Rashi as Narrator

von Michael Signer

aus "Rashi et la culture juive en France du Nord au moyen âge"

S.103-110, E. Peeters, Paris-Louvain, 1997

Copyright by Michael Signer

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"As with a moment and the moment after, a word in a book can only be read through the word which follows. In reading a book we perhaps really begin innocently to read the future."

Edmond Jabes, The Book of Shares

The Biblical commentaries of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes occupy a unique position in the history of both Jewish and Christian cultures. Traditional Jews have ascribed a nearly canonical status to his commentary on the Pentateuch. Christian exegetes beginning with the - School of St. Victor in Paris during the twelfth century, Nicholas of Lyra a century later, and on into the Reformation looked to Rabbi Salomon (1). In the nineteenth century the name of Rashi is linked to the earliest studies of Leopold Zunz, the founder of modern Wissenschaft des Judentums (2). Abraham Geiger, by mid-nineteenth century, focused on Rashi as the founder of an entire school of Northern French biblical exegesis. He emphasized the "rational" element in Rashi's commentaries, which he formulated as the search for the peshat or the plain meaning of the biblical text which was derived from the text itself. This discovery of a linguistic-based explanation for Scripture was for Geiger an innovation and an improvement over the generations of exegetes who ,receded Rashi who could not offer the meaning of the biblical text , without reference to the classical texts of rabbinic literature which often provided a derash or homiletical meaning. Geiger indicated that Rashi's move toward peshat found echoes in the surrounding Christian culture of theological studies (3).

Much of the excellent writing about Rashi and his successors in Northern France during the past one hundred years has framed the discussion about his biblical exegesis focussing on the balance between peshat and derash. This framework of derash and peshat has provided the basis for modern scholars to assess the relationship between Rashi and classical rabbinic Bible exegesis in the Talmuds and Midrashim. Some scholars claim that Rashi maintains a continuity with the Rabbis of the Talmud who argued that a Scriptural verse never exceeds the boundaries of its peshat. This implies that Jewish biblical exegesis ever since its origins has been based on a literal meaning of the text (4). Other scholars claim that Rashi's eleventh and twelfth century peshat is a conscious and deliberate innovation whose fruit flowers only in the writings of his grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir . Therefore, Peshat and Derash as a descriptive paradigm present an opportunity to examine Rashi within his northern-French cultural milieu, and Professor Yitzhak Baer and others have argued that Rashi and his successors move to peshat or plain meaning in order to defend rabbinic interpretation - particularly those passages understood by the rabbis as referring to the coming of the Jewish messiah - against Christian exposition of the Hebrew Bible (6).

The framework of peshat and derash has been questioned recently as limiting our understanding the nature of the achievement in Rashi's biblical commentaries. Sara Kamin (z"l) has argued on the basis of an examination of Rashi's explicit methodological statements in his exegetical writings that the terms peshat and derash do not reveal that he conceived of them in an intractable opposition. Within the context of his commentaries there is no clear indication that he wanted to develop a consistent exposition of peshat which would subvert derash. Rather, Rashi's intention was to develop a continuous commentary on the Scriptural books out of the varied and sometimes contestatory sources which stood before him (7).

Kamin's argument that a peshat/derash dialectic may belong to later understanding of Rashi's commentary is augmented by Sara Japhet's essay "Research Trajectories in Northern Medieval French Exegesis" which points to the political ideology of Western European Jewish emancipation and the academic research atmosphere of German Universities as creating the infrastructure of the peshat/derash dialectic as a Jewish apologetic. She argues that research into the development of peshat exegesis both in the Spanish-Arabic school and in the Northern French School provided a substitute for doing research on the historical origins of the biblical tradition itself. It provided a uniquely Jewish apologetic toward the scientific-critical approaches to the research on the Hebrew Bible done in the Protestant faculties at the University; to claim that twelfth-century peshat was a form of linguistic research into the Hebrew Bible permitted Jews the claim that their ancestors had preceded the university faculties by almost a millennium!(8) In rereading Rashi's biblical commentaries from the perspective offered by Kamin and Japhet we can discern that Rashi's concept of peshat is not the same as either Wissenschaft des Judentums or university-trained philologists' concept of a linguistically based historicist meaning for the Hebrew Bible (9).

