The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Comparative Analysis of New Critical Principles and Rashi’s Interpretive Methods


Rachel Frommer

 The New Critic wishes to objectively know what is occurring in a poem and how; his textual investigation occurs in a vacuum through a close reading wherein formal structures are identified and described in scientific literary terms. This movement’s analytical strength, namely, its intense focus on textual form, is similarly found as an emphasis of the interpretative program of Rashi, an eleventh century French Rabbinic exegete of Tanakh and Talmud and progenitor of traditional Rabbinic Judaic exegetics. The principles that form Rashi’s treatment of Biblical verse are derived from a doctrinally different philosophy than the New Critic, yet, Rashi’s behaviors as a commentator are grounded in similar interests as the literary critic: that ambiguities and multiplicity of meaning be resolved through demanding that the text itself resolve them. New Critics reject the passivity of appreciative criticism and simplistic admiration of art’s aesthetics, echoing the Rabbinic exegetical view that the Hebrew Biblical text must be intellectually explicated to be understood


For the New Critic, the text, usually the Poem, is a self-sufficient, self-referencing piece of art. Above any extraneous elements, above the cultural or historical, is the value of the “literariness of literary texts” (Clines 15), and, the text’s idea is revealed not through externally imposed meaning, but by its form. The New Critic wishes to objectively know what is occurring in a poem and how; his textual investigation occurs in a vacuum through a close reading wherein formal structures are identified and described in scientific literary terms. Wordsworthian overflows of emotion are discounted for authorial intent neither “available nor desirable” (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1233) to the literary critic who views texts “as works of art in their own right, rather than as representations of the sensibilities of their authors” (Clines 15). A text’s tensions and ambiguities are resolved into a “coherent intelligible whole” (Clines 15), with unity of meaning revealed through formally disassembling the text at a structural level.

However, this activity is not the entirely revolutionary movement it appeared to be at its height in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Its analytical strength, namely, its intense focus on textual form, is seen in the interpretative program of Rashi, an eleventh century French Rabbinic exegete of Tanakh and Talmud. The commentary of Rashi, the acronymic for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, is aimed at the demographic of the ben ḥamesh la’mikrah – literally, a five year old beginning to learn Torah for the first time – but connotatively referring to Rashi serving as escort through the esoteric jungle of laconic Biblical language (Belvie 67). One does not learn Torah, but Torah with Rashi. Rashi is the progenitor of modern Rabbinic commentary, or, in the words of Nachmanides, the “firstborn” (after Deut. 21:17) in formal Biblical interpretation. The principles that form his treatment of Biblical verse are derived from a doctrinally different philosophy than the New Critic, the commentator functioning as an interpreter and the critic is, as his name would suggest, offering a critique (Clines 12). Yet, Rashi’s behaviors as a commentator are grounded in similar interests as the literary critic: that ambiguities and multiplicity of meaning be resolved through demanding that the text itself resolve them. New Critics reject the passivity of appreciative criticism and simplistic admiration of art’s aesthetics, echoing the Rabbinic exegetical view that the Hebrew Biblical text must be intellectually explicated to be understood.

Using Rashi’s principles of analysis and his commentary on the first chapter of “Song of Songs,” one finds the New Critic’s and Rashi’s mutual interest in the purpose of poetry. Their respective approaches towards rooting out meaning bear significant similarities, especially given Rashi’s particular focus on the p’shat reading method; furthermore, there are important ramifications of Rashi’s added appreciation for drash, allegory, and intertextuality that distinguishes him from the New Critic and perhaps illuminates New Critical blind spots. Such a study demonstrates that the complexity involved in traditional Biblical textual analysis is inherently related to the world of literary criticism, and the close reading tools of both schools inform one’s ability to approach texts literary, secular, and religious.

