Monday, June 15, 2015

Notes on RASHI, ArtScroll Censorship, and Emendation of Rabbinic Texts

Notes on RASHI, ArtScroll Censorship, and Emendation of Rabbinic Texts

By David Shasha

A new post on the Seforim blog by Professor Marc Shapiro discusses the problem of ArtScroll publishers and the way that it routinely censors rabbinical texts:


Shapiro looks at the issue of RASHBAM’s commentary to Genesis 1, a big problem for Orthodox literalists.

Here is a post from Failed Messiah that explains the difficulty:


RASHBAM is the grandson of RASHI and the brother of Rabbenu Tam; a central figure in one of the most illustrious of all the rabbinical dynasties in the Ashkenazi tradition.

RASHBAM’s comment to Genesis 1 asserts that, according to the literal meaning of the text, the day, contrary to Jewish law, begins in the morning and not the evening.

I will leave the legal controversy to Shapiro and others, but would like to discuss his point on textual emendation.

It is interesting to see the plethora of Ashkenazi figures that Shapiro cites, including Rabbenu Tam and Abraham ben David (RABAD) to support the idea that no texts should be emended based on personal opinion.

The problem with this formulation is that the principle of textual emendation was most emphatically adopted by RASHI, the most important figure in the Ashkenazi rabbinical tradition.

Jose Faur in his classic article “The Legal Thinking of the Tosafot” discusses the matter in some detail:


He notes the freedom Ashkenazi rabbis accorded themselves to emend texts:

The Franco-German school had a liberal attitude toward the text of the Talmud, It is well known that this school felt free to amend, interpolate and delete from the text of the Talmud.

Referencing the classical Ashkenazi source Sefer ha-Yashar and academic discussions by Joseph Weiss and Benjamin Lewin, Faur explains that RASHI’s famous “Hachi Garsinan” – the code term for his many emendations of Talmudic texts – was a central part of the Ashkenazi rabbinical heritage:

The liberal attitude toward the text is reflected in the Franco-German position that the Talmudic text was not put into writing until post-talmudic times, late in the Middle Ages. Accordingly, the Talmudic text was never authoritatively fixed. Since there was no authoritative transmission of the text, it was subject to further development and errors.

We have seen this principle dangerously expanded in the current school of academic Talmud studies which holds that the Talmud was not completed until the late Geonic period, when the bulk of what is called the STAM (anonymous) layer of the corpus was written; contrary to the traditional formulation found in the canonical Epistle of Sherira Ga’on.

For more on the current scholarly revolution against the normative Jewish tradition, led by David Weiss-Halivni, see the following books:




Without any actual documentary or historical evidence, the revisionist scholarship – similar to German Higher Criticism of the Hebrew Bible – demands that we see different historical strata in the Babylonian Talmud.  This would undermine its literary unity and its historical presentation of the classical rabbinic tradition as formulated in the academies of Sura and Pumbedita.

The new scholarship claims that the text is a frightful hodge-podge of confused materials that is often sloppily and incoherently edited.  Texts are ignorantly assembled by anonymous rabbis who lack a historical connection to their predecessors.  It is all a fabrication lacking the firm authority of tradition.

The close of the Talmudic canon, as formulated by Sherira Ga’on in his famous Epistle, is in the 6th century:



Jose Faur has written an excellent treatment of the matter in his “Textuality in the Rabbinic Tradition,” chapter 4 of his book Golden Doves with Silver Dots, which is an important corrective to this benighted revisionism:


A good deal of the current scholarship attacking the Geonic tradition and its dating of the Talmudic corpus seeks to aggressively negate Faur’s assertions about the Oral Law and its textual manifestations. The written form of the Talmud and the tradition of emendation by Ashkenazi rabbis, and now academic scholars, has thus become part of a larger problem of the authority of the Oral Law in contemporary Judaism. Shapiro claims that the Ashkenazi rabbis, and their Sephardic followers like Moses Nahmanides, were firmly against this method of emendation, even though the leader of their school, RASHI, was a strong proponent of it:


The following discussion by Jacob Neusner reviews the salient points involved the matter of RASHI and the Tosafist School:


Neusner claims that RASHI emended the Talmudic text over 2,300 times based on his own personal opinion!

It is interesting to note both the parallels and differences between the emendation process in the older Ashkenazi tradition and the way it is now being deployed by Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists like ArtScroll.  The idea of censorship has become a very modern way of dealing with inconvenient historical details.  So while the substantive elements of RASHI and ArtScroll are indeed quite different it should be noted that the role of PILPUL and “Da’as Torah,” the imposition of personal opinions and values on Jewish texts, remain a central part of Ashkenazi rabbinic authoritarianism and its modern academic offshoots.

The historical dialectic is quite striking.

In addition to the emendation process during the early Middle Ages in Germany and France, the Ashkenazi tradition as embodied in the PILPUL methodology of Rabbenu Tam and the Tosafists developed the “Davqa/Lav Davqa” method of analysis which would interpret texts in a relativistic manner.  Some texts were, Davqa, to be interpreted as written, others, Lav Davqa, were not to be interpreted as written.

Again, it is Jose Faur who has been best able to decode this casuistic methodology, finding a connection with the hermeneutics of Peter Abelard and his Scholastic apologetics:

The Tosafot, occasionally, prefaced their analysis of the Talmud by declaring that the sense of the text is lav davqa (not exact). The lav davqa methodology revolutionized the study of the Talmud and changed the content of Jewish law. This methodology is grounded on the assumption that the rabbinic texts may be interpreted not in accordance to their usual sense. The methodology, as well as the philosophy of language that it projected, was brilliantly formulated by Abelard. Abelard, in his attempt to reconcile the conflicting views found in the writings of the Church Fathers, formulated the semantic principles that the same word may be differently used by different writers.

Here is how Faur sums up the matter:

It is intellectually acceptable to describe things not in accordance to what they really are.

This explication ties together the various anti-rational strains that are inherent to the Ashkenazi rabbinical tradition and its modern exponents.

In the end it affirms the absolute power of the interpreter over the text, the rabbi over the Law. It removes agency from the community and dangerously invests absolute power in the rabbinical class.

It is therefore quite interesting to read Shapiro’s attack on ArtScroll which does not at all reference the history of RASHI’s emendations, the PILPUL method of the Tosafot, or the shocking revisionism of contemporary Judaic scholars which has essentially sought to eviscerate the historical integrity of the Talmudic tradition.

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