One of the tendencies of modern historiography is to debunk past heroes. Revisionist historians have blackened the names of some of the greatest people of the past by dwelling extensively on their human foibles and personal difficulties. Not only does this attitude reinforce the false idea that there are no real heroes in the world, it indirectly absolves all of us from ever attempting to be a hero.
One of the sources of this problem is the confusion of true heroism with infallibility. But Judaism teaches that there are no perfect people. The heroes of the Bible have faults and make errors in judgment, yet remain heroes because of their accomplishments and leadership.
It is essential beyond words to preserve this concept of human heroism in our age. It has been cheapened by the elevation of celebrities and sports figures as heroes. But there is a great difference between being well-known and being heroic. True heroes weather the ravages of time and inspire people for generations after their departure from this world.
All of this is to point out two of the greatest heroes in Jewish history: Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) and Maimoinides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon a/k/a the Rambam). It is over 900 years since Rashi’s passing and over 800 since Maimonides’, yet both of these great heroes of Judaism have stood the test of time well. It is no exaggeration to say that they are probably known to more people in our generation than they were in their own generations.
It is difficult to imagine the Jewish world without these two great heroes. How would we be able to study Torah and Talmud without the serene guidance of Rashi’s commentaries? Rashi is the master of concise language, deep insight, and sensitivity to the text and its readers. He anticipates the problems and difficulties, clears away the stumbling blocks, and effortlessly guides scholar and novice alike into the open plain of understanding of the wonders of the Torah and the Talmud. 900 years after his passing, Rashi remains fresh and alive – the teacher of Israel, the eternal hero of the Jewish people.
Similarly, Maimonides took the entire compendium of Jewish thought and scholarship that existed until his time and organized it so that its transmission to all future generations became easier and clearer. He codified all of Jewish law in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah. He blazed a path for Jewish philosophy in Moreh Nevuchim (i.e. The Guide to the Perplexed). He laid down the guidelines for Jews living under persecution in his correspondence with the Jews of Yemen. It is not for naught that the Jewish people say of him, “From Moses to Moses there arose none as great as Moses.”
Today’s celebrities will surely be replaced by others. But for the scholarship and wisdom that has preserved the Jewish people over the centuries, Rashi and Rambam will remain heroes to us for all seasons and all times.
For more on Rashi and Rambam, please see our films Rashi: A Light After the Dark Ages and Rambam: The Story of Maimonides.