One of the most inventive commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, the 11th century rabbi known universally as Rashi, comes on the first word in the Torah. Rashi says, “Bereshit” should not be translated as “In the beginning,” but “In the beginning of.”
The additional word holds great consequence. It suggests events taking place before the beginning of creation, coating the universe in an infinite sheen, without beginning or end.
The commentary is remarkable for appealing to a broad range of Jewish thought. It allows creationism to coexist with a scientific understanding of the universe, but it also adheres to traditional modes of interpretation: Rashi doesn’t reach his conclusion by revisionary means, but by making a strict comparison of grammatical useage in the Torah.
Rashi is the master of pshat, a method of interpretation focused on a simple, literal reading of the text. At their best, his commentaries are imaginative, yet timeless and universal. Those attributes cemented Rashi’s place in Jewish thought. Since the initial publication of his work in 1475, Rashi has been a first stop for anyone puzzled by a piece of Torah or Talmud, regardless of the age, experience or background of the student.
Today, Rashi is so ubiquitous and so timeless it’s become easy to forget he was an individual person living in a unique time, one that certainly shaped his reading of the Torah.
“Rashi,” a new book by Elie Wiesel, sketches a portrait of the master that is neither definitive nor exhaustive, but that introduces him and his work to those who don’t know him, and offers some context to those steeped in his work, but not in his world.
The slim volume — less than 100 pages — is part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, which tasks contemporary Jewish authors with writing about iconic Jewish figures or overarching Jewish themes. Wiesel and Rashi fit: both are prolific French Jews of traditional background who embrace the entire Jewish community through their words.
Because few biographical details exist about Rashi, Wiesel instead relies on Rashi’s enormous body of work — which covers the entirety of the Tanakh and almost all of the Talmud — to show a leader seeking to reassure his community and future communities of Jews that the promises heralded in the Torah still held true, despite trying times.
For Rashi, those times were the early years of the first Crusade, when Christian armies descended through Europe to battle Muslim armies over control of the Holy Land.
Through his interpretations, Rashi defended the Jews. His commentaries explain away the apparent misdeeds of the Patriarchs, and highlight ulterior motives hiding behind the apparent kindness of their enemies. Jacob doesn’t steal Esau’s birthright “with cunning.” He earns it “with wisdom.” The Jews don’t worship a golden calf. It is “a mixed multitude… who fashioned the golden calf and incited Israel to follow it.” Rashi shows no mercy to Ishmael or Esau. “A general rule: whenever he can, Rashi chooses passages in the Midrash that can be interpreted as arguments against ‘other nations,’” Wiesel says.
Why begin the Torah with creation? Rashi says it is to prove the Jewish claim on Israel. If the whole earth belongs to God, then God can give portions and take them back at will.
For Wiesel, this commentary grows from the times, when Rome claimed to have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen, and when Christians and Muslims fought over Palestine. “So the Jew Rashi reminds them of this ancient legend: One day the nations of the world will tell the Jews, this land is ours; you stole it from us. And we will reply: the land belongs to God; He alone has the right to say who will live there. And he gave this land to us.”
Although the Crusade largely bypassed Troyes — where Rashi held court — the entire Rhineland suffered under forced disputations and conversions, anti-Semitic propaganda and massacres, which “surely influenced his conception of the world,” Wiesel wrote.
What are we to make of the fact that the most widely read commentaries in Jewish thought come from a man steeped in a time period so singular for its devastation? In an introduction to Song of Songs, Rashi describes Solomon’s verses as being written to comfort all the future Jewish generations in exile. What, then, to make of the poem now, when part of the Jewish community considers itself to be in exile and part does not?
“Was it his reaction to those events that were to leave traces of fire and blood in the Jewish memory forever after?” Wiesel asks. “Did he ever forgive Esau whose descendents — in Rome, according to him — bore down on the Jews whose tragic destiny was supposed to be proof that God had changed his chosen people?”
An introductory portrait is not the place to follow those questions, and Wiesel doesn’t, but their implications — on the source of our popular understanding of the Torah, on how Jews currently view the world, on Rashi’s continued place as a universal figure — linger in the mind.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)