The Medieval Review 14.12.12

Schoenfeld, Devorah. Isaac on Jewish and Christian Altars: Polemic and Exegesis in Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria . Fordham Series in Medieval Studies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 229. $5.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780823243495 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Deborah L. Goodwin
Gustavus Adolphus College

Devorah Schoenfeld's monograph, a study of Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Akedah (Genesis 22), takes a new approach to apparent similarities evinced by each tradition's exegetes in the "Twelfth-Century Renaissance." In contrast to other scholars who have traced possible connections or influences between Jewish and Christian exegetes in northern France in this period, Schoenfeld proposes an alternative: the emergence in both communities of new approaches to religious literature and traditions, in a historical context that saw the "deterioration of Jewish-Christian relations" (30). Her explanatory theory is thus more diffuse than one that argues for influence on the basis of textual similarity or linguistic parallels, but no more tenuous than most such theories since direct evidence of influence is difficult to produce until the thirteenth century or later.

Schoenfeld sets herself a formidable task by seeking to demonstrate comparable approaches to the Binding of Isaac in the period's most influential sources: the Torah commentary of R. Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (d. ca. 1106), and the Glossa Ordinaria, compiled in the first half of the twelfth century, chiefly at Laon. The sources' own textual histories are remarkably complex. Even to demonstrate a consistent exegetical method within either Rashi's Torah commentary or the Glossa Ordinaria on Genesis is nearly impossible. In the first case--as she discusses in a sedulously argued chapter on Rashi, his method, and the reception of his text--the earliest manuscripts of the Torah commentary date from nearly a century after his death, and exhibit significant variation, one from the other and probably also from the original. Access to the earliest Rashi-traditions, she asserts, is most reliably had through quotations in the Tosafot, Talmud commentaries written in the generations after Rashi. So the researcher is necessarily at several removes from the Ur-text of Rashi's commentary, a difficult place from which to describe definitively Rashi's "method," or to assert his intent. She notes that "Rashi was not the sole author of his commentary...later scribes continued to supplement his exegesis through the twelfth century" (3). Moreover, "[b]oth Rashi's method and Rashi's conclusions shift over the course of the manuscript tradition, which makes it essential to consider the history of Rashi manuscript variants in thinking through the question of Rashi's theology" (38). Rashi's theology, in her account, is produced by the exegete himself, his copyists, and his readers, who "participated with Rashi in the construction of his commentary" (41).

Schoenfeld's own reading of Rashi (relying chiefly on traditions preserved by the Tosafists) is persuasive: her analysis of Rashi's handling of midrashic sources and the Targum of Onqelos is built up from a painstaking excavation of source material. Then, having identified the sources, she dissects the technique of elision, reduction, and selective redundancy that constituted Rashi's novel deployment of traditional material. She argues that, in keeping with emerging scholarly mores in northern France, Rashi's commentary techniques illustrate the movement from orality to textuality: "Rashi juxtaposes interpretations without any sources attached... This invites the reader to read these comments as a single, unified text, not as orally stated opinions for scholars to debate" (54). Schoenfeld's discussion of the various sources and their contexts, ranging from Genesis Rabbah to the Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer and Lekach Tov, is fluent, concise, and clear: readily accessible to the non-specialist.

