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A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary

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A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary

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A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary
By Israel Drazin
Urim Publications, 2006, 237 pages
ISBN: 965-7108-91-8

Reviewed by Michele M. Lenoff - July 1, 2009

This is the first book that Dr. Israel Drazin wrote of his Maimonides series of four volumes. It was followed by Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets and Maimonides: Reason Above All.

In this engaging and informative volume, Dr. Drazin introduces his readers to fresh air: a rational and thought provoking understanding of Judaism. He shows that while many people think that religion is a closed-eye conservative and traditional way of behavior, some of the greatest Jewish intellectuals had a rational open-minded approach to Judaism.

Readers of Drazinís book may be surprised to read, for example, that well-respected ancient Jewish Bible scholars and rabbis wrote that if a biblical incident or statement appears to be irrational, it should not be accepted literally but interpreted metaphorically or as a parable. These scholars include, among many others, Saadiah Gaon, the ninth century leader of Jewry, Abraham ibn Ezra, the great twelfth century Bible commentator, and Moses Maimonides, the twelfth century "Great Eagle," the man with the enormous intellect, the philosopher, Bible and Talmud commentator, physician, and composer of a code of Jewish law.

Thus, for example, Maimonides wrote at the beginning of his monumental The Guide of the Perplexed that the basic biblical mandate is that people use their intellect, and that this is the meaning of the statement in Genesis that God created people in the divine image. This divine image, Maimonides and others insist, is the mind, thinking.

Thus, too, in his second chapter, Maimonides recognizes that the biblical tale of the snake speaking to Eve in the Garden of Eden could not be true and must be a parable. Maimonides explains that the Torah is teaching that people should not dwell upon morality, the good and the bad (represented by the tree of good and evil), but on the higher level of truth and falsehood; people have a duty to learn the truth.

Drazin speaks against reliance on "faith," the acceptance of an ancient often bazaar teaching as being true even though the notion should be rejected because reason, science and simple observations show the idea to be impossible and untrue. He tells how Maimonides spoke against accepting traditional ideas without questioning and testing them. Maimonides used this principle when he, as a physician, rejected many of the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen, the ancient authorities of medicine, because his experiments showed them to be untrue. Maimonides wrote that people should do similarly with religion.

Drazin addresses questions such as do distinguished and accepted ancient thinkers believe in angels and demons. He shows that contrary to the thinking of most people, Jewish scholars disagreed on these ideas as well as many others that he discusses. He compares the thinking of rationalists, such as Maimonides, who rejected the belief in angels and demons, and scholars, such as Nachmanides and Rashi, who accepted the existence of these supernatural beings and who were convinced that they affect people for good and bad. The world view of both groups molds their behavior and impacts on whether they try to improve society.

Dr. Drazin also addresses questions such as: Does God want people to pray? Should people of one religious group, such as Jews, listen to the views of another religion? Is the concept of "sin" harmful and, if so, how?

Drazin stresses that God did not create people to be puppets that are manipulated daily by God who also decides when and how every leaf and snow flake must fall, a belief of people like Nachmanides; nor did God create people to wander the earth like mindless zombies following traditions and irrational faiths. People should not sit back and expect God to direct them or to intervene in their lives to save them from dangers; they need to help themselves.

Drazin offers many revelations about Judaism that people do not know. For example, in his final chapter, he reveals that the respected Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra questioned whether God wrote the entire Torah. This was an idea that Baruch Spinoza latch upon and expanded.

Drazin is able to approach what could have been difficult subjects in a clear well-written manner. He is capable of focusing on the relevant point without superfluous discussions. He writes short stimulating chapters, and directs and sharpens the readerís attention by introducing the chapters with questions that highlight the salient points and ending the chapters with brief summaries.

While this book examines thinking from a Jewish perspective, non-Jews, scholars and non-scholars will find this well-written volume to be very interesting, eye-opening and informative.

Michele M. Lenoff is an attorney, a partner in the legal firm Lenoff and Lenoff.


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