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  • Rashbam Scholarship in Perpetual Motion
  • Mordechai Z. Cohen (bio)

Mordechai Z. Cohen, Elazar Touitou, Rashbam Scholarship in Perpetual Motion, Exegesis in Perpetual Motion: Studies in the Pentateuchal Commentary of Rabbi Samuel ben Meir [Hebrew], Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Hermeneutics, peshat, Biblical Interpretation

Elazar Touitou. Exegesis in Perpetual Motion: Studies in the Pentateuchal Commentary of Rabbi Samuel ben Meir [Hebrew]. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2003. Pp. 283

Over the past quarter century, Elazar Touitou has substantially enhanced our understanding of the hermeneutics of Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; c. 1080–1160), one of the greatest proponents of the peshat method in the Jewish tradition of biblical interpretation. Touitou’s writing have opened bold new directions in evaluating Rashbam within the context of Jewish learning and his surrounding Christian intellectual milieu. His many studies, augmented by new ones, have been brought together here by the author in an integrated and updated form that reflects the changing landscape of modern research of the northern French peshat school founded by Rashbam’s grandfather, Rashi (1040–1105). While the form and substance of the original essays dominate this book, Touitou also addresses new matters raised by scholars of biblical interpretation such as G. Dahan, S. Japhet, M. Lockshin, A. Mondschein, R. Salters, and M. Sokolow, as well as historians such as A. Grossman and I. M. Ta-Shma, thereby creating an academic dialogue that paints a multi-faceted intellectual portrait of Rashbam enriched by a variety of perspectives. The result is an insightful analysis of this great French exegete and his role in developing the peshat method, making Exegesis in Perpetual Motion required reading for anyone interested in Jewish biblical interpretation in its cultural context.

The primary challenge for a reader of Rashbam—like other northern French peshat exegetes—stems from his lack of clear statements of interpretive theory and principles, which has contributed to the mystification of the very definition of peshat, rendered variously as Scripture’s “literal [End Page 389] meaning,” “plain meaning,” “original meaning,” “contextual meaning,” and more.1 A second, related challenge is to account for the origins of the French peshat method, which emerged suddenly as a departure from the older type of rabbinic exegesis. After its seemingly spontaneous generation in Rashi’s work, this new mode of reading appears as a full-blown exegetical system in the writings of his two great students, Joseph Kara (c. 1050–1130) and Rashbam. Exegesis in Perpetual Motion, divided into three major sections, illuminates these issues with sensitivity to their historical and cultural implications. Section one is a dedicated, three-chapter study of the origins of the northern French peshat method. Section two describes Rashbam’s relation to his predecessors: his complex attitude toward rabbinic exegesis (chapter 4) and debt to Rashi (chapter 5). Section three, the largest part of the book, with seven chapters, analyzes Rashbam’s peshat method itself as applied in his Pentateuch commentary. After discussing the problematic state of the text of this commentary (chapter 6), Touitou pieces together Rashbam’s hermeneutical theory based on his sporadic statements regarding the relation between peshat and midrash (chapter 7). The author then defines Rashbam’s interpretive methods as reflected in his analysis of the Pentateuch’s literary structure (chapter 8), its narratives (chapter 9), and halakhic sections (chapter 10). The final two chapters contain additional glosses by Rashbam on selected biblical verses: from the Pentateuch, heretofore unpublished, culled from the margins of an early Rashi manuscript (chapter 11), and from the Prophets and Writings, appearing as citations in the medieval work ‘Arugat ha-Bosem (chapter 12). The two appendices address related subjects: traces of Rashbam in the printed text of Rashi’s Pentateuch commentary; and a contemporary evaluation of Rashbam’s idiosyncratic peshat readings in light of Nehama Leibowitz’s critiques. The bibliography is current2 and the indices are helpful, as is the list of Touitou’s earlier studies incorporated in the current book. [End Page 390]

Origins of the Northern French Peshat Method

In what is arguably his most ground-breaking study, “Shitato ha-pars-hanit shel Rashbam ‘al reka’ ha-metsi’ut ha-historit shel zemano” (which I translate as “Rashbam’s Exegetical Method in...


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