Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bereshit (Rashi)

NOTE: Teachings on Bereshit from previous years-on Torah, haftarot, Midrash, Hasidism, Rambam, and Psalms - may be found in the archives for October 2005.

Rashi: Introduction

The theme for this year’s Hitzei Yehonatan is Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah. At first blush, this is often considered a simple text, intended for children and simple, naïve adults; traditionally, it is the first commentary studied by children in Heder or in the early grades of their schooling. It is generally very brief—often no more than a line or two on any given phrase—and only rarely engages in the weighing of numerous options and polemicizing with other commentators such as is found in Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others. But upon closer reading, one discovers profound depths of understanding and insight. Indeed, it was not for naught that Rashi is referred to fondly as parshandata, “the explicator of the Law,” and was one of the most beloved Jewish teachers of all times.

Rashi (Rabbenu Shlomo Yitzhak), lived close to the beginning of the age of medieval Jewish life in Europe. He was born, lived most of his life, and died in the city of Troyes, northern France (1040-1105), where he served as leader of the community, and had a yeshivah in which he trained numerous disciples. In addition to his famous Torah commentary, he wrote the most important and widely used commentary on the Talmud (again, brief, to the point, at times almost telegraphic, yet unfailingly incisive and useful); halakhic responsa; compiled a Siddur; and more. A full-length biography of Rashi by historian Avraham Grossman, one of the first of this figure, has recently been published. Grossman sees Rashi as an innovator, even a somewhat revolutionary figure; a consummate teacher and guide; a man of liberal, tolerant spirit for his age. During the course of the year we shall elaborate further upon the biography of Rashi.

Rashi’s Torah Commentary has engendered a whole literature of super-commentaries, too numerous to mention by name, down to our own day. Virtually every traditional Jewish thinker dealing with the Torah text begins with Rashi, explaining why they either agree or demur from Rashi’s interpretation.

The talks of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe at his Shabbat afternoon gatherings (farbrengen)—later published in thin pamphlets entitled Likkutei Sihot, delivered in segments interrupted by singing and drinking vodka—were always based upon Rashi. He would usually pick an obscure, at times even technical comment of Rashi, which was then examined from every possible angle: Why was his question phrased thus and not in another way? What were his sources? etc.

Nehama Leibowitz was renowned for always asking her students: Mah hayah kasheh le-Rashi? What was difficult for Rashi? That is, why does he comment on some verses and phrases and not others? The implication is, that a seemingly simple, obvious comment is intended to clarify/resolve a difficulty, which on closer reading comes to light; or that another explanation was available, which Rashi wishes to reject by explaining things as he does.

Another contemporary project worthy of mention is Rashi Hashalem: a project of the Harry Fischel Institute, which contains a critical edition of Rashi al ha-Torah with full annotation and sources.

Unlike, e.g. Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Rashi does not seem as systematic or methodical in his presentation. He does not elaborate, explain, polemicize, or quote other sources, as they often do; indeed, at times he is almost too concise, leaving his readers to “fill in the blank spaces.” The majority of his comments are very brief, no more than three or four lines in standard editions, if that. He hardly ever cites other commentators with whom he argues—in part because he was almost at the beginning of the process of post-talmudic biblical interpretation.

To a large degree, Rashi’s commentary may be seen as a distillation of the classical Rabbinic tradition, both halakhic and aggadic; much of his work is based upon classical midrashic and talmudic literature. In the narrative chapters of the Torah, which includes the first dozen or more weekly parshiyot—all of Genesis plus the opening chapters—he quotes abundantly from Bereshit Rabbah and Shemot Rabbah and other midrashim; in the halakhic sections he distills the essence of the Rabbinic discussion, as it appears in the ancient tannaitic midrashim, in the Mishnah, and (mostly) in the Babylonian Talmud. And yet, as we shall see presently, his own personality and world–view come through clearly in many of his words—and at times, as we shall see presently, he is not afraid to strike out in new direction, without prooftexts from the tradition.

* * * * *

In addition to our weekly discussions of Rashi, in which I intend to present one or two of Rashi’s comments on verses in the parshah, followed by analysis and discussion, we hope over the coming weeks and months to present a number of longer essays on a variety of topics. I have been working on a number of major essays for some time, several of which have long been awaiting the makeh ba-patish, their finishing touches: a discussion on the meanings of sexuality, two sections of which, relating to Rashi, are presented here (for where does a Jewish philosophy of sexuality start, if not with Adam and Eve?); an expanded essay on human aggression and violence; several studies on various personalities: a biographical essay on Shlomo Carlebach, “Rebbe and Minstrel”; a long-overdue essay on Simon Rawidowicz and the contemporary implications of his thought, originally intended (now rather belatedly) to mark my father’s centennial birthday; an (even more belated) 65th birthday study on Art Green and his thought; an impressionistic essay about Zalman Schachter; the continuation of my series on Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles; and a major personal-theological essay. I have for too long felt these essays “writing themselves” within me, like beings with a life of their own demanding that I bring them into the world. As Martin Buber once wrote:

This is the eternal origin of art, that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power…. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. (I and Thou, Kaufmann ed., pp 60-61)

“And They Shall Be One Flesh”

