Sunday, June 9, 2013

Donkey-like Stupidity

Jerome (347-420), the author of the Vulgate translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin used two terms to speak of the Jews. When he was referring to rabbinic exegesis, usually of a philological or etymological nature, he identifies his Jewish sources as Hebrei. When he is making a polemic argument against Judaism he uses the term, Iuedei. Now this is similar, but not quite the same as our use of the term, Israelite, which everyone understands as different from Israeli. However, Israelite and Israeli are distinct groups of people. Hebrei and Iuedi, on the other hand, could refer to the same Jews. Jews were both authoritative sources for linguistic analysis and at the same time, these same Jews could exhibit a “donkey-like stupidity.”

The first incidence of the term Iuedi in the Glosses Ordinaria is a paraphrase from Isidore (560-636) commenting on Abraham’s command to his two servants to “wait here with the donkey.” The gloss comments:

“Asinus insensatam iudorerum stulticiam significant, qui protabat omnia sacramenta et nesciebat.”

“The donkey signifies the senseless stupidity of the Jews, as it was carrying all the sacraments and was unaware.”

The RaDaK, (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235) identifies the “two servants” who accompanied the donkey as Ishmael and Satan. He explains the stich, “wait here with the donkey” - “You who are like the donkey, remain with the donkey.” Living in Provence, in what would later become France, the RaDaK could speak frankly about the donkey-like stupidity of Muslims. He could not speak with the same freedom about Christians. Nevertheless, both he and his near contemporary, Rashi (1040-1104) read the Akedah polemically as a defense of the Jewish claim of election. For Jews, the Akedah demonstrates why the Jews were God’s chosen. For the Christians, the Akedah is a precursor to the Passion. Muslims believe Ishmael, not Isaac, was offered by Abraham. They claim that it was Isaac who stayed behind with the donkey. While I have very little knowledge of Muslim exegesis of the twelfth century, I would wager that one could find Muslim scholars who identify the two servants left behind with the donkey as Israelites and Christians. When you are the chosen one, you have to assert your place. There can only be one chosen people. If I’m right, you are wrong.

The above are thoughts and notes from:

Deborah Schoenfeld, Isaac on Jewish and Christian Alters: Polemic and Exegesis in Rashi and the Glossa Ordinaria (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013) chapter four, “Polemic, Faith, and Sacrifice in Rashi and the Gloss on Genesis 22, pp. 88-120.

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