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?