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Levi Notik

July 28, 2009

I 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 has
numerous opportunities to explain passages and verses in the Torah (and elsewhere) allegorically
and does not do so. The real force of this proof, Slifkin says, is derived from the fact that Rashi
does, in other cases, go to great lengths to explain certain anthropomorphic expressions used in
relation to God as metaphorical. These cases are primarily where God is described in a
manner 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 didn’t 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 to
negate anthropomorphic expressions employed in reference to God in certain cases, while he
neglected to do so in other cases. But this question, as fascinating as it is, cannot properly serve
as a proof for what Rashi held in any positive sense.

R. Slifkin made the point in the beginning of his article that the onus is actually on those who
claim 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 a
tremendous mistake to simply take a historical figure, perform a cursory review of the generally
accepted 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 great
Rishonim, who guarded the true mesorah without regard for popular opinion. The Ramban
himself 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 an
exceedingly weak argument to say “Well, hey, the Ramban says people in France believed God
is 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 “ism,” e.g. Rashi subscribed
to corporealism. Can anyone seriously believe that, though in all of his comments throughout the
Torah, the Neviim, the Kesuvim, or the Talmud Rashi never openly tells that he believes that
God is physical, that, nonetheless Rashi is a corporealist? Clearly, even if Rashi did have some
sort 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 that
R. 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 to
corporealism, then we would expect Rashi to battle the non-believers head on. A Rishon such as
Rashi 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 are
famous for engaging in “milchamtah shel torah” and defending the truth no matter how great the
opposer may be.

A related point: Throughout the wealth of Rishonic works that make up the core of our Torah
She’beal Peh, we see unanimity regarding the belief in God’s absolute incorporeality. The fact
that the Ramban and R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles mention that many in northern
France believed in the corporeality of God is a nonstarter. Firstly, we don’t even know who the
Ramban 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 the
corporeality of God. Would it be justifiable for people in the future, say one thousand years from
now, to conclude that Rabbi X in Brooklyn probably believed in a dead messiah since we have
reports that many people in Brooklyn believed this at the time? It’s a mistake to take some vague
account of “scholars in northern France” who believed in a physical God as the basis for placing
an onus on anybody to prove that Rashi was not a corporealist. And, on the contrary, it is very
difficult 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 to
analyze Rashi in the manner that a Rishon (and especially Rashi) deserves. For instance, when he
cites the cases in which Rashi does go to great lengths to explain anthropomorphic expression in
relation to God as metaphorical, he doesn’t bother to analyze Rashi’s language. It is a mistake to
assume that the Rishonim, who wrote in such a precise manner, can be understood simply by
skimming through their words. In fact, I believe R. Slifkin makes an inexcusable mistake in his
reading of a particular Rashi and completely distort Rashi’s meaning. He mentions the Onkelos’s
translation 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 always
does, 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 different
reason for the alteration: Because it is disrespectful. He does not explain that Scripture altered
matters to “direct the ear,” but rather that Onkelos altered matters out of respect.” R. Slifkin
explains 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’t
understand what Rashi means 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 represent
Rashi as if he disagrees with Onkelos when he clearly endorses his translation. Since Rashi
openly endorses Onkelos, it clear that when Rashi says “derech kavod lemaaleh” he means that
it 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. This
Rashi actually proves exactly the opposite of R. Slifkin’s point. He portrays this Rashi as if there
is some disagreement between Rashi and Onkelos, when, in fact, Rashi plainly endorses
Onkelos. Rashi, as well as any other ignoramus, knows that Onkelos made it one his main goals
to negate any physical conception of God in his translation. If Rashi had some fundamental
disagreement 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 very
verse, quotes Onkelos and says exactly the same thing as Rashi, that Onkelos rendered the verse
as “And I caused you to travel” as a “derech kavod shel maaleh”! The Ramban, we know, clearly
accepts 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 with
Onkelos. Also, if Rashi’s comment is to be understood as a fundamental disagreement with
Onkelos, it’s certainly peculiar that the Ramban, who knew Rashi’s comments very well, does
not pick up on this. Again, think about what R. Slifkin is saying – he is saying that this Rashi
openly reveals that he has no problem with anthropomorphisms because it is acceptable to regard
God as corporeal. Amazingly, however, this Rashi did not bother the Ramban (in fact, he uses
virtually 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 on
Shemot 33:22. Onkelos renders “I shall cover you with My hand” as “And I shall shield you with
My word.” Rashi explains that Onkelos renders the verse in this manner because it is not
respectful to imply that God needs to use an actual hand to perform this. The plain understanding
of this, though R. Slifkin quickly dismiss this interpretation, is that Rashi is explaining that it is
inappropriate to believe that God requires the use of a hand since God is not physical. In fact, in
the very next verse, Rashi interprets “And I will take away My hand” as “And I will remove My
glory …” 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 to
avoid any implication of God possessing physical attributes. For example, in Leviticus 1:9 the
verse 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 the
idea 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.” This
rendering clearly attempts to negate any physical enjoyment of the smell by God. See Sifsei
Chachamim on the spot who explain that this exactly the reason why Rashi interprets the verse
this way.

I want to reiterate that my fundamental point is that it is a methodological error to “deduce”


anything from what someone didn’t say. We cannot know anything based on lack of
commentary. There are a million reasons why someone didn’t say something. This argument is
not only generally fallacious, but is particularly egregious when it is applied to Rashi or any
other Rishon. Rashi wrote in such a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of
commentary. Trying to analyze what Rashi didn’t say is a very arrogant approach. If Rashi
declined 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
behind his lack of commentary.” The only way to perform such a flawed analysis would be to
assume facts that Rashi himself has not given you. This must be the case, since you analyzing
what Rashi didn’t say. In essence you are saying that you are greater than Rashi because even
though Rashi declined to make a particular comment, you are going to insist on finding out what
is behind this lack of commentary by conducting an investigation that, logically, can only be
external to our outside of Rashi.

Again, having read and enjoyed R. Slifkin’s book “The Challenge of Creation” twice, I am
shocked that any scientist could advance such specious arguments.