Poetry: Purpose and Meaning

The acceptance of unresolved tension in the text is an act over which the New Critics and Rashi simultaneously agree and must fundamentally disagree. The Rabbinic response to textual paradox is not to offer conclusive solutions, as demonstrated in the scholarship on Rashi’s commentary of Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, a twentieth century Hasidic leader. Schneersohn consistently proves that “sustained tension” is inherent to Biblical text and it is in balancing “coexisting opposites” that the uncovering of meaning occurs (Freeman). Like the New Critic, Rashi’s interpretative act is the discovery of that which is inherently present in the Biblical text, and he puts pressure on tension to explicate meaning. However, Rashi’s foremost function is as teacher (Miller), anticipating and attending to text-based questions with the larger goal of providing the Torah student with a “greater appreciation of the literal meaning and spiritual message of the Torah text” (Bonchek vol 1, 2). Therefore, even as he does close reading work, and embraces ambiguity, he intends to derive conclusive, spiritual, instructional meaning from the text. This is different from the New Critic’s establishment of poetic aesthetic unity, as Rashi’s is a theologically motivated mission in which the Biblical verse will teach and reaffirm an “all comprised fear of Heaven and the acceptance of the yoke of God’s kingdom.” (Rashi after “Song” 1:1).

However, even the New Critic does allow for the pursuit of moral meaning in poetry, though insisting that it not be externally imposed upon the work. For example, for Yvor Winters, there exists the basic expectation that a poem communicate and shape morality. He insists that a poem “offer us new perceptions, not only of the exterior universe, but of human experience as well; it should add, in other words, to what we have already seen” (“The Morality of Poetry” 233). If it does not do this, the poem has failed. The moral is an aesthetic element, and, as every element of the poem must be implanted in and then retrieved from its structures, the poetic form and the moral message are intertwined (“The Morality of Poetry” 237, 242). Similarly, Rashi expects Biblical verse to offer emendations to an individual’s self-concept and worldview; the text’s form and organization is integral to the message received by the reader. The morality found in verse should, to both Rashi and Winters, enrich the reader’s intelligence, feelings, and have lasting effects on future actions (“The Morality of Poetry” 241). Verse, Biblical and secular, are both of the “moral discipline,” and poetry is the vehicle for these lessons as this form offers “the richest and most perfect technique of contemplation” (“The Morality of Poetry” 241-242). However, unlike the New Critical consideration that there is no single poetic moral register (Ransom 979), Rabbinic exegetes operate under the shared moral standard conceived by the Judaic, monotheistic concept. Thus, there is an essential contrast between the Torah commentator and the critic’s view on the overall purpose of poetry, as the analysis of Rashi and his cohort operate under the singular mandate of God.

Vital to the critic’s derivation of meaning is his appropriation of the right of evaluating the text, an act that Rashi rejects; these contradicting perspectives have direct ramifications on what one believes to be the significance of poetry. The Rabbinic commentator is not seeking answers to “questions of value” (Clines 14), as, for him, no Biblical verse can ever be discarded as flawed or incomplete because the author is God; every textual moment is thus of transcendental importance. It is necessary that every verse, word, and letter be considered perfectly crafted and significant. While Wimsatt and Beardsley “demand that it work” of their literary texts (1233), Rashi analyzes Torah on the presupposition that it does work; in his view, inscrutable meaning is always indicative of the reader’s failure to comprehend, never of a poorly constructed text. The Biblical verse does not have to prove itself to be successful; the text is grappled with, but never discarded or discounted. However, the New Critic retains, indeed requires, the ability to evaluate, to state if a poem succeeds as a piece of art. Otherwise “all poetry is worthless” (Winters, “Preliminary Problems” 75). Even while the New Critic admits that his value placements are “hopelessly subjective” (Brooks 216), and that absolutism is impossible, he insists that he must provide evaluative remarks or concede “the concept of poetry itself” (Brooks 216). A Rabbinic commentator would contest Yvor Winter’s statement that, “Probably no poem is perfect in the eye of God” (“Foreword” 231), for Biblical poetry, such as the “Song,” is considered free of stylistic or structural shortcomings. The text is highly difficult, and to some it may appear impenetrable, but it is essentially perfect; conversely, the critic takes imperfection as an inevitability. The New Critic and Rashi both hope to make objective, “normative judgements” (Brooks xi) towards the text’s meaning, but the former adds the expectation of proposing discriminatory judgements. A poem can be a failure for the New Critic, but Biblical verse is always triumphant to Rashi, even if he must concede that its meaning is enormously elusive, as he sometimes will.

