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When Peshat Contradicts Halakhah: Medieval Approaches

Mon, December 17, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Skyline Room


Medieval Jewish exegetes from the rabbanite tradition started to pay more attention to the PESHAT the plain meaning of the biblical text for a number of reasons. Among the factors were the twelfth-century Renaissance, the rise of interest in Hebrew grammar, the rise of interest in philosophy, anti-Karaite polemics and anti-Christian polemics. These exegetes often struggled with the tension between PESHAT, the plain meaning of the biblical text, and the hallowed interpretive traditions of the Bible found in the Talmud and other classical rabbinic works. Rashi was among the first to confront these issues but he approached them with hesitation. In the twelfth century, many rabbanite exegetes started to offer more frequently interpretations that strayed from the traditional Jewish understanding even when the new interpretations involved understanding a biblical law in a way that contradicted halakhah.

It is tempting for us moderns to imagine that the bolder a medieval exegete was in interpreting against the traditional grain, the weaker his commitment was to the Talmudic tradition and to halakhah. This, however, is simply not true.

This paper examines the phenomenon of twelfth century exegetes—particularly Rashbam and Abraham ibn Ezra—offering interpretations of biblical laws that contradicted HALAKHAH and will attempt to explain the differences between their approaches to this issue as being a function of the different factors that caused each of them to be interested in peshat in the first place.


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