Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Rashi and Rivka, yet again

Many of you are pointing out that Cross Currents is once again blocking comments -- this time, comments that present the views of Rishonim. Alas.

The post in question is yet another in a series of posts on various blogs written by people who think that by failing to understand Rashi, they are bringing glory to his teachings. In this particular case, the writer brings up Rivka's age, and seems to suggest that only a mechutzif would disagree with Rashi's claim that she was three years old on her wedding day. Anyone else would tremble, and shake, and accept what he was told.

Problem #1 is that Tosfos and Ibn Ezra among others have already disagreed publicly with Rashi. So how can it be wrong to study and teach their arguments? Moreover, how can it be wrong to teach Rashi in context? Yes, he said Rivka was three, but if you stop there, and close your ears to what other authorities said you haven't finished the sugya.

Problem #1A: Rashi's view is based on a Midrash, however, we have two version of this midrash. One version does not force us to say Rivka was three. The other does.  See here (at bottom)

Problem #2 is that Rashi wasn't necessarily trying to teach history. He wasn't saying that Rivka was three years old, as a matter of historical fact. He was saying that based on his own close reading of verses, it seems to him that assigning this age to her is the best interpretation of the text. There is an important nuance here, one that escapes people who think they are doing God and Judaism a favor by making outrageous claims in their name.

Problem #3: Are we really required to tremble and shake? Did our great Rabbis tremble and shake when they disagreed with things? Aren't there other legitimate approaches? Here's S:

Tremble and shudder all you will, but you pose no salve and no solution for the problem that many Jews cannot tremble before Rashi the way your rebbe trembled before R. Boruch Ber (he did say R. Boruch Ber was incorrect, mind you, even while trembling). What do you suggest we do for them when your preferred approach will not work?

What about the Ramban’s model of “open rebuke, hidden love” which he displayed toward Ibn Ezra, rather than trembling? Or Rashbam’s testimony that he challenged his grandfather over not achieving the goal of a pshat commentary, and that Rashi told him that if he had the time he would write such a commentary? These are, I believe, possible alternate models for those who will not tremble.

Though I restrict myself here to the question of Rivka's age, everything I have said here applies to almost any Rashi. There are almost always Rishonim who disagree with him, especially when he is at his most fantastical; more importantly, it is never correct to defend an opinion -- even a Torah giant's opinion - by accusing your opponents of bad manners. Make an argument, instead.


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