Prof publishes two-volume Hebrew edition of Rashbam’s commentary

An independent, academic approach to studying Scripture can coexist with traditional, religious devotion. The two are not mutually exclusive, although many may think so, says York humanities Professor Martin Lockshin, who recently published a two-volume Hebrew edition of the 12th-century commentary of Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, also known as Rashbam, on the Five Books of Moses.

“He was the most radical proponent of the ‘peshat’ school of biblical interpretation, a school that claimed the Bible should be interpreted anew in a fresh way, based on the best contemporary understanding of grammar, syntax and context, even if those peshat biblical interpretations flew in the face of the traditional religious understanding of the text,” says Lockshin, who is also a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

His two-volume work, Peirush ha-Rashbam al ha-Torah (Choreb Press, Jerusalem, 2009), will be launched on Monday, Sept. 14, at 7pm in the Renaissance Room, 001 Vanier College, Keele campus. It will be hosted by the Israel & Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York. The work, which includes a 35-page introduction and detailed notes in Hebrew, is considered a much improved version of the medieval Hebrew text of the commentary.

“Rashbam was a deeply pious, religious man, yet he thought it was acceptable to use one’s intellectual independence when reading Scripture,” says Lockshin. “He was writing to Jewish believers. He wrote in medieval Hebrew. It wasn’t meant for anyone else’s eyes. It’s very impressive to find this kind of daring in his writing.”

Touting that kind of intellectual freedom to interpret the text was quite radical for the 12th century. And although Rashbam was not an academic scholar, he approached the study of Scripture using many of the tools that a modern day scholar would use. He avoided interpreting Scripture in a spiritual or uplifting manner, which is what his grandfather Rashi did and what Rashbam rebelled against. Rashbam wanted to interpret the texts as they were meant to be understood by their authors, and believed the Bible was best understood in a literary manner. He had a sceptical attitude about the accuracy of the holy texts that were used in his community, and he searched for better manuscripts and for better ways of understanding the texts.

Left: Martin Lockshin

He was not alone in his scholarly pursuit, although traditional Judaism has preferred the work of the grandfather to that of the grandson. “Curiously, this form of studying the Bible with fresh eyes was popular for a short period of time among both pious Jews and pious Christians in northern France,” says Lockshin. “In some ways, the exegesis produced by Christian and Jewish scholars then closely resembles the work of modern academic Bible scholars today.” Lockshin goes into detail about the relationship between Rashbam and his Christian neighbours at the time in the introduction and his notes to the two volumes.

Lockshin’s Hebrew edition explains what was new and original in Rashbam’s work. He makes a case for moderns, who care about the Bible or who are interested in the issue of tradition and innovation, to pay attention to how 12th-century scholars understood scripture.

“Some believe, like Rashbam, that it’s possible to understand the past in new ways that differ from how it was understood before,” says Lockshin, whose major scholarly interest lies in the history of Jewish Bible interpretation, but also medieval Jewish history and Jewish-Christian polemics.

Lockshin’s previous publications include a four-volume annotated translation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.

Light refreshments (kashrut observed) will be served at the launch.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer