The Medieval Rabbi Who Championed Literalism

November 29, 2022 | Tamar Marvin
About the author:

The grandson of the famed French Bible and Talmud commentator Solomon ben Isaac (better known as Rashi), Samuel ben Meir (ca. 1080–1174) was himself the author of commentaries on these texts, not all of which have survived. In his introduction to his glosses to the Pentateuch, Rashbam (as Samuel is called in rabbinic literature) portrayed himself as carrying on his grandfather’s legacy by analyzing the plain sense of the text, without reference to traditional rabbinic exegesis, or midrash. Tamar Marvin takes stock of his life and work:

It’s been argued that living in the shadow of Rashi—not to mention that of his less-prickly, overachiever younger brother Rabbi Jacob ben Meir Tam—laid upon Rashbam a burdensome anxiety of influence: that it’s this that impelled him toward staking a claim of his own, or what we moderns would term originality. It couldn’t have been otherwise, but I don’t see Rashbam’s personality as dominated by his grandfather’s legacy; he’s nothing if not self-possessed. And had good reason to be. . . . Rashbam felt himself, rightly, at the very center of Ashkenazi high culture, his piety unimpeachable, his yiḥus (lineage) sterling, his hall of study bustling.

Rashbam lived his whole life in the dusty Champagne town of Ramerupt. He was apparently there, as recent research indicates, because of exclusive rights granted to his brother by local officials. This meant that Rashbam had a potential vector of close interaction with local Christians, which is evidenced in his writings. Some scholars have argued that this is how Rashbam caught wind of the so-called 12th-century renaissance, the outburst of knowledge production centered in the burgeoning church schools of Paris. Others have emphasized that it gave Rashbam familiarity with Christian readings of the Bible, which he answered explicitly with anti-Christological readings of his own.

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