Nevertheless, both New Critics and Rashi would agree that poetic meaning is imbedded in its ambiguities, and that it is the difficulty of the language that can encourage a reader’s resignation when comprehension appears elusive. When a text that critics deem an aesthetic success confounds readers, they may dismiss the text as simply unknowable, or, having found the words inscrutable, determine that the text has failed. However, if one intends to make the argument for verse, and that textual ambiguities are not “irrelevant and therefore trivial,” then the readers “require some kind of justification” (Empson 104). Like the New Critic, this is where Rashi’s inquiry begins.

Rashi’s Interpretive Principles: P’shat

The complexity involved in exploring Rashi’s programmatic analytical methods begins with the necessary business of defining Rashi’s foundational self-imposed stricture of being solely concerned with p’shat. Torah’s p’shat is the first-level reading in a group of four primary dimensions used to interpret the Biblical text; the other three are remez, allusions, derush, homiletic and narrative exegetics, and sod, the mystical, referred to as group by the acronym PaRDeS; each involve greater overt esoteric complexity. Fascinatingly, Empson designs a parallel reading process in the arrangement of his ambiguities in increasing distance from simple statement and logical exposition to the more abstruse (7).

However, though Rashi’s stated interpretative interests are in service of analyzing p’shat (Belvie 67), one must recognize that p’shat has obscure definitive parameters; this issue is only aggravated when attempting a translation of the word. The most common English phrases for p’shat include “the plain meaning” or “the literal meaning,” as p’shat interpretation is directly concerned with the Biblical text and context with little to no reference to external sources (Bonchek vol 1, 1). A p’shat reading does not imply a commentator’s description of that which is easily or obviously gleaned; if that were so, Rashi’s analysis would be unnecessary, or he would function simply as a dictionary reading of heightened vocabulary. Rather, p’shat treats “the text as it is,” considering the verse’s “language, syntax, context, genre, and literary structure” in order to make sense of the meaning (Jephet 202). Thus, neither “plain,” nor “literal,” nor “simple” alone engage the full scope of p’shat; one must construct some fused sensibility of all these terms, perhaps a concept closer to the “rational.” In an echo of Rashi’s specified p’shat interests, Winters writes explicitly that “rational content cannot be eliminated from words,” and, consequently, rational content cannot be eliminated from poetry and is immutably related to the feeling a poem creates (“Preliminary Problems” 77). For Rashi, understanding p’shat is paramount, as one cannot proceed any further into Torah interpretation without first establishing that dimension (Belvie 67). Rashi is not a paraphraser, but works intimately with the text to determine what the language means; he is not merely reconstituting the language into more digestible terms, but provides analytical insight as he picks apart the text. This insistence that the Torah text inherently bears polysemous imagery whose meaning can be driven at through a p’shat reading method is strikingly similar to the New Critical perspective.

However, Rashi’s approach to the p’shat differentiates itself from other classical commentators and the New Critics in his invitation of drash into his analysis. P’shat is a reading technique exclusively based on text and context, while drash relieves itself of those limitations, being bound by neither context nor time (Bonchek vol 2, 2). Rashi will sometimes include an extended Biblical narrative or homiletical notation if it serves the direct purpose of his p’shat explanation; such an intertextual reading will occur when Rashi sees seeming “irregularities” in the verse that refuse to be settled without that drashic citation (Bonchek vol 2, 2-3). Such moments are called seeming irregularities as nothing in the Biblical text is understood as inherently unsuccessful or deviant, but, rather, perplexing verse structure, word choice, or repetition is seen as the need for further investigation. Rashi’s allowance of drash would likely be rejected by the New Critics. However, it is arguable that New Criticism was undone by its stringency. If a text demands the attention of a not unrelated secondary text, to ignore the relationship is to be blind to a basic textual element, and the New Critics’ refusal to diversify their reading technique limits the text’s inherent meanings. While the New Critic would argue that a well-written text must suggest all potential readings, Rashi’s methods demand that the text’s own references to external sources ought not be ignored. This is not explication on the basis of allusion or the reader’s erudition, both of which the New Critic allows, but a hermeneutic culling from other texts to inform and contextualize poetic meaning. However, Rashi’s interpretations are always, essentially, derived of the text itself even when influenced by an external source (Belvie 67). Rashi’s ultimate conclusions consist of “a balance between literal translation and one that focuses on the non-literal intent of the Torah’s words.” (Bonchek vol 5, 16).

