Have You Heard of Rashi?

The day my essay, “The Self-Thinking Thought,” appeared on the New York Times blog Happy Days, I received a letter that went thusly:

I read your blog on Anselm; quite interesting.
Your name sounds Jewish, and although you said you are Catholic, do you have Jewish ancestry?
What do you know about Rashi, the great rabbi that lived in northern France at the same time as Anselm?

We went on to have a friendly exchange in which he invited me to visit him in Israel and, further, suggested that Anselm might have learned his concept of God from Rashi, the 11th-century Jewish commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki. I was of course suspicious—it reminded me a bit of when my grandfather came home from a class at the synagogue thinking that Kant was a Jew—but it really wouldn’t hurt me to be less ignorant of the history of Jewish thought. Despite a year of Hebrew and a few classes in college, I know painfully little about the intricacies of the faith of my father’s fathers.

Buy the book.

Buy the book.

Providentially, I caught word that Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Night, has a new little book called, precisely, Rashi. So I found myself a review copy and, in the last few days, got around to reading it.

From the first, I let myself fall happily into Wiesel’s nostalgic mood. He remembers the companionship of Rashi’s text in his childhood (read: before the Holocaust), his ancestor, who it seemed to him then “had been sent to earth primarily to help Jewish children overcome loneliness.” There is nothing sweeter to a scholar’s heart than the thought of little Jewish boys pouring over their ancient books, searching for meaning and a place in life through the scribbles of the sages. As I read, I began jotting notes for a future essay on the meaning of ancestry.

We then descend into a sequence of Rashi’s interpretations, from creation to Joseph. Wiesel shows, line by line, how Rashi pulls open the biblical text, expands it, and exposes it. The tendency of modern interpreters (and those in the thrall of Greek rationalism, from Origen to Hegel), when they don’t quite know what to do with a passage of scripture, is to abstract it, to look outside, and understand it in terms of a foreign logic. (For instance, how one might use evolutionary theory to claim that the six days of creation really each represented millions of years.) But, for someone like Rashi, the interpretation of a text lies in the text itself, to be found between the lines, to be summoned in imagination. One of many examples:

“So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir.” [That’s the biblical passage.] Rashi wonders why the verb is in the singular. Because he [Esau] was alone. One after the other, the four hundred men who had been with him, deserted him.

It is a wonderful process to follow, and Wiesel delights to guide us through.

As the book goes on, however, it grows darker. Like Wiesel, Rashi lived through a tragic period for European Jews, one full of brutality and suffering at the hands of Christians. And crusades. Rashi, therefore, has reason to be unapologetic in his disdain for the goyim:

A general rule: whenever he can, Rashi chooses passages in the Midrash that can be interpreted as arguments against “the other nations.”

When interpreting biblical stories, he protects the sanctity and holiness of the Israelites whenever possible, even blaming the manufacture of the Golden Calf at Sinai on foreigners among them. Wiesel attempts to qualify:

Rashi believes, following all the Midrashic literature, that the people of Israel live and act at the center of the history of men and of nations. A feeling of superiority? No, of singularity.

He even ends by claiming Rashi for cosmopolitanism:

Furthermore, Rashi taught his disciples to engage in open discussions including polemics with the Christian world.

But of such universalism he offers scant evidence. For the horrors inflicted on Jews—and indeed on Wiesel himself—the outcome is certain knowledge of the community’s righteousness: this, I can’t help but think, is as much a delusion as that which motivated the violence that, in the first place, inspired it.

For my own part, as paternal half-Jew and accidental apostate, I cannot possibly accept the singularity, justified by suffering, of the Jewish people on whose impossible margin my bloodline lies. (Notwithstanding, “If you’re Jewish enough for Hitler,” a childhood friend used to say, “you’re Jewish enough for me.”) It is a lineage I would like to inhabit and claim for my own, but only on the terms of my marginality, even my apostasy, which implies the denial of its basic categories. Despite Wiesel’s qualification, I shudder at his acceptance of Rashi’s formula: the chosen people, rightful denizens of the Holy Land, the bearers of humanity’s divine burden. The warmth, the imagination, the scholarship, yes. But, thanks to the horrible logic of history, it is all a package deal.

Just as Rashi has only good things to say about the people Israel, Wiesel can bring himself to say nothing ungenerous about Rashi. One must admire the gesture of respect for the teacher, for the elder:

it is incumbent on a student to respect his Teacher. To avoid embarrassing him, the student should withhold questions that the Teacher might not be able to answer, and then seek a new Teacher.

That being the case, out of respect for both author and subject, I wish Nextbook and Schocken had, when publishing this slim hardcover and charging $22 for it, bothered to assemble with something more resilient than glue and perfect binding. Sewn signatures, please. When my children’s children discover the book in some dusty attic of the future, and pages fall out like autumn leaves, I can only hope they’re the ones that divide us along uninhabitable lines.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.