Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who cares how old Rivka was? - reading Rashi within his own paradigm

When my wife brought home the Jewish Star from the supermarket, the title of Rabbi Billet's article caught my eye and I was tempted to write something. In a nutshell, Rabbi Billet poses the obvious problems with Rashi's suggestion that Rivka was no more than three years old at the time of her marriage and rather than resolve them, he instead introduces alternate interpretations that allow for her being older. This has generated some debate in the blogopshere in many places (VIN seems to be racking up comments at a furious pace) with some people trotting out the usual accusations of apikorsus and what not.

The situation really amounts to a Catch-22 - m'mah nafshach: either you present Rivka as older in order to make the story in Chumash more believeable and sacrifice Rashi, or you salvage Rashi as the "ruach hakodesh" based truth and chalk up all difficulties to our mental frailty at the expense of having a story in Chumash sound that much more unbelievable. The sad thing is that both sides of the debate in blogger-land are too entrenched to see the drawbacks of their own position and the merits of the other side.

What struck me when I read Rabbi Billet's piece is how unsatisfied it left me. Rashi is difficult -- let's make no bones about it. Yes, there are other interpretations -- but how does that help with Rashi? Just adopting those other views doesn't absolve us of our talmud Torah obligation to understand to the best of our ability a Rashi. Isn't that the process of learning which we follow in so many other areas? Tosfos asks a question on Rashi, the Ra'avad challenges the Rambam -- do we stop there any say Rashi is difficult or the Rambam is hard to understand and just accept the other position as correct? Of course not! We say "eilu v'eilu" and try our best to come up with an approach that shows the logical possibility of either position being valid. The same applies here.

The truth is that if one reads the parsha without meforshim, I doubt the issue of Rivka's age would come up. How old was Avraham and Sarah when they married? I don't know, and excuse me for not caring. It would make little difference to my understanding of Chumash. The only reason Rashi introduces a discussion of Rivka's age is to resolve a problem that should bother us. Yitzchak is 40 years old at marriage (25:20), it is only when he reaches 60 years old that Ya'akov and Eisav are born (25:26). Why was there a 20 year delay? The Torah tells us that Rivka had a problem conceiving until Yitzchak prayed on her behalf, but that only begs the question of why he waited 20 years to do so and took no other action like marrying a maidservant as Avraham had done. Rashi suggests that the 20 year delay was a result of Yitzchak waiting 10 years for Rivka to reach puberty and another 10 years before becoming convinced that she would remain sterile if not for miraculous intervention.

Appreciating the context in which Rashi presents these facts is the key to unlocking Rashi's meaning. And given the context, Rashi cannot be "fixed" by reinterpreting Rivka's age on some figurative level - sorry. But another approach is possible, and it is one which I have touched on here before and I suggest it again with some trepidation. Rashi viewed Torah as a closed system, like mathematical system that contains its own axioms and laws of logic. As an analogy, think of Euclid's geometry. Whether or not a perfect plane or triangle exists in reality or the world conforms to Euclid's equations is irrelevant to using the axioms and postulates to derive proofs within the paradigm of the system itself. When quantum theory was first proposed (and I am no expert on this), I don't think Einstein took issue with the mathematics so much as with the idea that these equations represented something real about the way the universe worked. Or to use another analogy, the world of Rashi is like the world of logical positivism in which questions of theology and metaphysics are meaningless because they cannot be evaluated. It's not that there are no answers - it's that since there are no answers these cannot be kashes in the first place. So getting back to the point, Rashi faced one and only one problem -- how to deal with the textual gap of 20 years in Yitzchak's age. He solved that problem by introducing a three year old Rivka. Kashes like how a three year old could consent to marriage or lift a jug of water are like saying the perfect triangle that you created does not exist anywhere in nature -- so what? Rashi is looking only at the text as a closed unit and solving its internal difficulties. End of the story. You may not like Rashi's metholdogy, you may think it creates as many problems in this case as it solves (as the other Rishonim all argue!), but if you take it on its own terms, in its own paradigm (think of Thomas Kuhn), I think you can appreciate what Rashi is doing. The key is accepting the paradigm for what it is and thinking only within its boundaries.

I think this is a yesod in reading Rashis (and other meforshim) that one would sometimes otherwise be forced to simply reject as rationally untenable. The list of difficulties does not stop with the issue of Rivka being three. I doubt one will have success taking each difficulty on a case by case basis and working out a figurative reading or interpretation of Rashi. But neither do I think simply rejecting these difficult Rashis that the student of Chumash is bound to encounter will leave one with a healthy attitude of respect for gedolei haRishonim. What do you think?


  1. >What do you think?

    I think there are two issues, and neither one is served well by "who cares?"

    There is the question of how best to understand Rashi, but there is also a historical, or at least chronological, question. I see no reason not to care about either one. Both are most interesting and most relevant to us.

  2. There is a great difference between those questions. Study of the former question (how to understand Rashi) is a religious obligation. Study of the latter type questions (history, chronology, etc.) are religiously meaningful only to the extent that they bear directly on the understanding of Torah, not as ends in themselves. It was within the context of elaborating on the process of torah study that my comment of "who cares" was made - apologies if that was unclear in the post.
    That is not to say that all questions in life outside the framework of religious study are not worth asking (as you seem to read my words), but simply that whether to devote oneself to these type questions and to which ones is a matter of personal taste and inclination. A question that fascinates you may hold no interest for me and vica versa.
    A talmid chacham who is ignorant of a dispute between Abaye and Rava has failed to meet his religious obligation. A talmid chacham who is ignorant of what century Abaye and Rava lived in suffers no such religious defect and is free to discover such knowledge or ignore it at his own discretion (again, provided it does not impinge on his Torah understandting).

