Rashi Translated by Catherine Temerson
By Elie Wiesel | Schocken Books/Nextbook| $22; 107 pages
How does one write about a man whose extant biographical information barely fills a single page? Elie Wiesel was faced with this conundrum when asked to pen a book about Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), whose phrase-by-phrase explication of the written and oral law continues to be as relevant to today's scholars as it was to his students in 11th-century France.
Wiesel's assignment came from Jonathan Rosen, general editor of Schocken and Nextbook's Jewish Encounters collaborative publishing project. Many of the project's already produced or planned books focus on Jewish historical figures as diverse as Maimonides, Emma Lazarus and Judah Maccabee. All of the authors are noteworthy; for instance, Stephen J. Dubner is to write on Moses, Hillel Halkin on Yehuda Halevi.
As his family was believed to be directly descended from Rashi, Wiesel was a logical choice for this book in the series. And a wise choice as well, because he animates his topic with a deeply felt respect and admiration for his ancestor gained through years of Torah study.
"Ever since childhood, he has accompanied me with his insights and charm," Wiesel writes. "He is my first destination. My first aidâ€¦ A veiled reference from him, like a smile, and everything lights up and becomes clearer."
Wiesel wandered the streets of Rashi's hometown and digested what little personal information he could glean from previous texts. But primarily it was the master's commentaries themselves that provided Wiesel the means to successfully complete his assignment.
Just as Rashi's words illuminate and elucidate Scripture, when examined from a different perspective they might also illuminate and elucidate the life and times of their author.
Accordingly, the bulk of this slim volume consists of samplings of Rashi's responsa and exegetical explanations in an effort to see how they reflect back on his thematic approach to peace, study, justice, compassion, leadership, memory and Jewish nationhood.
We find the crescendo in an examination of the likely effect of the Crusades on Rashi's writings and teachings.
The Crusades began in 1096, when Rashi was about 55. Although his city of Troyes was "miraculously spared" the massacres sweeping through the Jewish communities of the Rhine, Rashi could hardly have been unaware of them, Wiesel reasons. After all, he answered religious questions from distant correspondents and was not detached from what then comprised world Jewry.
Wiesel discovered that seven liturgical poems are traditionally ascribed to Rashi. "They all describe the trials Israel is going through: the torn Torah scrolls, the students and their teachers slaughtered in a bloodbath, the ransacked synagogues... Was this his personal reaction to the bitter ordeal of the first Crusade?"
In Rashi's introduction to the Song of Songs, Wiesel senses further allusion to current events. Rashi wrote: "King Solomon had foreseen, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that it was to be Israel's destiny to go from exile to exile, from disaster to disaster, and to nostalgically bemoan the time when she was God's chosen lover."
And, adds Wiesel, "in his commentary on the Psalms, one senses his inability to hide or contain his anguish. Of course, technically, he is commenting on ancient, biblical times, but we can guess that he is actually describing his own times."
A particularly poignant passage that Wiesel connects with the widespread martyrdom of the Crusades is Rashi's penitential plea for God to "collect the tears of children in His chalice" and for the Torah "to intercede up high in favor of those who give up their lives for His glory."
There is evidence that Rashi interrupted his work several times during his final years, leaving it to disciples to complete. "Was it because of the depressing news that came from communities not so far away?" Wiesel wonders, concluding that despite the hate-fueled events at the turn of the 12th century, Rashi's "message remains alive, and an admirable celebration of life."
In a chronology at the end of the book, we learn that the distinctive Hebrew typeface known as "Rashi script" was first used in a Bible produced in 1475 Italy, a convention later adopted by gentile printer Daniel Bromberg in his early 16th century editions of the Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud.
One comes away from Rashi with a clear sense - despite reading the book in translation - that Wiesel took on this project with much enthusiasm and curiosity. For an octogenarian author of more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction, such undimmed literary passion is admirable indeed.