Jew­ish Text

Rashi’s Com­men­tary on the Torah: Can­on­iza­tion and Resis­tance in the Recep­tion of a Jew­ish Classic

Eric Lawee

January 1, 2013

This book explores the recep­tion his­to­ry of the most impor­tant Jew­ish Bible com­men­tary ever com­posed, the Com­men­tary on the Torah of Rashi (Shlo­mo Yitzha­ki; 1040 – 1105). Though the Com­men­tary has ben­e­fit­ed from enor­mous schol­ar­ly atten­tion, analy­sis of diverse reac­tions to it has been sur­pris­ing­ly scant. View­ing its path to pre­em­i­nence through a diverse array of reli­gious, intel­lec­tu­al, lit­er­ary, and socio­cul­tur­al lens­es, Eric Lawee focus­es on process­es of the Com­men­tarys can­on­iza­tion and on a hith­er­to unex­am­ined – and whol­ly unex­pect­ed – fea­ture of its recep­tion: crit­i­cal, and at times aston­ish­ing­ly harsh, resis­tance to it. Lawee shows how and why, despite such resis­tance, Rashi’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the Torah became an exeget­i­cal clas­sic, a sta­ple in the cur­ricu­lum, a source of shared reli­gious vocab­u­lary for Jews across time and place, and a foun­da­tion­al text that shaped the Jew­ish nation’s col­lec­tive identity.

The book takes as its larg­er inte­grat­ing per­spec­tive process­es of canon­ic­i­ty as they shape how tra­di­tions flour­ish, dis­in­te­grate, or evolve. Rashi’s scrip­tur­al mag­num opus, the fore­most work of Fran­co-Ger­man (Ashke­naz­ic) bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship, faced stiff com­pe­ti­tion for canon­i­cal suprema­cy in the form of ratio­nal­ist recon­fig­u­ra­tions of Judaism as they devel­oped in Mediter­ranean seats of learn­ing. It nev­er­the­less emerged tri­umphant in an intense bat­tle for Judais­m’s future that unfold­ed in late medieval and ear­ly mod­ern times. Inves­ti­ga­tion of the recep­tion of the Com­men­tary throws light on issues in Jew­ish schol­ar­ship and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that con­tin­ue to stir reflec­tion, and even pas­sion­ate debate, in the Jew­ish world today.

Discussion Questions

Study­ing the text of the Bible through the com­men­tary of Solomon Ben Isaac (10401105), famous­ly known as R. Shlo­mo Yitzha­ki or Rashi, has become so cul­tur­al­ly ingrained that, for many teach­ers and stu­dents, it is dif­fi­cult to dis­en­tan­gle the plain mean­ing of the text of the Bible from the com­ments of Rashi that they absorbed in their youth. Cul­tur­al­ly speak­ing, the com­men­tary achieved such author­i­ta­tive sta­tus that bib­li­cal lit­er­a­cy implied famil­iar­i­ty with the com­men­tary of Rashi. And yet we know that this was not always so. How did the com­men­tary of Rashi itself become a canon­i­cal text? How does one eleventh-cen­tu­ry com­men­tary achieve such uni­ver­sal accep­tance through­out the Jew­ish world? The research on this ques­tion has been rel­a­tive­ly scant — until now. In Rashi’s Com­men­tary on the Torah, Eric Lawee, pro­fes­sor of Bible at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty in Israel has writ­ten a com­pre­hen­sive recep­tion his­to­ry of the most impor­tant Jew­ish com­men­tary on the Torah. The read­er might be sur­prised to dis­cov­er the inten­si­ty of respons­es, both pos­i­tive and harsh­ly crit­i­cal, to the increas­ing pop­u­lar accep­tance of Rashi’s work on the Torah. Through metic­u­lous schol­ar­ship and a vibrant writ­ing style, Lawee takes us on a jour­ney as we fol­low the twists and turns of this adven­ture, as the commentary’s reach extend­ed around the world. The book affords the read­er the oppor­tu­ni­ty to more ful­ly com­pre­hend Rashi’s work as well as the inter­pre­ta­tive, philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal issues that were at stake in the debates that took place around its recep­tion. Fur­ther­more, the study of this par­tic­u­lar exam­ple of recep­tion his­to­ry shines a light on the ways that inter­pre­ta­tion and can­on­iza­tion shape the devel­op­ment, decline and evo­lu­tion of tra­di­tions through­out the gen­er­a­tions. Lawee’s book is an exam­ple of exem­plary schol­ar­ship writ­ten in a style that will keep you engaged and turn­ing its pages.