Sadness and Memory - Rashi - Elie Wiesel

Rashi - Elie Wiesel (2009)

Chapter 4. Sadness and Memory

Rashi was fifty-five at the time of the first Crusade: rumors about it must have reached him. How did he react?

Let us broaden our canvas.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a time of political turmoil, military turbulence, and religious upheavals. Christendom and Islam pursued their religious wars by making territorial conquests. Norway, Sweden, Burgundy, Spain, France … too many kings wanted to reign over too many countries. The Byzantine emperor Roman III seized Syria. In Constantinople, Patriarch Michael I Cerularius was excommunicated, precipitating the schism between the Christian East and Christian West. Benedict IX, a corrupt and cruel man, was crowned pope only to be deposed and reelected. He then sold his title and office to Gregory VI who abdicated a year later. In the Islamic world the situation was hardly more commendable. Shiites and Sunnis lived in fear and with the constant desire to win supreme domination through violence. There was the victory of William the Conqueror at Hastings and his tumultuous reign; the invasion of the Byzantine Empire by the Turks; the appearance of anti-Papists; Rome’s efforts to weaken the authority of the local princes; Gregory VII’s excommunication of the German king Henry IV; the latter’s forced walk to Canossa in penitence; the battles among Arabs for the reconquest of Spain; the capture of Capua by Robert Guiscard’s Norman troops …

What a century!

Before it drew to a close, Rashif ed-din Sinan founded the secret Shiite society called the hashishiyyin, or “assassins,” whose suicidal and murderous fanaticism is still active today. Sent to the four corners of the Islamic empire, its leaders trained flawlessly efficient professional assassins whose record of achievements would make the best specialists under contract to the Mafia jealous.

And what about the Jewish world?

While the Gentiles were busily waging bitter battles and bloody wars among themselves, by and large they still found time to take their anger out on the Jews. But less so in the eleventh century. Chroniclers related no major catastrophe. The Jews in Europe and in the Holy Land lived in relative safety, which means in relative danger. In Spain, for instance, they enjoyed the fruits of the Golden Age, a time so vibrant in our collective memories. The great thinker and poet Shmuel ha-Nagid was commander in chief of the armies of the Catholic kings; his role in the defeat of the Muslims on several battlefields has never been questioned. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and Yehuda ha-Levi paved the way for Maimonides…. The prevailing sentiment must have been, “Let’s hope it lasts!” Well it didn’t last. For the Jews of Western Europe the century ended in a deluge of blood, fire, and death, all in the name of a man who was born Jewish of Jewish parents, whose beautiful dream was to bring love into the hearts and souls of believers.

The Crusades. We have returned to the topic.

Don’t be surprised, reader; we are not drifting away from our main subject. The Crusades concern Rashi.

It is impossible to read or reread the blunt and detailed chronicles of the period without feeling a broken heart and being overcome with despair.

It all started in Clermont-Ferrand on November 27, 1095, when Pope Urban II appealed to the Christians to go to Jerusalem and use force to liberate Christ’s tomb and all the holy shrines then under Muslim rule.

Initially, the undertaking was directed against Muslims alone. The Jews were not to be affected. But some members of the French Jewish community had forebodings. Based on what? We don’t know; all we know is they sent emissaries to their relatives and friends in Mainz and Worms advising them to prepare themselves for riots. Strangely incredulous, too confident, the Jews of Mainz and Worms sent the messengers away, with their messages, back to the Jews of France. Yet the French were right. When they started their crusade down the Rhine and the Danube, the Crusaders, blind with hatred, inflicted suffering and agony on the thousands upon thousands of Jews living in Cologne, Mainz, Worms, and Speyer who refused to convert to Christianity.

In some places, the Crusaders met with Jewish resistance; in others, the majority of Jews chose martyrdom. The first martyr, a woman, refused to be baptized and chose to die voluntarily. A great many coreligionists followed her example. The story of their behavior is unbearable to read. In synagogue courtyards, men recited blessings and prayers and then stabbed their wives and children to death. “Accept baptism and you will live,” shouted the Crusaders wherever they suddenly appeared, like ghosts in a blaze of violence and horror. “We believe in God, in our one God,” replied the Jews before dying. In some chronicles it is reported that the Crusaders entertained themselves by slashing open the bellies of pregnant women, putting live cats inside, and sewing them up.