Rashi’s Reading Style and Textual Concerns

Rashi reads with an attentiveness to the minute alterations and manipulations of Scriptural text, noting the frugality of Biblical language and the critical ways that this style plays into the language. One finds that Rashi’s remarks are calling attention to “subtle difficulties in the Torah text itself—difficulties that, without Rashi’s comment, we would have passed over without a second thought” (Bonchek vol 1, 2). Generally, Rashi has three distinct purposes: the resolution of “various types of difficulties in the text”; attending to “apparent contradictions, puzzling non sequiturs, or unclear passages in the Torah text”; and “negating likely misunderstandings in the text and replacing them with more correct interpretations” (Bonchek vol 1, 2). Each of these rules of Rashi’s interpretive system bear resemblances to New Criticism: the vague “various types” of textual difficulty is the recognition of Rashi’s treatment of structural issues, his attention to “apparent contradictions” align him with Empson’s interests in ambiguity, and his negation of certain readings is similar to the critic’s dismantling of the text based on what he sees as the appropriate, universal analysis. To be sure, Rashi would not have been engaging with textual characteristics with a programmatic view towards mining Biblical verse for its poetical structures. As Robert Alter says, the exegete would be operating “with no real sense that there is a formal system of poetics that defines the operations of units of meaning within the text” (xv). Though Rashi did not consciously develop a total system of the function of verse, he nevertheless exhibits an articulated interest in what the text can tell him through its devices and structures.

Rashi’s comment will often include the proposition of multiple meanings of a word, positing between two and six connotative readings (Hendel), in the same way that a New Critic explores the potentialities of word meanings. On Sidney’s repetition of the words “mountaines, vallies, forrests; musique, evening, morning” in the “Arcadia,” Empson explicates every term individually; the critic demonstrates how, beyond a cumulative sense of monotony, every iteration of each word adjusts the unified poetic meaning (36-37). Additionally, being that the Hebrew Bible is so intensely particular with its language use, and repetition is jarring, Rashi takes the opportunities to comment on the ramifications of a moment of “kaful lashon,” or double language. Rashi will reject those meanings that cannot be applied, for, as Empson notes, just because all potential meanings exist, “that is not to say they were all used” (59). Of course, other New Critics would disagree, as in Wimsatt’s insistence that a word’s potentialities include all of its meanings, including those denotations or connotations that have been changed or added over time (Fry 68). Rashi does not allow for such an unfettered reading as Wimsatt, but he does understand the Biblical language in a context beyond the scope of a given time period, as the Bible is not thought to be bound by such stringencies, but is considered an eternally enduring and relevant text. In Rashi’s case, he will often draw on an Old French term to explain the meaning of a Biblical word or phrase. This was a means of offering his immediate reader a reference point, but also indicative of the extension of the Torah language into all centuries and contexts, though, again, always within certain religious parameters.

