Wednesday, May 02, 2007

DovBear's Brief Rashi Primer

Two days ago, in the heat of the very excellent thread about King David, someone said:

Please David... what does Rashi know compared to the great DovBear? End Sarcasm

What follows is my standard boilerplate reply to such stupidity.

I don't know more than Rashi. I know more than you. In particular, I know more than you about how to learn Rashi. Here are some things you must understand, if you wish to understand Rashi: He isnt a historian. He isnt an anthology of midrashim. He is a literary critic of the first order, a literary critic who often spotted the same textual problems men like Robert Alter spot.

The difference between Rashi and the bible critics is what happens next. Alter addresses textual problems like the modern scholar he is. His tools are grammar, archeology, alternative texts like the Septuagint or the Quamrum scrolls, traditional Jewish wisdom like the midrash, and more. Rashi relies primarily on grammar and midrash, but he doesn't use midrash in the way most people think. When necessary, he chooses between conflicting midrashim. Frequently he edits midrashim, changing their language and meaning for the purpose of solving problems in the text. He'll also take verses the midrash has applied to one verse, and repurpose them to solve problems elsewhere. [examples of all on request]

This is not the behavior of someone who relates to Midrash with the wide-eyed credulity of a seminary girl. More to the point, could Rashi allow himself to play these sort of games with the Midrash if he thought his commentary was inviolate emes in the way that so many of you do?

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