VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2015
Number 83
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Two Essays by Peter Haas

“See, I Lay A Stone in Zion, A Tested Stone” (Isaiah 28:16)

1. A review essay by Peter J. Haas

Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Elliott Abrams.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The picture on the dust jacket says it all. We see Abu Mazen, head of the Palestine National Authority and Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of Israel, shaking hands from about as far apart as they could stand and still reach each other. President George W. Bush is standing between them with a look of concern. In the background is a bleak landscape. The occasion was the ending of the “Red Sea Summit” held in Aqaba on June 4, 2003.

It hardly needs to be said that the first decade of the twenty-first century, essentially the years of the George W. Bush administration, spanned a crucial time in U.S.-Israel-Palestine relationships. This book is an account, by an insider, of the internal discussions within the Bush administration during those crucial years as regards Middle East peace. Although the focus is on Israel and the Palestinians, larger issues also come into play. The book starts roughly with the fallout from the Camp David meeting in July 2000, setting the stage for what Bush would inherit from the Clinton years and ends roughly with the Israeli ground operation in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) in January 2009. Along the way were such crucial events as the “al- Aqsa” intifada, the Twin Towers bombing, the U.S. “intervention” in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the death of Yasser Arafat, the Second Lebanese War, the takeover of Gaza by Hamas and the bombing by Israel of the Syrian nuclear reaction in the Deir az-Zor region. On the American side these years saw two powerful Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condaleezza Rice, and on the Israeli side, the premierships of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. In other words, these were tumultuous times, adding layers of complexity to an already laden situation.

For most of this period, Elliott Abrams was in the thick of things. He was appointed Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council on June 25, 2001, special assistant to the President and the NSC’s senior director for Near East and North African Affairs in December 2002, and deputy national security adviser for Global Democracy Strategy in February 2005. In this position, he worked as a senior advisor while Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State became more personally engaged in Middle East peace talks, especially in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and often accompanied Bush’s second term National Security Advisor Steve Hadley on trips to the Middle East.

It is this insider perspective that Abrams brings to his account of the inner workings of the Bush administration’s approach to Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations. As one might expect, his perspective is supportive of George W. Bush’s vision, and increasingly critical of Condoleezza Rice’s approach. This orientation becomes more pronounced as we move through Bush’s second term; that is, as Abrams becomes more enmeshed in the details and personalities of internal White House foreign policy debates. The early chapters focus helpfully on the last years of the Clinton administration and the legacy it left for George W. Bush. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up with intricate details and careful descriptions of personal rivalries and inter-governmental jockeying, all bolstered by citations from various documents, speeches, memos and the like. By the end, an overall trajectory has emerged. We see a new president who is initially not so engaged in the Israel-Palestine tangle, who becomes progressively both more involved and more sympathetic to the Israeli situation, who finds himself in an increasingly fundamental disagreement with Condoleezza Rice, and finally who seems by the end of his tenure to have lost his sustaining optimism that a solution was in reach. The book of course is in many ways about Abrams and his assessment of what is going on, but it is also about Bush and how he came to be one of the greatest supporters of Israel. But there is also a growing sense that Middle East peace policy was a sort of drama being written in Washington in which various players in the region had their assigned parts and were assumed, and at times urged, to act out their expected roles. What of course happened is that while the scripts made a certain sense in Washington, they were repeatedly subverted by the major actors and the sheer realities of the Middle East and its politics. An all too brief recounting of the high points in Abram’s account brings some of these crucial disjunctures to light.

As noted, the story covered by this book opens during the waning years of the Clinton administration. In a desperate effort to achieve some sort of agreement in the Middle East, Clinton’s diplomacy managed to assemble the Camp David Meeting in July 2000. The meeting was the high point of deep presidential engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians and in the end turned out to have overpromised and under delivered. Clinton blamed Arafat, as did many of the other observers; but the Palestinians and their supporters did not. Whatever happened, the climb down from Camp David led through the outbreak of the “Al-Aqsa” intifada in August of 2000 and had its last gasp at the Taba “Summit” talks in January 2001. By then, of course, Clinton was out of office and the United States had entered the era of George W. Bush.

