REVIEW: Avigail Rock, Parshanei HaMikra (Maggid Publications), 420 pp.
I was first introduced to the world of exegesis by a young and ambitious ninth-grade Humash teacher. In her class we students had a difficult enough time understanding the plain sense of the biblical text, let alone decipher the meaning and historical context of the commentaries. We covered little ground that year, but for the first time I understood that commentators were people whose work emerged from a cultural context that left indelible marks on their written contribution to Torah study. Five years later, as a student in Stern College for Women, I delved deeper into this world in Mordechai Cohen’s exegesis courses which were breathtaking in their depth and rigor. Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Radak were no longer fine print, but representatives of worlds past that had relevance to our Jewish present.
Reading Parshanei HaMikra—a new Hebrew book published posthumously by the late Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Rock z”l—transported me back to those invigorating days of my early explorations of Tanakh commentaries. In a work of sweeping breadth, Rock offers the reader a coherent, authentic, and graceful guide into the world of biblical exegesis. Her set goal is to explore Torah commentaries, but she also brings examples from the Prophets when needed to better understand the commentators’ worldview or unique contribution to biblical exegesis (see the chapter on Ri Kra, for example).
Avigail Rock was known throughout communities in Israel, North America, and England as a beloved adult educator. She had a unique ability to combine rigorous literary analysis with inspiring educational messages that spoke to students of all levels and cultural backgrounds. Her untimely passing in July 2019 left behind a vibrant family and a book not yet published, which her husband and friends worked to bring to light as soon as possible.
Parshanei HaMikra travels through exegetical history in chronological order, beginning with post Second-Temple Targum and Onkelus—explaining these works’ value as commentaries and not “mere” translations—and reaches modern 20th-century figures such as Rabbis Umberto Cassuto Mordecai Breuer (in a chapter penned by the author’s husband, R. Yehuda Rock). The volume transports us through time and place, weaving through France, Spain, Italy, Provence, Germany, and modern Israel. The commentators lived through crusades and expulsions, wars and wanderings. Some of the most moving passages in the book are when Rock highlights the commentators’ personal struggles, often hinted to overtly or covertly in piyyut form in their works’ introductions or closing remarks. Physical suffering, early deaths, and poverty plagued many of them, sometimes due to their devotion to Torah study. It is perhaps a small comfort that their works continue to stir the minds and hearts of modern readers.
Rock’s book is wide-ranging and ambitious in its scope. While it includes longer chapters on those correctly regarded as the major figures in classical biblical exegesis, such as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Ramban, the book covers over 20 others, including lesser-studied commentators such as R. Yosef Ibn Caspi and Ralbag. Rock makes use of academic scholarship, transmitting its wisdom and insights to us, while still presenting an engagingly readable work.
While she writes with minimalism and maintains an academic distance from her subjects, Rock’s gentle hand is felt throughout. For example, she discusses a classic debate regarding Rashi’s commentary. While Rashi claims to bring peshat explanations, he often resorts to midrashic ones. Nechama Leibowitz was of the opinion that Rashi only brought midrashic explanations when he could find no other way to explain the verse according to its plain sense. However, most scholars did not view him as such a peshat purist. According to this majority view, Rashi often cites midrashic explanations because of their educational and spiritual value. This is one of the few places in which Rock overtly states her opinion in a debate, agreeing with the majority, while also being a self-proclaimed disciple of Leibowitz (51). She ardently presents her view that Rashi’s sense of communal leadership and desire to educate the spirit of his readers often pushed him to bring midrashic explanations.
Rock shows her true colors as a student of Leibowitz by virtue of her focus on exegesis—analyzing what the giants on whose shoulders we stand said about the Bible, and less on the biblical text itself. Leibowitz was known for bringing lesser-known commentaries to public awareness, and Rock does this in a noteworthy manner as well. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi, a 14th-century commentator from Provence and the topic of Rock’s doctoral thesis. She brings the reader a surprising number of personal reflections from his commentary, including his unique reverence for the biblical Joseph with whom he identified because of shared character traits and their shared name.
Another strength of Rock’s writing is her ability to consolidate layers of academic debate into coherent and insightful summary statements. For example, in the combined summary of Northern French commentators and introduction to Spanish exegetes, she concludes with the following section titled “Differences Between the Schools of Thought”:
We can summarize the differences between Northern French exegesis and Spanish exegesis by explaining that the Northern French school was based largely on traditional sources and ideas, what one could call “internal ideas,” for they were not at all based on ideas influenced by the Christian worldview and culture in which they were written (even according to those who argue that the peshat methodology was influenced by Christian scholars, the content and the tools are entirely Jewish). In contrast, Spanish exegesis draws its tools from traditional and extra-traditional sources because the varied fields of study that Spanish rabbinic scholars were exposed to left an indelible mark on their exegetical style (translation mine).
Rock’s book brims with noteworthy summaries, such as this, essential to a basic understanding of different exegetical traditions. Her discussion of post-enlightenment exegetes—such as Netziv, S.R. Hirsch, Shadal, David Tzvi Hoffman, and Cassuto—comprise less of the book’s volume but are no less valuable for modern teachers and readers. These exegetes, responding to a post-enlightenment world, contend with biblical criticism and academic Bible study by illustrating a blending of disciplines. For example, Rock draws our attention to the Italian-Israeli Cassuto (1883-1951). She observes that his goal in marshaling his impressive knowledge of the ancient world in crafting his commentary was to arrive at an understanding of Torah that our earliest forefathers in the Ancient Near East would have possessed, and thus aid our recovery of the initial meaning of the Torah (407). While Cassuto may not have conformed to classical interpretations of “Torah from Heaven,” he nevertheless approaches the Torah text as one harmonious unit. This approach is different from Hoffman who states in his introduction to Leviticus that his exegesis is based on the predetermined conclusion that Moshe authored the entire Torah (383). These chapters present the reader with accessible alternative theologies still needed by modern students of Torah.
Avigail Rock’s book can benefit Tanakh teachers and students worldwide. Parshanei HaMikra provides a broad historical perspective on exegesis that is required by all Torah educators, facilitating higher-level discussion and use of biblical exegesis. In this work the commentators come alive as sages who questioned and provided responses to spiritual dilemmas that occupy the minds and hearts of Jews still. It is my hope that the English translation of the book, which is in the early stages of production, will make this asset more widely available to educators and Tanakh-learners around the globe, enabling Avigail Rock’s teaching and scholarship to continue to touch her students of past, present, and future.
Dr. Yosefa (Fogel) Wruble is a Ramit in Migdal Oz and a Yoetzet Halakha. She is a Tanakh lecturer in Matan’s Jerusalem Branch, and the host of Matan’s podcast, One on One: Women Talk Torah.