Isaac on Jewish and Christian Altars: Polemic and Exegesis in Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria, D. Schoenfeld (New York, Fordham University Press: 2013) 229. *


The two most widely read commentaries on the Bible in the Jewish and Christian Middle Ages were Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria. Both were composed at roughly the same time, Rashi having died in 1106 and Gilbert of Auxerre having died in 1135. Both evolved in roughly the same area: northern France/Germany. Both works went through a long and complicated process of formation and redaction, with copyists and editors taking what, today, would be a rather free hand in the transmission of these commentaries. And both served as the basis for several centuries of study in the yeshivot or in the cathedral schools of Northern Europe.


Both Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria were composed and edited at a time when biblical exegesis was crucial to both traditions. Both drew upon earlier learned traditions. Both adopted a variety of exegetical strategies, with the Glossa Ordinaria even composing an interlinear commentary side by side with a commentary composed of citations from identified earlier sources. What could have been the relationship between these two great commentaries of the early Middle Ages?


Devorah Schoenfeld addresses this question very forthrightly, using the respective commentaries on the near-sacrifice of Isaac (the Akeda) as a lens through which to focus her analysis. Having drawn the parallels listed above, Schoenfeld makes it clear that there is no question of direct influence. Neither quotes the other. Rashi did not read Latin and the Hebrew of the Glossa Ordinaria is largely drawn from earlier Christian sources, particularly Jerome. Still, the context and the style would lead one to think that there must be something in common.


Schoenfeld points to the fact that both Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria were written and transmitted during a period of  “deteriorating” Christian-Jewish relations. This is, after all, the period of the build up to, and then of the actual, Crusades which, from the Jewish point of view, meant large scale murder of the Jews by religiously motivated Christians. The First Crusade (1096-99) occurred during the life time of both authors, and the Second (1145-49) and Third Crusades ((1189–1192) during the life time of their respective copyists, redactors, and commentators. The literature of the Jews during this period includes the searing chronicles and raging poetry of the Jews, many of whom chose to commit mass suicide rather than be captured and tortured by the Christians. For the Jews, martyrdom took the form of ritual sacrifice of their children, that is, of completed sacrifices of endless Isaacs, of a living Akeda in which no angel intervened.


A Jewish and a Christian commentary on Genesis 22 was, then, not a simple exegetical matter. Who is the hero of the story? Who is ultimately justified, theologically? Who is the intended audience? Who is the other (the donkey, the servants, Satan)? Both Jewish and Christian commentaries to the Akeda were, Schoenfeld proposes, vigorously polemical in intent. As such, each commentary had to form a coherent narrative of the theology of the Akeda, one that defends one’s own tradition and negates the other.


For the Christians, the Akeda was salvific. It asserted the chosenness of Christendom. It praised Abraham’s obedience to the will of God. It placed Isaac on the altar like the eucharist. It foreshadowed the ultimate redemption of humankind in Jerusalem through the crucifixion of Christ. And it identified the Jews as those who do not believe. For the Jews, the Akeda was also salvific. It praised Abraham’s overpowering love of God, and it praised Isaac’s enthusiastic willingness to be sacrificed, even as it read the Akeda as a call to martyrdom. It foreshadowed the ultimate redemption through the restoration of the temple and its sacrifices. And it identified the other as “the nations of the world” and Satan. For both Jewish and Christian tradition, the near sacrifice of Isaac was a story of redemption through suffering, in the past and in the present, and an ultimate justification of faith in God’s choosing love (esp. 10, 88-92).


 Schoenfeld artfully sidesteps the issue of “literal” commentary and systematically sets forth her thesis. Chapter One introduces the context and the issues. Chapters Two and Three are a presentation of the sources and complex transmission of Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria, respectively. Chapter Four sets forth her conclusions. Two appendices give a critical edition and translation of the actual texts. The whole is finished with notes and a bibliography. A very concise, well-informed argument, clearly presented. This book which argues for a “typological reading” of the near sacrifice of Isaac by contemporary but isolated Jewish and Christian sources is a significant contribution to medieval biblical scholarship.


* RRT 21:4 (Sept. 2014) 527-29.