New administrations always need time of reevaluation, readjustment and repositioning, both internally and in relation to the outside world. In this case there were two major transitions of power as, in Israel, Ehud Barak’s premiership ended and Ariel Sharon came into office. The result was that all sides — Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, and the larger Arab world (represented largely by Saudi Arabia) — were testing each other. In the new Bush administration there was a significant debate as to whether or not the United States should stay engaged in the Middle East, and if so how and at what level. What everyone could agree on was that the region needed to cool down and the “al-Aqsa” intifada managed. The new National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, argued that for the time being, simply reducing the level of violence was all that could be reasonably expected while Colin Powell, the new Secretary of State, argued to the contrary that the United States had an obligation to continue the Clinton policy at some level; that is, to remain an active player (or at least appear to be remaining an active player) in the Middle East. Meanwhile, both Arab and Israeli leaders expected that Bush II would prove to be at least as friendly to the Arab world, if not more so, than was his father, and were adjusting expectations accordingly. Given this background, it is not surprising that Ariel Sharon’s first meeting with the new president Bush in March of 2001 went badly.

But there was concern on the Arab side as well. Ariel Sharon’s government began pushing back hard against Palestinian rioters and more and more Palestinian blood was flowing in the street. The United States, from the Palestinian point of view, remained frustratingly, and surprisingly, disengaged. It is against this still fluid situation that the Saudi monarchy began pushing the Bush administration to weigh in and stop the (in their case, the Israeli) violence. In the end, their pressure seemed to produce results. The Bush administration agreed to support the creation of a democratic Palestinian state; that is, to explicitly endorse a “two state” solution. Whether or not this was a new U.S. policy or only the enunciation of a policy that was already effectively operative has been a matter of subsequent debate. In all events, it seemed like an important concession and maybe a signal that the Saudis were going to be able to significantly sway U.S. policy. The official announcement was to take place at a speech President Bush was to deliver at the United Nations General Assembly on September 12, 2001.

The attacks on the World Trade Center towers ignited a new debate in the Bush administration. As the book lays out matters, one side argued that the attacks represented a sort of war of ideas (or clash of civilizations) and that the problem to be fought was Islamic fundamentalism. In this version, Saudi Arabia, with its funding of traditionalist Islamic schools was part of the problem. The other view, held by State and much of Europe, was that the problem was Arab anti-Americanism and that the solution lay in recalibrating U.S. policy; so support of Israel was part of the problem. Chapter Two details how the Bush administration came to hold the former view. In a nutshell, Bush came to see the Israeli fight against the violence of the intifada, which was still raging, as congruent in some way with the American battle against Islamic fundamentalism. But of course the policy concept only slowly emerged, and the announcement that the U.S. was supportive of a “two state” solution continued to play out.

From the point of view of Abrams, the real turning point was the Israeli seizure of the “Katrine A”, a freighter carrying weapons from Iran into Gaza. Despite Arafat’s protestations of ignorance, it became clear to the administration that Arafat not only knew, but had helped fund, the ship. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, were now convinced that Arafat was an incorrigible liar. Over the next several months, Powell continued to travel to the Middle East and to call on Arafat to suppress the violence, Arab pressure on Bush to rein in the Israeli violence continued, and even the Saudis launched a comprehensive peace plan. But by the spring, it was clear that a new approach was taking shape. Dealing with Iraq seemed to require that some peace, or at least peace process, be in place between Israel and the Palestinians. Thus the time seemed ripe for some new policy statement, and that came on June 24, 2002. It reiterated U.S. support for a Palestinian state, but set forth as requirement that the Palestinians get rid of Arafat, end corruption, abandon terror, and begin building democratic institutions. Toward these ends, the United States pledged to be more actively engaged in the Middle East. It was unclear, according to Abrams, whether a peaceful and democratic state of Palestine was the key to this transformation, or was only a small part of bringing democracy to the Middle East in general.

