Rashbam as a “Literary” Exegete
Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), who lived in northern France in the 12th century, was a consistent and perhaps radical exponent of peshat exegesis. He insisted on reading the biblical text in its “plain” sense and in its context, and he eschewed midrashic readings that are not textually anchored. But is the pashtan, the exegete dedicated to the “plain” meaning, always the most careful reader of the biblical text? Logically one would think so. However, the history of medieval Jewish exegesis shows that that was not always the case. Many examples show that some peshat exegesis from this period purposely and self-consciously avoids “close reading” of the biblical text. Rashbam's Sephardic younger contemporary, Abraham Ibn Ezra, argued passionately against “close reading” of texts. In a long tirade in his introduction to the Decalogue and in other passages, Ibn Ezra argues that word choice in the Hebrew Bible is not always of significance, that authors will choose to express themselves differently on different occasions for no particular reason. Rashbam wrote a biblical commentary that does not attempt to “teach” Judaism.
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