Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: "Maimonides:Reason Above All" by Israel Drazin

Maimonides was one of the greatest rabbinic figures in history. He made a profound and permanent impact upon the Jewish world, and his influence spread well beyond the borders of the Jewish community. He was universally recognized as a great scholar of the Bible and Talmud, and his works have become basic texts of the Jewish canon. At the same time, Maimonides was an original thinker who put forth a number of opinions that were controversial in his own time and some of these controversies resonate until today. The bulk of the controversy surrounds his efforts, mainly in his great philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed, to resolve conflicts between traditional Jewish teachings and Aristotelian philosophy.

Because of the importance of Maimonides and the debates surrounding some of his opinions, a good introductory work to the thought of Maimonides and his contemporaries, clearly explaining where and how he differed from other major figures, would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, that is not what the reader will encounter when reading Israel Drazin's new book, Maimonides: Reason Above All.

Despite the book's promising description and the author's apparent qualifications, the book not only fails to live up to expectations, but it even fails to attain the most minimal standards of academic competence and intellectual honesty. The book is replete, page after page, with misstatements, distortions, and dishonest citations and quotations. After a great deal of effort, I was forced to conclude that I could not find a single redeeming characteristic in the book.

Drazin fails to understand the opinions of any of the scholars he is discussing, whether it is Maimonides himself, other Jewish scholars, or even non-Jewish philosophers. He appears to have difficulty with even basic reading comprehension. For example, on page 26, Drazin begins a detailed analysis of a statement from "the poet Yehuda Halevi" in which Halevi negatively contrasted Maimonides with his father. This is an amazing statement, in that Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and poets, died in 1141, when Maimonides was about two years old. (This should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Jewish intellectual history.) The quote that Drazin is discussing - which he got from a secondary source (which does not ascribe the quote to Yehuda Halevi) - was actually written by L. M. Simmons, an English rabbi, in the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1890. Drazin's failure in this simple citation is unfortunately typical of his entire work. Over and over again, Drazin makes basic errors of fact and comprehension.

The quality of this work is so poor that it does not really deserve a detailed response. There is, quite literally, not a single issue that Drazin presents accurately. When attempting to present a dispute, Drazin usually gets both sides wrong, and misses the actual point of disagreement entirely. In other cases, Drazin creates disputes where none exist. Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is so heavily biased, that it quickly reaches the point of absurdity.

Drazin attempts to reconstruct Maimonides as a religious naturalist who rejected creation ex nihilo, miracles, providence, prophecy, the existence of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and any God-oriented purpose in religion. Drazin openly admits that it is only possible to do so by denying many - many!! - of Maimonides' own statements. Drazin believes that Maimonides' was simply lying when he said these things. This is a major theme of Drazin's work, that Maimonides engaged in a "holy lie" (a phrase coined by Nietzsche that Drazin uses repeatedly) and knowingly made completely false statements to deceive the masses (for their own good, of course). Drazin makes this claim not just of some of the more difficult passages in Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (even this is debatable), but of vast swathes of his writings, including large amounts of material that was unique to Maimonides. For example, Maimonides was the first Jewish scholar to create a formalized dogma of Judaism, his 13 Foundations, which Maimonides argued must be fully accepted in order for one to be a legitimate member of the Jewish faith. This idea was original to Maimonides, and, indeed, many authorities disagreed with his formulation (although, by and large, they agreed with its content). Drazin, however, would have us believe that Maimonides himself did not believe many, possibly most, of these foundations.

Even when Drazin directly quotes Maimonides (and others), he does so dishonestly, carefully editing the quote (using ellipses to remove inconvenient material and inserting material in brackets) to support his point even when the full quote, in context, would not only fail to support Drazin's point, but actually contradict it. This betrayal of the reader's trust is exacerbated by the fact that many of Drazin's most radical assertions are supported by nothing more than anonymous "scholars" without any reference to who these scholars are, what they actually said, or where and when they said it. Given Drazin's repeated inability to comprehend the material he is writing about, and his dishonest citations of material that people can actually check for themselves, it is simply impossible to trust his assertion of the opinions of scholars whom he fails to even identify.

If Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is absurd, his presentation of other Jewish thinkers is grotesque. For example, Drazin apparently understands all anthropomorphic depictions of God, midrashic, kabalistic or liturgical, to have been intended in the full literal sense. Thus, his presentation of Lurianic kabbalah on page 241 is beyond laughable; it is a caricature of a caricature.

Even Drazin's discussion of non-Jewish philosophers is incompetent. For some reason, Drazin chose to include an entire chapter on Rene Descartes, apparently to argue that Descartes was not sufficiently "rational". In the course of this discussion, Drazin completely mangles Descartes, and demonstrates a complete failure to grasp even the most basic elements of his thought. Drazin's "refutation" of Descartes' "cogito" - again given in the name of anonymous scholars - is so shallow that it wouldn't past muster in a seventh grade classroom discussion.

If Drazin's work were of a better quality, it would be worthwhile to enter into a deeper discussion of some of the arguments he puts forth. For example, the relationship between the thought of Maimonides and the thought of his son, Abraham, is one that requires serious study. However, Drazin's presentation of the thought of both figures is so distorted that he contributes nothing to the discussion except confusion.
In short, Drazin's book is so... awful... that readers will not only learn nothing new, but, far worse, they will learn a large number of things that are not so. If a reader wishes to educate himself about the thought of Maimonides, there are many vastly superior works. My personal recommendation as a basic introduction would be A Maimonides Reader by Isadore Twersky.

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