Torah from Alexandria:
Philo as a Biblical Commentator
Volume 2: Exodus
Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Kodesh Press, 2014, 311 pages
This is Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s second book in an up-coming five-book series in which he gives readers selections from the Jewish philosopher Philo’s views on the Hebrew Bible. This volume is on the second book of the Bible, Exodus. Samuel does not include the many allegorical Philo scriptural interpretations which the rabbis disliked because he overused the allegories, sometimes seeing biblical laws as allegories rather than commands. What Samuel includes are the more interesting views of this philosopher.
I described Philo’s history and his method of interpreting the Bible in my review of Samuel’s first volume, on Genesis. Briefly stated, Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, who lived from about 20 BCE to about 50 CE, was a man who is unfortunately little known today other than by scholars. But Jews and non-Jews should know about him. His philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). He frequently rejected the rational views of Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and the later Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204). About forty of his books still exist. They do not offer a systematic philosophy, but are, in essence, a collection of sermons.
The following are some examples of Philo’s ideas from Rabbi Samuel’s book:
- Hellenistic culture and its wisdom are compatible with Jewish values. (Samuel points out that there are over three thousand Greek and Latin loanwords in rabbinic literature. Greek was widely spoken in ancient Judea. The rabbis drew many lessons from Greek and Oriental fables.)
- The Sabbath is a holiday meant to be celebrated by all humanity.
- Torah laws are humanitarian and biblical traditions can enhance all humanity.
- The Torah’s ritual laws aim to help each person learn to develop self-control in learning how to master their passions. This, for example, is one of the purposes of the kosher dietary laws.
- God does not need sacrifices “true piety (is the) rational spirit in him who makes the sacrifice.”
- Jewish people must never act disrespectfully toward the beliefs of other people.
- The Torah was so sensitive to guard against anyone causing the death of another that it considers impure even one who touches the dead body of a person who died a natural death.
- Animal suffering matters. The law forbidding cooking a calf in its mother’s milk teaches that even animals have moral standing and their feelings cannot be ignored by people.
- Sometimes one must lie. For example, the midwives told Pharaoh they could not kill the Israelite male children in Exodus 1:18-19 “for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” even though this was untrue, because they were saving lives.
- Physical exercise is important. Moses exercised and was thereby able to kill the Egyptian who was beating an Israelite.
- Moses’ name is based on an Egyptian word “mos,” meaning water.
- Philo feels that Moses would have had a wonderful life with his adopted family if he had not witnessed the suffering of his people first hand.
- While unstated in the Bible, Philo imagines that Moses began to aid the Israelite slaves by first encouraging them to bear their burden and then trying to get the Egyptian taskmasters to ease up on their treatment of the slaves,
- And much more, including the somewhat unusual and very interesting interpretations of the Decalogue, which people call the Ten Commandments.
Maimonides could have agreed with all of these ideas with the possible exceptions of 2, 11, 12, and 13.