RATIONAL APPROACH TO JUDAISM AND TORAH COMMENTARY

RATIONAL APPROACH TO JUDAISM AND TORAH COMMENTARY
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    RATIONAL APPROACH TO JUDAISM AND TORAH COMMENTARY


    by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin

    Hardcover, 237 pages
    ISBN 965-7108-91-8
    Publication: 2006


    This engaging and informative work presents a rational and thought provoking approach to the understanding of Judaism. It shows how people can use their intellect, live in the present, make personal and social progress and enjoy the goods of this world.

    This book addresses such questions as:
    ~ What does God require of people?
    ~ Does God really want us to have faith?
    ~ How should we interpret the Bible?
    ~ How do we deal with seemingly unreasonable midrashic tales?
    ~ Does God want us to pray?
    ~ Do Jews believe in angels and demons?
    ~ Should we accept the truth taught by non-Jews?
    ~ Is sin a harmful emotion?
    ~ What is the value of comparing biblical stories to Greek myths?


    About the Author
    Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin has been successful in several significant fields. He is a noted Bible scholar, an author of ten books, a United States Army Brigadier General and chaplain, a rabbi and a lawyer.
    As a lawyer, he headed the United States' Medicare's civil litigation staff. In the United States Army, General Drazin developed the legal argument that saved the military chaplaincies of the Army, Navy and Air Force when lawyers insisted in court that these institutions were a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
    Seven of his ten books are on Targum Onkelos, the fourth century Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch. By careful analysis of the ten thousand differences between the wording of the Targum and the Bible, Dr. Drazin was the first scholar who was able to identify the date of the Targum. He showed the Targum's consistent reliance on the final edited version of the tannaitic Midrashim - which were edited around 400 CE - and that the Aramaic translator even copied a version of the Hebrew words of the Midrashim hundreds of times into his Aramaic translation.
    Dr. Drazin received his Rabbinic Ordination in 1957 from the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, Maryland.


    Praise for A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary:

    -Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin has placed every thinking person in his debt by providing us with a guide to a rational understanding of the Bible and Judaism. Drawing on his immense scholarship in the fields of philosophy and Bible, he elucidates issues which have perplexed students of the Bible for centuries by using the Torah portion of the week as a launching pad for erudite discussions. His language is simple and elegant, while his arguments for embracing a rationalistic commitment to living the religious life are cogent and convincing. This unique and remarkable volume should be required reading for those who yearn for knowledge, discernment and insight."
    -Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner
    Rabbi Emeritus, BMH-BJ Congregation, Denver, Colorado and Professor Emeritus, University of Denver


    "Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin is faithful to a long tradition of Jews attempting to understand and live the Torah in light of philosophic and scientific insights. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus of Eresos, the student and successor of Aristotle, described the Jews of his day as 'philosophers by race.' 'Who is wise? Whoever learns from any person,' said Ben-Zoma (Pirkei Avot 4:1), advice reiterated by Maimonides, 'Listen to the truth from any source.'

    A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary takes this advice, and attempts to understand the Torah's meaning and lessons for our day by asking pertinent questions about a passage and then by surveying a wide variety of perspectives on these questions, from the ancient talmudic rabbis and Greek philosophers, through the classical medieval Torah commentators and philosophers down to modern sages and scientists. As such, this book is not merely a theoretical study of the text but a living encounter with it."
    -Dr. Raphael Jospe
    Dept. of Jewish Philosophy, Bar Ilan University


    Rabbi Drazin has provided a book of commentaries on Parshat HaShavua with a particularly interesting slant. His attempt is to show that Judaism has several approaches to theology. One is more mystical and supernatural, and the other is more compatible with the rational mind. His attempt is to show that one can be a traditional Jew and yet maintain clear-thinking and logical approaches to stories, ideas, laws and other material in the Torah. His proclivity is to the rational, even though he is an observant and traditional Jew.

    Rabbi Drazin has been successful in many different fields. A noted Bible scholar, he has also been a Brigadier General and chaplain in the U.S.Army. As a lawyer, he headed the United States' Medicare's civil litigation staff. He received rabbinical ordination in 1957 from the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, Maryland.

    By examining a wide range of commentaries on each parashah, he shows the differences between the commentaries that follow the rational, logical bent, and those that are more mystical. For example, in Parshat Vayetze, he explains what an angel is, and then presents a list of interpretations by Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the Zohar. In his words, "The rationalist understands the term ['angel'] as a metaphor for the acts of God and the forces of nature. The non-rationalist, on the other hand, is convinced that it is a noun describing a supernatural being that is superior to humans in power and knowledge, but not as powerful as God. Some non-rationalists also believe in the existence of incorporeal life forms that perform evil acts, frequently contrary to God's will. They may name them demons or evil angels."

    The author then goes on to make a comparison between the views of Maimonides and Nahmanides regarding angels. Rambam totally rejects the literal notion that angels are divine-like beings that perform missions for God. To him it was inconceivable that God would need help from independent forces. Rambam sees the term "malakhim" as a metaphor, not to be taken literally. Ramban, on the other hand, claims that people can actually see angels, and gives biblical citations to provide this (Gen. 18:2, 32:25, Numbers 22:31, etc.).

    One of the major values of the book is to examine specific passages in the Torah with a comparison of a variety of commentaries (similar to the approach of Nechamah Leibowitz, whose goal was different, but whose means are very similar).

    Anyone who wants to go deeper into the study of the Torah will benefit greatly from this well-researched and well-thought analysis and presentation.
    -Dov Peretz Elkins


    In the Introduction to his Torah commentary, Abraham Ibn Ezra says: "The angel [malakh] between man and God is his reason [sikhlo]." Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, a lawyer, rabbi and military chaplain (with the rank of Brigadier General!), must have been listening, because this book is a paradigm of the use of reason to connect man and God through the medium of Parashat ha-Shavua. Indeed, there is even a chapter (Vayeitzei) correcting the non-rationalist perception of 'angels' as ethereal beings and substituting for it Maimonides' rationalistic clarification (in the Guide) that the word "angel means messenger; hence everything that is given a certain mission is an angel" (39).

    Dr. Drazin begins each lesson with essential questions, follows with a detailed discussion and concludes with a summary-an eminently reasonable methoology-dealing along the way with a broad array of philosophical, moral and literary subjects. While no single chapter completely reflects the erudition on display throughout this book, it is our custom in these reviews to select one chapter nonetheless and present it as an exemplar. In deference to Rabbi Drazin's singular military experience, we chose the chapter on Beshalah, entitled: "Can war be just?"

    Following an introduction to the practice of reading the Haftarah [Shoftim 4-5], Drazin poses his trademark questions. In this case, they are:
    1. When can a war be just?
    2. Was the war by Deborah just?
    The ensuing discussion (which focuses not on the war of Devorah but on that of Ehud !) cites, en passant: The Interpreter's Bible, Ralbag (Gersonides, whom he identifies as a grandson of Ramban!), the Chinese military sage Sun Tzu, and the German military writer, von Clausewitz. In answer to the questions, we learn that wars, even preemptive strikes, are legitimate-even necessary-when launched as a last resort to relieve an oppressive and cruel bondage. They may even be deceptive in nature, particularly if they are conducted with the exercise of restraint, as was the attack planned and executed by Ehud against the Moabites.

    Other themes in the book treated by Dr. Drazin include:

    - What does God want of people?
    - Reason vs. faith
    - The Jewish contribution to the study of history
    - How do we deal with seemingly unreasonable midrashim?
    - How does God speak?
    - Should we copy Pinhas's zealotry?
    - Should we accept the truth taught by non-Jews?
    - What is the value of comparing biblical stories to Greek myths?
    Since we opened this review by way of a reference to Ibn Ezra's paean to reason, it is significant that the book itself ends on precisely such a note. Having already broached the question of "Who wrote Sefer Devarim: God or Moshe?" apropos of the parashah of that name (and concluded that it remains holy even if Moshe wrote it on his own recognizance), Dr. Drazin concludes his rational critique of the Torah with what is perhaps the most radically rational assessment of Torah authorship ever issued: "Ibn Ezra's 'Secret of the Twelve'."

    In his opening remarks to Sefer Devarim (1:2), Ibn Ezra, in a deliberately cryptic fashion, implies that the first several verses in Devarim were not written by Moshe because they are in the third person unlike the rest of that book, which is in the first person. He associates these verses with several others appearing throughout the Torah (including Bereishit 12:6 and 22:14) and concludes that "whoever knows the secret of the twelve will appreciate the truth." Most interpreters of Ibn Ezra take this as an allusion to his remarks on the last chapter of the Torah. There (Devarim 34:1), he notes that if Moshe had already ascended Mt. Nebo, then not only the final eight verses of the Torah were added by Yehoshua, but the four verses preceding them as well-for a total of twelve.

    Drazin contrasts the implications of Ibn Ezra's cryptic remarks (correctly citing his 14th century super-commentator, Joseph Bonfils=R.Yosef Tuv-Elem ha-Sefaradi, in clarification) but seems to overlook a necessary distinction that must be drawn in the "13 Articles of Faith" of Maimonides, which he also cites, to which Ibn Ezra appears to stand in blatant contradiction. According to the version of those articles that is published widely in siddurim, a Jew is obliged to believe that "the entire Torah that we possess today was given to Moshe." If this were Maimonides' real position, then the author of the baraita in Baba Batra (14b-15a) would have forfeited his share in the world-to-come by stipulating Yehoshua's authorship of the Torah's last eight verses. Since it is inconceivable that Maimonides would have leveled or even implied such an accusation, this cannot be his actual position.

    Indeed, we are fortunate to have recourse to the original (Arabic) text of Maimonides' 13 articles (which appear in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin chapter Helek). A reading of that text (widely reproduced in Hebrew translation) indicates that his concern was NOT with Mosaic authorship (Torah mi-Sinai), per se, but with Divine Provenance (Torah min ha-Shamayim). He states there categorically that even one who accepts Moshe's authorship of the entire Torah forfeits a share in the world-to-come if he maintains that Moshe wrote it on his own initiative rather than at God's specific behest. This is the distinction clearly intended by Ibn Ezra's super-commentator who writes: "Of what concern is it whether [these exceptional verses] were written by Moshe or by any other prophet, as long as all their words were transmitted through true prophecy."

    All in all, the book is a refreshing respite from the spate of parashah books that attempt to inject the author's predisposed views into the text rather than allow the text to speak its own mind, as it were. Whether that is a function of rationalism, is a question best left to individual judgment of the book's readers, among whom the educators who serve in modern Orthodox day schools ought to be at the forefront.
    -Rabbi Dr. Moshe Sokolow
    Ten Daat


    Much of the contemporary Orthodox Jewish culture is infused with mystical notions: red strings for good luck, rabbis who can diagnose illness by reading a mezuzah, ayin hara, baking keys into the hallah, and the list goes on. The speed with which these ideas propagate attests to their popularity, as people seek quick fixes for living in a complex world. Indeed, much popular Judaica published is replete with stories about rabbis with miraculous powers. Enter Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin's latest book.

    The title says it all - "A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary". In this easy to read book, Drazin presents fifty-four short essays, one for each parashah. His language is straightforward and he packs a lot into each essay. In a nutshell - Drazin offers a rationalist alternative to the mystical mindset. The approach is designed to appeal to the modern, scientific, open-minded person who is not prepared to sacrifice rational thinking in the pursuit of religion.

