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Medieval Biblical Exegesis in Context: Navigating the Shoals of Intellectual, Religious, and Social Forces

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

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel analyzes the complex, often delicate interplay of forces surrounding and influencing the writing and reception of medieval Jewish biblical commentaries. The first two papers mainly examine the commentators’ efforts to balance sometimes conflicting intellectual pressures, demonstrating how the interpretive strategies chosen responded to those pressures. The third paper investigates the way many of the same intellectual, religious, and social pressures within a community could affect acceptance of these commentaries.

Medieval commentators had to navigate the inherent tension between the “plain sense” (PESHAT) of Scripture on the one hand, and the hallowed rabbinic interpretations of Scripture on the other. Scholars point to the especially difficult case of PESHAT interpretations that conflict with rabbinic legal traditions (HALAKHAH), because the religious community, including the commentators themselves, accepted said legal traditions as normative, binding practice. Marty Lockshin’s paper examines the way two medieval exegetes, Rashbam and Abraham Ibn Ezra, approached this category of peshat interpretations that conflict with rabbinic legal traditions, highlighting differences between their approaches and underlying factors that led to these differences.

Jason Kalman examines the no-less-challenging problem facing commentators of Song of Songs, namely, how to understand the graphic biblical depictions of the female body. Kalman demonstrates a systematic effort by the commentators to omit these depictions or replace the image of the female beloved with a man or men. For example, the beauty of the woman’s mouth refers to the words God-fearing men speak. The paper also explores how a variety of intellectual, religious, and social factors that shaped these interpretations.

Eric Lawee’s paper focuses on the reception accorded one of the most popular commentaries, Rashi’s COMMENTARY ON THE TORAH, exploring the mixed reaction it received when it was introduced in a new cultural environment, namely, Southern France, after the influx of Andalusian Jewish refugees bearing rationalist ideas. This study looks at a spectrum of reactions, like that of David Kimhi, who engaged with these interpretations, and that of philosophical writers of commentaries who tried to supplant or appropriate them. It also notes the place of Rashi’s exegesis in the intra- and intercommunal conflicts over rationalism.

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