In either case, the new policy, dubbed the “Roadmap”, called for a democratic Palestinian state to be in place by 2005. Abrams notes that most major players had a role in putting this plan together — the Quartet (The United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN Secretary General), the Jordanians, the Egyptians, even Arafat began calling openly for reform — the exception being Israel itself. It is at this juncture that Elliott Abrams enters the picture as the “Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Organizations” in the NSC. He came in supporting the new Bush policy, but convinced that the mechanism was not pressure on Israel, but winning Israeli acceptance and that meant Arafat had to be out of power.

As the Iraq wars ended (“Mission Accomplished”), the script seemed to be playing itself out. Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”) as his reformist prime minister and Sharon seemed to be coming on board. The crucial next step was going to be the “Red Seas Summit” in Aqaba, portrayed on the book’s cover. In the event, everyone stayed on script; Abbas vowed to work against terror attacks and end corruption and Sharon indicated readiness in principle to accept a Palestinian state and to enter negotiations. The peace process, roughly the “Roadmap”, was apparently up and running.

And then it crashed. Arafat continued to obstruct his prime minister’s every move, and terrorist attacks continued, until finally Mahmoud Abbas resigned. There was a flurry of activity in the Bush administration to figure out how to salvage momentum. In Abrams’ telling, it was Sharon who made the most encouraging move, namely announcing the “disengagement” from Gaza. To be sure there were other factors which figured in this decision, but the message to Bush, we read, was that Sharon was serious about doing something to have peace talks move forward . As Abrams puts it, “We were stuck. At Herzliya, Sharon showed us a way forward.” (p. 96).

But of course the Middle East itself did not fundamentally change. Although Bush was now firmly standing with Sharon, there was significant opposition: the neighboring Arab states (basically Jordan) were not happy, Sharon was facing strong political headwinds against his “disengagement” plans, and the State Department was pushing for a different approach altogether. But Bush held firm. Then at the end of 2004, the Bush agenda received two shots in the arm: Arafat died and Bush was elected to a second term “by a wide margin.” (p. 116). In the wake of these developments, Condaleezza Rice was nominated to be the new Secretary of State, and would bring with her the Middle East “Peace Process”. Although much of the NSC was expected to follow Rice over to State, Abrams chose to remain in the White House as their “Middle East guy” (p. 117).

At this point the Middle East did seem to be headed in a more positive direction. The Palestinians held elections, won by Abbas. They joined a growing “democratic” club that included Afghanistan (electing Karzai as president in October 2004), the Iraqis, and soon the Lebanese (after the assassination of Rafik Hariri). In addition, the Sharon government had finally turned the corner on the intifada, reducing Israeli terrorism deaths by some 90% by 2005 (p. 122). The effect was not so much that the U.S. tilted away from Israel, Abrams hastens to note, but rather that the Palestinians were being seen less negatively. To be sure not all was rosy. There was growing concern in Israel about the participation of Hamas in the upcoming Palestinian elections, and even Abbas and his cabinet were divided over whether or not to have elections at all. Nor was reform in the Palestinian National Authority really happening. Abrams laments that the only reform the U.S. seems to have succeeded in is having Arafat’s picture in the press room moved and replaced with a blue curtain.

