Creating Fictional Worlds: Peshat-Exegesis and Narrativity in Rashbam's Commentary on the Torah by Hanna Liss (Studies in Jewish History and Culture: Brill) R. Samuel ben Mar (b. 1085) wrote his Torah commentary at a point in time when the French masters of Bible collected their glossae, but he wrote it also at the point in time that we today consider to be the turning point in 'lay literacy,' when the Anglo-Norman aristocracy patronized the production of romances. In the first half of the 12th century, Northern France was a vibrant spot. It was an era in which composing, reading, and listening to narratives and stories intensified as a complex cultural phenomenon. This book presents the idea that Rashbam tried to compete with this new intellectual movement, claiming that the literary quality of the biblical texts was at least as good as that of the nascent courtly romances, or even on a par with one another.
Hanna Liss, Ph.D. (1995) in Jewish Studies, University of Berlin, is Professor of Bible and Jewish Exegesis at the Hochschule far Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg, Germany. She has published extensively on medieval Jewish Exegesis and Ashkenazic pietism including Raschi und sein Erbe (Winter, 2007) and El'asar ben Yehuda von Worms, Hilkhot ha-Kavod (Mohr, 1997).
This book is a result of my immersion into a culture which I thought I knew well. Rashbam's fascinating attempt to explain the Hebrew Bible by means of a variety of literary theories, and to read it as the main literary work of the Jews had attracted me from the very beginning. However, the deeper I entered the sources the more I had to realize that we still have only a vague idea what it meant for a twelfth-century Northern French Jewish scholar, a wise and erudite man, to study and to teach the Hebrew Bible, a book that Jews as Christians regarded to be the yardstick of their cultural and religious heritage.'
R. Samuel ben Merl- (Rashbam; born 1085/88) wrote his Torah commentary at a point in time when Peter Cantor 'the Chanter' wrote his exegetical treatise De tropis loquendi (De contrarietatibus sacrae Scripturae) and when the French masters of Bible collected their glossae, the 'Media Glossatura' by Gilbert of Poitiers and the 'Magna Glossatura' by Petrus Lombardus. But Rashbam wrote his commentary also at the point in time that we today consider to be the turning point in lay literacy,' when the Anglo-Norman aristocracy patronized the production of romances and historiographic writings. In the first half of the twelfth century, Northern France was a vibrant spot. It was an era, in which composing, reading, and listening to narratives and stories intensified as a complex cultural phenomenon.
The question of the extent to which the nascent French courtly lit-erature and culture influenced the development of peshat-exegesis has not yet been explored. Scholars have traced the beginnings of the Northern-French exegetical school almost exclusively to the Christian-Latin contextual network and at the same time still hold the view that twelfth century Northern France Jewry concerned themselves almost exclusively with the Talmud, the Bible, and piyyut (liturgical poetry). However, when we read Rashbam carefully, we will see that in contrast to his grandfather R. Solomon (Rashi; d. 1105) his comments expose a biblical episode's literary and narrative quality rather than its religious meaning. Rashbam aims for achieve a literary and narrative exegesis in such a way that is unthinkable without a possible influence of the contemporary Old French literature.
This study suggests that the vernacular literature that fascinated French society fascinated the Jews as well, and puts forward the idea that Rashbam tried to compete with this new intellectual movement, claiming that the literary quality of the biblical texts was at least as good as that of the nascent courtly romances based on the matilre de Bretagne, or even on a par with one another. Furthermore, we will see that we find what is called the 'twelfth century discovery of fictionality' not only in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes, but also in Rashbam's re-narrations of biblical stories some ten years earlier as an offspring of a new 'Zeitgeist' that encompassed the French nobility as well as the Jews. This subject has never been discussed before. An important task that this study undertakes is, therefore, to reexamine the 'narra-tives' that modern Jewish studies scholars have constructed in order to explain this exegetical 'enfant terrible' who repeatedly conducted himself disrespectfully in particular towards his grandfather Rashi.
Reading Rashbam through the glasses of literary theory means overall a rekindling of topics that have always been at issue in Medi-eval Jewish Studies, but not yet solved sufficiently. Among them are the matters of reading and literacy, reading and mentality, written texts and oral communication, glosses, or the subject of a manuscript's mise-en-page. I have repeatedly left the hitherto well-trodden scholarly paths and borrowed from the theoretical tools of Non-Hebrew medi-eval philology and literary criticism. Their methodological tools have extended the scope of my gaze enormously, but at the same time have made it clear that Medieval Jewish Studies will have to define its own methodological instruments. In more than one way, this study, there-fore, forms only the overture for further research.