In his masterly book on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in Jewish history, the great scholar and teacher Shalom Spiegel quotes a passage in Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan’s book on the disasters of 1096. When the Crusaders entered Mehr, a village on the banks of the Rhine, the local lord delivered his Jews to them. Threatened with ugly humiliation, torture, and death, some Jews let themselves be baptized. Others were slaughtered. One man called Shmaya bribed an official who helped him escape with his wife and three sons. Then the official betrayed them. At night Shmaya slit the throats of his wife and their three children and plunged the knife into his own chest. He lost consciousness, but did not die. The next day, when the Crusaders found him lying on the ground, they said to him, “Convert to our faith and you shall live.” But he answered, “May heaven protect me from renouncing the living God!” So the villagers dug a grave. The saintly Shmaya placed his wife on one side and his three sons on the other, and lay down in the middle. And the mob began to throw earth on their bodies. He was covered with earth but was still alive. They took him out. “Confess your sins and you shall live,” they said to him. He refused. They put him back in the grave, but he was still alive. They took him back out again. “Are you ready to abandon your God?” The holy man, in his last breath, refused to exchange what was great and eternal for what was not…. He passed the test, as had Abraham the father, in bygone days! Oh, Blessed be He …

Why did so many men and women in the Rhine provinces choose martyrdom through suicide whereas their brothers and sisters in the Sephardic countries reacted differently? Is this due to a different mentality or to a different interpretation of the Law? Gershon Cohen published a remarkable essay on the subject. But this is not the topic at hand. The Crusades are.

When the Crusaders, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, swept into Jerusalem, they devastated the City of God and brutalized its inhabitants. Jews and Muslims combined forces and put up a courageous and relentless resistance, but they were outnumbered. The Crusaders locked up a group of Karaites in a synagogue and set it on fire. The entire group was burned alive.

Litanies and lamentations were composed describing the barbarity of the murderous invaders and the deaths of their victims. They are still recited today, on appropriate dates.

Did Rashi know what was happening in those distant lands? Word must have reached him. What does he say on the subject?

As mentioned earlier, when the first Crusade began, Rashi was fifty-five years old. He would live another ten years. He worked more, and better, than usual. His creativity was boundless. Pamphlets, halakhic decisions, new commentaries, the revision of earlier ones: he surpassed himself.

But how was this possible psychologically? How had he managed not to see, hear, or know what was going on so close to his own city? Were his powers of concentration so great and sustained? Admittedly, for incomprehensible reasons, neither his family nor his community suffered. Oddly, Troyes was miraculously spared. But Mainz and Worms, two cities he knew well for having spent years there with his mentors, were not far away; travelers and messengers went back and forth regularly. Rashi must have had reports, if only scant ones, of the bloodbaths that had taken place in those cities. Proof: in his commentary on the Psalms, one senses his inability to hide or contain his anguish. Of course, technically, he is commenting on ancient, biblical times, but we can guess that he is actually describing his own times.

In some of his litanies of penitence, he implores God to collect the tears of children in His chalice. And he implores the holy Torah to intercede up high in favor of those who give up their lives for His glory.

Are these remarks related to the tragic events that were then unfolding in so many communities on the banks of the Rhine and far away, in Palestine?

Is his beautiful introduction (unique in its kind) to the Song of Songs a response—his response—to the pain and misfortune that have befallen his people? It expresses a stirring, very moving appeal. His aim: to bring consolation and hope to the persecuted. He says: “This song has often been commented on in the Midrashic sources, but I say that King Solomon had foreseen the time when the Children of Israel would be deported from one exile to another, from one disaster to another. And that they would lament, while recalling their past glory and the love that made them different from others. And they will remember the promises made by God.” And, Rashi adds, citing the prophets, “God will reassure them, saying that He too remembers the promises, and that their marriage is still valid: He did not send them away, Israel is still His wife and He will return to her.”

Let us recall that for centuries, the faith of the Jewish people had been subjected to harsh trials in many lands. But never before with the same forceful cruelty as in Rashi’s century. There were powerful elements within Christendom for whom the conversion of the Jews represented a supreme duty.

The Crusades did not come about suddenly like a clap of thunder. The groundwork had been laid by a social and religious anti-Semitism, by a noxious and sometimes lethal poison that bides its time and then strikes.

