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Title: Moses: A Memoir

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Title: Moses: A Memoir
Author: Joel Cohen
Publisher: Paulist Press, Mahwah, N.J.


Not everyone who imagines what Moshe Rabbeinu might have thought as he carried the Tablets down the mountain visualizes this scene in the humorous vein of a Mel Brooks. This is a serious book, written by a practicing Orthodox Jew who is an instructor of legal ethics at Brooklyn Law School, and who wants his reader to “appreciate anew the Bible’s view of Moses and his soaring accomplishment.”

“A synergy of the theoretical and the practical, the real and the ideal – Joel Cohen brings Moses out of the shadows of legend, providing new insights and images to a real-life hero of his people,” says Rabbi Marc Schneir, morah d’asrah of The Hampton/New York Synagogue, Manhattan (of which Mr. Cohen is a member), as quoted on the dust jacket.

Cohen’s “biography,” written for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers, memorializes the canon of Judaic philosophy as expounded by the greatest prophet who ever lived.

Some may ask if it’s proper to imagine our greatest leader as a mere mortal, as Cohen has. What purpose does it serve to display a man with feelings and emotions, who may have found impossible the trials and tests of his forbears, including Father Abraham? Is this demonstrative of the spiritual heights that men are capable of, including the leadership of a people who constantly disappointed Moshe?

Most Christian publishing houses, as Paulist Press is, publish works that represent themselves as coming from a “Judeo-Christian” perspective, but from this Moses: A Memoir is a complete departure. Nowhere is the Torah referred to as “The Hebrew Bible,” or “The Old Testament,” and all biblical quotations are from the Hertz Chumash. All his philosophic insights are Judaic, unfiltered through Christian scholarship.

Why should we consider Cohen’s tome at all, when there is so much being published by Judaic and University publishing houses? I’m not certain if this is a first, but the very idea of a Christian publishing house dealing with Judaic themes on a non-confrontational basis is both admirable and refreshing. It’s an attractive, slim volume that will further elucidate many points concerning Moshe, and would make a nice gift.

All the biblical testimonies and legends attempt to explain Moshe to us, but his thoughts are never explicit. Moshe left no private diary sharing his innermost feelings, which are only subject to speculation, and Moses: A Memoir makes an excellent conjecture.

The book made a stir when it first arrived in bookshops this past summer, achieving a surprise
position on the Catholic Book Publishers Association’s bestseller list. Cohen told The New York Times’s book reviewer that it was Rabbi Israel Wohlgelernter of The Young Israel of Fifth Avenue who challenged him to write it.

Joel Cohen’s acts as moderator at legal forums such as one held recently at The Fifth Avenue
Synagogue on “The Religious Felon: A Paradox?” in which he participated with his friend and fellow criminal attorney Ivan S. Fisher, novelist Norman Mailer, and the synagogue’s rabbi, Sol Roth.

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