  3. It doesn't have to be religiously meaningful for it to be something other than "who cares." The satisfaction of wholesome human curiosity is not unimportant. If you prefer to teitch such a thing as religiously meaningful, as some might, all the better. If not, I maintain still that it is not a matter of "who cares." For that matter, why shouldn't I want to know what color Rashi's shirt was (I'm sure you get the reference)?

    In any case, your allowing that one is free to delve into such things, or not to, indicates that you don't really think it's a matter of "who cares." Some very serious and thoughtful people do care, even if your view is that serious and thoughtful people also do not care.

  4. Sorry, I didn't read your reply carefully!

  5. I don't really disagree with anything you are saying. After thinking about your comment some more last night I remembered the gemara (Baba Basra 91) which lists the names of Avraham's mother and Shimshon's mother and other such details not found in the text. I see a parallel between that type knowledge and the questions you are speaking of. But the gemara is bothered by this list of details and asks "l'mai nafka minah?" The answer of "tshuvas haminim" seems utilitarian - if it wasn't for the minim annoying us with questions about such trivia, we wouldn't bother to discuss it. IOW, were it not for the minim, Chazal's attitude would be one of "who cares."
    My guess is that the question of "nafka minah" here does not mean "what value does this knowledge have" but means "what relevance does this knowledge have." If you started spouting facts about American history in math class the teacher would object not because knowledge of history has no value, but because it has no relevance to math. Besides which, maybe pursuing knowledge for utilitarian motives is not such a bad thing either (though something inside me really does not like that idea).

  6. As someone for whom the Ibn Ezra's approach has great appeal, I nevertheless feel that Rabbi Billet's presentation comes across as smart-alecky, disrespectful, and self-aggrandizing.

    For me, the issue was not the conclusion, but the tone.

    That tone, I believe, is spiritual poison.

  7. A. Horowitz12:34 PM

    Reb Chaim:

    I noticed that when Rivka leaves, a "manekes" is sent with her. On this point, that Rivka was 3 years old, could this be a clue in the text to support that claim, since maybe the manekes was for her? Just askin'.

  8. Wasn't the weaning age earlier? Chazal assume 2 years (Mishna in Kesubos says you can't marry a nursing woman for 2 years) and Rashi (this needs to work l'shitaso, right?) identifies "b'yom higameil es Yitzchak" (21:8) as 2 years.
    "Meinekes" here maybe means governess or nanny.

    Since you brought it up... why would the Torah go out of its way to tell us that the meinekes went along? And another question that troubled me - at the conclusion of the whole episode the Torah (24:61) says that Rivka and her na'aros (who were these na'aros?) rode on their camels and followed Eliezer. Why the need to mention the fact that they rode camels? Yes, from a literary perspective I think it adds a nice closure to the story - it opens with Eliezer leading camels, shifts to Rivka watering camels, and closes with Rivka then riding the same camels -but is there anything else to it?

  9. Observer11:06 PM

    "Rashi is looking only at the text as a closed unit and solving its internal difficulties"

    Boruch shekivanti! I have been saying this for years, but always get these blank looks. Now I know, I should have thrown in something about logical positivism. ;)

    In the Lubavitcher Rebbe's biurim on Rashi, he seems to follow the same paradigm. That Rasji is telling us pshuto shel mikra, IOW, what is muchrech within the psukim, even if it may go against medroshim.

  10. Observer: can you point me to a sicha that has this idea? What made me think of the idea is the Rogatchover's approach to chumash which views everything as a din and not a historical statement. I am not a Lubavitcher, but I think the Rebbe's derech halimud in other places is very Rogatchover-like. I'm wondering if there is a connection?

  11. Anonymous1:28 PM

    The Rogachever, of course, had Chabad familial roots and affinities.

  12. Observer7:15 AM

    Give me some time, I'll see if I can find some examples.

  13. Avi Billet11:10 PM

    "Who cares" is probably the best question asked here. Of course it isn't important how old Rivkah was. The point of the article was merely to demonstrate that there are conflicting midrashim, and that anyone can pick one over the other. As Tosafos seems to have picked and chosen differently from his grandfather.
    Your explanation that "Rashi faced one and only one problem -- how to deal with the textual gap of 20 years in Yitzchak's age..." and your italicized conclusion of " Rashi is looking only at the text as a closed unit and solving its internal difficulties" leave too much unsaid.
    Sarah was married at least 24 years before she became pregnant. That 85-year old Avram took on a second wife is not comparable, because he had been told by HKBH that he'd have children, his wife is past her child-bearing prime (she's 75), and he is losing patience.
    Yitzchak, on the other hand, has no need to lose patience. He's nowhere near his father's age when he was born. Certainly his wife is nowhere near Sarah's age when Yitzchak was born.
    I have never heard of a "marriage" in the Torah in which there is a waiting period until the wife is "r'uyah l'biah."
    Betrothal, perhaps? Perhaps. But the Torah says she became his wife at that time. Which includes all that marriage entails - veha'mayvin yavin.
    Rashi didn't introduce a 3-year old Rivkah because of the 20 year gap between marriage and childbirth, but because of the "smichus" of the akeidah to news of Rivkah's birth, to news of Sarah's death. Rashi even says so. So let us please not put words into Rashi's mouth. And let us please aproach Torah honestly. And if you want to have a discussion, and want to address the problems with what I've written, please take them up with me. In addition to being all over the internet, my email address is appended to every article I write in the Jewish Star.

    Avi Billet

  14. S Judah5:32 AM

    This is why I go along with the view that Rashi is for the masses, but Ramban is for the scholars.