The Jewish Eye
Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind
Reviewed by Michele M. Lenoff - May 26, 2009
Remarkably, although virtually every knowledgeable person would agree that Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) is Judaism's premier philosopher, the overwhelming majority of people have little knowledge of his views and many of the few who do know his philosophy are distressed by it. The unease is generally vague and inchoate. It is based, as Dr. Israel Drazin makes clear, on the fact that Maimonides was the epitome of rationalism in a world where the vast majority of people, past and present, are unable to understand rationalism because of their background and restricted education. Drazin argues people are unfortunately immured by a tradition that was meant to open and develop their minds and those of society and are enfeebled by laziness and a dread of change.
Drazin shows how Maimonides' views are intuitive and sensible and why it is in everyone's interest to understand and adopt the master's revelations. He shows why virtually all Jews, even Maimonides' detractors, consider Maimonides a unique genius. Drazin cuts through obscurities by writing in a remarkably clear, concise, focused and logical fashion. He brings the "great eagle" down to earth and, to switch the metaphor, discloses the brilliant treasures in the philosopher's mind.
Drazin discloses Maimonides' opinion a variety of subjects. In forty-one short chapters, he discusses subjects such as why it is necessary to reason instead of having faith and what the ultimate human goal is. He answers questions such as should people believe in miracles, angels and demons. In fact ten of Drazin's chapters describe how demonology became part of the belief system and practices of the masses, a situation that is still rampant not only among Christians where far more than half its population believes in demons, but among Jews as well. Similarly, he discusses mysticism and shows why Maimonides rejected it. He compares the Maimonidean rationalism to the mystical musings of other famous Jewish scholars, such as Nachmanides. The mystical book Zohar is considered holy by a large segment of Jews, and Drazin reveals its origin and theology and he shows why it is not rational.
One significant and welcome aspect of Drazin's presentation is his willingness to discuss non-rational opinions as well as what some people may consider ultra-rationalistic teachings, as those of Spinoza. He shows, for example, how Spinoza drew many of his modernistic ideas from both Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides. The reader will find this section fascinating since Spinoza was excommunicated by Amsterdam Jewry and Maimonides' books were burnt by the instigation of non-rational rabbis. Would, the reader will ask, Maimonides have accepted what Spinoza wrote?
Drazin clarifies that since Maimonides knew that his people lacked the sophistication to accept what he understood, Maimonides, like most forward thinking ancient writers, had to speak with two voices. He shows that Maimonides had to write so that the multitude would see his adherence to traditional views, while knowledgeable readers would be able to mine his writings for the real truth. Drazin addresses this issue and many others and shows why rationalism reveals what is real. Philosophers such as the ancient Greek Plato (fourth century B.C.E.), and Maimonides as well, called the former "necessary truths," ideas the masses need to believe to avoid the terrors and tribulations of life. In contrast, knowledgeable people were taught the real truth. This in itself is an amazing fact that raises many questions, such is, "Is such and such, which I was taught, only a 'necessary truth'?" Shocking as it may be, many teachings, such as those imparted to the young in Sunday Schools are "necessary truths."
Maimonides knew all too well that his ideas about God, the universe and the laws of nature would be anathema to the majority of his contemporaries. Thus, for example, his teaching that God has no physical body was rejected by the majority of Jews of the twelfth century. One of the most prestigious rabbis, Rabad, publically insulted Maimonides for teaching this truth, a truth generally accepted today by most Jews and Christians. Yet, Maimonides has not been totally successful in this respect -- the bulk of Jews and Christians are still convinced that God has physical emotions, such as anger -- an idea that Drazin points out Maimonides strongly disapproved.
Readers of Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind, whether scholar or non-scholar will gain much from Drazin's clear, original, informative and thought-provoking book.
Dr. Israel 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. This is his fourteenth book, his second on rational philosophy.
Michele M. Lenoff is a partner in the law offices of Lenoff and Lenoff in Boca Raton, Florida.
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- Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, Israel Drazin.
Revealing unknown but true facts about the prophetical books of the Bible, this book also addresses provocative questions that many Rabbis have avoided answering.
- Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer.
Kraemer has written a detailed and readable biography of Maimonides. In addition he has placed Maimonidies' life and thoughts within the context of the era in which he lived - the era of the crusades, the battles of Saladin, the clash of cultures, and the persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims.
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