Another approach to Rashi's biblical exegesis might prove more successful. What I should like to suggest in this paper is that a more useful framework for explaining Rashi's method as a biblical exegete is to utilize the concept of narrator. The achievements of recent literary scholars to arrive at a depth description of narrative or narratology appears to provide a fruitful ground for discussing the relationship between Rashi's text and the biblical text which is the object of his exposition (10).

What relationship does the theoretical construct of narrative have to the semiotics of biblical commentary? Students of narrative argue that it demarcates, encloses, establishes limits, and orders (11). Rashi's commentaries accomplish this demarcation of the biblical text by segmenting it into lemmata as the basis for exegetical statements, and simultaneously these phrases which break up the biblical text establish a connection between verses, chapters, and even books of the Bible. When one reflects upon what occurs while reading words from the biblical text through the lens of Rashi's commentary, the concept of narrative understood as a succession of a syntagmatic or metonymic structurization of meaning becomes clear.

How would one accomplish a description of the code through which the narrator, Rashi, and the reader are signified through the biblical text itself (12)? It would begin with a description of how Rashi's comments restructure and re-present the biblical text, comparing them with previous literary efforts to accomplish this in the midrashic literature. The Bible had been essential to synagogue worship, but the primary document of the rabbinic bet midrash was the Talmud. To direct one's effort toward un¬derstanding the biblical text without the mediation of the Talmud was in itself a move in a different direction. In Rashi's commentaries we read the words of the Rabbis, but in an abbreviated or restructured form. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that one can read the ve-ani omer (but as I say) as Rashi's interruption of the continuity of the coordination of Bible with Rabbinic literature. The reader of the commentary might experience what Paul Ricoeur has called, "a double eclipse": both from the words of the revealed text of Scripture and from the explanations of the rabbis which are removed from their context in Talmud or Midrash (13). Yet this eclipse does not occur. Just the opposite is the case. The reader is drawn into the biblical text both through the Rabbis and through Rashi. It is this fusion rather than fission which is the great achievement of Rashi's exegesis. Rashi's commentaries provide a narration of the biblical text which structures its meaning in harmony with the rabbinic tradition. This correlation of biblical narrative and rabbinic tradition is what makes the narrator concept a more wholistic description than the dialectic of peshat and derash.

In order to understand this process, one might begin with the smallest linguistic units. Rashi translated biblical words which refer to elements in the natural world into the vernacular. Menahem Banitt has demonstrated that this provides a grounding in reality of the reader's "life world" for the sacred text. The meaning of one word in translation affects the idea conveyed by the verse and the entire passage. Rashi's lo`azim reveal the pro¬found connection between the study of the Bible in the eleventh-century classroom and the world of inherited exegetical literature from the rabbis. This fusion of vernacular and Hebrew text drew the reader into the world of his inherited tradition (14).

In the commentaries of Rashi a single Word within the biblical narrative may evoke a Hebrew synonym which clarifies that Word in the biblical context. For example, in the mysterious episode of the "covenant between the pieces" (Gn. 15:1) the biblical text uses the Word yr' to describe Abram's "fear" about whether or not he would receive God's reward. Rashi provides a synonym d'g "worry" which diminishes the metaphysical connotations of the biblical word, yr', or Targum Onkelos which translates it as dhl. Abram's "awe" (yr') is translated by Bereshit Rabba as "fear" (mitpahed) (15). In Rashi's rephrasing of the passage in the midrash, "fear" (pahad) is transferred to another psychological dimension or "worry" (d'g) which befits what has transpired since Abram's journey began in c. 12 and his subsequent encounters with the king of Egypt (c. 12:10-20), and the Canaanite kings (c. 14) (16), It is this reworking of the single biblical word from "awe" to "fear" to "worry" which enables the reader of Rashi's commentary to perceive the inner development of Abram, protagonist of the Genesis narrative, more clearly. The disjunctive nature of c. 14 which describes Abram in conflict with the Canaanite kings is now brought into harmony with earlier portions of the narrative.

