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Engagement, Indifference, Indignation: Rashi’s COMMENTARY ON THE TORAH in Southern France

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


Southern French Jewry shows as no other what happened to medieval Jewish communities after biblical exegesis and other disciplines (e.g., aggadah interpretation, rabbinic study) were transformed by the advent of Greco-Arabic philosophic texts and teachings through the medium of newly arrived Andalusi-Jewish refugee scholars. With the rise in southern France of rationalism and a quest for the plain sense, sometimes in tandem, it is little wonder that the foremost of Ashkenazic biblical commentaries, a work at once heavily midrashic and philosophically innocent, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, should be marginalized in high and late medieval southern French Jewish culture. Yet the Commentary could not be, and was hardly, ignored. It figures, along with Rashi’s exegetical enterprise more broadly, in the great Provençal debate of the 1230s over whether to ban philosophical learning and its cherished Maimonidean textbooks, with defenders of Maimonides telling of a remarkable fiat in which the traditionalists proclaim acceptance of Rashi’s interpretations of biblical and talmudic text a binding precept of Judaism. Meanwhile, and a series of leading southern French exegetes, such as David Kimhi, engage Rashi’s biblical scholarship in general and COMMENTARY ON THE TORAH in particular. The COMMENTARY also faced competition. As attempts to expel philosophically inspired teachings from southern French Jewry failed, biblical commentary became the genre of choice for most who sought to express philosophical ideas. In addition to Maimonides, scriptural commentary in the region was inspired by Abraham Ibn Ezra in his dual role as a pursuer of the plain sense and as an exegete attentive to philosophic and scientific ideas.

Here, then, are some of the complex intellectual, religious, and culturally contextual elements that inform the COMMENTARY’s southern French reception, which involves, by turns, engagement, indifference, and indignation but, for all that, no sustained frontal assaults. The paper, a study in reception history, thereby answers the call of Moshe Idel (made in a different context) for scholarship to engage with questions about “the meaning of the arrival of a corpus of writings in a new cultural environment.”


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