Apologetics Accepted: Philo of Alexandria

Last session we took a look at the first apologetic work ever written – actually a collection of works – by Philo of Alexandria.

Apologetics is about reconciliation – that is, it defends the belief of a certain group as it wards off attacks from outside groups.  It can be used as a way to reach out to those who are disconnected from the centrist, ‘establishment’ institutions as a way to bring them back

In other words, its the literature of rationalization.

From the completion of the Septuagint  until our own times, apologetic literature has been a Jewish mainstay not only as a way to explain Judaism as a religion  to other cultures and belief systems (or reconciling Judaism with other ideologies) but also as a way to reach out to the doubting, disaffected (or seeking) Jew.

It’s in the second temple period that we come across apologetic literature, especially when dealing with Hellenic culture (How can Judaism be a religion when it’s devoid of any tangible images of the Divine? And if it’s a philosophy, what’s wrong with believing Judaism as a philosophy and accepting paganism as a religion?)

Philo approaches these questions from a unique angle.

Philo, who lived at the turn of the 1st millennium and was a contemporary of Hillel in Judea, grew up in an environment which was marked by anti Semitism, based not only on ignorance but also on envy. The prosperity of the Jews in Alexandria and their separatism made them a inevitable target of anti-Semites.  Growing up in Alexandria, it’s altogether possible that Philo did not have a ‘Jewish’ name, much the way that many sages in the Mishnah & Gemara had Greek-names (Antigonus, Avtalyon, Symmachus) since naming customs in those days may have differed from our inside/outside Diaspora customs.

Hebrew was not the language of the Jewish population in Alexandria. Greek was. Yet despite this, and thanks to the Greek translation of the TaNaKh, Philo was able to bring the midrash on the TaNa”Kh to the Jews of the city.  While not as prominent as Hillel in our history, it’s ironic that Hillel’s famous statement that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim “That which is hateful to you,  you should not do to others” is  Philo’s maxim, too.

Philo introduces the idea of apologetics to the body of Jewish literature in his Apology on Behalf of the Jews which incorporates many of the ideas he expressed in his midrashim on the TaNaKh.  These midrashim frame the Torah as allegory, portraying our history and the characters in it not as figures in history but a archetypes of Greco-Roman values. Avraham, for example, is Intellect or reason in Philo’s midrash.  Yitzhak is virtue and Yaakov is action.  He places them in the Jewish ‘Pantheon’ as if to say our philosophy of life and the Greco-Roman philosophy are rooted in similar values.  Moreover, Mosheuses many of the ideas later expressed by Plato in his Republic.  The Torah is even structured like a work of philosophy, with advice, anecdotes, lessons and a bit of history.  It also has the same goal which is to praise the scholar and spiritual man as the ideal mean, the sum of creation.  It therefore shows that the Jewish people were aware of Plato’s thinking log before Plato even existed.

The Torah’s sanctity, then, stems from its purity of thought — represented by God – which in turn, makes the Jewish people a nation of philosophers, whose sounder was the Platonic ideal of the scholar king. Judaism, then, becomes our philosophy which we pursue with religious purity.  We are a nation of philosophers, and devout ones at that.

He also paints the Jewish holidays as festivals marked not by feasting and revelling but by contemplation and communion.

Philo may have intended his works to be an answer to the detractors outside the Jewish community, but it was also used to reach out to disaffected member inside the community  who were losing their connection to Judaism  The rules and regulations must have seemed oppressive or quaint to some of these people, And, unlike the Jews of Judea & Babylonia, the Alexandrian Jewish community was urbane and very much influenced by the Greco/Roman values.  The learning exchange which bound Judea with Babylonia was very rich and active, but there was no such equivalent trade between Judea and the community in Alexandria.  Alexandria was a community of culturally assimilated Jews who kept the laws but not the trappings.  Perhaps not unlike the more ‘cosmopolitan’ observant community in the Diaspora today vs. the insular Haredi community in Israel.

Judeans dealt with issues that challenged their Jewish cultural identity by not allowing them.  They drew clear distinction between the “Jewish’ & ‘pagan’ customs and fashion.  To them the idea of ‘hukat hagoyim’ referred to any pagan custom or cultural reference, be it literature, leisure activities or even fashion.