Rashi's full comment on Gen. 15:1 reveals at another level the ability of the commentary to provide a syntagmatic or narrative sequence of the previous chapter and the verses which follow. The fusion of biblical lemmata with rewritten rabbinic midrash is completely seamless.

After these things. Everywhere Scripture uses the term ahar the Passage is to be read conjointly with what preceded it. When Scripture uses the term ahare, it should be read disjunctively. After the miracle of slaying the kings had been performed for Abram, he worried, "Perhaps I have received the reward for all my righteous deeds." Therefore God said to him Do not fear, I will be a shield for you, from the punishment, so that you will not be punished for the souls which you have killed. And as to the reward which concerns you, your reward will be very great.

One notes that the commentary first sets the narrative framework which is expanded in the following segments of the verse or verses. The dialogues between the biblical protagonist and God which are derived from rewriting earlier rabbinic sources appear in Rashi's commentary as a seamless web. In the above comment, Rashi refocuses the reader on the episode which occurred immediately prior to the divine call to Abram as the stimulus to the vision which he is about to receive. The effect of the dialogue is to move the reader through the biblical passage under consideration with a more profound consciousness of the plot.

Another dimension of Rashi's role as narrator may be discerned in his initial comments on biblical books. One does not find the formal prologues in Rashi which characterize the biblical exegetes who wrote under the influence of Islamic culture such as Saadia Gaon or Abraham ibn Ezra (17). However, at the beginning of biblical books Rashi often indicates something about the author and the central themes which will be presented. In the prophetic books or hagiographa the introductory statements can be clearly recognized. In the first few comments on the book of Isaiah in our printed commentary, Rashi sets out a re-casting of midrashim into a cohesive narrative. We learn of the prophet's ancestry and the geographic scope of the audience of his prophecies reaching both the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Rashi, however, demonstrates that the initial vision provides only a part of the prophet's audience, since there are also visions later in the book concerning other nations such as Babylonia and Moab. The entire book as it develops is Rashi's concern; not the superscript of the first chapter which describes the prophet. Another problem which focuses on the narrative order of the book is whether or not the first vision is the beginning of Isaiah's prophetic mission. Rashi asserts that the vision in the Temple in chapter six is the initial prophecy. The reader receives all the information which one would have gathered from the classical accessus ad auctores: who the prophet was, when he delivered his message, and the literary order of the prophecies which are before us. A.J. Minnis' Medieval Theories of Authorship provides an account of the utilization of prologues which contain similar information in Christian biblical commentaries during the late eleventh and early twelfth century (18). The appearance of a similar narrative structuration in Rashi's commentaries may be instructive about parallel developments in the culture of both communities (19).

Rashi's prologues may offer a structuration for the reading of an entire biblical book. The best example is his prologue to Song of Songs. In this text he provides one of the most extensive theoretical statements in the Jewish exegetical tradition about the elusive nature of the Canticle. He acknowledges that although a Scriptural verse may allow several interpretations, its ultimate meaning rests upon the context of the words (mashm `a). Previous generations of interpreters (the Sages) have presented their interpretations of the Canticle either in a single composition or scattered through different Aggadic works. None of them, Rashi asserted, are in harmony with the biblical language or the order of the biblical verses. In contrast, his goal is to grasp the primary meaning of the biblical verses and to set forth their meaning in proper order ('al haseder). His emphasis on narration is quite explicit utilizing the term seder "order" and to set the rabbinic statements each in their place and their order . From this point he sets forth the rabbinic tradition that the Song of Songs provides an historical narrative of God's love for Israel in one exile after another. Ultimately, Rashi presents another level of narration which is focused on the natural world described in such detail by the Canticle, that of the widow seeking after her lover. Here Rashi's preface offers the fusion between the classical rabbinic litera¬ture and a narrative framework which takes the reader from the beginning to the end of the book (21).

