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A Nation of Commentators

We are all Rashi's heirs, but what, exactly, is our inheritance?

“For two thousand years,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “the main energies of Jewish communities have gone into the mass production of intellectuals.” For Rosenberg, the art critic who belonged to the receding constellation of writers known as the New York Intellectuals, such a claim was something between a boast and a self-justification. The New York Intellectuals were mainly second-generation Americans, whose self-sacrificing immigrant parents won them the opportunities America offered to newcomers, including Jews. But their inheritances did not include, in most cases, a traditional Jewish education. Instead of learning the Mishnah and Talmud, like their cousins back in Eastern Europe, they drilled themselves in Marx and Henry James.

Rosenberg’s aphorism was a way of asserting that this difference was purely formal--that the vocation of the intellectual, as a professional analyst of texts, was essentially the same as that of the Talmudic commentator. As Irving Howe noted in his memoir A Margin of Hope, it seemed fitting that when the immigrant Ivan Greenberg renamed himself Philip Rahv, he chose the Hebrew word for rabbi: as editor of Partisan Review, Rahv became “the chief rabbi,” as Howe put it, “of our disbelieving world.” They may not have believed in Judaism, but the New York Intellectuals were carrying on a Jewish tradition--the tradition of commentary.

The idea that there is a Jewish genius for commentary--more, that in some way commentary, or criticism, or interpretation, represents the truly Jewish way of engaging with literature, and even with the world--has appealed to many modern Jewish writers. And certainly there is no shortage of examples to support this idea. Georg Morris Cohen Brandes, the late-19th century Danish Jewish critic, was responsible for introducing the works of Nietzsche and Ibsen to Europe. Walter Benjamin, perhaps the most influential theorist of modernism, elevated criticism and commentary to a high art, even a metaphysical principle; to Benjamin, everything that exists, from language to the stars, is a kind of text waiting for its commentator.

Benjamin and his friend Gershom Scholem agreed in seeing Franz Kafka as a kind of Talmudist manque, and in parables like “Before the Law” Kafka deliberately imitates the Talmud, offering various interpretations of his own text. In a sense even Freud is a commentator, taking the recitations of the patient as his scripture and probing its hidden meanings. And when Jews entered American culture, they produced Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, two of the most important critics of American literature; and Harry Levin, the major interpreter of Joyce; and Harold Bloom, who models his literary criticism on kabbalistic concepts. No wonder that when the American Jewish Committee founded a journal of Jewish American culture in 1945, they named it Commentary.

There is something appealing about the continuity this idea proposes: immigration and the Holocaust might have destroyed our ancestors’ way of life, but when the American Jewish critic sits at the table and examines a text, he is somehow following their example. Yet how can a commentator be said to belong to a tradition that, in fact, he does not possess? Certainly, when you look at the testimony of the great American Jewish critics, none of them link their own activity with any knowledge of the Talmud or rabbinic literature. Irving Howe wrote that his role models were not Rashi and Maimonides but “the fluent wit of Elizabeth Hardwick or the rhetorical plenitude of Alfred Kazin.” Lionel Trilling insisted, “I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing.”

To suggest that, despite their personal ignorance of Jewish tradition, Trilling and Howe--or Benjamin or Brandes--were performing a Jewish role, seems to require us to believe that there is something about the Jewish mind that is instinctively, necessarily drawn to commentary and criticism. But no sooner is this idea stated than it becomes clear how similar it is to the old anti-Semitic belief that Jews are essentially uncreative, only able to manipulate the work that other peoples produce. The most influential proponent of this idea was Richard Wagner, who wrote in “Judaism in Music” that “the Jew can only after-speak and after-patch--not truly make a poem of his words, an artwork of his doings.”

This idea is obviously absurd--it would be degrading even to list the Jewish writers, composers, and artists who falsify it. But as Paul Reitter has shown in his excellent book The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siecle Europe, it had a powerful impact on German Jewry, instilling a self-doubt that affected even its greatest minds. Ludwig Wittgenstein once worried in his diary, “Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself, for instance.) I think there is some truth in the idea that I really only think reproductively.” How, then, can Jews take pride in their “mass production of intellectuals,” and see an affinity between rabbinic commentary and modern literary criticism, yet rightly reject the notion that the Jewish mind is restricted to “secondary” activities like commentary and criticism?

For help with this quandary, I turned to the new book Rashi by Elie Wiesel, which will be published in Nextbook Press’s Jewish Encounters series next month. Rashi, of course, is the prince of the commentators: on every page of the Talmud, his commentary appears in the center of the book, on the side closer to the binding. Wiesel’s brief book shows how Rashi--Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak--emerged from the violently anti-Semitic milieu of 11th-century France to become one of the greatest minds in Jewish history. A polymath, a linguist, a mystic, and a rationalist, he applied his genius to producing a vast commentary on the Bible and almost the entire Babylonian Talmud.

