Rashi, by Elie Wiesel
I must admit to having profound mixed feelings about this work. Of course, Rashi is a figure I have some awareness of because of his importance as a commentator on the Midrash and Mishnah from medieval France, and the author claims ancestry from him through two lines as well as the desire to write about his work and his life and times. The work is short, at around 100 pages, and is easy enough to read, but the way the book is written leaves me with a deeply ambivalent feeling, in fact, several related ambivalent feelings, and the sort of reflections about the relationship of Judaism and Christianity and the proper bounds of biblical interpretations are worth getting. Even if someone isn’t a Jew but is someone who has an interest in the history of the Jewish people as well as the history of Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh, this book will be of interest, because it not only says a lot about Rashi that is worth knowing about but it also says a great deal about Elie Wiesel and his own views about the relationship between Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages and even today.
At around 100 pages (if you include the pointed chronology and glossary of terms), this book is a short one. The author begins with a Preface that seeks to justify his interest in this sort of work, given that writing about Rashi would seem to require a reason. AFter that the author gives various impressions about Rashi (1), including some speculation about his ancestry and the lack of information that is known about his parents. After that there is a discussion about the biblical commentaries that Rashi wrote, and which make a great deal of the work worth reading and of interest, whether or not one agrees with the perspective shown in the material (2). After this comes a look at the relationship between Rashi and the people and land of Israel as well as the author’s thoughts about forced conversions (3) as well as his poetry and responsa. The last chapter of the book then looks at the sadness and memory of the end of Rashi’s life where the Crusades greatly harmed the Jews not too far from where he lived, and where one of his own sons was forced to concert to Christianity, something which greatly grieved him, one must imagine (4).
This book was originally written in French, and the translation by Catherine Temerson is great. One wonders if the author wrote in France mainly because Rashi was himself French and the author wanted to help make him more familiar to a francophone audience. Rashi’s hostility to Christianity on the one hand was something that one can understand because of the anti-Jewish violence related to the Crusades and to the general lack of security among the Jewish population as a whole, but the author seems to think Rashi’s views justified on biblical exegesis as well, which seems unwarranted. To view Christians as Esau and Judah as Jacob might have been common among Jews (even to this day), but the reverse is likely to be true, something the author ruefully comments upon. This book is filled with a great deal of sadness, all the more because the atmosphere of casual anti-Semitism and the reverse hostility leave the small Jewish population vulnerable to bullies who feel justified in their evil, and the author seems to have little hope in the positive benefit between interfaith communications in the Middle Ages, although his own behavior (review forthcoming) would suggest that he has considerably more hope for contemporary efforts in the United States.