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Thoughts on Was Rashi a Corporealist

Thoughts on Was Rashi a Corporealist

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Published by: levinotik on Jul 28, 2009
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Levi Notik July 28, 2009I admire R. Slifkin’s refreshingly sincere approach (I read his “Challenge of Creation”twice and enjoyed it a lot) in his essay “Was Rashi a Corporealist?”. However, I think R.Slifkin’s main argument is pretty weak. His strongest argument seems to be that Rashi hasnumerous opportunities to explain passages and verses in the Torah (and elsewhere) allegoricallyand does not do so. The real force of this proof, Slifkin says, is derived from the fact that Rashi
, in other cases, go to great lengths to explain certain anthropomorphic expressions used inrelation to God as metaphorical. These cases are primarily where God is described in amanner that is we, in our human framework, would regard as a deficiency.I believe the entire approach underlying this proof suffers from a gross methodological error.The mistake is to assume that we can prove anything from what Rashi
say. There are,theoretically, an infinite number of possibilities as to why Rashi declined to make a particular comment. I will admit that it is interesting to try to understand why Rashi went to lengths tonegate anthropomorphic expressions employed in reference to God in certain cases, while heneglected to do so in other cases. But this question, as fascinating as it is, cannot properly serveas a proof for what Rashi held in any
sense.R. Slifkin made the point in the beginning of his article that the onus is actually on those whoclaim that Rashi was a “non-corporealist” given, as the Ramban points out, the widespread belief in France in the corporeality of God. I have two responses to this comment. Firstly, it is atremendous mistake to simply take a historical figure, perform a cursory review of the generallyaccepted beliefs during his time, and apply that popular outlook to the individual in question.This is even truer for Rashi who was a giant among the Rishonim. The Rishonim are famous for obstinately refusing to follow the prevailing winds. This is in fact the hallmark of the greatRishonim, who guarded the true mesorah without regard for popular opinion. The Rambanhimself mentions that many in France believed that God is corporeal and rejected this belief.Once again we see the mistake in assuming that the rishonim follow the masses. It is anexceedingly weak argument to say “Well, hey, the Ramban says people in France believed Godis physical, therefore, Rashi probably believed it too.”Even it were true that Rashi believed God is corporeal, it would still be a preposterous misnomer to, therefore, refer to Rashi as a “corporealist.” The term implies an
,” e.g. Rashi subscribedto
. Can anyone seriously believe that, though in all of his comments throughout theTorah, the Neviim, the Kesuvim, or the Talmud Rashi never openly tells that he believes thatGod is physical, that, nonetheless Rashi is a corporealist? Clearly, even if Rashi did have somesort of physical conception of God, it must not have formed any essential part of his philosophical system such that we could refer to him as a “corporealist.” Do you really think thatR. Avraham ben HaRambam would laud Rashi’s fundamental philosophy was that God is physical? You might suggest that Rashi really was a “corporealist,” but that he hid this view for fear of reprisal from other Rishonim (and the likes of Rabbeynu Avraham ben HaRambam).Why would Rashi do this? If Rashi were a corporealist, which would mean he subscribed tocorporealism, then we would expect Rashi to battle the non-believers head on. A Rishon such asRashi who, again, was praised by R. Avraham ben HaRambam, is not exactly the type of person
who we would expect to timidly hide his beliefs because others disagreed. The Rishonim arefamous for engaging in “milchamtah shel torah” and defending the truth no matter how great theopposer may be.A related point: Throughout the wealth of Rishonic works that make up the core of our TorahShe’beal Peh, we see unanimity regarding the belief in God’s absolute incorporeality. The factthat the Ramban and R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles mention that many in northernFrance believed in the corporeality of God is a nonstarter. Firstly, we don’t even know who theRamban and R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles are referring to. Whoever these “scholars”were, they certainly were not prolific Rishonim! So all we have is the remark of a couple of Rishonim that people (no one knows who exactly they are) in northern France believed in thecorporeality of God. Would it be justifiable for people in the future, say one thousand years fromnow, to conclude that Rabbi X in Brooklyn probably believed in a dead messiah since we havereports that many people in Brooklyn believed this at the time? It’s a mistake to take some vagueaccount of “scholars in northern France” who believed in a physical God as the basis for placingan onus on anybody to prove that Rashi was not a corporealist. And, on the contrary, it is verydifficult to imagine that someone who R. Avraham ben HaRambam spoke highly of was a“corporealist.”I also feel that, in his attempt to discern Rashi’s hidden view, R. Slifkin really neglects toanalyze Rashi in the manner that a Rishon (and especially Rashi) deserves. For instance, when hecites the cases in which Rashi does go to great lengths to explain anthropomorphic expression inrelation to God as metaphorical, he doesn’t bother to analyze Rashi’s language. It is a mistake toassume that the Rishonim, who wrote in such a precise manner, can be understood simply byskimming through their words. In fact, I believe R. Slifkin makes an inexcusable mistake in hisreading of a particular Rashi and completely distort Rashi’s meaning. He mentions the Onkelos’stranslation of Shemot 10:4 where he renders “And I carried you on the wings of vultures ..” as“And I caused you to travel (or transported) …” R. Slifkin is right that Onkelos, as he alwaysdoes, is translating the verse in a way that negates any physical concept of God. The mistake,however, is in the way he portrays Rashi. He said that “But Rashi has a differentreason for the alteration: Because it is