Usually the Jews resisted temptations and threats. But there were exceptions: voluntary conversions.

Rashi had to answer a question concerning a converted man who chose to return to the Jewish faith: what was the proper attitude to have toward him?

In fact, the Troyes community had already raised this problem much earlier in a letter to Rabbenu Gershom, the Light of Exile. A man who had converted voluntarily, a Cohen—hence a descendant from the line of Aaron—repented. Should he be allowed to take up his previous life? Could tradition be followed and could he be summoned to read the Torah before the others? The Cohens also have the task of blessing the assembly. Should this man be allowed to do so?

Rabbenu Gershom’s answer was positive in both cases. His argument, of a general character, is simple and human. He is against any discrimination or humiliation of the reformed man and his family if he was coerced into converting. (This happened to his very own son.) Worse: whoever reminds him of his baptism will be banished forever. Having recovered his rights as a Jew, all the biblical and Talmudic laws are applicable; they must be protected and respected. But if he converted voluntarily, not under duress, from inner conviction, he will be treated more harshly. By choosing apostasy in good conscience he excluded himself from the community of Israel. And then, having become an example, he will have crossed the point of no return.

Let us not forget: the number of forced and voluntary conversions at the time was very great. The spiritual leaders were duty-bound to remedy the situation by helping only the former to return, reintegrate into their communities, take their place in it, submit to their obligations, and reconquer their rights. After all, doesn’t the Talmud state that a Jew, even one who is at fault and a sinner, remains a Jew?

Rashi adopted the same line. Was it because of the Crusades, which, for the past six years, led to the shedding of Jewish blood wherever they appeared, with the sound and fury of unleashed fanaticism?

Rashi, whose leniency toward the victims was without bounds, does everything possible to safeguard their Jewish faith, even if secrecy has to be maintained temporarily.

He asks why galbanum, with its bad odor, was added to the incense of the Temple in Jerusalem? In order to teach us that even sinners belong to the community of Israel: together, their common prayers rise to heaven. The repentant transgressor is our brother. God is the God of us all. And we are His people.

We are back to our initial theme. Amar Rabbi Yitzhak, Rabbi Yitzhak says: why does the Torah start with the story of the genesis of the world rather than the first law?

This is better understood if we place Rashi’s oeuvre and thought in its historical context.

On the one hand, Rome was saying to the Jews: come to us; you are no longer God’s people; we are His people. It is we who carry His word, His promise. But Rashi is entitled to say: so long as a Jew remains faithful to God, God remains faithful to him.

And on the other hand?

At the time, Christians and Muslims were at war over the ownership of a small strip of land called Palestine. Each side sacrificed their sons to possess it. So the Jew Rashi reminds them of this ancient legend:

One day the nations of the world will tell the Jews, this land is ours; you stole it from us. And we will reply: the land belongs to God; He alone has the right to say who will live there. And He gave this land to us.

As mentioned already, Rashi completed his biblical commentaries, but not his Talmudic ones. They were completed by his close disciples.

The expression “kaan niftar rabenu,” “here, in this spot, our Teacher died,” or “kaan hifsik rabenu,” “here our Teacher interrupted his work,” occurs three times in his commentary of the Talmud. In Tractate Baba Batra, the text is clear: “What preceded was Rashi’s commentary; what follows is that of his grandson, Rashbam.” In the Pizarro edition, the information is more explicit: “Here Rashi left this world.” In Tractate Makkot (criminal punishment), the rhythm of the text is suddenly interrupted: “Our Teacher who lived and worked, pure in body and soul, ended his task here. From now on, it is Rabbi Yehuda bar Nathan who is speaking.” In Tractate Pesahim (Passover), the interruption is more succinct: “This is the commentary of Rabbi Shmuel, Rashi’s disciple.”

It is clear: Rashi had interrupted his work several times.

The last years of his life were trying. Was it because of the depressing news that came from communities not so far away? He became ill. He had difficulty writing. Often he dictated his responsa, to Rabbi Azriel or Rabbi Yosef, for instance. He said so in his letters: “I don’t have the strength to hold a pen in my hand.” But even in a world where, in some places, because of ancient, hate-filled, brutal reasons, Death is glorified, his message remains alive and an admirable celebration of life.