Speaking to Wiesel by phone, I asked him whether he believed there was a lineage of the kind Rosenberg saw, from Rashi to secular literary critics and commentators. He was skeptical: “I hope so, anyway. But if the commentator doesn’t know who Rashi was, it’s impossible. What they are doing may be in the same line, but I wouldn’t say it’s a continuation or a result or a consequence.” Nor did he agree that, in some cultural sense, Jews are predisposed to commentary as a literary form: “I as a Jew would like to say that, I would be proud. But let’s be honest--other cultures also have their commentators. What was Pascal, what was Descartes? They are also commentators.”

Wiesel, of course, is a memoirist and a novelist, and so I was particularly interested to see the points of contact between his imagination and Rashi’s intellect. He told me that, while he still reads Rashi today, he does not turn to him for literary inspiration: “I’ve read it and studied it hundreds of times. But does it help my literary endeavor? I don’t think so.”

But perhaps the main thing I learned from Wiesel’s Rashi is that this kind of opposition--between intellect and imagination, commentary and creation--simply does not apply to Rashi. For one thing, the kind of love Wiesel clearly feels for Rashi is deeply personal, as he writes: “And why not say it? I discover I am sentimental. Ever since childhood, he has accompanied me with his insights and charm. Ever since my first Bible lessons in the heder, I have turned to Rashi in order to grasp the meaning of a verse or word that seems obscure…. A veiled reference from him, like a smile, and everything lights up and becomes clearer.”

In the middle section of his book, Wiesel shows how it is that a commentator can leave such a powerful impression of his own mind and sensibility, even when dealing with a canonical text. He does this by offering samples of Rashi’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, from the creation of Adam to the burial of Jacob. What Wiesel shows is that, while we might think of commentary as meaning explication and analysis, for Rashi it is something much more supple and original. Take, for instance, his gloss on the story of Jacob’s deception by Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel:

When he meets Jacob, his future son-in-law, he embraces him. What could be more natural? No, says Rashi: ‘He embraces him so he could go through his pockets which he thought were full of gold coins.’ Laban embraces him also ‘to see if he has precious pearls in his mouth,’ says Rashi.

Clearly, this is not just clarification of the biblical story; it is a creative retelling, adding vivid new details that both heighten the story’s immediacy--we can see Laban peering into Jacob’s mouth--and deepen its characterizations: Laban’s tricking of Jacob, by substituting Leah for Rachel, is foreshadowed in this sneaky embrace. Even when Rashi is focused narrowly on the text, he reads it in an expansive way:

‘And Jacob loved Rachel; and said (to Laban), I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.’ Rashi’s commentary: Why so many details? Because Jacob felt that Laban was an inveterate liar. He said to him: I will serve for Rachel, but if you think you can tell me that we’re referring to another Rachel, off the street, let me be specific: ‘thy daughter.’ And in case you say you’ll change her name to Leah and Leah’s to Rachel, let me say to you right away: ‘your younger daughter, the youngest.’ But, adds Rashi, in spite of all these precautions Laban betrayed him.

Here Rashi demonstrates the basic principle of his commentary: the belief that, because the text is divine, its words are perfectly chosen and their meaning inexhaustible. It is impossible to say of Rashi, as we might of a secular critic writing about a poem or novel, that he is overingenious, interpreting things that need no interpretation. Today, reading the Bible as the flawed work of human authors, we might not wonder why it refers at one point to “all [Jacob’s] sons and all his daughters,” when in fact he only has one daughter, Dinah; we would simply chalk it up to scribal error. Rashi, however, must see the slip as meaningful, so he advances theories: each of Jacob’s sons had a twin sister, or else they were married and the Bible really means Jacob’s daughters-in-law. Instead of foreclosing possibilities of meaning, Rashi wants to hold them open. To borrow a phrase from Keats, he loads every rift with ore.

The lesson of Wiesel’s Rashi, then, is that while the tradition of rabbinic commentary may lie behind the Jewish intellectuals, it also lies behind Jewish novelists and dramatists and philosophers--perhaps even composers and painters, too. All of them can draw on it, because the kinds of imagination now put to work in all those genres were condensed, in the world of rabbinic Judaism, into a single activity, that of commentary. This was not because of any innate tendency of the Jewish mind, but because of the absolute coherence of the rabbinic worldview. If the Bible is God’s word, then all our human powers are needed to understand it--and, in fact, our powers need no wider field of activity. If the Bible is not God’s word, however, then it is possible to turn those powers to other purposes; what was once coherence begins to look like mere constriction. But even if he is no longer necessarily an authority, Rashi, and the tradition of commentary at whose head he stands, remains a resource for the Jewish--and, as Wiesel notes, the non-Jewish--imagination.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor of The New Republic and the author of Benjamin Disraeli. This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

By Adam Kirsch