Our Master, May He Live
by Avraham Grossman, translated by Joel Linsider
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 344 pp., $64.50
I spent the summer after high school in the Poconos with a group of other recent graduates learning how to become a Camp Ramah counselor. One of our teachers was a remarkable young Israeli, a Jewish type none of us had yet encountered. He had a long, squared-off black beard, a high forehead crowned with a knitted kippa, khaki shorts, and army boots. He taught us “Chumash with Rashi,” effortlessly leafing through his well-thumbed Hebrew Pentateuch with the medieval commentators. Whether we understood it or not, he was making the case that Rashi was not just solving problems of biblical interpretation, he was also arguing that God’s love for the Jewish people was the main point of the Bible. For our teacher, Dov Rappel, who went on to a distinguished intellectual career in Israel, this was as true nowadays as when Rashi wrote it.
Jewish biographies are everywhere, but few if any subjects can lay claim to the importance of Rabbi Shlomo b. Isaac (1040–1105), commonly known by the acronym Rashi (on which, more later). Avraham Grossman, a distinguished medieval Jewish historian, professor emeritus at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, is arguably the most learned scholar today writing about the life and works of Rashi. This biography originally appeared in Hebrew in a series produced by The Zalman Shazar Center, whose other subjects include classical figures such as 10th-century Baghdadi rabbinic master Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides, as well as iconic moderns like Theodor Herzl and the poet Leah Goldberg, all of them written by comparably distinguished experts for the general Israeli reader.