“Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah,” by Shmuel Phillips, a rabbi and lawyer with a law degree from the University of London, is a book filled with interesting information inspired by his understanding of the views of Maimonides and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The book has thoughtful articles often prompted by all of the weekly Torah readings, often more than one for each biblical portion, seventy chapters in all, each about a half dozen pages. The author mentions the views of both rational and mystical authors, mostly but not exclusively famous rabbis, so many that the book contains a select bibliography of eight pages of the main sources he used in the book. He also frequently mentions the interpretations contained in midrashim. The book does not contain a running commentary on the weekly Torah readings. It often makes a brief comment on an item in the biblical portion and uses it as a jump-off-point to discuss philosophical and theological ideas which are the purpose of the book. Often it does not discuss the biblical portion at all.
There is much of what is significant, interesting, and worth knowing in Rabbi Phillips’ discussions. Readers may not agree with all of Rabbi Phillips’s views, but even when they disagree the ideas and interpretations that the rabbi gives readers will stimulate them to think and develop their own views better than they were previously.
Among the many subjects he addresses are the views of Maimonides on many subjects, including sacrifices; divine knowledge and free will; angels; resurrection, Gehinnom, and the world to come; the Messianic era; the function of prayer; prophecy; the purpose of the Torah and its commands; rabbinic legislation; his oft-repeated emphasis on the requirement for people to develop themselves intellectually; and his rejection of mysticism, magic, demons, amulets, and lucky charms.
Among the teachings of Rabbi Hirsch that Rabbi Phillips discusses are his symbolic approach to the divine commands; the nature of the Torah and Judaism; free will and God’s knowledge; Israel and the nations; his teaching regarding Israel’s universal mission; and his basic philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz.
He also discusses the idea of Yehudah Halevi and others that Jews are chosen people that God treats differently than other nations. How people can experience God. Raavad’s critique of Maimonides and Raavad’s view that rather than Maimonides explaining the biblical laws and basic philosophy, it would have been preferable to leave it as a matter of simple faith. Differences between Maimonides and Aristotle on various subjects. The meaning of some midrashim. The view of many that God supervises what occurs on earth and intervenes in the life of people and encourages them. The idea held by some people that God’s intervention is different in the land of Israel than in other places and that on certain days the supervision is stronger. The purpose of prayer is designed more to encourage changes in people than to encourage divine intervention. Also, the opinions of Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid, Maharal and others concerning whether God dictated all that is in the Torah.
In short, as previously stated, there is much in this book to enlighten readers and make them think.