I love the New York Times’ Dining section. Each Wednesday, I look forward to reading the articles and reviews, most of which food and drink that I can’t eat because it’s not kosher. But not consuming and nor appreciating are two entirely different things. In fact, there is a long-standing debate in rabbinic tradition about the appropriate relationship one ought to have with forbidden foods.
Some teachers suggest that by virtue of being forbidden, the foods and drinks which fall into that category are somehow less good and certainly ought to be disregarded by Jews. Others though, and with better grounding in the Mishna and Talmud, relate to forbidden foods as wonderful products of creation which are, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, forbidden to Jews, but sources of wonder and beauty in their own right. Needless to say, I side with those in the second camp.
Today however, I got a double scoop of culinary pleasure from the lead article in the Times’ Dining section, in an article about wine being produced in the Champagne region of France. The article was filed from Troyes, France – the city where Rashi, perhaps the most widely read biblical commentator lived, and where he also produced wine along with wisdom. For me, this was captivating stuff. Interestingly, it turns out, that a version of the same issues which captured Rashi’s mind and heart are still capturing the hearts and minds of contemporary wine-makers in the region.
Many wine-makers in the region are wrestling with a new way of making wine – wine, which unlike champagne, is not blended to reflect the house which produces it, but more closely reflects the specific ground and grapes which went into the bottle. That was very much an issue for Rashi as well – in his commentary, if not his casks.
Rashi’s commentary on the bible is composed almost exclusively of selections from ancient rabbinic midrashim which Rashi strung together to create a response to the questions which emerged from the text before him. Like the traditional bottlers of champagne, he created a “house brand” – a kind of commentary which mixed and blended from various strands of the received tradition to create something which is recognizably and coherently his own.
On the other hand, other medieval commentators struggled to either present past traditions in a form as close to the original as possible, or to offer their own original contributions in as direct and pure form as possible. As the Times’ article points out, there is room and reason for each of these approaches in the making of wine. And as we know from earlier days in the exact same region, there is room and reason for both of these approaches in reading the bible as well. To be reminded of that by the Times, is especially tasty.