But for the time being optimism was still in the air. When President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon met at Crawford, Texas in April 2005, Sharon, according to Abrams, felt optimistic enough about changes in the Middle East to stick with his plans to “disengage” from Gaza. President Bush was supportive and the two men seemed to have established a rapport. But by the end of the year, the carefully woven cloth of American policy in the region was looking decidedly frayed. To be sure, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had been accomplished, but the Palestinian takeover of Gaza was widely regarded as inept at best. Terrorist attacks continued and the Abbas government was unable, maybe unwilling, to stop them. Hamas was still in the elections. Disagreements also arose over Israel construction of new housing in the West Bank. In the midst of all this, Sharon found that he had to leave the Likud party. Nonetheless, Abrams concludes this chapter (Five) on an optimistic note. “A situation that had been unchanged since the 1967 war had begun to change….The policy we were following was working....That was the way it looked to us as 2006 began…” (p. 156). Then Ariel Sharon suffered a second, massive, stroke. A few days later, Hamas won an unexpectedly large proportion of the Palestinians elections (44% vs Fatah’s 41%).

In short, 2006 opened on a bad foot and things only went downhill from there. The new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, did try to keep the momentum toward peace going, but Middle East realities relentlessly intervened and progress was grinding to a halt. Attacks from what was by now a Hamas controlled Gaza picked up momentum as the summer approached. Then in June an explosion in Gaza moved Hamas to declare an end to the already tattered truce. In late June, Hamas forces entered Israel through tunnels and killed two soldiers, taking a third, Gilad Shalit, as a prisoner. Israel responded with a major ground operation (“Summer Rain”). The Bush peace process receded into the distance. Then came the war in Lebanon.

In the negotiations that followed, Abrams played a role and so we have an even more detailed and intricate accounting of what happened: the ceasefire, the controversy over the Sheba’a Farms, the Israeli shelling of the Lebanese village of Qana. The upshot, in Abrams’ view, was the loss of Olmert, who was politically discredited, maneuvered into resigning and eventually had to face criminal charges of corruption. With his resignation, the peace process was essentially played out, and Rice was charged with finding some way to salvage what she could. The result was the November 2007 Annapolis Conference (the Israelis were apparently promised it would be only a “meeting”), which was aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state even before the political and security issues were solved, a clear departure from the principles Bush had announced in 2002. In Abram’s analysis, what moved Rice toward that position was precisely, and ironically, the closeness of American-Israeli relationships. The Americans were getting daily and personal briefings from a range of Israeli politicians and experts. Because of this closeness and the intensity of the relationships, there was a tendency in State to discount these reports to some extent. On the other hand, information from the Arab world was filtered through, and had the imprimatur of U.S. ambassadors and so were given bureaucratic weight. In all events, gradually the sequence of the Roadmap changed, Abrams tells us, from ending terrorism and then negotiating, to negotiating, then ending terrorism, then implementation. In short, some movement needed to be seen on the ground for the U.S. to retain Arab support for its activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Abrams indicates all the reasons he remained unpersuaded.

What follows is what one would expect from a person now neck deep in these fraught discussions. We are given detailed descriptions of round after round of dinners, meetings, memos, consultations, outrage, more memos, more meetings, more reports, more optimistic speculation (Hamas will lose at the polls) and always more frustration. Gradually Bush drifted to “Condi’s” side, while of course the Middle East continued to be the Middle East. Hamas took over Gaza, the PA remained un-reformed, Fatah and Hamas made pledges of peace with each other while battling it out in the streets, Syria was building a nuclear reactor. Nonetheless Condi raced ahead in the hope of achieving Middle East peace while she and Bush were still in office. The Annapolis Conference was held, but its greatest achievement was to issue a statement with which everyone could agree, but which said essentially nothing. The situation on the ground meanwhile was unraveling. President Bush decided on a trip to the region to take place in January 2008.

Needless to say, the trip produced a good deal of talk but no advance on any front. The dysfunction within and between the two rival Palestinian factions (Fatah and Hamas) rendered any motion impossible. Olmert was also facing corruption charges and seeing the end of his premiership in the near future. A second presidential visit took place in May, 2008 but by then the energy of early negotiations had dissipated. Abrams opines that Bush’s optimism was waning. To be sure Rice continued to make trips and push for talks, but this was now, in Abrams’ view, simply a matter of least resistance for Bush: it was easier to just let her continue and it could cause no harm at this point.

