Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Learning Rashi On Chumash

I have to wonder about what effects the teaching of Rashi as THE PESHAT of the Chumash, has on Jewish Elementary School children . Even in "Modern Orthodox" day schools Chumash is learned primarily with Rashi. Using what I would call a Midrashic or even "magical" "anti-rationalist" commentary as the basis of basic Chumash classes is perhaps the worst way to bring up Jewish children in the spirit of what I perceive to be the Modern Orthodox ideal  i.e. a rationalist approach to Judaism. Whether such an approach to Judaism is "good" or even possible is not the issue. The point I'm trying to get at is do Modern Orthodox schools defeat their own purposes by teaching Chumash with the traditional commentary of Rashi?

Rashi's commentary is what I would call (anachronistically) a very Chareidi approach to  the Torah. The Biblical world of Rashi is a place full of magic and miracles. At every turn small but numerous deviations from nature occur. Dark magic is a reality. Roads are shrunk to facilitate long journeys. Angels regularly hang out in the houses of the Avot and serve as messengers for them. In short Rashi creates the image of a veritable fantasy world straight out of the pages of the most imaginative fantasy novel. Whether or not Rashi or the original writers of the midrashim he quotes intended these strange additions to the Chumash as literal is irrelevant. A seven year old child imbibes these stories in his/her youth in a serious school class and cannot but help but internalize them to some extent.

If these children continue with their Jewish studies they might stumble upon a more rationalist or "pashtan" approach to the Chumash such as the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, or Rashbam. Nevertheless I feel that most Orthodox Jews today look at the Torah through the whimsical lens of the first Biblical commentary they learned.

Is this really how Modern Orthodox schools want to educate their children and how much of an effect does Rashi have on Orthodox Jewish education and perceptions of what Judaism is?

From a more "secular" perspective (and this applies equally to the way Gemara is taught in Yeshivot) is it a good idea to teach children that a given text doesn't really mean what it says?  Is this the best way to educate children, by instructing them to not actually read the Chumash but to understand it through someone else's ideas? Of course all of Rabbinic Judaism suffers somewhat from this problem but I can't help but think that Rashi takes it to a farther level than the real pashtanim.

And Now For Something Completely Different: I just want to say that it drives me absolutely insane when people call the Ibn Ezra the Even Ezra (like the "Stone of Ezra"). I know that Jews in their dialect of Arabic probably didn't pronounce it exactly like "Ibn" and perhaps said it more like "Aven" but it's quite clear that a lot of people throwing the name "Even" around are just ignorant and think it's a fancy name for a commentary like " Or Hachayim" or "Kli Yakar".


Baruch Spinoza said...

"Now, anyone who says that someone should not have spoken this way in 1939 is a fool. That's how everyone spoke.":

Why? What most people do and how most people speak is not a defense of what they say. The norm cannot defend the wrong. The norm can only be used as an excuse that the person who said it cannot be held as liable as much as 70 years ago. But it cannot excuse what the person said.

I hear this same argument with regard to slavery. "Everyone was pro-slavery back in those days, so it is excusable that Lincoln said". No it is not. Because there were people, very few, who did take the correct position. What most people did in the past is only an excuse that they were blinded from seeing what was correct, but it cannot be used as an excuse.

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