How Jewish-Christian Dialogue Revolutionized Bible Study in Medieval France

In the latter part of the 11th century, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known by the acronym Rashi, wrote a commentary on the Hebrew Bible that would forever change how Jews approached the sacred text: explaining its meaning line-by-line and focusing on what he called the p’shat, or plain meaning, while drawing on the vast body of exegetical (and often nonliteral) works that preceded him. Likewise, the 12th century saw a similar shift in Christian Bible study, centered in northern France, where Rashi also made his home. Robert Harris explores the reasons for this parallel:

This surge in commentary among Christian and Jewish exegetes . . . suggests that we should be looking for intellectual and cultural developments in 11th-century Christian Europe to understand how this change in approach to Bible came about. But to get the full picture, we need to look even earlier, to the 8th-century period under Charlemagne, and to the subsequent cultural revival that took place in the Carolingian period (that is, in the 8th and 9th centuries).

In an effort to establish and legitimize their new dynasty, Charlemagne, himself a faithful Christian, endeavored to co-opt the Roman Church and its institutions. Part of his strategy was creating a learned and literary caste that could serve as the clerks, administrators, diplomats, and magistrates who held his far-flung empire together. To accomplish this, he instituted schools that would teach far greater numbers of people how to read. For scribal training, Charlemagne used ancient Greco-Roman learning in the service of the Church.

The resulting “Carolingian renaissance,” Harris explains, would give rise to new institutions of higher learning that would eventually lead to the intellectual ferment of the 12th century:

While the Carolingian revolution may explain how Christian interpretation developed in this direction, how did intellectual developments in the Christian world influence rabbinic exegetes? While some rabbis could converse about Latin scriptures when in the presence of learned Christians, no rabbi could likely have sat down and read a Latin book any more than a 12th-century churchman could have read a Hebrew book without help from a Jewish scholar.

[However], Jews and Christians conducted a lively discourse about biblical interpretation during this period, in a wide variety of social circumstances, certainly in the 12th century, but probably in the 11th as well, and the Christian turn to contextual reading was likely influential in the thinking of their Jewish colleagues.

Of course, influence went in both directions. The great 12th-century Christian Bible commentator Andrew of St. Victor, whose mentor Hugh of St. Victor was the leading figure in the Christian turn to literal interpretation, studied Hebrew so he could draw on the commentaries of Rashi and others. He was one of the very first Christian scholars since antiquity to do so.


More about: Biblical commentary, Hebrew Bible, Jewish-Christian relations, Rashi

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy