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Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets

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Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets

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Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets
By Israel Drazin
Gefen Publishing House, 2009, 335 pages.
ISBN: 978-965-229-430-2

Reviewed by Michele M. Lenoff - May 26, 2009

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) is Judaism's premier philosopher and Dr. Israel Drazin makes his writings accessible to the average reader in a brilliant, attention getting and provocative style.

Drazin, a polymath, has been known to scholars for some three decades as an expert on Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. By hundreds of comparisons between the translation and documents composed in the late fourth century, and showing that the translator borrowed from these documents, he was the first to discover that the translation was not composed in the second century as commonly believed but around the year 400 C.E.

Drazin has several rabbinical degrees, a J.D. in law, a Master's degree in Hebrew literature and another in Psychology, as well as a Ph.D. in Judaic studies. He served in the U.S. Army as a general and was responsible for the vigorous defense of the military against the charge that its chaplaincies are a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment. He won the case.

This is Dr. Drazin's fifteenth book. It is the third book in which he clarifies in simple, interesting and well organized language the rational approach to Judaism. The first was A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary. The second, focusing more on Maimonides, is Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind. Drazin's contribution to the deeper understanding of Maimonides is significant.

Maimonides was and is accepted by mainstream Judaism for his works on Jewish law. However, since most Jews and non-Jews are not as rational as the "great eagle," many people who were unable either because of background, intelligence or inability to be tolerant of other views, criticized his rational approach. In fact, a group of rabbis persuaded the government to burn Maimonides' philosophical works, a wrong-headed notion that led inexorably to the burning of the Talmud as well.

As a retired general, Drazin uses the military technique in presenting and explaining the many topics that he addresses. He first tells his audience what he intends to present, presents it and then tells what he presented. He does the first by a series of provoking questions. He does the second in a logical fashion, using headings for each new significant point to heighten clarity. He finishes each chapter with a summary to assure that his reader has understood what might in another's hand been presented in a complex manner.

Drazin recognizes that Judaism and all religions for that matter have devoted adherents that take different approaches to their faith. They may all practice the religious rules the same but understand them differently. One may prefer the rationality of Maimonides, for example, or the mysticism of Nachmanides. Thus, Drazin generally contrasts Maimonides' view of a matter with that of several other prominent and respected sages.

Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets is composed of four parts. The first four chapters focus on preliminary subjects, such as Maimonides' radical view on prophecy, that it is a higher level of intelligence, an assertion that includes the Greek philosopher Aristotle among the prophets. Part two, containing the bulk of the volume, show how Maimonides understood more than two dozen biblical episodes, generally seeing them as not being miracles. Thus, to cite a simple example, the sun did not stand still for Joshua at Gibeon, but since the battle lasted so long and was concluded in a single day, it appeared to do so. Similarly, the walls of Jericho did not fall for Joshua as a miracle but this was a poetic way of describing that the Israelites were able to defeat their enemy. Drazin uses his knowledge of the military and the Bible to explain why the Israelites used the tactic of surrounding the city seven times and why the number seven reappears frequently in this story.

The third part addresses other subjects from a Maimonidean perspective, such as the reason for the biblical dietary laws, whether the land of Israel is holy, and the biblical view of life after death. The fourth part contains about a half dozen of Drazin's original, extremely incisive understandings of about a half dozen topics. These include the real reason why Judaism added an extra day to most biblical holidays and why women are required to light the Sabbath candles long before the Sabbath begins and their husbands accept the onset of the Sabbath.

All in all, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets is a volume that can be read profitably by scholars and non-scholars alike. Each will gain much from this thought-provoking book.

Michele M. Lenoff is a partner in the law offices of Lenoff and Lenoff in Boca Raton, Florida.

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