Monday, February 18, 2013

Why did Rashbam give his more famous grandfather such a tough time?

In the previous post, I recount some of the nasty things Rashbam said about his grandfather Rashi. Some scholars say that Rashbam wrote his commentary specifically to challenge Rashi, which raises all sorts of interesting questions about Rashbam's upbringing, family competition, and Oedipus issues. Did Rashbam grow up hearing every day about how great his grandfather was? Did he just get sick of it after a while? Unfortunately (or fortunately) no evidence exists to support this line of inquiry.

Another, more promising, suggestion is that Rashbam used his grandfather as a proxy for a Christian style of interpretation that was increasing in popularity. In brief, Christian interpreters saw the Old Testament as predicting the events of the new. Thus, the sale of Joseph was understood as a prefiguring of the crucifixion of Jesus (and see Rashbam's angry insistence there that this story means only what it means.)

Though this style of interpretation originated in an earlier Christian era, it flourished during the medieval period (in fact, in some circles its know as "medieval allegory") In many ways, this approach is like drash in that it strips verses of their local meanings and bases the interpretation on information found outside the text.  Jews resisted this by developing a very strict pshat-oriented approach to interpretation, one that based interpretations on information found within the text alone. Rashbam was one of the pioneers of this movement, a movement scholars say developed as a response to and defense against "medieval allegory".

Rashi belonged to an earlier era. Though his grandson claims that Rashi confessed a desire to rewrite his commentary in keeping with the new, pshat style of interpretation championed by his grandson, the Rashi commentary we have is not written this way. It makes use of a much broader conception of pshat (In brief: Rashi's idea of pshat includes midrashim and other information not found in the verses. So when God tells Abraham to "go outside" it can be pshat that He means "go outside your astrology". Or when a verse omits to tell us that Rivka "drew" the water, it can be pshat that the water rose up to meet her.  Rashbam does not allow for that, so for him the pshat of the Abraham verse can only be "go outside." Missing information isn't interpreted.)

We know from Rashabam's writing that he occasionally sparred with Christians and Apostate Jews, and we know from history that frienemy-like encounters between learned Jews and Christians were not uncommon (Remember: This was before blood libels, ghettos, Talmud burning, formal disputations, forced conversions and inveterate Jew-hating Popes irrevocably poisoned the relationship between European Jews and Christians. Counterpoint: The First Crusade and its massacre of German Jewry, occurred when Rashbam was about 10 years old; and there were other anti-Jewish persecutions before this. Nonetheless, the reports of informal debates with Christians do exist.)

So what an inconvenience it must have been for Rashbam to see that his very own grandfather made use of a style of interpretation wielded by his Christian opponents. Though there's no evidence that any of them ever used Rashi to support their own anti-Jewish arguments, it not impossible. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would have been? Picture Rashbam in the market making a killing point against some know-it-all Christian who -whoops- suddenly quotes Rashi back in his face.

So perhaps its no surprise that Rashbam is at his nastiest when his grandfather sees Jacob's blessing to Dan as preconfiguring Shimshon's career while his second nastiest comment comes when grandfather Rashi suggests that Yehuda (sounds like Judas) had a role in the sale of Joseph (see two paragraphs up.)

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