Rashbam's commentary has many faces. This study traces them in many directions, and is, therefore, not necessarily meant to be read seriatim. In particular, chapters 4-7 present a variety of facets that deal with Rashbam's explanations from different perspectives and are in due course linked with cross references within the book. The cases in point taken in this study are not exhaustive, and I could have offered many more since almost each and every single comment of Rashbam's Torah commentary serves in one or the other way his new exegetical approach. However, the examples called here point exemplarily, but clearly enough on how much Rashbam freed himself from his predecessors, and how he shaped his own ways in the exegesis of the Torah.
We have seen in this study that Rashbam, rather than explaining the theological meaning of a biblical story, re-narrates it, focusing on its plot and story line. Still, what does this re-narration encompass? What is its inherent quality? Rashbam does not change the biblical text or rewrite the stories anew; neither does he simply compose a (new) midrash. However, there is something new in the way he presents the material and gives the literary characters their own voices.
In recent years, an increasing number of medievalists studying the Arthurian romances, the French (Chrétien de Troyes) as well as the later Middle High German (Hartmann on Aue), have introduced the idea of 'fictionality' and 'fictitiousness' into the scholarly debate. The courtly romances by Chrétien de Troyes are regarded as the prime examples of the beginning of fictionality in twelfth-century vernacu-lar literature.' There is also an ongoing scholarly debate on whether Northern French courtly literature can legitimately be called 'fiction'. To date, Jewish Studies scholarship has hardly taken note of the results of this important debate. The literary output of the Jews of Northern France and elsewhere has not yet been investigated in terms of its literary and narrative quality. All too often, Hebrew commentaries, especially Bible and piyyut commentaries, are the subjects of historical research focusing on their role within the Jewish-Christian debate to the neglect of their literary structure and other qualities.
Rashbam's renarration of the biblical narratives is unique in that he links them to the perspective of the protagonists.' He allows his main characters personal independence and portrays them as well-defined individuals in a way that we find neither in the biblical account, nor in later midrashic exegesis. Jacob, Esau, and all the other biblical characters are simply not stereotypes. With only a few strokes of the quill, Rashbam sketches a whole scene, individualizes his characters, and reveals their inner lives and motivations. The motif of Jacob's attempt to escape that is foiled by mere accident, throws new light on the narrative. Rashbam's renarration allows the protagonist to act in his own spatiotemporal domain. Likewise, when young Esau ponders his mortality,' Rashbam does not only allow his readers to catch a glimpse of his reasoning, but even helps them leave behind the stereotyped portrait of Esau as the everlasting theological adversary. Doesn't Esau somehow seem likeable? The psychological 'snap-shots' allow the narratives to (re-)gain their literary vigor and tension.
According to Gertrud Grünkorn, 'fictionality' refers to an aesthetic quality that distinguishes between literary texts and didactic and / or propagandistic texts.' I am not convinced that this definition is entirely helpful, since 'narrating' and 'writing' in its broadest sense always serve a certain purpose, namely to establish an assured form of remembrance and to strengthen group-identity,' whether socio-logical, religious, or political. Based on Grünkorn's definition, both the biblical text as well as its later commentary tradition would rank among didactic texts, meaning that their reading and teaching serve a certain religious and theological purpose. Rashbam's commentary seldom shows signs of serving religious purposes. Nevertheless, does that mean that Rashbam does not have a certain didactic goal? He repeatedly insists on the necessity to learn and teach the Bible as part of the religious curriculum, i.e., to deepen one's understanding of biblical language by studying the Bible with Rashi. However, in contrast to Rashi, Rashbam aims to achieve a literary and narrative exegesis that does not deal merely with the respective episodes, but explores the underlying story line. Therefore, his comments focus on the text's stylistic devices, and expose its literary and narrative quality rather than its religious meaning. This subject matter had never been discussed before. Rashbam's didactic claim addresses literary-theoretical questions to those (erudite) readers who might have grown tired of the old-fashioned exegetical approach.
The question of Rashbam's audience is difficult to resolve. Once again, we are faced with the fact that Christians present themselves to the world through literature, whereas the Jews hardly disclose their mental state within their compositions, especially biblical commentaries.
