This is one of the reviews of my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses” that was placed on amazon by Robin Friedman one of the top amazon reviewers.
For many years, I participated in a Bible study class with a group of friends. We would read a chapter or two each week and discuss the text using a variety of sources — including the text itself, Jewish commentaries, and other commentarial sources such as the Anchor Bible. It was an invigorating, enlightening process as well as a good deal of fun. I was reminded of my old class in reading Israel Drazin’s new book, “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses” (2014). Drazin (b.1935) has had a long career as a rabbi, military chaplain, attorney, educator, and prolific writer on Jewish themes.
I haven’t met Rabbi Drazin or studied with him personally, but we have become friends through the Amazon reviewing process. I read and reviewed an earlier book of Drazin’s “Mysteries of Judaism” here on Amazon, and he kindly sent me a review copy for this new book as well. This short book is one of many designed to help study the Torah — the first five books of the Jewish Bible — and its massive commentaries.
Drazin arranges the book in five broad parts, one for each book (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The book is further divided to correspond to the way in which the Torah is read in traditional synagogues. The Torah is divided into 54 sections, one of which is read weekly on Saturday morning, making a year-long cycle in reading and studying the Torah as well as the Prophets. Each Torah portion — and often each Torah verse — forms the basis of seemingly endless controversy and discussion. Drazin’s chapters are short — often no more than a page or two. Thus, they make no claim to be exhaustive. Drazin picks out sections from the Torah text and discusses ambiguities and controversies in understanding the passage. Hence the title, “Unusual” Biblical Interpretations. Each section begins with Drazin’s own title followed by a short statement of the themes to be explored in the chapter. The writing is clear, punchy, and often polemical.
In most of the chapters, Drazin develops briefly various ways of understanding the Biblical text. In study groups, different interpretations, including interpretations similar to those Drazin offers, get thrashed out. Often, a tolerance for ambiguity is developed among the group participants. In most instances, Drazin is quite clear about how he thinks the text should be interpreted. Drazin’s philosophical and interpretive hero is the Jewish sage Maimonides about whom he has written extensively. Maimonides is himself notoriously difficult to read, and many thoughtful people have different understandings. Drazin, in company with most readers, sees Maimonides as an arch-rationalist who advocates the use of reason and understanding in human affairs and in reading the Bible. Drazin also reads Maimonides naturalistically. He argues that Maimonides used natural science as the surest guide to knowledge and truth. Drazin wants to reject supernatural explanations for the origins of the Bible and for its contents — a view which is often but not universally attributed to Maimonides. Maimonides of course is well known to readers who study the Jewish Bible.
Drazin also admires a scholar who lived much later, Arnold Ehrlich, (1848- 1919) who is much more obscure to most students. Drazin describes Ehrlich as a “brilliant scholar” who had “ideas that many traditional Jews disliked.” He published an extensive commentary on the Bible in Hebrew which, unfortunately, has not been translated into English. I became curious about Ehrlich through reading Drazin’s book and looked him up on Wiki. Ehrlich was a polymath, learned in many languages, and highly controversial. He lived in the United States for much of his life. He had a difficult relationship with Judaism. He may have converted for a time to Christianity in his younger years, and he worked on a translation of the Jewish Bible for a Christian group that aimed to use his work for proselytizing Jews. These considerations help to explain why his Bible studies are not better known. Ehrlich’s work has proved influential among many Jewish scholars and rabbis. if not to laypeople. It was bracing and valuable to get to know something of Ehrlich’s approach to the Bible through Drazin.
Drazin’s book raises many broad themes and issues which he addresses in accordance with his own naturalistic/rationalistic beliefs and with his ways of reading the Biblical text. Many traditional Jewish sources, he argues, offer strained, untenable readings of the Bible’s words based both on the difficulty of the text and on the felt discomfort with what the words of the Bible sometimes mean when taken simply and literally. Drazin reads both literally and naturalistically.
Besides Maimonides and Ehrlich, Spinoza’s “Theological-Political Treatise” appears to have influenced Drazin’s approach to Scripture, although he only mentions the book twice. The book begins with a list of over one hundred subjects dealt with briefly in the course of the study. Some of the subjects listed are: “how to read the Bible to find out what it means to say”; “Are there errors in Scripture?”: “Is original sin a Jewish concept?”; “are all Biblical laws rational””? and many more. As is so often the case, questions are more important than answers.
Here are two brief examples which fascinate me. First, Drazin denies categorically that Judaism has a concept of original sin, regardless, among other things, of the difficulty in defining what “original sin” is. His denial will be accepted by most modern Jews, if my experience is accurate. What I find interesting is Drazin’s recognition that many Jewish thinkers over the ages have accepted the concept of original sin and found it reflective of Jewish sources. I find it valuable to know that the question cannot be resolved patly. The second issue involves feminism and gender egalitarianism which are held to passionately by most American Jews including, almost certainly, Drazin himself. There is a tendency among some readers to idealize Jewish Scriptural sources and to read them in a feminist way — a modern version of the commentarial way of reading Jewish texts. Drazin’s book points out the many ways in which the Bible is distinctly not a feminist document. It is not a matter of agreeing with non-feminist readings. It is bracingly honest to see that, in many respects, Scripture says something different than current thinking. Seeing the difference is valuable in itself.
I tend to be highly sympathetic with the way Drazin reads the Bible and with his naturalism. Other readers will be less sympathetic. Regardless of one’s views, this book of Bible interpretations will be valuable, provocative, and entertaining to students of the Bible. Both Jewish and non-Jewish readers will learn from this short book. Drazin may not have the only seat, but he is entitled to a seat at the table of study and Biblical interpretation. Robin Friedman