Monday, January 3, 2011

Peshat and Derash

In his last two posts, Rabbi Slifkin bemoans the propensity of people to frequently conflate Derash (biblical exegesis) with Peshat (plain meaning of the verse). Something was gnawing away at the back of my mind but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I was about to let these two posts slide when it hit me; there are two things which trouble me with his posts. The first will, please G-d, be dealt with in this blog entry and the next in the following one.

The Rabbi writes:

As my friend Professor Eric Lawee has demonstrated in a recent fascinating article, "Words Unfitly Spoken: Late Medieval Criticism of the Role of Midrash in Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah," in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Law, Thought and Culture, Rashi's commentary did not initially receive the universal reverence that it has today. A number of Rishonim and early Acharonim were highly critical of Rashi for frequently giving a peshat that they considered to be derash rather than peshat.

This characterization of Rashi is disturbing. Eric is a sincere, highly intelligent fellow. I always learn something when I read his stuff (quick – can anyone tell me what an Andalusian polymath is?). But for Rabbi Slifkin to state that "a number of Rishonim and early Acharonim were highly critical of Rashi" is not a fair statement. To be sure, Professor Lawee does provide a few such examples but a) they must be taken within context, and b) they are not abundant as Rabbi Slifkin’s statement implies (a number of Rishonim and Acharonim).

Furthermore, I think Rabbi Slifkin is missing a fundamental element of Rashi’s methodology. Rashi himself describes his own mandate. He writes (my translation in the colloquial) as follows:

"As for me; I have not endeavored but to interpret the verses based on their plain meaning or based on aggadic interpretations which establish the meaning of the verses as a word spoken properly" (Bereishis 3:8)

It is clear from Rashi that there are two types of aggada. One which does not sit well with the plain meaning of the verses and one which actually assists in the proper comprehension of the plain meaning. Rashi typically quotes the latter, not the former. It is part of his mandate. As far as why Rashi bothers to quote two possible plain-meaning interpretations when the second one relies on rabbinical derash will be addressed in the following post.

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