Rashi will often use the analytical rule of gezerah shavah, or a comparison of similar expressions in which one identifies stylistic or language-based similarities across the Biblical corpus and uses that parallel to clarify meaning. Cleanth Brooks’s statement that a poet’s style and imagery are often “organically linked” and do “mutually modify each other” (27) somewhat mirrors this behavior, but Brooks insists that to impose more meaning to such patterns beyond that of “happy accident” is to make of the art a “preternaturally cold and self-conscious monster” (23). Conversely, Rashi seriously contemplates the implications of moments of striking similarity in the Bible because it is assumed that it was intentionally done. The meaning is not constricted to its immediate surroundings, but exists within the generous flood of Biblical verse. It is on the basis of the divergent approach to the import of parallelism that Brooks defines “Fancy” and “Imagination”: Fancy instructs the reader not to overlook anything in the text as trivial, but Imagination demands that one not underestimate poetic spontaneity and playfulness that was not consciously constructed (26-27). Rashi will always insist that the language is deliberate and attaches distinct meaning to textual decisions. Empson notes that demonstrating instances of “mutual comparison,” or the relative relationship of a specific poetic quality in two elements, a similar exercise to Rashi’s gezerah shavah, has the potential to elevate the work’s unity, not only degrade (117, 128). Commonly, Rashi’s parallels are based on the deconstruction of the root words of the Hebrew language, a tactic the commentator frequently uses to reveal textual relatedness that leads to the generating of further connotative, figurative potential meanings.

Song of Songs: Rashi and Allegory

The “Song of Songs” text is part of the Ketuvim, or Writings, or Hagiographa, a section of Torah concerned with the prophetic and poetic. Its romantic narrative of a betrothal, marriage, betrayal, and reconciliation told with gorgeous language and sensual, evocative imagery is unique in the annals of the Tanakh. Historically, Rabbis have found the poetry’s overtly sexual content confounding, and, largely, they have turned to an allegorical reading of the love story as a depiction of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The former is the “lover” of the “Song,” and the latter is the “beloved,” the young bride, metaphors used throughout the Bible. When the Jewish nation is unfaithful to its husband, God, the status of a “living widow” is conferred on her; however, God waits for when his bride will recommit to faithfulness (OU Staff). The “Song” is an intense representation of the love a believing Rabbinic Jew feels for God (Scolnic 56); key words in the poetry that appear elsewhere in Biblical literature are read for their contribution to the God-Jew relationship, such as the “house of cedars” that Rashi interprets as a reference to the building of the cedar-wood Tabernacle (after 1:17). More recently, scholarly favor has turned to reading the “Song” as a straight courtship and marriage poem (Hirsch), and the allegorical reading has been dismissed as the contrivance of timid Rabbinical interpretive communities. However, it can be argued that the allegory of love between God and His nation is not an allegory at all, but extreme intertextuality; traditional commentators draw from across the Biblical field to draw out the meaning of the poem (Scolnic 60). Gershon Cohen writes that a holy allegorical reading is “not an imaginary, forced solution [to the erotic undertone] in a situation of ‘no alternative,’” but rather fully anchored in the “literary conventions of the Biblical literature and its figurative language” (Japhet 200). In short, the allegorical perspective is grounded in close reading principles, but with the one, crucial distinction in allegory opening the text to content beyond its own strict confines.

Rashi’s approach to the “Song” is outlined in his introduction, an explanatory guide to his exegetical perspective that he does not provide for any other work on which he comments. As the “Song” itself is markedly different from any other volume or selection of Tanakh (Japhet 199), it is prudent of Rashi to clearly express his analytical framework:

