Torah and Philo-sophy: A Review of Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator
Reviewed by Pesach Sommer (original link), January 5, 2016
I’m thinking of a Jewish thinker who showed-some would say, tried to show-that the Torah and Greek philosophy could be reconciled. He lived in Egypt and interacted with the leader of his country. While many would assume I am thinking of the Rambam, I am actually thinking of Philo of Alexandria, who lived more than a millennium before the Rambam, and who, despite being less well-known to many Jews of today, wrote many works where he attempted to show that following the Torah could be reconciled with the prevailing ideas of his time, in a manner that would not be repeated until the time of Rav Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam.
While there are many reasons why Philo and his thought are not known to many Jews who are familiar with Jewish philosophy, among the main reasons are that Philo’s works were written in Greek, and that his ideas are spread out in many different texts. In Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has eliminated those challenges, and offers many in the Jewish world their first opportunity to study Philo’s ideas. In this work, published by Kodesh Press, Samuel has collected Philo’s thoughts from his many works and organized them according to the books of the Torah. To date, three volumes have been released, covering Bereishis, Shemos, and Vayikra.
While this format has the advantage of creating an easier entry point for the non-expert to study Philo’s thought, it is far from the only advantage to this new and creative work. Samuel begins with a fascinating introduction which includes biographical information about Philo, his general philosophical approach, reasons why Philo was not studied by the rabbinic sages of the Talmud and the Middle-Ages, and much more. In the main text he includes Philo’s thoughts on each verse, with footnotes which list the original source of each idea. There are also notes interspersed within the text which show places where Philo suggested ideas similar to those of the Chachmei HaShas, the Zohar, Rishonim, Achronim, and more. I found the parallels to ma’amrei Chazal particularly fascinating, as it is not clear whether Philo actually spoke Hebrew, or whether he interacted with the great rabbinic sages of his time. To cite just a few fascinating examples:
- Philo offers what, at first, appears to be a fanciful explanation of the ישראל suggesting that it combines the words איש ראה א-ל, the man who “saw” God. However, this same explanation is suggested in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah
- Another example, found in this week’s parasha, for the plague of ערב, commonly understood as wild animals, is explained by Philo as a type of fly. A similar idea is suggested by Rebbe Akiva in Shemos Rabbah.
- When it comes to the Mishkan, Philo suggests that the commandment to build the Mishkan came before the sin of the Cheit HaEigel, and offers an explanation that is quite similar to that later offered by the Ramban, suggesting that the Mishkan was a portable Har Sinai.
While I can not confirm that the translations are accurate, being that Greek is, well, Greek to me (I’m sorry, couldn’t resist), Samuel’s scholarship and breadth of knowledge leads me to believe that he has done a careful job in this area as well.
Torah from Alexandria will be of great benefit to anyone who is curious about Philo’s thought, those who are interested in Jewish philosophy (a comparison with the Rambam would be an interesting endeavor), or for the person who is looking for a new and unique way to study the Torah.
Torah from Alexandria is available here.