The story ends on a down note, the U.S. abstention, instead of veto, of United Nations Security Council resolution 1860 (January 8, 2009). This was Bush’s last public act as regards Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Abrams’ analysis of this, in his view sorry, misstep is dense, but boils down to Condoleezza’s successful struggle to take control of Mideast policy from the White House (which of course includes Abrams). Internal politics on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides contributed to this denouement. For Abrams, it was Tony Blair who summed up the situation best: it was reality on the ground that would shape an agreement, not the other way around (quoted at the beginning of Chapter 11, p. 282). Here was the nub of the problem.

So at the end of the day, what are the lessons to be learned? For Abrams, the first is, “that every president should organize the White House staff to keep the key decisions in his own hands” (p. 304). A second is to stop subordinating every Middle East issue to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Even many Arab thinkers and leaders realize that there are much more severe problems than Israeli rivalry — corruption, lack of democracy, social unrest and Iran come immediately to his mind. Next is that Israel will be more flexible if it feels it is backed with U.S. support. A fourth lesson is that change on the ground is more important than trying to negotiate agreements; diplomacy is important but is not in and of itself sufficient. Other lessons follow: the U.S. should not be too intrusive, there should not be excess emphasis on a “settlement freeze,”a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is neither simple nor obvious. Maybe the overarching lesson is in the last line of Chapter 12 (“Lessons learned”): “And peace will be built on reality, not hope.” (p. 313). What is called for, Abrams concludes, is less fanfare and speeches and more decisive decisions and actions.

What came across most strongly to me after plowing through the dense thicket of descriptions in the book is the convoluted intersection of numerous complexities — Arab complexities, Palestinian complexities, Israeli complexities, Washington complexities. It is also clear, that decisions made in Washington break up in unforeseeable ways when they encounter Middle East realities. But maybe the point that Abrams wants us to take away is his conviction that the policies of the Bush administration were really the best possible at the time, given the available opportunities; their failure was due to causes beyond any one’s ken or control at the time. Be that as it may, the picture on the dust jacket, taken early on in this process, is both descriptive and prophetic.

Commenting on Rashi

2. A review essay by Peter J. Haas

RASHI, by Avraham Grossman, translated by Joel Linsider.
Oxford and Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Studying Torah or Gemara with Rashi comes as naturally in the Jewish world as eating latkes with sour cream or bagels with cream cheese and lox. You certainly could partake of the first in the pair without the second, but there is no point and it would only diminish the experience. The book before us is not about Jewish ethnic food, of course, but about the early medieval commentator who has served for hundreds of years as the complement of the Jewish study of Bible and Talmud. Rashi has simply become a standard item of the rabbinic Jewish intellectual diet. In some ways it might be said that the rabbinic Judaism we have today is in many ways flavored by Rashi’s influence on generations of students.

Given the prominence, I am almost tempted to say the near indispensability, of Rashi in the study of the canonical rabbinic texts of Tanach and Talmud, it is not surprise that a good deal has been written about him. Unfortunately, there is very little direct evidence about the person himself so that most of what we can say about him has to be adduced from what we know of his context and from what can be inferred from his writings, especially his commentaries. This is of course a methodologically fraught approach. Nonetheless there has been a good deal said about various aspects of Rashi’s work, and his general place in early medieval Jewish intellectual history. Grossman’s book itself provides us testimony to this with its almost nine pages of bibliography.