. He does not explain that Scripture alteredmatters to “direct the ear,” but rather that
altered matters out of respect.” R. Slifkinexplains Rashi as if he is disagreeing with Onkelos, but a plain reading of Rashi makes it clear that he absolutely endorsing Onkelo’s rendering of the verse. Perhaps R. Slifkin doesn’tunderstand what Rashi
when he says that “he fixed the statement as a way of honor (respect) for the Exalted One”, which is perfectly understandable, but it’s just wrong to representRashi as if he disagrees with Onkelos when he clearly endorses his translation. Since Rashiopenly endorses Onkelos, it clear that when Rashi says “derech kavod lemaaleh” he means thatit would not be “respectful,” so to speak, to leave room for a physical conception of God. Thus,as Rashi states, Onkelos altered the text in order to negate any physical description of God. ThisRashi actually proves exactly the opposite of R. Slifkin’s point. He portrays this Rashi as if thereis some disagreement between Rashi and Onkelos, when, in fact, Rashi plainly endorsesOnkelos. Rashi, as well as any other ignoramus, knows that Onkelos made it one his main goalsto negate any physical conception of God in his translation. If Rashi had some fundamentaldisagreement with Onkelos and felt that the verse should be altered not in order to negate a physical conception of God, but because of some idea of “respect” then Rashi would be a bit
more wordy in fleshing out this disagreement. As a matter of fact, the Ramban, on this veryverse, quotes Onkelos and says exactly the same thing as Rashi, that Onkelos rendered the verseas “And I caused you to travel” as a “derech kavod shel maaleh”! The Ramban, we know, clearlyaccepts Onkelos’s approach to translating the verses in a way that negates the implications of God’s physicality and, yet, the Ramban explains Onkelos exactly the way that Rashi did.According to R. Slifkin’s distorted reading, it turns out that the Ramban is also arguing withOnkelos. Also, if Rashi’s comment is to be understood as a fundamental disagreement withOnkelos, it’s certainly peculiar that the Ramban, who knew Rashi’s comments very well, doesnot pick up on this. Again, think about what R. Slifkin is saying – he is saying that this Rashiopenly reveals that he has no problem with anthropomorphisms because it is acceptable to regardGod as corporeal. Amazingly, however, this Rashi did not bother the Ramban (in fact, he usesvirtually the same language)! Clearly, the Ramban does not agree with R. Slifkin’s reading of Rashi and it is easy to see why – Rashi is clearly endorsing Onkelos’s translation.Another example of R. Slifkin’s reckless reading of Rashi occurs when he cites the Rashi onShemot 33:22. Onkelos renders “I shall cover you with My hand” as “And I shall shield you withMy word.” Rashi explains that Onkelos renders the verse in this manner because it is notrespectful to imply that God needs to use an actual hand to perform this. The plain understandingof this, though R. Slifkin quickly dismiss this interpretation, is that Rashi is explaining that it isinappropriate to believe that God requires the use of a hand since God is not physical. In fact, inthe very next verse, Rashi interprets “And I will take away My hand” as “And I will remove Myglory …” Onkelos renders the verse the same way. Rashi and Onkelos are both negating any physical implications in relation to God.In fact, there are instances where it is clear that Rashi interprets verses metaphorically so as toavoid any implication of God possessing physical attributes. For example, in Leviticus 1:9 theverse states that “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, a pleasant aroma to the Lord.”Onkelos renders it as “to be accepted willfully before God.” Onkelos is obviously negating theidea that God had a physical enjoyment of the smell. Rashi’s explanation is virtually a paraphrasing of Onkelos – Rashi says the verse means “a spirit of contentment before me.” Thisrendering clearly attempts to negate any physical enjoyment of the smell by God. See SifseiChachamim on the spot who explain that this exactly the reason why Rashi interprets the versethis way.I want to reiterate that my fundamental point is that it is a methodological error to “deduce”anything from what someone
say. We cannot know anything based on lack of commentary. There are a million reasons why someone
say something. This argument isnot only generally fallacious, but is particularly egregious when it is applied to Rashi or anyother Rishon. Rashi wrote in such a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of commentary. Trying to analyze what Rashi
say is a very arrogant approach. If Rashideclined to make a particular comment then you have nothing to work with; there is no basis for analysis. Insisting on analyzing Rashi’s “non-comments” is much like trying to “get the better of” Rashi – it is like saying “Well, Rashi declined to comment, but I am going to analyze what is
his lack of commentary.” The only way to perform such a flawed analysis would be toassume facts that Rashi himself has not given you. This must be the case, since you analyzingwhat Rashi
say. In essence you are saying that you are greater than Rashi because even

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