‘God has spoken once, twice have I heard it’ (Ps 62:12): this means that a single verse of Scripture may have multiple interpretations (Sanhedrin 34a). After all is said and done, there is no verse in Scripture whose interpretation may deviate completely from its simple and literal meaning. Although the prophets spoke allegorically, one must interpret their allegories according to the structure of the text and the sequence of the verse, one following another. I have endeavored to preserve the ‘literal meaning’ of the text and interpret the verses in sequence. I shall also cite the midrashim of our Sages, each in its appropriate place “Solomon foresaw through ru’ach ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit, that Israel is destined to suffer a series of exiles and will lament, nostalgically recalling her former status as God’s chosen beloved. She will say, ‘I shall return to my first husband [ie to God] for it was better for me then than now’ (Hosea 2:9). The Children of Israel will recall His beneficence and ‘the trespass which they trespassed’ (Leviticus 26:40). And they will recall the goodness which He promised for the End of Days. The prophets frequently likened the relationship between God and Israel to that of a loving husband angered by a straying wife who betrayed him. Solomon composed Shir HaShirim in the form of the same allegory. It is a passionate dialogue between the husband [God] who still loves his exiled wife [Israel], and a ‘veritable widow of a living husband’ (II Samuel 20:3) who longs for her husband and seeks to endear herself to him once more, as she recalls her youth love for him and admits her guilty. God, too, is ‘afflicted by her afflictions’ (Isaiah 63:9), and He recalls the kindest of her youth, her beauty, and her skillful deeds for which He loved her [Israel] so. He proclaimed that He has ‘afflicted her capriciously’ (Lamentation 3:33), nor is she cast away permanently. For she is still His ‘wife’ and He her ‘husband,’ and He will yet return to her. (translation from the Hebrew by Zinberg and ArtScroll Stone Chumash 1263ff, emphasis added)

As Sara Japhet explains, Rashi will track the allegorical reading in his commentary, but, unlike other traditional Torah commentators, he intends to put pressure on the text to have an exoteric meaning (201). Rashi is constructing a commentary on the basic assumption that the Biblical text’s core consists of “multivalent” meaning; he intends to navigate the multiplicity of meanings, and to insist that the text be the guide (Japhet 203). The densely figurative language of the “Song” makes explication of its p’shat meaning that more difficult, but necessary. Rashi recognizes and welcomes the homiletic narrative, but only in a way that can be integrated into the p’shat meaning of the verse, as he has “endeavored to preserve the literal meaning of the text.”

Unlike the New Critics, Rashi embraces the allegorical approach, a reading technique that reaches fully across a text in a manner unlike a sustained metaphor, as allegory finds a consistent, constant text-referent relationship in figurative language and imagery. In this way, Rashi is corrective of the New Critic’s isolated experience of individual works, a concern with that movement’s literary readings identified by Northrop Frye (Stingle). Frye rebuked the New Critical oversight of allegory, going so far as to say that, “It is not often realized that all commentary is allegorical interpretation, an attaching of ideas to the structure of poetic imagery” (Frye 89). He insists the term allegory be used with exacting care and charges that, “The commenting critic is often prejudiced against allegory without knowing the real reason, which is that continuous allegory prescribes the direction of his commentary, and so restricts its freedom” (Frye 90-91). The New Critic lavishes attention on metaphor, but the allegory is ignored, perhaps, as Frye states, because it insinuates that there is a force that mandates the reach of the critic’s reading. Arguably, the allegory is a grander version of Empson’s description of metaphor as “the expression of a complex idea…by a sudden perception of an objective relation” (2). While this is not an endorsement of the classical allegorical narrative—counternarrative, it is also not in total conflict with that construct. The “Song” is read as building simultaneous, multi-layered dialogues that include the allegorical reading communicated through the familiar object of a love story. Thus, as with Empson’s metaphorical handling of the “complex idea,” the ambiguous “Song” is parsed with an explanatory allegory that is offered as one of a number of connotations.

However, there are concerns that allegory leads to the heresy of paraphrase, and one finds that Rashi does occasionally transgress that New Critical commandment due to his allegorical interests. When he explains in his comments on Song 1:4 that the Jews remain joyful, continue to delight in Torah, and, indeed, recall God’s love, despite their afflictions, he does so as an accumulative summarization of the analysis he did of words in the previous verses. As Rashi offers these periodic overviews of the allegorical narrative, he momentarily breaks rank entirely with the New Critics.