Probably the first attempt at an academic study of Rashi was Toldot Rashi (that is, “The Life of Rashi”) published by Leopold Zunz and Simson Bloch in Warsaw in 1862. A few other biographies followed such as Maurice Liber’s Rashi published in 1906. There have also to be sure been many essays and articles since then focusing on various aspects of Rashi’s oeuvre, but no book-length scholarly biographies. This has changed somewhat over the last 50 or 60 years, with works such as Aron Owen’s RASHI: His Life and Times (London: Jewish Religious Educational Publications, 1955), E. Shereshevsky, Rashi: The Man and His World (NY: Sepher-Harmon Press, 1981; Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1982), Chaim Pearl’s Rashi in the Jewish Thinkers Series, Dov Rappel’s Rashi: His Jewish World-View (1995) and even Elie Wiesel’s slim volume Rashi: A Portrait (2009). None of these, however, can be deemed a fully academic treatment. It can be said in this context that Grossman’s book promises to fill a significant void, and Avraham Grossman is in many ways perfectly positioned to give us a groundbreaking academic study of Rashi. Recently emeritus from Hebrew University, he has published several books on the social and intellectual life of Jews in medieval Europe in general and medieval France in particular. In 2008 he published in Hebrew a hefty study of Rashi. The book before us is a translation from the Hebrew and reflects the fruits of Grossman’s considerable research.

Grossman begins by placing Rashi in his cultural and social context. The area of southern France in which Rashi worked was undergoing significant shifts at the time. On a large scale, this part of Europe can be understood as transitioning from the Carolingian period to the beginning of the Renaissance. Economically, the wide trade routes of the earlier period had given way to more regional commerce and trade. This meant for the Jewish communities weakening connections with the far away academies of Babylonia and the Land of Israel, and more reliance on local resources. This localization also meant that the security and prosperity of Jewish communities was more reliant on the local power structure and so the need to establish new political configurations. Finally, shifts in Christian intellectual history were placing more emphasis on the literal meaning of the biblical text. All of these vectors help us understand why a person like Rashi would emerge at the time and place that he did.

Having established this background, Grossman proceeds to give us a “biographical sketch”. This sketch is an odd mixture of academic critical research and mild hagiography. We are once again told that there is hardly any information about Rashi’s early life or family; we know next to nothing about his father, nothing really about his mother’s family, and even the name of his wife is unknown to us. We do know he lived in extreme poverty for a while and studied with some of the great figures in Germany. Grossman is skeptical about the tradition that Rashi was a vintner, relying on Haym Soloveitchik’s claim that the area of France around Troyes was not suitable for grape-growing (p.19). We do see evidence that Rashi was engaged in community activities and governance and that he had a positive and growing reputation in that sphere. Upon this admittedly sketchy framework, Grossman tries to construct a fuller picture of Rashi the person. In particular Grossman tries to adduce the character of Rashi from various statements in his commentaries and responsa. What emerges is less an academic biography and more of an encomium. Rashi emerges as a person who is humble but self-confident, a pursuer of truth who is sensitive to the feelings and dignity of others, and a remarkable scholar who was also deeply involved in communal affairs. Furthermore, his commentaries show that he had great esteem for the land of Israel, honored the Talmudic sages, and placed great importance on custom, all of which demonstrate his love for the Jewish people. It is probably symbolic that the narrative in this chapter moves from the more critical biographical beginning of the chapter to the legends, traditions, and “charms” that sprang up in the next generations at the end of the chapter. In the process, though, it becomes hard to sort out Rashi the person from Rashi the legend.

The next chapter is entitled “Rashi’s Beit Midrash” and focusses, as you might expect, on his school. There is no question that Rashi’s “yeshivah” was remarkably productive and that many of his students went on to become major figures in shaping early Ashkenazic Judaism. Grossman gives us in fact an impressive table (on page 57) laying out the accomplishments of Rashi’s students in a number of areas (Bible, Talmud, liturgy, midrash, Hebrew grammar, responsa, astronomy, etc.). The academic question is, of course, why was this one yeshiva so inordinately influential. To answer this questions, one would like to know what “yeshiva” education was like in those days, how German yeshivas might have been different from French ones, what innovations Rashi introduced that marked off his particular school from others, whether other schools may have been equally productive but that productivity has been lost to us, and if so what factors shaped the reception of Rashi’s students in a way that was different from the reception of the products of other schools. Frustratingly, none of these questions are answered, or even asked. Instead we revert to Rashi the legend. The following comes near the beginning of this chapter under the rubric “The Great Rabbi”.

