Sermon – What the Next Chief Rabbi should learn from Rashi

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 January 2011

The undisputed master of biblical exegesis from the Middle Ages to today, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, begins his commentary on the whole Torah in a way we might not expect.  Rather than a discussion of the creation story itself, or of the first word of the Torah – Bereshit – in the beginning, he brings a quote from this week’s Torah portion – in fact from the section of Torah that I have just read.

He begins his whole commentary like this: Amar Rabbi Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak said: It wasn’t necessary to begin the Torah here, but at Exodus 12:2 “This month shall be for you the first of the months” – This is the first commandment that Israel was commanded.  So what is the reason that it began with the account of creation?”

It is a great question – a really important question – if the fundamental issue of Jewish life is what we do – if Judaism is really concerned with doing, with the obedience of the Israelites to God’s will, why start with story not with law. Rashi’s own explanation, unfortunately, is not as good as the question.  Though it must have been a source of strength in the era of the Crusades, it is less comfortable now.  He explains that the story of creation provides an answer to the question of Israel’s right to the land of Canaan – if God creates the whole world, by God’s will this portion might be given to Israel.  But by just asking the question Rashi tells us that there is more to Jewish life than just Halachah – more than just law – more than just obedience, but a world of ideas.

And it is a classic piece of Rashi commentary – a commentary that asks a big question in a straightforward way then gives an answer that we might not like, but at least is there to understand – an answer that adds to our relationship with the text.  It is also, classically for Rashi, a question in someone else’s name, a tradition brought from elsewhere – Rashi is there in the answer, but it is never about him but about the text.  He does not seek to be a guru, but a facilitator, an enabler into the wonders of our textual heritage.

It is just one, limited example, of why Rashi – who was born in 1040, and who lived in Troyes in Northern France – why Rashi’s name continues to be synonymous with Jewish scholarship and commentary.  First and foremost he was extraordinarily knowledgeable.  But knowledge in itself is not enough – it is what you do with it.

And here Rashi was very special – for he had all the traditions that came before him at his fingertips, but brought them not to show how clever he was, but to help others to understand the text.  The writer Elie Wiesel who studied Rashi’s commentary as a small boy, as so many did and do in the world of the Yeshivah writes this of Rashi: “I loved him.  I couldn’t make headway without him.  Of course, I explored other approaches, other commentaries… but Rashi’s are unique, different, indispensable.  He radiates warmth and friendship.  And simplicity… He never uses his learning to make things complicated, but to simplify.  He never flaunts his erudition to impress students with the originality of his reasoning… To those who are timid, he seems to be saying, don’t be afraid, I am here by your side. Sometimes in my small town, it seemed that Rashi had been sent to earth primarily to help Jewish children overcome loneliness.  And fear.”

And Rashi often asks exactly the questions of the text that we are asking.  Like our Bar Mitzvah, he is worried that God punishes even the apparently innocent of Egypt.  In his commentary he brings a midrash to help us with this problem, an extra story to claim that even the least of Egypt worked the Israelites as slaves and rejoiced in their distress. And thus, their inclusion in the tenth plague was not without cause, for this was not just a bad ruler, but a nation involved in the oppression of the people.

Again, his answer may not be 100 percent satisfactory, but at least he recognises the existence of the questions.  And sometimes he does give us a glimpse of an unexpected radicalism for 1000 years ago. So, in his discussion on the first verse of creation he states, almost in passing: “This does not come to teach us the order of creation”.  Wow – it seems that Rashi was no literalist, perhaps even no creationist, but saw that the story of creation is designed to teach us about the world, not about how it came into being.

It is not only in the area of commentary that Rashi appears to demonstrate, in Wiesel’s words – friendship and simplicity.  In his approach to Jewish practice he also showed great reasonableness and lack of extremism.  So, for example, as anyone who has been through the Gateway class before Pesach knows, in the Levy household we eat rice at Pesach, not just because we pretend to be Sephardi and it makes it much easier, but because Rashi in one of his many responsa, his responses to practical questions of Jewish law wrote: On kinds of rice: they are permitted on Pesach and are not from the five [prohibited] types of grain. (Rashi Responsa 110) So, if it was good enough for a very laid back and sensible Rashi, it is good enough for me!

In the area of gender too, it seems that Rashi was pretty sensible, and inclusive.  There are legends about his daughters suggesting that they possessed unusual scholarship, that they were learned in Torah and Talmud at a time when women were forbidden to study these sacred texts, even that they may have worn tefillin.  Much of this is just legend – unsupported by what we can prove.  But there are hints in his writings that Rashi was, by the standards of today’s Orthodoxy, a relative liberal.  A responsum of Rashi notes that he is too weak to write so he is dictating to his daughter, which indicates that she was capable of understanding and writing complicated legal issues in Hebrew. In another reply, he states that if a woman, who is exempt from certain commandments, chooses to take upon herself a mitzvah, not only can she do so, but she is then bound to do so properly with the appropriate blessing. Stated without fuss or drama – but this, today, would be to the very left of an orthodoxy which has understood exemption as prohibition.

I am in no way claiming Rashi as a progressive Jew – to do so would be naïve, and anachronistic.  But he was certainly someone who brought common sense into his understanding of Jewish life.  And he did so, also, with extraordinary humility.  I have already mentioned his tendency to bring traditions in the names of others – something not all of the great medieval scholars were inclined to do. He was also refreshingly honest about his own limitations.  Almost uniquely you will find that Rashi is willing to admit in one place in Genesis that: I have to say, I don’t know what this verse comes to tell us (on Gen 28:5) This is extraordinary – elsewhere commentators don’t do this – they just keep quiet.  In fact, Rashi is criticised in later texts for not just avoiding the issue, “if he doesn’t know let him be silent”.

Why am I boring you with a discussion of Rashi?  In part, having recently read Wiesel’s monograph, his virtues are on my mind.  In part, one of the expected highlights of the coming year for me will be the publication of the English translation of Avraham Grossman’s biography of Rashi – the first major biography of him for over 100 years.

But more importantly, because Rashi teaches us important lessons about community leadership.  We are at a time when issues of leadership are at the forefront of our minds – both for us in the Reform movement, and for the Orthodox world, following the announcement that Jonathan Sachs will retire in 2013.

The role of Head of the United Synagogue, who they refer to as the Chief Rabbi, is an important one for all of us – it helps to set the tone for debate within the Jewish world, it serves to represent us to the outside world whether part of that movement or not.  As potential candidates begin to be identified, to jostle for position, I hope that they have half an eye on Rashi and what he can teach them, that they can find someone who has some of his qualities: Someone who can be sensible in their approach to Torah and to practice Someone whose instinct is to be inclusive in their communities Someone with humility and honesty Someone especially who knows that in community, knowledge in itself is not enough – it is what you do with it that really matters.