Song of Songs: Rashi, Authorship, and Evaluation

As it has previously been established, there are complex ramifications of the traditional Rabbinical attribution of the authorship of the Bible to God, and, while a full consideration of the matter is beyond the scope of this paper, the issue must be dealt with in regards to the “Song.” Unlike other Biblical texts, the “Song” is believed by some to be a human composition, part of King Solomon’s canon. Thus, the reading of the “Song” as a love poem written by Solomon to his wife is available, but there has been debate if this is indeed Solomon’s text. Rashi, as his introduction notes, does consider the “Song” to be authored by Solomon, but that stance has so little bearing on the content of Rashi’s analysis that the issue of authorial intent grows obsolete. Even though the poem’s first verse is, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,” Rashi’s reading of the line shifts the focus from identification of an author to stating the addressee of the poem. “Solomon,” in Hebrew is Shlomo, meaning “to whom peace belongs,” which Rashi reads as a reference to God, the ultimate bringer of peace. Thus, it is immediately established that the poetry need not be read with undue concern for author and authorial intent; to Rashi, this first verse is less about a poet than about the poem itself. Rashi recognizes Solomon as author, but his analysis then moves beyond the issue of authorship in favor of explicating the text itself. A New Critic could not entirely disagree with such an approach.

Another aforementioned interpretive issue is also immediately dealt with in Rashi’s comments on the first verse, his stance on the interpreter’s evaluative role. Rashi appears to provide a qualitative judgement on the poem, stating that, “The Song of Songs is the holiest of holies,” amongst the works of the Ketuvim (1:1). This appears to be a categorization not wholly dissimilar to the critic’s weighing of a poetry’s aesthetic success and failure, however Rashi’s action rests on a fundamentally different concern. His intent is not in determining if and how the “Song” has poetic merit, but in asserting that this work’s visceral, sexual language is of an unsullied spirituality; he is expressing not so much an evaluation as his concern that the reader recognize that the poetic language is not debased and should not be taken that way. As always, the doctrinal perspective of a Rabbinical scholar will encase him within certain definitive boarders; though those lines are, of course, interpreted differently by each individual, for Rashi, the boundary is one of a yoked belief and acceptance of God and Godly text. It should be noted that Rashi’s comment on the holiness of the “Song” is taken from the first-century preeminent Rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph. This citation is not quite intertextual, but similar to the mention by any literary theorist of the work of another thinker.

Song of Songs: Rashi’s Textual Work

Rashi’s “Songs” analysis strongly demonstrates his close reading handling of Biblical verse, often by utilizing mutual comparison, or gezerah shavah, while navigating the duality of homiletics and p’shat. On “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine” (1:2), Rashi illuminates the metaphor of “wine”; he comments that, “In the Hebrew language, every banquet of pleasure and joy is called after the wine” (after 1:2), before citing verses from across the Biblical sphere to support his reading. Thus, that the “love” mentioned here is better than “wine” places such affection above all other pleasures and joys, and Rashi’s analysis is an appreciation of a specific figurative device that appears repeatedly in Scripture. For the allegorical reading of this same verse, Rashi extends meanings of pleasure to be a reference to the Torah, which he understands to be a pleasure above all other “wine.” Rashi continuously identifies linguistic patterns to settle questions of connotative meanings, such as when Rashi understands, “Do not look upon me” in Songs 1:6 to mean “Do not look upon me disdainfully” by comparing the language to a similarly phrased verse in I Samuel 6:19.

Throughout the “Song,” Rashi navigates considerations of the import of determining the precise meaning of a word in a particular instance. The word “reiach,” or “fragrance,” comes up multiple times, and Rashi reads it differently at every verse, illuminating the distinct shades of the term. In “Because of the fragrance of your goodly oils, your name is ‘oil poured forth.’ Therefore, the maidens loved you” (1:3), Rashi reads “fragrance” for its ephemeral, unbound quality. A “reiach” is a substance that can easily spread despite the physicality of whatever object it comes off of, for example, oil. However, later, “fragrance” is read euphemistically, in “my spikenard gave forth its fragrance” (1:12). There, Rashi comments that even when a scent is unpleasant, the Scriptural language is ambiguous in order to temper a term’s negativity; such a choice is also suggestive of even an overtly rank scent’s bearing latent positive qualities (1:12). Rashi also offers the allegorical reading of “fragrance” as being symbolic of the story of the Biblical Exodus miracle being spread and known throughout the world (1:3). While Rashi is deeming this term, “fragrance,” to have a specific connotative sense in each given instance, his exercise of analyzing a word from various potential angles is not totally dissimilar to a New Critic’s work. Furthermore, though Rashi does not always offer multiple readings in a single verse, such interpretative work is not absent from his commentary: whenever Rashi offers a “davar achar,” literally “an additional thing,” or, another explanation (Belvie 66), he is layering readings in the same way that a New Critic might. Moreover, Rashi does not always use the “davar achar” principle and will still offer a number of potentialities, such as when he reads “maidens” to mean virgins; more broadly, youthfulness; or, allegorically, the nations of the world (1:3). He does this again when he offers readings of an unusual word, “rahiteinu,” as potentially meaning bars, or boards, or corridors (1:17).