In the commentaries on the Pentateuch these prefaces are more subtle and nuanced. They appear to be repetitions of the Rabbis, yet the careful reader will find a structuration of meaning in a few words.

I would argue that Rashi's first comments on the book of Exodus provide a narrative perspective on the entire book. Even though Moses set forth the names of the Israelite tribes during their lifetime (Gen. 46:8-27), he returns here at the beginning of Exodus to repeat them after their death in order to acknowledge the divine affection for the Israelites are compared to stars whom God brings out and causes them to enter according to their number and their name. This comment, a recasting of Tanhuma, richly alludes to a narrative connection with the book of Genesis: the stars of Abraham’s promise the double naming of Israel’s tribes. Even the words motsiam u’makhnisam (“causes the to come out and go in”) provide a foreshadowing of the narrative line in the book of Exodus where God brings the Israelites out of Egypt and leads them toward the promised land. What may even be more significant is the term hibbah (“affection”). The narrative trajectory of Exodus, and as we shall discuss of Genesis, is the story of God’s love for Israel.

The first lines of Rashi's commentary on Genesis may provide the most clear indication of this narratization for sacred text. In them one can discern that Rashi wanted to fuse two linguistic structures: the syntactic narratives in Genesis and the other books. These two apparently distinct structures merge into relationship with the introduction of the covenant between God and people Israel and Eretz Yisrael. Law and narrative are not in opposition to one another, but part of a seamless web which drew Israel toward an unbreakable bond with God.

To summarize the major arguments of our discussion: First, Rashi's exegetical works establish a structuration of meaning by fusing rabbinic tradition with the biblical text. Second, this fusion is established by creating a syntagmatic or metonymic structure. Third, one can benefit from analyzing the ways in which Rashi structures their meaning by introducing questions or rewriting midrashim, or examining his initial comments on biblical books. Finally, the consistent theme which emerges as a narrative framework is the covenental affection, between God and Israel. If narration in a literary work is the projection of a world, Rashi's successful reception over the generations may be ascribed to his narrative skill. At the beginning of the twelfth century and for many years thereafter the story of God's love for Israel may have been the most important narrative which Jews in their dispersion could hear.


(1) Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (rpt. Oxford 1984) reviews the -relationship between the School of St. Victor in Paris and Rashi, Rashbam and Rabbi Joseph Kara. F. Talmage, "Christian Exegesis and its Relationship to Jewish Exegesis", in M. Greenberg, Jewish Bible Exegesis: An Introduction (Hebrew) (Jerusalem 1983), 101-112 focuses on the Sensus Litteralis in Christian Schools and Jewish exegetes. W. McKane, Selected Christian Hebraists (Cambridge 1989), describes Christian Hebraists from the Middle-Ages through the Eighteenth century.

(2) L. Zunz, "Rabbi Salomon b. Isaak, gennant Raschi," Magazin fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums 1 (1822); Hebrew translation with expanded notes by S. Blocs (Warsaw 1862; rpt. Jerusalem 1971).

(3) A. Geiger, "Die nordfranzösiche Exegetenschule im 12. Jahrhundert," in S.L. Heilberg, Nit'ey Ne'emanim (Breslau 1847), 1-44; and idem, Parschandata: Die nordfranzösische Exegetenschule des l1. und 12. Jahrhunderts (Leipzig 1885; rpt. Jerusalem 1965-66).

(4) E.Z. Melamed, Bible Commentators (Hebrew), (Jerusalem 1978), 358-447 provides a summary of Rashi's hermeneutics, noting the continuities with classical rabbinic literature. Melamed maintains that Rashi intermingled peshat and derash, but always focused on peshat (see especially his summary comments, 444-447).

(5) B.J. Gelles, Peshat and Derash in the Exegesis of Rashi (Leiden 1981).

(6) Y. Baer, "Rashi and the Historical Reality of His Time," (Hebrew) Sefer Rashi (Jerusa¬lem 1956), 389-402.

