Rashi French Gothic (Avraham Grossman)


Working through a backlog of booknotes that I want to post here at JPP, I’m up to Avraham Grossman. With elections tomorrow in Israel, I figured now was as good a time to do this as any. My hunch is that much of the solidarity and ethnocentrism that marks Jewish thought and culture can be laid squarely at Rashi’s door. I base this hunch on the fact that for generations no Jewish child ever sat down to learn Chumash (i.e. the Pentateuch) (i.e. Torah) without reading along with Rashi’s commentary.

Grossman defines Rashi’s worldview as based on these fundamental building blocks: the election of Israel, the Land of Israel, exile and redemption, tension between Israel and the nations of the world. On top of this ideological base are value concepts such as love of Torah, mitzvoth, prayer, truth and humility, peace and dignity, honor due to scholars and teachers.

My rough sense is that the elements of Rashi’s worldview regarding the people Israel only make moral sense if paired up with values like human dignity, humility, and peace. Without the complement of these moral codes, the basic ideological building blocks are simply monstrous, volatized as they are by the affects of love, rage, and shame.

Rashi comes off as an apologetic thinker in tense polemic with Christianity. He’s concerned primarily in his Bible commentary with protecting the Jews from violence and slander, especially in light of the first Crusades, and with promoting the unity of the people. As for preserving the unity of the people, that meant the promotion of the Babylonian Talmud as critical response to tradition-based custom, particularly in relation to social and economic tensions between old-timers and newcomers joining the Jewish community in northern France between the end of the 11th C. and into the 12th C.

Food for future Jewish aesthetic thought:

Of note is Grosman’s too brief a suggestion that Rashi was something of an aesthete, open to the beauty of ornament and nature. These include the way he refers to the Land of Israel, his attention to literary devices and “rhetorical enhancements.”  Especially intriguing is this citation by Grossman from Moché Catane’s Life in Rashi’s Time (Hebrew). With his eye on the way Rashi compared biblical and medieval artefacts and technologies, Catane’s divided his study of daily under categories such as “interior design,” “raw materials,” decorative arts,” “cosmetics,” “spices” “coiffure,” “kitchen utensils,” “hunting,” “roasting,” “cheeses,” and “pastries.”  Of similar interest is the very slight information concerning the diagrams Rashi is said to have drawn with which he sought to elucidate difficult subjects, as well as maps of Eretz Yisrael.

With these slight mentions in Grossman’s book, it might be a fruitful area for further research to consider Rashi in terms of techne, Rashi and the French Gothic arts.

(Apparently too, it was Rashi who invented “Yahadut,” the Hebrew term for “Judaism.” It is too bad that Rashi comments to the later chapters on the book of Job have been lost. One Shabbat, I need to sit down and read his introduction to the Song of Songs.)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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