Philo was a cultured Jew familiar with the teaching of Plato, the stoics and other pagan philosophies and literature.  His perception of the TaNaKh  is as a book of philosophy and philosophic teaching. Judaism, then, in Philo’s apologetics, is actually a fulfilment of the Platonic ideal, and should be respected, as should all its adherents, for trying to live that ideal life.

What makes his work transformative is that it is the first apologetic work, first in a long line that stretches from his day to many of the great apologetic works on Judaism even in our own day.

You can view his works online at  http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html

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12 Transformative Sefarim: Why Na”Kh?

Na” Kh
Na”Kh is the acronym for Neviim (Prophets) & Ketuvim (Writings).  Together they make up the second. slightly less-sacred texts of what is called the TaNa”Kh – 19 of its 24 books:

Altogether they include:

The 5 Books of the Torah;

The Eight Books of the Prophets (Neviim)

The Eleven  Books of the Sacred Wrtings (Ketuvim)

This body of work is given a somewhat lesser degree of sanctity than the Torah because they are not dictated by God and transcribed word-for-word by Moshe,  as tradition views the Torah.  The Neviim transmitted God’s message ‘filtered’ , that is, in their own words.  Ketuvim were divinely inspired, but not dictated to the authors at all.

Traditionally, Na”Kh  is dated much later than the Torah, with some sections not even canonized until the 2nd century CE.  The decision to include a text in the canon had less to do with its provenance and more to with its relevance and significance.  (for example, the Sages chose  to include Mishle (Proverbs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) and reject Ben Sirah.

If we take the books of YehoshuaShoftim (Judges) we follow the conquest and settlement of Canaan by the tribes and trace the history of the land through a succession of kings and prophets.  Aside from the beginning of the Nevi’im,  historical events actually take a back seat to the prophecies, forming the backdrop for the dramatic narratives which unfold, much like a stage for a series of prophetic soliloquies.  When the sages analyze the prophecies and the writings, they ignore the contexts, for the most part, and focus on the content.  This lent the narratives a special timelessness, which allowed the sages to apply the prophecies to any situation they chose.

If the Torah’s intent was to chronicle the entry of Avraham’s descendants  into Canaan (demonstrating how God kept his side of the bargain) and establishing the Divine laws by which it should live, the books of Nevi’im are the follow-up  which show, sometimes, through cautionary tales, how  keeping the laws safeguard the empire and  violating the laws led to its destruction.  If we take the phrase in Shoftim “In those days there was no king in Israel. Each did as he thought proper” (Shofetim 21:25)  (“בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה” (שופטים כ”א, כ”ה) metaphorically, the book foreshadows the fate of the nation until the destruction of the temple – and even in exile – when the people didn’t have a ‘King’.

Ketuvim on the other hand, is a body of works designed to be appreciated as timeless wisdom. Iyov (Job) could have been a contemporary of Moshe or Avraham or may not have existed at all.  It doesn’t matter. And even if it is connected to an historical time period – such as Ruth or Esther – its importance is related more to its timeless meaning than its historicity

The TaNa”Kh, then s transformative not only because it is our national & collective heritage, but also because it defines our origin and charts the journey towards our collective aspirations.

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The Myth of Israel’s ‘Secular’ Jew

This Times of Israel piece by Dov Lipman (The era of ‘Secular’ Israeli Jews is over)  echoes what I have been saying for years now and reminds me of a conversation I recently had with an Israeli who called himself secular as he was describing the bar mitzvah he & his wife are planning for his son.

The truth hit me right before my first Yom Kippur in Israel after I made aliyah, when I visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita, and is expressed in another Times of Israel article by Matti Friedman  from 2012 which can be found here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/a-yom-kippur-melody-spun-from-grief-atonement-and-memory/  and was reinforced by many interviews and personal encounters with Israelis who Jewish identity is expressed in both traditional forms (daf yomi other text study) and non-traditional variations on Shabbat and holiday observance – including skating and biking on the city streets on Yom Kippur, when the roads are closed to  all traffic save for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and skateboards.

Lets spend more time on what keeps us together than on what separates us from each other.



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Another Example of Halakhic Evoution in Action

Back in 1990, one of my students whose mother was a Reform rabbi, asked me if I ever thought there would be Orthodox woman rabbis.  I answered it would probably happen in about 25 years.

In the spirit of the high holidays I publicly apologize to that student for being off by about 1 year.

One of the articles that motivated me to make that prediction was Rabbi Saul Berman’s  ‘Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism’  published in 1973.

Now, ,someone just sent me a link to an article on his Nov., 2014 update to his original article from Jewish Link of NJ.  You can hear it here at YU Torah Online

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How’m I doin’? Modern Orthodoxy wants to know

“The patient is hemorrhaging. In fact, the patient does not seem to even know who he is. It sounds pretty dire.” Avrohom Gordimer gives his diagnosis of Modern Orthodoxy in the age of Open Orthodoxy and Neo Chassidus.  Read the full article in CROSS CURRENTS

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TORAH — Our First Transformative Sefer

(First in a series of essays on 12 SEFARIM THAT TRANSFORMED JUDAISM.
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With all its anomalies and disjointed structure (the fact that it goes from historic narrative to legal lists and back again)  and the seeming disconnect between the beginning of the text and the rest (see the Rashi on the first verse) ultimately we realize the point of the Torah was to provide a moral, ethical religious core around which the Jewish nation, descended from Avraham who rediscovered God, would be formed.


The Torah is based on the core principal of balance. ‘Measure for measure’ – midah keneged midah’ is the Torah’s driving force.  People are punished or rewarded in accordance with their actions.  Avraham, who follows God’s instructions, is promised the land of Canaan.  Yitzhak & Rivkah who pray for a child are rewarded with twins, one whom Yitzhak favors and one whom Rivkah favors.  Rachel, who says not having any sons is killing her, bears Yosef, and dies in childbirth when her second son, Binyamin, is born. God punishes the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrew and punishes the Hebrews when they test Him. Of course, the biggest irony of the Torah narrative is that Moshe whose relationship with God is higher than any human can achieve is barred from entering Canaan because of an act he committed, while everyone else who survived the desert can enter.  But the balance is still kept.  He could pray on behalf of everyone else, but not on his own behalf.  (And nobody, it seems, prayed for him either. )

All mitzvot have an aspect of balance attached to them.  Moreover, there is even a balance between mitzvot that relate to God and mitzvot that relate to other people (not necessarily in number).  The shared history and values are what unites us as a people with a common interest and destiny, so that when Yehoshua needs to send out spies, he doesn’t have to send 12 – one from each tribe – but 2 to  represent the whole nation.  This is essentially what the Torah’s transformative task is – to bring us all together.  Despite its anomalies (or perhaps because of them) it is our core book.  We read it. We study it.  We argue it.  Sometimes we run to touch it.  Sometimes we run from it.  But it’s always our center, informing each and all of us.

Midrash tells us that before He revealed Himself at Sinai to give His Torah to Yisrael’s children,God shopped around just to see if someone else might want it.  Every nation to whom He offered it rejected it for one reason or another after asking what’s in it.  Yisrael’s children not only accepted it, but accepted it without question (‘Na’aseh venishma’ – we will do and then we will listen).  I suggest, on the one hand, they were so desperate they were ready to accept anything.  But I also believe the inner truth of the Midrash is even more revealing.. Consider how other religions relate to the Torah. (See, for example, Christian &Islamic takes on ‘Eye for an eye’).  Other beliefs refer to the Torah, but adapt it to their cultures.  The Jewish people allowed themselves to be transformed by it.

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12 Sefarim That Transformed Judaism

12booksCome join us at the Fuchsberg Center, 8 Agron St., Jerusalem, Wed. mornings at 9AM for ’12 Sefarim That Transformed Judaism’. Each week promises a lively session with lots of surprises.

Tomorrow (Sept 9th): The Torah — What’s it all about?

And if you can’t make it, you can still join us online.  Like our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/12Sefarim

For more info, e-mail me at sslivko@gmail.com





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