He was not content simply to write commentaries whose excellent pedagogical technique would be instructive thought the ages; he also took pains to prepare students who would follow his path, developing and expanding his methods. This was a highly important innovation in the nature of the beit midrash, an innovation that sprang from Rashi’s sense or mission.” (p. 53)

After reading the chapter I am still unclear as to what this pivotal “innovation” was. Grossman points out that Rashi had an impressive closeness to his students, but never shows us directly that other teachers routinely did not. Another factor Grossman suggests is Rashi’s “openness” as compared to the “conservatism” that presumably characterized other schools. In this regard Mainz is held up as an example of such conservatism, although Grossman does not investigate whether its alleged conservatism was a matter of policy or only a function of what manuscripts that have survived. Grossman also mentions Rashi’s pursuit of truth as a source of his openness, without ever demonstrating that Rashi’s pursuit of truth was unique or unusual among teachers of the time. In short, instead of explaining the emergence of Rashi’s yeshiva, we enter a kind of self-referential circle in which Rashi’s success leads to the conclusion that Rashi had just the right personality and technique to produce such a success.

Part II of the book (Chapters 4-7) covers the writings of Rashi. Chapter 4 (on the Torah commentary) raises a significant methodological problem, namely, how are we to adduce the original, “ipsissima verba” of Rashi from the range of manuscript evidences that we have. After all, at least some material surely may have been added, or lost, along the way. This is an important consideration since one of Grossman’s assumptions is that Rashi’s Torah commentary was really focused on details and not on the “big picture”. Thus the details of the wording in the surviving texts is crucial. Indeed, Grossman sums up his position by saying, “Rashi saw significance and purpose in every name, time, place and event — indeed in every detail — mentioned in the Torah” (p.79). He also notes Rashi’s reliance on midrash, which leads to some lengthy discussions about peshat and derash in Rashi and his handling of various tensions in the midrashic traditions. The analyses of this chapter are well informed and sensitive, but do not advance our knowledge. We learn that Rashi had pedagogical goals, that some of his comments were apologetics aimed at Christianity, that he relied on midrash even when inconsistent with halacha, and so forth. Grossman documents these claims well, but most readers familiar with Rashi would hardly describe them as new insights.

The next chapters look respectively at the later books of the Hebrew Bible, at the commentary on the Gemara, and on Rashi’s legal responsa. In large part, Grossman’s analyses and conclusions in these chapters are largely compatible with what he just adduced in the chapter on the Torah commentary. He notes as regards the later Biblical books and the Gemara, that Rashi displayed considerable interest in linguistics and the nuances of Hebrew grammar. He also alludes to the details and realia of daily life in a more systematic way than he did in the Torah commentary. In such cases, it would appear that the intended audience may have been more advanced than the intended audience of the Torah commentary, which presumably was aimed at a more general (though surely literate) readership. As regards legal responsa and other writings, Grossman comes to the conclusion that Rashi “inspired and contributed to the development of another important branch of the tree of halakhic creativity: the writing of halakhic monographs.” (p. 149). In this he disagrees with scholars who maintain that Rashi was too humble to issue halakhic rulings. This statement comes despite Grossman’s own opening words in Chapter Seven (“Rulings, Responsa, Liturgical Poems, ad Commentaries on Liturgical Poems”) that “Rashi’s surviving oeuvre offers no evident that he himself wrote any comprehensive halakhic works” (p. 149). One can not help but wonder if here the hagiographic impulse has here outrun scientific methodological considerations.

