November 3, 2019 / L
Book Review:Maimonides Hidden Torah Commentaries: Genesis: 22-50by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel.
BOCA RATON, Florida — This is the wonderful second volume on Genesis by the very wise scholar Rabbi Michael Samuel. It is part of his series of easy-to-read books that he is writing on Maimonides. This is a second volume on Genesis because Rabbi Samuel has much to reveal to us about the first of the Five Books of Moses. This volume and the others is divided by parasha, the traditional division of 54 weekly portions that are read during synagogue services and which rabbis in the Talmud encouraged Jews to read and study weekly.
Rabbi Samuel notes that the teachings of Maimonides are embedded and scattered throughout his philosophical, legal, and even medical and other writings. He collected and distilled the teachings from the various sources and offers them in a clear organized fashion.
His work is comprehensive, full of information, and eye-opening. The writings on each parasha is divided by chapters; each of which is subdivided by subjects that Rabbi Samuel addresses in clear detail. For example, in Genesis chapter 1, he examines 22 subjects, such as the meaning of Elohim, the purpose of creation, the reason for marriages, God does not decree moral behavior, the nature of biblical metaphors, exempting women from some biblical commands, and more.
Similarly, chapter 22, which contains the well-known story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, contains 11 subdivisions. Among them are the nature of divine trials, Isaac’s age at the time of the near sacrifice, the objective of God’s commandments, Maimonides vs. Gersonides on divine knowledge of human activities before they occur, and did the Akedah actually happen or was it a vision.
In chapter 4, to site another example, among much else, he offers views on the origin of idol worship by such people as Thomas Aquinas, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, David Hartman, and others. In chapter 9, he includes a discussion on the Seven Noahide Commandments. In chapter 15, there is Maimonides’ position on divine determinism. In chapter 19, what is an angel. In chapter 23, Maimonides’ view on visiting graves. In chapter 32, the issue, among much more, is can a human wrestle with an angel?
In other chapters, he discusses Maimonides’ teachings on subjects such as the origin of the annual Torah reading cycle, the difference between “believing in God” and “knowing God” and how can one know God, the thirteen principles that Maimonides wrote, why one can violate the sabbath to save a life, and much more.
If these many discussions were all that Rabbi Samuel offered his readers, this would have been a valuable book, but there is much more.
Rabbi Samuel begins this wide-ranging and far reaching book with a prequel which contains significant facts about the great sage’s life and his books – philosophy, legal, medical, responses, letters – and the criticism by Ra’avad, ibn Daud, and others. He tells, for example, the fact that Maimonides was almost executed by Muslims for acting as a Muslim to save his life while he and his family lived in Morocco but returned to being openly Jewish when he arrived in safety in Egypt.
The book compares Maimonides to Saadiah Gaon, to Ramban (Nachmanides), Abraham ibn Ezra, and many others. It gives Maimonides’ views on many other subjects, including aggadic language and midrash generally. It tells about the treatment of the biblical text by the Greek translation called the Septuagint. It is filled with the keen views of Maimonides’s son Abraham. It discusses subjects such as omens, visions vs. dreams, and whether Abraham ibn Ezra is correct when he maintains that some parts of the Five Books of Moses were added after his death.
The book also has many excurses. There are those on Targum Onkelos, the Shekhinah, the differences between Maimonides and famous Bible commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Saadiah Gaon, Nachmanides, Hasdai Crescas, and many others, Jews and non-Jews.
There is no doubt but that readers of Rabbi Samuel’s book will enjoy what they read and learn much.
Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and the author of more than 50 books.