Monday, June 04, 2007

פשטות המתחדשים בכל יום; Ethiopian woman.

Rashbam (1085-1185; Tosaphist, Bible commentator, grandson of Rashi) wrote the following in his comment to Genesis 37:2

רבנו שלמה אבי אמי מאיר עיני גולה שפירש תורה נביאים וכתובים נתן לב לפרש פשוטו של מקרא, ואף אני שמואל ב"ר מאיר חתנו זצ"ל נתווכחתי עמו ולפניו והודה לי שאילו היה לו פנאי היה צריך לעשות פרושים אחרים לפי הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום

Our Rabbi Shlomo, my mother's father, enlightener of Diaspora eyes (i.e, Rashi) who wrote commentaries on Tanakh preferred mainly to explain the literal intention of Scriptures. I, Shmuel son of Rabbi Meir, [Rashi's] son-in-law זצ"ל, held dialogues with him,*and [Rashi] admitted to me that if he had the time he would have authored additional comments explaining the new [literal exegesis] explanations that were occurring to him every day.

*Possibly challenging this or that explanation which Rashi had offered?

If ever there was a "famous Rashbam," this is it.

And justly so. Rashbam was uniquely situated to tell us something about the great master, and we are glad to know this.

Let's consider peshat [exegesis to show authorial intent**] for a moment. It is the case that the Bible has been combed over many times for many a long year by very smart, very exacting, very sensitive exegetes. Although the answers may not always satisfy, most questions seem to have been asked already.

**Of course someone will pipe up and say "Halivni says peshat means 'context.'" I don't see that as a contradiction to the idea that it means authorial intent.

Actually, that may not be true. How can we know if most of the questions to be asked have been asked? Perhaps that just reflects the fact that few original questions are being asked now, but some watershed (a very smart person; a very great discovery; a revolutionary new way of thinking) will show that there are many new questions to be asked and answered! But suppose it is. I certainly find that most Bible issues have been raised or hinted at least once already, which is why in most commentaries there is the possibility of citing earlier explanations.

In any case, it has been my studied observation that many people don't seem to care for a new peshat that has not already been offered or alluded to. They seem suspicious of it, or if not, just skeptical. Consider the two threads at DovBear on the meaning of the enigmatic story of Miriam and Aharon's conversation against Moshe (Num. 12:1-16). The issue: Moshe's wife Tzipporah is described as being from Midian (Ex. 2:21). Here she is called a Cushite (כושית) , but is not named [biblically כוש is probably Ethiopia]. Translators and commentators have long tried to understand what happened here. There were two trends. One assumes that Tzipporah the Midanite was meant and thus seek to explain what כושית means in some sense other than "a Cushite," which is to say, not an Ethiopian. Others assume that is exactly what it means and posit another wife besides Tzipporah from the book of Exodus; a woman from Cush.

Be that as it may, I think the most parsimonious explanation is to bear in mind Habakkuk 3:7 - "The curtains of Cushan were troubled, and the tents of Midian were shaking." In its use of parallelism the prophet equates Cushan (כושן) and Midian. Could כושית just mean "a woman of כושן"? Yes, I think so.

Opening up my JPS Jewish Study Bible (pg. 308) I see a comment (the annotator for Numbers in this volume is Nili S. Fox) :

Two explanations are possible: (1) This reference is to Zipporah, "Cushan" being part of Midian (Hab. 3:7); (2) Moses married a second woman in Egypt, a Nubian (= Cush). The latter is more plausible since Nubia was part of the Egyptian empire and dark-skinnned women were considered beautiful, as reflected in the Targum's rendition of Cushite as "beautiful."

I do not know what justifies the latter as more plausible, since the latter must posit a character that had never been mentioned and comes awfully close to being a Deus ex machina. Either way, I don't know the the origin of this explanation I favor. Since I do not believe I arrived at it independently, nor do I believe that Nili S. Fox was mechadesh it, I will have to confess that I don't know. But I am sure it is not a medieval Jewish explanation,*** nor a medieval (or earlier) Christian one.

In other words, one must note that none of the classic or not-so-classic commentators thought of Hab. 3:7. Although the results of modern philology, archaeology and other kinds of critical study was not available to them, almost every one of them knew the text of the Bible practically, if not literally, by heart. It seems unlikely that this explanation should have eluded all the "very smart, very exacting, very sensitive exegetes" (if I may quote myself)! Ordinarily this should give one pause. One must consider if all those people, or at least some of them, did make the connection but rejected it as a plausible explanation. If so, why? Since all of them are silent while usually at least one of the exegetes will discuss a possibility that they reject, one is inclined to believe that this simply did not occur to any of them. That is, they didn't reject it if they didn't consider it!

Is it possible that the true peshat, the true authorial intent of this little story in the Chumash was not discerned until relatively recently? That seems so farfetched! And yet, the exegetes themselves offer convincing peshat explanations which had not been given and evidently not thought of before their time. Why should there be a cap on original and true (or likely) exegesis? Did not Rashi acknowledge that every day he was refining his understanding of the peshat?

A justly famous example of a success of a modern discipline (archaeology) shedding light on what is almost certainly the correct peshat (authorial intent).

Sure: maybe my preferred explanation here is flawed. But why? Tell me what's wrong with it. Is it that no one seems to have understood it that way until recently? Is it that she should have been called a "Cushanite" instead of "Cushite"? Help me out here.

Edit:***I must confess that I have embarrassed myself. Shortly after posting this it was pointed out to me that Ibn Ezra says this explanation! Clearly this is where I first heard the explanation. Furthermore, it basically invalidates almost the entire post, as I meant to give a practical example of a new explanation which seems correct. In this I failed. However, I will leave this post unedited so as not to alter my own history. Furthermore, some of the issues and questions I raised are still worth pondering.

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