Beate Schmolke-Hasselmann portrayed Chrétien's audience as well educated francophone nobles; some even stood out intellectually. They were capable of recognizing quotations from older sources, or of understanding subtle allusions and hints. It's a commonplace that the French nobility attempted to gain political legitimacy by creating fictional ancestors through the medium of courtly literature.
At first sight, the audience of French nobility and Rashbam's addressees, the so-called maskilim do not have very much in common. Since Rashbam's commentary presupposes a thorough knowledge not only of rabbinic sources, but also of Rashi's commentary, the maskilim must have been a group of erudite and learned 'readers,' not among the less educated members of the community, those people who were often referred to by the tosafists as 'the people in the field.' Likewise, these educational prerequisites make it unlikely that there were any women in his audience, although a woman, who had learnt Hebrew, in order to read the prayers and even the Torah por-tions, could have gained much benefit from Rashbam's comments for the explication of the text on the literal level. Nevertheless, the goal of his commentary was to complement the precedent exegetical tradition, and the argument was too sophisticated to be understood outside scholarly circles. Unfortunately, Rashbam only rarely gives information about the Sitz im Leben of his commentary. In his lengthy comment on Num. 11:35, in which he deals extensively with the midrashic explanations on the itinerary and the encampment of the Israelites in Hazeroth, he reports that the [issue] was doubtful to my teachers. I was asked about it in Paris, and explained it in a 'lecture'.
The explications that follow this statement present a rather sophisticated argument that clearly exceeds the intellectual horizon of those who are taught the weekly Torah portion by a qara once a week. Since Rashbam does not inform us about the circumstances of his trip to Paris and his meeting with other rabbinic scholars, we can only guess from the fact that Rashbam offers a lengthy explanation on various midrashim, in which he reveals and analyzes the midrash's literary and stylistic arguments, that his answer was meant to inject new ideas into the scholarly debate on the literary quality and narrative technique of the Hebrew Scriptures. His derashah was, thus, more of a lecture (`Lehrvortrag') than a sermon.
However, allusions to rabbinic intellectual and scholarly endeavors remain fairly vague. The Jews did not attend university, and never studied the trivium and quadrivium in the way Hugh of St. Victor warmly recommended to his students. Nevertheless, despite the profound disparity between Chrétien's courtly romances and Rashbam's Torah-commentary as to literary genres, audience, and respective narrative goals, we must point to some striking similarities in the way they model and re-model ancient texts and traditions, and how they conducted themselves as 'young savages.' The 'discovery of fictionality' (Haug) that we find in Chrétien's writings, but also in Rashbam's re-narrations of biblical stories some ten years earlier was the result of a new 'Zeitgeist' that encompassed the French nobility as well as the Jews. Why should the vernacular literature that fascinated French society not have fascinated the Jews as well? We can, therefore, well imagine that Rashbam—at the dawn of the new literary (trans-)formation of courtly literature—tried to compete with this new intellectual movement, claiming that the literary quality of the matière des Hebreux' was at least as good as that of the matière de Bretagne. Furthermore, the emergence of Old French literature was necessarily accompanied by the estrangement of the nobility from the church, since the noble society cultivated an anti-clerical attitude, and the church did not approve of the Christian community listening to the stories of 'bloody' chivalry and numerous cases of adultery. The Jews as social 'in-betweens' were more than ready to jump onto this anticlerical bandwagon, since for them it came with a growing social acceptance and less rejection by the nobility that maintained economic relations with the Jewish 'nouveau riche.' For a short period of time, viz. from c. 1100-1180, both parties, the members of the nobility and the Jewish intellectuals, started to break up encrusted social structures and to reinvent the world by entering their own fictional worlds.
In some ways, the self-confidence demonstrated by Chrétien and Rashbam as the outstanding representatives of this new movement resembles that of an adolescent who thinks that whatever the elders think is stupid and worthless. It might seem disrespectful to compare various groups of French medieval society with adolescents. However, any parent who has ever raised young children learns that even if it is exhausting for the parents—for the kids the world becomes an exciting place, and this excitement forms a powerful intellectual stimulus.
Whatever it meant for a twelfth-century Northern French Jewish scholar to study and to teach the Hebrew Bible-- ... stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus (The ancient rose continues to exist through its name; we are left only with the names).
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