al beliefs, and Gross­man presents not only his own con­clu­sions but also those of var­i­ous oth­er schol­ars, many with whom he takes issue to var­i­ous extents. This allows the read­er to appre­ci­ate the range of views with regard to top­ics such as whether Rashi adhered to a par­tic­u­lar method­ol­o­gy when choos­ing Midrashim for his bib­li­cal com­men­tary, the nature of the commentator’s ped­a­gog­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions in his writ­ten work, the extent to which ten­sions between the Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties are reflect­ed in his teach­ings, and his over­all lit­er­ary style. The author even posits that the rea­son why Rashi’s pop­u­lar­i­ty has last­ed so long is because his admirable per­son­al char­ac­ter­is­tics are reflect­ed in his writ­ing, there­by caus­ing him to resem­ble the good­ness of Hil­lel and the stu­dents who attend­ed Beit Hil­lel, the Yeshi­va that he founded.

Grossman’s book should become an essen­tial part of anyone’s library who stud­ies and teach­es Torah, and most cer­tain­ly will prove to be of great inter­est to those desir­ing to under­stand the mind­set and achieve­ments of one of the great Jew­ish lead­ers of medieval Ashke­naz. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, Index of Scrip­tur­al Ref­er­ences, Index of Rab­binic Ref­er­ences, Gen­er­al Index.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions