Monday, December 29, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Four (Reading the Medievals: Case Studies in Reception History)

Eric Lawee (York University)
“Scripturalization of Rashi’s Torah Commentary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Times”

Even though Rashi was not widely accepted in Spain initially and was not even mentioned by Ibn Daud, by the thirteenth century Rashi had a achieved an almost canonical status. We see a move to treat Rashi like the Talmud, a flawless source that most be analyzed line by line. Nachmonides, even though he himself criticized Rashi, played a large role in this by putting Rashi on the map as a major figure to contend with. This veneration of Rashi can be seen in both the rationalist and Kabbalistic streams of Jewish thought. Moshe ibn Gabbi attacks his philosophical opponents by labeling them as little foxes who attack Rashi. Sefer Hameshiv talks about Rashi having prophetic power and claims that his commentary was written with the help of an angel. On the flip side you have people like Isaac Campanton who, in his Darachi HaTalmud, states that the process of iyyun, in depth textual analysis, applies not just to the Talmud but to Rashi and Nachmonides as well. Two of Campanton’s students, Isaac de Leon and Isaac Aboab, wrote super commentaries on Rashi.

(Isaac Abarbanel’s teacher, Joseph Hayyun, was also a student of Campanton. It is interesting to note that Abarbanel does attack Rashi, though Rashi is certainly a key source for Abarbanel. I would see this as another example of how Abarbanel fits into an Nachmonidean line of Jewish thought.

Lawee is one of the world’s foremost experts on Abarbanel. I was even considering applying to York in order to work with him. We spoke on the phone and came to two conclusions; one, we got along very well and, two, York would not be a good fit for me. So this was actually the first time I ever met Lawee face to face. And I most say it was an honor.)

Yaacob Dweck (Princeton University)
“Leon Modena as Reader and as Read”

There is often a tension between the correct and the plurality of readings as in the case of Leon Modena’s understanding of the Zohar. Modena’s Ari Nahom has traditionally been read as an attack on the Zohar. Modena attacked Kabbalistic theology as being akin to Christianity. He also denied the traditional Rashbi authorship and placing Moshe de Leon as its author. In other places in his writing, Modena laments on how easily available Kabbalistic texts have become and that anyone can purchase them and pretend to be a scholar. This has been Modena’s reputation down to modern times. In truth though, there is actually more to Modena. He praised the Zohar for its language and style. He even used it in his sermons. Modena had no objection to the Zohar as long it was simply treated as a medieval commentary on the Bible and not as a canonical text on Jewish theology and law.

Modena was directly targeted by a member of the Luzzatto circle in his defense of the Zohar. This shows that Ari Nahom was influential and did circulate even though it was not printed until the nineteenth century. Contrary to the Elizabeth Eisenstein model, print did not simply eliminate manuscripts. An active manuscript culture continued to exist for centuries.

(Matt Goldish is a big fan of Modena and it has rubbed off to some extent on me as well. This was an excellent lecture. It comes out of Dweck’s dissertation, which he recently finished. I am looking forward to reading it when it gets published.)

Daniel B. Schwartz (George Washington University)
“A New Guide? The ‘Modern Maimonides’ Motif in the Maskilic Reception of Spinoza”

Who was the first modern Jew, Benedict Spinoza or Moses Mendelssohn? This question assumes that modern equals secular and that these figures can be viewed as secular. Even with Spinoza that is not so simple. In a sense it is justifiable to talk about Spinoza as the first modern Jew in that he filled that script and served as a usable past for many maskilim. In Maskilic literature Spinoza is often placed alongside Maimonides. This is strange since Spinoza attacked Maimonides. Though one could make the case that Spinoza started off as a Maimonidean and that Maimonides continued to play a significant role, in some sense, in his thought. Maimonides is important for Spinoza because he played an important role in how Spinoza was read by Maskilim. The idea of Maimonides acted as an interpretive framework for understanding Spinoza. Spinoza becomes a second coming of Maimonides.

Devorah Schoenfeld (St. Mary’s College Maryland)
“Who Asks the Question? Rashi’s Constructed and Constructing Readers”

Does Rashi serve to teach Bible or teach Midrash? Different early commentators took different approaches. This can actually be seen in the different manuscripts we have of Rashi’s commentary. We have examples of copyists who take away the line by line element of Rashi, removing Rashi’s commentary from its direct interaction with the biblical text. An example of this can be seen in the variant versions of Rashi’s explanation for the binding of Isaac. In some versions instead of Satan accusing Abraham, like in Genesis Rabbah, it is divine judgment. We also have texts that talk about God testing Abraham in order to perfect him; this takes the text in a very different direction than Genesis Rabbah.

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