Why the Medieval Rabbis Were Not So Medieval

Medieval is sort of a bad word to many people. For me it never has been. Chalk it up to a childhood fascinated with Tolkien and Arthurian legend and the romantic side of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance festival was heaven for me.

Supposedly the Medieval period was a time of intellectual darkness, a scientific and literary famine.

The Christian literary critic, C.S. Lewis, didn’t think so. He wrote that modernism had degraded in many ways from the preferable models of medieval thought. And while I am not against progress or discovery (neither was Lewis), I’d have to say that much we have put our hope in for intellectual salvation has left us dry and hungry. It’s too bad we could not have retained some of the benefits of pre-modernism while gaining from discovery and knowledge in better ways.

It was with appreciation that I just finished reading Edward Greenstein’s article on “Medieval Bible Commentaries” in Barry Holtz’s Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. He says:

The label “medieval” often connotes the cloistered and reactionary, but in Jewish literature, for which there is no “Dark Ages,” the Middle Ages symbolize a peak of scholarship, creativity, philosophy, and writing. Sectarian schisms within the Jewish fold and external pressure, mainly Christian persecution, had the effect of stimulating, not repressing, Jewish expression.

The Joys of Rashi, Ramban, Radak, and More
I discovered the power of the Medieval exegetes when I purchased the Sapirstein Edition Rashi from Artscroll. My previous attempt to read Rashi was frustrating, because the supposedly simple Rashi, a man of few words, is in actuality complex. His comments come in a dialogue with earlier midrash and cannot be understood without the benefit of context. The year I spent in Rashi with the help of Artscroll scholars was one of discovery and joy.

I’m spending this year with Nahmanides, also known as the Ramban. I have the five-volume edition (no Bible text and no Hebrew original, but these are five thick volumes) by Shilo Publishing House. The Ramban is a man of many words.

I’ve found that the medieval exegetes teach me something every time I turn to them. I disagree with them much of the time, just as they disagreed with each other. And actually that was the greatest lesson: learning that Jewish tradition speaks with many voices and leaves much room for choice (a fact misrepresented to me by my exposure to the Orthodox way of thinking I encountered early in my studies).

You might not think that turning the rabbis from the Dark Ages would help, but I learned how much there is to learn from reading those I now regard as masters and I as the pupil.

Peshat and Derash: Islam and the Emergence of Peshat
The subject of peshat and derash, plain meaning and derived meaning, is worthy of an entire post, so I will only briefly explain what they are here. More importantly for this post, I want to share Greenstein’s historical insight into the reasons for the intellectual sharpness of these medieval rabbis.

There were a number of trends in Europe, in Judaism, and in the Islamic world which moved the rabbis toward new ways of viewing the Bible.

Greenstein explains that Islam brought with it a new emphasis on scripture or sacred text, being for Muslims, of course, the Koran. The use of classical philosophy, especially Aristotle, by Arabic theologians, brought an intensity of rational thought about sacred texts and linguistics which challenged the Jewish scholars.

The common model for understanding God’s moral will prior to this period was to preserve traditions about scripture from the classical rabbis (especially the Tannaim, or rabbis up to the time of Mishnah, and Amoraim, the rabbis up to the time of Talmud). The classical rabbis had left a large and complex body of interpretations, stories, and learning in the midrashic literature and Talmud. These interpretations and stories often departed greatly from the plain meaning of scripture and were more about Jewish practice than scriptural interpretation.

Islamic emphasis on sacred text influenced the genesis of a Jewish turn to the Bible as sacred text. The Bible was found worthy of study in its own right and not merely as the underlying text of the rabbinic stories and interpretations of old.

At the same time, a movement arose in Judaism which opposed the traditions of the rabbis and stood on the ground of textual evidence alone. This movement, Karaitism, still has a following today. Yet the medieval rabbis were able to see that abandoning the tradition was going too far. The literalism of the Karaites produced some embarrassing results. The truth is, there was and is much wisdom about practice in the classical rabbinic tradition. Therefore, the medieval exegetes tended to respect both the midrashic traditions as they led to conclusions about practice and contextual, linguistic research into the Bible text. They tended to harmonize them and bring forth the best of both worlds.

From the time of Rashi to his grandson, Rashbam, and later exegetes, the idea of peshat emerged and grew. Greenstein shows that the definition of peshat is not accurately embodied by the idea of literal or plain interpretation. Neither is derash best summed up by mystical, symbolic, or fanciful interpretation. These descriptions only approximate the difference. But I’ll save that discussion for another post in the near future.

Mining the Medieval Exegetes
To me the Torah cycle is a rhythm. Our natural inclination is to want to learn everything at once. In my first years of studying Torah I read too much and absorbed too little. I thought I could master the Torah in six months. Now I hope to be quite sharp in sixty years!

Torah includes many things: history, linguistics, ethics, theology, story, literary artistry, and we cannot forget the experiential aspect which is not reducible to propositions.

