Rashi on Isaiah 53: Exegetical judgment or response to the Crusade?
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What I think all this means is that the vicarious atonement interpretation of Isaiah 53 demonstrably exercised a powerful, even compelling attraction for some medieval Jews other than Rashi on purely exegetical grounds. Thus, they either engaged in manifestly forced acrobatics in order to avoid it or they endorsed it despite the fact that it was contrary to their theological interests. There is every reason to assume that when Rashi proffered it, he was expressing precisely this attraction. It may be that his identification of the servant as Israel was driven by both textual and polemical considerations, but it is highly likely that his perception of the straightforward meaning, or pešat, played a critical role. ¶ Let me conclude with one more observation. The view that Rashi was motivated to explain the text in a way that deviated from precedent out of theological motives -– that is, in order to account for the tragedy that befell the Jews of the Rhineland in 1096 -– requires us to weigh the likely attractiveness in his eyes of a theology of Jewish suffering as atonement for the nations. To put the matter sharply, would Rashi really have constructed a conviction that Jews were murdered during the Crusade to atone for the sins of their murderers out of theological rather than exegetical motives? On a broader canvas, medieval Jews regularly wrestled with the problem of exile and suffering, providing a broad range of explanations.¹ Outside of commentaries on Isaiah 53, I have not found a single instance, either in Rashi or elsewhere, where the proposed explanation was that the Jewish people suffers in order to atone for the sins of its oppressors.² In formulating his interpretation of Isaiah 53, Rashi was not driven by a theological imperative; his understanding of a difficult passage drove him to set a theological obstacle aside and to propose an interpretation that may have made him at least somewhat uneasy. ¶ My hope is that this presentation has implications that go beyond Isaiah 53 by illustrating a means of assessing what exegetes considered the pešat of a passage by approaching the matter through the back door – not by meeting the notoriously difficult challenge of defining and applying their definition of pešat directly, but by looking at manifestly anomalous exegesis that points to the interpretations that they were desperately trying to avoid.²¹
Berger, D. (2021). Rashi on Isaiah 53: Exegetical judgment or response to the Crusade? In E. Krinis, N. Bashir, S. Offenberg, & S. Sadik (Eds.). Polemical and Exegetical Polarities in Medieval Jewish Cultures: Studies in Honour of Daniel J. Lasker (pp. 301–316). De Gruyter.
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