Rashi often deals intimately with issues of imagery and metaphor, structures with which the New Critics are intimately engaged. Occasionally, the comment is as straightforward as Rashi’s reading of mourning in “why should I be like one who veils herself” (1:7), the veil being a commonly used image of grief throughout literature. Similarly, his explanation that “Your eyes are like a dove” (1:15), is a description of a relationship’s constancy when it is like a dove, an animal who does not ever abandon its mate for another. In another instance of language analysis, Rashi demonstrates the importance of the inclusion of the seemingly unnecessary word “mouth,” in “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine” (1:2). As this line is being recited by the bride in memory of the particular intimacy she had previously shared with the bridegroom, the imagery of “mouth” is an assertion of the specific type of relationship the bride desires to regain (1:2). As Rashi comments, such contact is more powerful than a “kiss on the back of the shoulder or the hand,” the kind exchanged between formal acquaintances. Thus, it is with the image of “kisses of his mouth” that the nature of the relationship desired is conveyed.

Rashi will also put pressure on root derivatives to unpack the meaning of an image. On the words “they have loved you meysharim” (1:4), Rashi understands the word “meysharim” as an expansion of the root word yashar, or “straight.” Rashi then uses this equation to describe the emotion being evoked in the verse as a sincere, strong, earnest love that is absent of deception. Rashi says this explanation is “its simple meaning according to its context,” but there is nothing “simple” about this reading. “Meysharim” is an unusual adjective to attach to love, and it is only with Rashi’s analysis that the sense of the line comes through, and an image of an irrevocable and frank affection is enriched. Rashi then offers the allegorical meaning, explaining “meysharim” as the depiction of the Jewish nation following God through the desert with devotion. Rashi, throughout his copious commentary on Tanakh, works through Biblical verse on such a word-by-word scale.


Traditional religious doctrine may appear incongruous with the scientific study of language, and it may seem impossible to compare a New Critic with a Rabbinic commentator, but these are disingenuous dichotomies. To condense Judaic exegetics as the contrived acceptance of a Biblical text’s doctrinally imposed implications, to dismiss that scholarship as “naive” (Reid 144), is to miss the deeply related interests and methods of the Torah interpreter and the literary critic. The spiritual must always remain central for Rashi, but his method of untangling the theological messaging imbedded in Biblical language is to carefully parse verse, to apply analytical methods to Torah that are no less reliant on the immediate work than a New Critic’s close reading; his conclusions can only be arrived at through the text itself. Empson says that the application of Reason to the arts “is as old as criticism, and fundamental to it” (11). His statement can be stretched further, beyond the bounds of criticism and normative art, to the Rabbinic exegesis of the Hebraic bible. A Rabbinic interpretation of Tanakh, like Rashi’s, may be incapable of “being disinterested” (Reid 147), as the academe charges, but that does not relegate him to a less serious scholarly position. To have a theologically motivated purpose does not preclude the use of Reason and analysis.

Rashi was not a New Critic, nor was he a New Historicist, or Structuralist, and he was most definitely not a Deconstructionist. Nevertheless, Rashi constantly demonstrates that his interpretive work is derived from the de facto identification of discreet textual elements, and his commentary demonstrates that critical analytical methods are not absent in Rabbinical scholarship. ■



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