In Part III Grossman gets to what I think might be the heart of the matter, namely Rashi’s world view. This of course is situated to build on the previous two parts: the biography and the examination of his writings. In his introductory remarks on this section, Grossman makes two important methodological points. One is that he is convinced that much of Rashi’s commentary does reflect the man’s world-view, a position in opposition to that of other scholars, like Nehama Leibovitz who regards the Rashi commentaries as focused more narrowly on solving issues in the text. Having staked out his position in this controversy, Grossman also acknowledges, in his second point, that adducing the worldview of Rashi from his commentaries is fraught with methodological difficulties. After all, in many cases Rashi does seem to be focused on simply explicating the text, he does often appear to follow the Babylonian Talmud in places where he might have felt inclined otherwise (as in banning women from reciting blessings religious acts they were not commanded to fulfill) and at times he might well have cited midrashic point of view with which he might personally have disagreed. It is hard, then, to sort out what is authentically Rashi’s own voice being articulated from what is not. Nonetheless, Grossman is convinced that a reconstruction of Rashi’s world view is possible. In the ensuing three chapters — “Uniqueness of the Jewish People”, “Values”, “Society” — Grossman proceeds to this work.

In reading this material it is safe to say that there is very little that is surprising. Grossman’s Rashi comes across as a fairly traditional or what we might today term an “orthodox” thinker. He believed in the uniqueness and chosenness of the People of Israel, in the special character of the Land of Israel, in the curse of Exile and the promise of Redemption, in the study of Torah as the highest of Jewish virtue. He conceived of the ideal Torah teacher who, much like himself, was both a dogged pursuer of the truth but also humble and sensitive to the dignity of his students and one who worked for peace and struggled to overcome the factionalism that often threatened the welfare and the unity of the community. In a few cases Grossman points out features of Rashi’s thought that might seem to stand out, such as his apparently deep belief in miracles, or the importance of doing mitzvot in the Land of Israel or the person of the scholar as the true “king” in Israel. Rashi also seemed to be on the lenient side of how to treat Jews who had converted to Christianity (“the hearts of all anusim were directed towards heaven”, see page 266) and he was profoundly concerned with the honor and rights of women.

So at the end of the day how are we to understand Rashi? Grossman poses the question as to whether he is a conservative or an innovator. The answer, Grossman concludes, is both, or rather, something in between. Rashi appears to have been an innovative teacher: openness to all Torah teaching, dedicated to close critical analysis, pushing his students to publish. His very publishing program clearly seems unprecedented. And yet, he was a kind of conservative at heart. He stressed the importance of Torah study, even if he was innovative in how he made such study accessible; he discounted local customs and minhagim in favor of the rules laid out in the Babylonian Talmud, possibly in the interest of broader Jewish unity; he elevated the status of the Torah sage over other, presumably secular, leaders. But, Grossman concludes, what ultimately distinguishes Rashi was his foremost concern with both truth and humility, which “coexisted within him in wondrous harmony” (p. 298). It is almost as if this character trait is what ultimately makes Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak into Rashi. It is this dedication to rigorous scholarship, yet openness to and love of all Israel, that is Rashi’s greatest legacy, for Grossman, the one ingredient that is the ultimate preserver of Jewish survival.

There is no question that Rashi was a remarkable person and that his almost oversized stature in the subsequent rabbinic teaching tradition is well deserved. It is hard to imagine today what the experience of studying Torah and Talmud would be like without the spice of Rashi. He for sure influenced all that followed. But interestingly, or maybe by the very nature of things, Rashi the actual person remains elusive. That elusiveness itself, however, may be part of the magic. Grossman begins the book with a citation from the poem “Ashira Lerashi” (Of Rashi I Sing) by Samson Meltzer. The citations ends with the line, “Bring forth your produce, wondrous orchard, reviving the dispersion of Israel”. If Rashi and his writings are the “wondrous orchard”, maybe there is some virtue in leaving them in a wondrous and vaguely mythical state.

Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair; Director, Judaic Studies Program, and a contributing editor.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
P.O. Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email:

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations