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

About Sidney Slivko

There are so many things I enjoy doing -- teaching, reading, editing, art, networking, computers -- and thank God, I am able to integrate all of them. I am one of the original Jewish Studies teachers to use computer technology and multi-media in Jewish education (Mishna-mation, Hypertext Talmud, Guided Social Simulations & gaming for learning Jewish values, media and drama). I got into this because that's where the students were, and I was fortunate to have principals and school heads that believed in me and allowed me to use my creativity to reach them. Since coming to Israel in 1997 as a fellow in the Melton Senior Educators' Program, I have been expanding my apps and my reach, and still continue to look for new and creative ways to use the media.
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