After the first Woman was taken from the side of the first Man (it should be noted that Adam is not a personal name, but simply the generic term for man; throughout Genesis 1-4, he is consistently referred to by the definite article: ha-Adam, “The Man”; similar, until Gen 4:1, his partner is not called “Eve,” but “The Woman,” ha-Ishah), he exclaims, “This time, [she is] bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for she was taken from Man” (Gen 2:23). Unlike the animals and beasts, who were brought before him in vv. 19-20, and whom he feels to be alien to him, she is of the same stuff as he. The Bible (in narrative voice) then continues: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh” (v. 24). Rashi comments here:

“One flesh.” The fetus is formed by both of them, and in it their flesh becomes one. (Sanhedrin 28b)

The phrase “one flesh” may be understood in several ways. A literal, common-sense reading, might easily see in this phrase a graphic, concrete, even earthy description of man and woman engaged in the sexual act—an act during which, at least for a few moments, their flesh is in some sense literally one (“the creature with two backs”). Certainly, this reading comes aptly to the modern reader, living in a culture for which the moment of sexual union and pleasure tends to be the focus and center of what we think of as sexuality.

In the ancient world, this phrase was read in a slightly different way: not the sexual act as the manifestation of being “one flesh,” but the sexual act making the two into “one flesh” in the legal sense: that is, that marriage and/or sexual union creates an indivisible union. Thus, according to Prof. Aharon Shemesh, the Judaean Desert or Dead Sea sect believed that the initial sexual union between a man and a woman (even without formalized marriage!) created an unbreakable, quasi-biological bond between them, which is seen as having been predestined (A. Shemesh, “4Q271 3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998) 244-63).

Early Christianity similarly held that marriage was indissoluble—a position continued in principle by the Roman Catholic Church to this day, although in practice the Church today uses the instrument of annulment to deal with the widespread problems of marital incompatibility. Or, in the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospels, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Interestingly, at least one midrash on our verse mentions an ancient tradition in which, among the non-Jewish peoples, marriage was for life.

… [Even] illicit intercourse acquires [i.e., creates a marital bond] among the children of Noah. And from whence do we know that they do not have divorce? R. Judah in the name of R. Simon, and R. Hanin in the name of R. Yohanan said: [either] they do not have divorce [at all], or the two of them divorce one another. (Genesis Rabbah 18.5)

This is reminiscent of Rambam’s concept of pre-Sinaitic marriage (Ishut 1.1-4; and see HY V: Vayeshev): as an essentially private arrangement between a man and a woman, without any societal involvement or formal solemnization: if the two of them wished to do so, he takes her into his home, has sex with her, and she becomes his wife. But unlike this midrash, he sees the option for divorce as open, with the same simplicity as marriage (see Hilkhot Melakhim 9.8). But Rambam also recognizes, it being as old as the hills, the existence of casual sex/harlotry – a man and woman desire each other for the moment, for an hour, and then part ways. Thus, in Maimonides view sex per se does not constitute an indelible bond. His is thus a very realistic, down-to-earth approach—one that frankly acknowledges what might be called the dual nature of sex, corresponding in turn to the dual nature of man: freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness, lust and love—in brief, that sex as such is fraught with ambiguity.

The idea that sex per se constitutes a powerful bond, is also reflected in the Rabbinic saying אינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי —“a woman does not create a covenantal bond except with the one who made her a vessel” (Sanh. 22b); that is, that sexual initiation, whether or not in the context of marriage, is a powerful, central life experience, that leaves a powerful mark and in some sense a unique bond between the woman and her first lover. And, thus it is implied also by our midrash, all this is a kind of law of nature.

Leaving the mystique of defloration aside, the implication is that monogamy is seen as the natural state, a kind of archetypal way of behavior implanted in all human beings (whether or not realized in practice). Hence, it is seen as part of the Seven Noachide commandments, which I read as a kind of Jewish counterpart to natural law (see HY V: Noah).

Several medieval Jewish commentators, such as Sforno, Hizkuni, Radak, offer what might be called a modified version of this view, explaining “one flesh” as a psycho-social-mental unity—the sexual act itself serving to unite them, through pleasure, into a long-standing union. Ramban, commenting on this verse, sees it as referring to the emotional component of the marital/sexual union. Unlike the animals, a human male, “Because the woman is ‘flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone,’ and she was in his bosom like his own flesh, he desires that she be with him always constantly; there is thus implanted in man the desire for the male to be attached to their females. They leave their father and mother and see their wives as if they were one flesh with them.” He goes on to explain the etymology of she’ar basar, used in Lev 18:6 etc., to refer to those relatives forbidden because of consanguinity, as also reflecting this.

All of which is a long, roundabout introduction providing the background to Rashi’s somewhat surprising reading here: that they are united in the flesh of their child, which is formed from both of them. (This is certainly a psychological reality: even in the event of divorce, the now-separated parents remain united through their connection with the children: rejoicing at weddings or the births of grandchildren; or feeling anxiety in times of trouble—e.g., regarding their children’s safety upon hearing of terrorist attacks.) Philosophically, Rashi here engages in teleology: the ultimate telos of the union of man and woman is offspring, who embody the fleshly, physical reality of the two parents in a concrete way. He thus places the union of man and woman in the larger perspective of procreation of the next generation: an obvious enough point, and very much part of traditional Jewish thinking, but one that in today’s pleasure-oriented, individual-oriented world, is often forgotten, with the almost exclusive emphasis on equating sexuality with the pleasure-giving act alone—which is, in a certain sense, a very male view; for women, sexuality clearly includes gestation, childbirth, nursing, etc.


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