    The book addresses a wide range of topics: faith vs. reason, where does Midrash come from, do Jews believe in angels, can we bewitch God with prayers, what is holiness, is the Bible chronological, the ethics of war, and many more. Drazin's broad scholarship appears on every page; he cites freely from the Bible,Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi), Midrashim, Targumim, halakhists, and medieval commentaries (including many lesser known ones), alongside Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Galen and numerous modern writers. In each case he presents both the mystical and rationalist traditions, arguing that both are equally valid approaches to the corpus of Jewish belief. The mystical is never denigrated, but the rational is promoted to equal standing.

    Despite its broad scholarship, this book is designed for the lay person. Each chapter is brief and easy to digest, there are no footnotes to interfere with a Friday night reading. The writing is simple, the tone informative, not preachy. Teachers without broad academic Jewish background may find themselves surprised by the range of opinions they never imagined could find validity within the tradition, and the writing is easily accessible to high school students. The clear presentation of the range of traditionally acceptable positions is part of the book's appeal.

    When Prager and Telushkin wrote their classic "The Eight Questions People Ask About Judaism" (Later updated to nine questions), Herman Wouk called it "the intelligent skeptic's guide to Judaism." In a world which increasingly downplays or even deligitimizes rational thinking, Drazin has written the intelligent rationalist's primer.
    -Zvi Grumet
    Lookstein Digest


    "A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary" by Rabbi Israel Drazin (Urim) examines the weekly Torah portions, drawing on philosophy and biblical scholarship, emphasizing reason and knowledge. Promoting teaching and discussion, he includes questions, prevailing views and some counterpoints, and summaries. Rabbi Drazin is a Bible scholar, author of 10 books, a U.S. Army brigadier general, chaplain and lawyer.
    -Sandee Brawarsky
    The Jewish Week


    Rabbi Israel Drazin presents a rational analysis of religious understanding. His purpose is to stimulate readers to think and to improve themselves via reason and factual knowledge, which he believes is what our sages intended and encouraged. The book is arranged in order of the parashot. Each chapter has a subtitle that draws attention to the main issue examined and opens with a short introduction, followed by a list of questions. A detailed discussion of these questions by various commentators follows. The chapter concludes with a summary of the various points of view.

    Rabbi Drazin explores some interesting and intriguing topics including: what God wants from us; faith vs. reason; sacrifices, prayers and incantations; love for another as for oneself; biblical chronology; authorship of the book of Deuteronomy; biblical commentary; and the meaning God's predicting He will "conceal My face."

    A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary is a serious book written by an Orthodox scholar. It will interest skeptics and believers, academics and laypersons, alike. It belongs in all adult Jewish libraries, as well as in Judaica sections of public libraries.
    -Nira G. Wolfe
    AJL Newsletter


    Another book, a serious and deep commentary on the Chumash, also takes a different tact from what we have come to expect from so-called traditional commentators.

    "A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary" is written by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin (Urim Publications, 2006). A musmach of Baltimore's Ner Yisrael Yeshiva, Rabbi Drazin deals with each and every parsha in the Torah as a unique entity. Each chapter is a self-contained literary unit. However, there is a unitary theme that runs throughout this book. The author highlights the rational and non-mystical aspects of our religious tradition of commentary.

    According to the author, he seeks to understand the Torah's textual meanings and lessons by putting forth sharp and rational questions about each pasuk and then answering them from a variety of sources drawn from Chazal, the classical medieval perushim, down to our own times. Even ancient Greek philosophers and modern day scientists are drawn into the fray, their ideas challenged and answered, al pi das din v'Torah.

    Rabbi Drazin's English is simple but elegant with not a wasted word or phrase. This economic use of language is one of the strengths that helps carry this book, something that is lacking in similar works by other writers. For this alone we are indebted to the author.

    I look forward to reviewing his upcoming books on the Rambam and his ongoing translation and commentary on Onkelos, with Bereishis, Shemos and Vayikra already in print. You get a strong hint of these works in the current book under review.
    -Alan Jay Gerber
    The Jewish Star


    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 Drazin's 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 reader's 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
    The Jewish Eye