In the case of the Glossa Ordinaria, Schoenfeld confronts a similarly complicated textual tradition: the whole of the biblical text was eventually commented upon by its dual method: interlinear and marginal glosses, the latter attributed to patristic authorities, the former sometimes borrowed from earlier commentators but seldom identified as such. The Gloss on Genesis was probably completed early in the project, likely by scholars associated with the cathedral school at Laon. As Schoenfeld notes, the same environment gave rise to one of the early twelfth century's anti-Jewish polemics, the Dialogus inter Christianum et Iudaeum de fide catholica attributed to William of Champeaux. Her chapter on the Gloss's sources and evolution valuably identifies the patristic source materials redacted by the compilers of the marginal gloss. Her focus here seems rather narrower than in the chapter on Rashi. The theological intentions of the glossators, on Schoenfeld's account, seem to be chiefly guided by anti-Judaism, although she states that "[a]ll the anti-Judaism in the marginal gloss on Genesis 22 is based on quotations from Isidore [of Seville]." The manuscripts show that the contents of Genesis 22's marginal glosses vary: some feature Isidore prominently, others less so. She writes, "these two choices lead to very different levels of anti-Judaism in the marginal gloss: the more reliant on Isidore, the greater the anti-Judaism" (81). Despite these variations, however, Schoenfeld characterizes the Gloss on Genesis, marginal and interlinear, as "a Christian anti-Jewish polemic" (86) in both structure and content. A wider discussion here of the Gloss's development and its role in theological education in the cathedral schools, building on an earlier chapter on emergent polemic, would help to clarify its place in the intellectual landscape of the Christian twelfth century, and its role in furthering a new relationship to textual authority comparable to the approach taken by Rashi.

The methodological parallel between Rashi's Torah commentary and the Glossa Ordinaria, Schoenfeld asserts, consists in each commentary's paradoxical approach to scripture and tradition. Both Rashi and the author of the Gloss on Genesis (probably Gilbert of Auxerre), present the Bible as a "self-interpreting text": Scripture can, and should be, interpreted by Scripture. But at the same time, the weight of tradition reinforces which part of Scripture best elucidates the text at hand. Thus, Rashi's suppression of rabbis' names connected to interpretations in the midrash, she argues, reduces for the reader the impression of debates external to the text. The interlinear gloss was similarly abstracted from a larger body of commentary, but was physically inserted into the biblical text, to be read with the text more or less seamlessly. Both Rashi and the interlinear gloss, Schoenfeld suggests, silently marshal authoritative sources from their respective traditions and re-present them as authoritative statements emerging from the biblical text read on its own terms.

In her final chapter, Schoenfeld argues that the methodological similarities between Rashi and the Gloss on Genesis's redactor are discernible in a focus on similar themes, driven by parallel polemical goals. Both texts celebrate the greatness of Abraham as evidence for the superiority of their own traditions, the near-sacrifice of Isaac as a foreshadowing of later rituals (the Temple sacrifices; the Eucharist), and each positions Abraham as the prototypical celebrant of those rituals. Here as earlier, Schoenfeld's reading of Rashi is insightful and persuasive: she carefully distinguishes his interpretation from that of his sources and from that of most of his near-contemporaries. His innovative interpretation posits Abraham's trials as the occasion for proving the patriarch's greatness to an audience of unnamed others, most likely the Gentiles. Whether Rashi polemicized against Christians in his Torah commentary is a debated question; Schoenfeld rehearses the various theories in chapter two. Similarly, whether that polemic might have been motivated by the sufferings and self-sacrifice of the Rhineland's Jews during the First Crusade is not susceptible to direct proof. As Schoenfeld demonstrates, however, the closest parallel to Rashi's interpretation of the Akedah as proof of Abraham's estimable and eager love for God is found in the Hebrew Crusade chronicles and in the Lekach Tov, a midrashic collection which also mentions the massacre of the Jewish community of Mainz in 1096. She convincingly illustrates the distinctive anti-Jewish emphasis of the Glossa Ordinaria by contrasting it with exegetical works by a range of monastic and proto-scholastic authors. Less forcefully developed here is a theory for why and how the Christian polemic emerged, in this particular form, when other exegetes made other choices.

The volume includes two valuable appendices, in which Schoenfeld provides critical editions of the two sources, assembled from an extensive range of manuscript and early printed sources. Having completed this exceptionally painstaking textual work, advanced an innovative approach to Rashi studies, and having bruited a highly suggestive theory for how Jewish and Christian twelfth-century exegetical methods and products came to resemble each other, Schoenfeld has opened up rich prospects for further investigations.

Copyright (c) 2014 Deborah L. Goodwin

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