In the flood of information we have in our modern world, people want the bottom line, bullet points, summary statements, propositional truths, and pragmatic action steps. Torah does not work this way and resists all attempts to simplify.

Reading the medieval exegetes along with the Torah text teaches us to slow down, to notice more, and to partake in the experience rather than simply looking for answers.

This week, for example, I am in Ramban as the cycle comes to the last reading in Genesis. I have long been inspired by Genesis 49:10, a patriachal blessing that is so obviously a prophecy, a word from a father which laid out millennia of Jewish history in a handful of words.

Ramban gives an extended essay on “the scepter will not depart from Judah,” making it the longest comment of the entire section. He brings together scriptures I would not have correlated. He did this without the benefit of a concordance, but with the vast knowledge of rabbinical sayings on the topic and of the Biblical literature. His depth in the subject leads him to correlate Genesis 49:10 with a verse in Hosea and to reflect on Israel’s history in the books of Kings and later, in the time of the Hasmoneans.

As Ramban brings me into that other world, the world of details and ideas that are easily passed over, I realize that Jacob’s blessing over Judah is one of the keys to understanding Jewish history.

In one part, Ramban examines the seeming contradiction: God said the scepter would be in Judah and yet the first king God appointed was Saul of Benjamin. This was, Ramban says, a king God gave the people in his anger, as it was inappropriate that they would ask for a king at that time, when they had Samuel and the prophetic reign of God meeting their needs.

He goes on to explore the splitting of the kingdom after Solomon, when a prophet of God apparently approved of Jeroboam splitting the rule of the country, which would seem to depart from the principle of the scepter being in Judah. Ramban considers that Jeroboam was a necessary punishment, but that the people should never have gone along with the moving of the sanctuary and that they should have reunited with Judah. He cites Hosea 8:4, “They have set up kings, but not from me.”

Eventually, exploring this path leads Ramban to the time of the Hasmoneans (descendants of the Maccabees). He notes that they began as godly reformers, leading the faithful. But their error came in not following the ancient way of Genesis 49:10. The Hasmoneans were priests, but they sinfully took on the kingship and did not restore the Davidic throne. God punished the Hasmoneans measure for measure, letting their slaves rule over them. Ramban cites a classical rabbinic saying: If anyone claims to be descended from the Hasmoneans, he is a slave, as they were all destroyed on account of their sin.

From memory, Ramban recalls a passage in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud): “We do not anoint priests as kings. Rabbi Yehuda Antarya said this is on account of the verse, ‘The scepter shall not depart from Judah’” (Horayot 3:2).

The medieval sage has brought me from a simple blessing to an exposition of Jewish history. He notes that the captivity of the Jewish people continues as long as the king from Judah is absent. Far from reactionary and cloistered, the Ramban’s meditation on one clause of a sentence evokes hope and admits of present suffering.

Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Eliezer of Beaugency, Joseph Bekhor Shor, David Kimhi (Radak), Nahmanides (Ramban), and Gersonides (Ralbag) are medieval guides whose thoughts should never be dismissed as medieval.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, History, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why the Medieval Rabbis Were Not So Medieval

  1. rebyosh says:


    Great post! LOL … However, I’m sure you may get some push-back from people who will find it hard to swallow the fact that Judaism has been influenced by Islam. Interstingly, Hebrew itself was heavily infuenced by Arabic during this period – introducing not only new vocabulary, but grammar. In fact, as you know, the Rambam primarily wrote in Arabic. And this period began centuries of Jewish texts composed in a form of Judeo-Arabic. A professor of mine at UCLA was one of the world’s experts in Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic and really helped open my mind to this whole new world of Jewish literature. Much of which remains largely untranslated.

  2. Rebyosh (Joshua):

    Greenstein points out that Saadiah Ga’on’s grammar, written in Arabic, has largely been untouched by scholarship and is a very promising and under-utilized source for ancient testimony to meanings of obscure Hebrew phrases. It would be uber-kool if you decided to study his works (hint).

    I am planning to translate Radak and Eliezer of Beaugency on Ezekiel. My language skills need some work, but I hope to get started with a tutor.


  3. Oh yeah, and it turns out that Arabic helped Jewish scholars understand Hebrew!!

    Prior to the use of Arabic by Jewish scholars, there were massive gaps in Jewish understanding fo Hebrew. Arabic does not leave the weak vowels out in verb conjugations (if you know Hebrew, you know that letters like yod, aleph, nun, hey, and vav are omitted in various positions).

    Prior to Jewish study of Arabic, it was not realized that Hebrew was a tri-consonantal root language (that all words have a three letter root). But since Arabic does not omit the weak consonants, study of Arabic revolutionized the study of Hebrew grammar.


  4. judeoxian says:

    Great post Derek. Uber-informative. Makes me want to buy a ton of other commentaries.

  5. tiqun says:

    great post! now i’m really decided on getting the Sapirstein edition Rashi. i’ll be answering your mail soon, thank you

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