(7) S. Kamin, Rashi's Exegetical Categorization in Respect to the Distinction between Peshat and Derash (Jerusalem 1986), 263-264.

(8) S. Japhet. -Research Directions in Medieval Biblical Exegesis in Northern France," (Hebrew) World Union of Jewish Studies Newsletter 25 (1985) 3-18. Further perspective on the theological infrastructure of biblical studies in nineteenth-century Germany may be found in H. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.-A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven 1984).

(9) Jon Levenson offers a trenchant critique of historicist tendencies in modern biblical scholarship in his essay "Why Jews are not Interested in Biblical Theology".

(10) There are numerous studies in narratology. Those which have been most helpful to me are Mieke Bat, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto 1985); Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design und Intention in Narrative (New York 1984); Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago 1988), vol. 3 part IV, "Narrated Time": Robert Scholes and Robert Kelogg, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford 1966); Eugene Vance, From
Topic to Tale (Minneapolis 1987).

(11) P. Brooks, Reading for the Plot. 4.

(12) R. Barthes, "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, in Image, Music, Text, transl. S. Heath (New York 1977), 122.

(13) P. Ricoeur "What is a Text? Explanation and Understanding" in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge 1981), 147.

(14) M. Banitt, Rashi: Interpreter of the Biblical Letter (Tel Aviv 1985). For the rote of vernacular in the teaching of Scripture in eleventh-century Jewry, one should consult his es¬say "Les Poterim," Revue des Etudes Juives 125 (1966) 21-33. The rote of the "life world" in the theological classroom in Christian society has been discussed by M.-D. Chenu, "L'homme et la Nature", in his La Theologie au Douzieme Siecle (Paris, 19622).

(15) Bereshit Rabba 44:4. Shehaya 'avinu Abraham mitpahed veomer yaradti lekivshan ha'esh venitsalti. Note that Rashi moves the narrative away from the deliverance of Abram from the midrashic episode of Nimrod focussing instead on the episode in c. 14 of the kings. This disjunction with the rabbinic tradition is noted in Rashi Ha-Shalem (Haifa 1986), 1:149, note 2.

(16) It should be noted that the narrative connection between Abraham's victory in Gen. 14 and the promise in Gen. 15 was established in Bereshit Rabba 44.4. We will observe below how Rashi reworks the rabbinic idea of narrative syntax of these two chapters.

(17) Cfr. L.E. Goodman, The Book of Theodicity: Translation and Commentary on the Book of Job by Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi, Yale Judaica Series XXV (New Haven 1988), 56 who attributes the use of introductions by Saadia to the "Graeco-Arabic Isagoge literature of which Porphyry's thematic introduction to the Organon of Aristotle was a model."

(18) A.J. Minnis Medieval Theories of Authorship (London 1984).

(19) For parallel exegetical structures in twelfth-century Christian and Jewish exegesis cfr. M. Signer, "Peshat, Sensus Litteralis and Sequential Narrative: Jewish Exegesis and the School of St. Victor in the Twelfth Century" in B. Walfish, ed., Essays in Memory of Frank Ephraim Talmage (forthcoming); "The Land of Israel in Medieval Jewish Exegetical and Polemical Literature," in L. Hoffman, ed., The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives (Notre Dame 1986), 210-233: "King/Messiah: Rashi's Exegesis of Psalm 2" Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 3 (1983) 273-284.

(20) For Rashi's concept of seder one should consult S. Kamin, Rashi's Exegetical Categorization (above, note 6); and B.J. Gelles, Peshat and Derash in the Exegesis of Rashi (Leiden 1981).

(21) Rashi's exegesis on Song of Songs is discussed by S. Kamin, "Rashi's Commentary on Song of Songs and the Jewish-Christian Argument," (Hebrew) Year Book for Biblical Studies and the Ancient Near East 7-8 (1984) 218-248. See also S. Kamin and A. Saltman, Secundum Salomonem: A 13th Century Latin Commentary on the Song of Songs (Ramat Gan 1989), in¬troducrion (Hebrew).