Five Takeaways From a Year with Rashbam

After an incredible year of closely studying the Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, with the tremendous aid of scholar Martin Lockshin’s annotated translation, I am grateful to have learned from this great teacher in the Jewish tradition. As I wrap up my primary study with him, here are five lessons from Rashbam I want to take with me. Perhaps you too find one or more of these inspiring.

1. Omek Peshuto Shel Mikra

This unusual phrase was first used by Rashbam, and literally means “the depth of the surface reading of scripture.” Peshat is often contrasted with midrash, where the sages understand themselves to be plumbing the depths of potential interpretation, no matter how unlikely. However, here “depth” is associated with peshat!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Rashbam had a strikingly original approach to biblical commentary. He felt that the sages, intent as they were on reading the text for its halakhic ramifications, often failed to penetrate to what he called omek peshuto shel mikra, the plain sense of the text in its full depth.”

For Rashbam, reading Torah was its own activity, independent of the implications for practice and communal norms. Rashbam anticipates many insights of modern academic scholarship because of this focus on the text in its own right. I appreciate his integrity and consistency in this regard. With this approach, Rashbam had a keen eye for literary techniques, poetic aspects of language, and how context shapes meaning.

2. Chutzpah: To Love and to Scold

Because of the rigor of his attention to Torah on its own terms, Rashbam frequently criticizes his grandfather Rashi, who often says he is commenting in the peshat framework but then leans heavily on the midrashic traditions. Rashbam was not afraid to be controversial, to disagree with one of the greatest commentators of all time, to revere and revile aspects of Rashi’s commentary all at the same time. When the plain meaning of the text differs from Jewish practice (halakhah), Rashbam clearly favors the plain meaning – a radical act for a medieval Jew. From this quality of Rashbam, I learn to stand firm and bold in whatever my interpretative framework may be.

3. Honor the Arena

While Rashbam’s Torah commentary strays from halakhah to a degree unfound in other Jewish scholarship because of his intense belief in the importance of the peshat approach, Rashbam also excelled in other domains. I admire his ability to do plain-sense Torah commentary when engaged with Torah, to offer sophisticated Talmudic halakhic insight when engaged with Talmud, and to delve into midrash with aplomb when engaged with midrash. Rashbam was able to see clearly the differing needs of each arena he entered. Unlike others such as Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam felt no need to be completely integrated and in sync across every domain of life. Rather he was fully present with the text in each moment.

4. Success is Dangerous for Spirituality

For these last two takeaways, I want to focus on some themes of the commentary itself. In several places (see commentary at Deut. 8:9, 26:5-10, Lev. 23:43), Rashbam goes out of his way to make sure the reader gets this message: Success can be dangerous for spiritual honesty. I think the idea itself is not so unusual, but given Rashbam’s remarkable success at understanding the peshat of Torah and his just as remarkable lack of popularity for centuries in traditional Judaism, he is a helpful teacher to deliver the teaching. Rashbam, in his Torah commentary, chose honesty (that is, as little bias towards contemporary Jewish practice and traditions as possible) over assured popularity.

5. Evil is Real and Idolatry Can Be Used Efficaciously

Several times in his commentary, Rashbam makes the assumption that evil is real and that idolatry can actually work results. Unlike other classic commentators who might see this as an affront on the sole power of God, Rashbam seems to be quite medieval in his acceptance of the reality of magic and other sorts of things mentioned in the Torah but discarded as metaphorical or misguided by many readers in the past millennia.

In times of political, economic, cultural, and environmental turmoil, evil takes on a less abstract garb. And it’s easy to get to a place where belief in what works replaces belief in what is right. In making explicit that he thinks idolatry “works”, Rashbam makes the argument that ultimately only just, divinely-approved means will help us towards our goals. I struggle a bit with this perspective, as it’s easiest for me to simply say “magic” was never real in the first place, but Rashbam’s challenge is for us to examine closely what harmful acts we do as individuals, communities, and societies, in the name of accomplishing something real. Are there other ways to achieve? If we are causing harm to others for our own profit, will we be strong enough to give up power, privilege, rare opportunity? This is the crux of the matter – a fight not against apparitions but the all-too-real intoxication of effective idolatries today.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, we will return to you!

For more about Rashbam and where my Year of Rashbam started, see my introduction.