Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah: Philo

PhiloWe will see a rather extreme contrast when we examine some examples of rationales for commandments as given in the works of Philo Judaeus. This Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and exegete was himself engaged in an ideological battle with Jewish extreme allegorists who believed that by giving allegorical reasons for commandments one essentially obviated the need to observe them. Philo argued what was essentially the traditional view, namely, that the continued observance of commandments designed to teach certain specific lessons was the only way to successfully inculcate those lessons and that, therefore, the Torah’s commandments could never be set aside simply because one could learn the lessons without the practice. Rather, he sought to provide an understanding, drawing on Jewish tradition as he knew it and Hellenic philosophy, in order to justify Jewish observances. There has been considerable debate as to the extent to which Philo drew from proto-rabbinic or rabbinic sources. While we will not dwell on the matter here, we should note that early rabbinic traditions should be understood to reflect a common heritage with those of the Alexandrian Jews.

After dealing with the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, Philo presents a four-part treatise called The Special Laws. This treatise discusses numerous biblical laws, grouping them under the Ten Commandments. He chooses to begin by discussing the practice of circumcision because of the fact that it was ridiculed by many non-Jews (Laws 1.4ff). He starts by setting out four reasons for circumcision. Anyone who has ever read Philo knows that his level of verbosity will not permit us to present full quotations.

First, he says that circumcision prevents a disease of the male organ. Second, it promotes cleanliness of certain areas that would otherwise collect secretions. Third, “it assimilates the circumcised member to the heart.” He explains that both the heart and the male organ are intended to bring about “generation.” The point seems to be that both forms of creation need to be connected with God. The fourth reason he gives is that circumcision causes the semen to travel correctly and helps to accomplish reproduction. These four reasons, he tells us, were handed down from sages who carefully studied the writings of Moses. In other words, these must have been reasons that circulated among the Jews in the Hellenistic world. To this, he has his own additional explanation. He believed that circumcision is a symbol of two things: one is the elimination of apparently excess pleasures. Second, so that “man… banish from the soul the grievous malady of conceit.” Effectively, he suggests as additional reasons that circumcision teaches the need to control the quest for pleasure and provided a measure of humility, both certainly traditional Jewish beliefs.

In this example, it seems that we have actually come to the genre that we normally call ta`amei ha-mitzvot. Here we are no longer dealing with an etiology, but rather with explanations that are separate from the biblical text and that represent an independent intellectual effort to explain unstated purposes of the Torah’s commandments. Now it is clear from the use of the term “uncircumcised” in the Bible, as well as from the term “circumcision of the heart,” that if one examines the use of these terms carefully, one will come up with Philo’s last two reasons. However, I think it is safe to say that of his first four reasons, the health-related reasons do not seem to have any basis in the Bible itself. It is interesting to note that the physiological and health aspects of circumcision, in terms of arguments pro and con, seem somehow to have been there from earliest times and are still being debated.

Beginning in 1.258, Philo discusses ritual purification. He begins by telling us that:

The law would have such a person pure in body and soul, the soul purged of its passions and distempers and infirmities and every viciousness of word  and deed, [and] the body of the defilements which commonly beset it.

In other words, Philo’s basic understanding of the division of body and soul, itself a widespread Hellenistic idea, led him to see the purpose of ritual purification as affecting both. In effect, this approach provides an antidote to some in the Hellenistic world  who tended to see the Jewish approach to ritual as the meaningless fulfillment of details of sacrifice and purity. Indeed, this point of view was often associated with Paul. It is certainly opposite to the approach taken both by Philo and, in a completely different context, by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Philo saw animal sacrifice as purifying the soul and sprinklings and ablutions as purifying the body. The attempt to bring a perfect animal as a sacrifice will cause the person bringing the sacrifice to concentrate on eliminating his own imperfections of the soul. Further, certain sprinkling requires adding a mixture to the water to be used. Essentially, this is symbolic of earth and water that constitutes the substance of our bodies. In other words, sprinkling is designed to cause one to concentrate on the perfection of his behavior. Referring to the ashes of the red heifer, but not mentioning them directly, Philo specifically states that it teaches (265):

that a man should know himself and the nature of the elements of which he is composed, ashes and water, so little worthy of esteem. For if he recognizes this, he will straightaway turn away from the insidious enemy, self-conceit, and abasing his pride become well pleasing to God:

Overall, Philo is speaking of a purification system in which the ideal is that of improvement of the soul, discipline of the body from pursuing excessive passions, and recognition of the mortality and humble nature of the human being. While the example he draws specifically alludes to the ashes of the red heifer, he basically suggests that this is the overall purpose of the rituals of purification, often associated as they are with sacrifices where the combined goal is clearly the purification of both soul and body.[1]

In 1.285-88 he deals with the biblical command that the fire on the altar burn permanently and not be extinguished (Lev. 6:9, 12-13). He begins by telling us that the reason for this command is to symbolize the fact that God’s gifts given “daily and nightly to men are perennial, unfailing, unceasing,” and he sees the burning flame as a symbol of this. He also suggests that the continuous flame creates a situation in which all sacrifices are burned by the same flame, thereby uniting them as one act of giving thanks. Then he suggests that:

This is the literal account: the inner account must be observed by the laws of allegory.

In Philo’s work, this kind of approach, dealing with an “outer” and “ inner” meaning, is seen for the first time. We should note the significance of this approach in the later history of ta`amei ha-mitzvot.  Such a pairing of exoteric and esoteric rationales for commandments typifies much of the later mystical literature. However, it is also observable in Maimonides’ notion of what we might call elite and popular religion, in which only the elite are able to actually comprehend the true meaning of the commandments, where “political” means are used to make sure that they are observed by the wider Jewish masses.

In the case at hand, Philo proposes an allegorical interpretation according to which the altar is actually the “thankful soul of the Sage” comprised of perfect virtues.  Philo suggests that the lighting of the permanent light on the altar symbolizes the burning of the divine light of wisdom in the soul of the Sage. Unlike the allegorists that Philo opposed, both implicitly and explicitly, his allegorical interpretation in no way threatens the literal requirement that the fire be burning on the altar. Nor does it eliminate the more direct interpretation that he provides first.

In 2.60-64 Philo deals with the reason for the observance of abstention from creative  labor on the Sabbath. Among other things, in this passage he polemicized against the notion, widely held in the ancient world, that the reason that the Jews took a day off each week was because they were lazy. We need to remember that the notion of a day of rest had not yet spread in the Greco-Roman world, a phenomenon that would only become popular with the rise of Christianity, albeit transferred from Saturday to Sunday. He tells us that the purpose of the Sabbath is:

to give men relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions, to send them out renewed to their old activities.

After explaining this aspect of physical rest, following his general notion that the Torah’s laws take into consideration both the physical and the spiritual, he goes on to explain:

He permits the exercise of the higher activities, namely, those employed in the study of the principles of virtues lore. For the Lord bids us take the time for studying philosophy and thereby improve the soul and the dominant mind. So each seventh day there stand wide open in every city thousands of schools of good sense, temperance, courage, justice and the other virtues in which the scholars sit in order quietly with ears alert and with full attention…

Here they learn of the duties to God and to one’s fellow human being. He explains that while the body is resting, the soul is doing its difficult work in acquiring wisdom. So here we are told that the overall purpose of the Sabbath is to minister to the needs of both the body and the soul, providing needed physical rest and a day on which the Jewish people nurture their souls through study of God’s Torah, what Philo here calls philosophy. Indeed, for Philo, the Torah, as one can see from his writings, is indeed a book of philosophy.

These few examples will have to suffice for demonstrating the manner in which Philo deals with the reasons for commandments. First there is an unstated polemic against widespread Hellenistic views of Judaism that failed to understand what he regarded as its uplifted and uplifting character. Second, he maintains that virtually all commandments have behind them an allegorical meaning, which may never be allowed to negate the literal meaning and the obligation to observe the commandments. Third, in his view the welfare of the body and soul, physical and spiritual, is at the heart of many of the commandments. Often, he notes, that the two are paired together either in complementary rituals or in specific commandments. Finally we should simply remember that Philo saw the commandments as being grouped under the Ten Commandments, an approach to the classification of Jewish law that would be followed by some medievals as well.

[1] Immediately following (1.267-72) Philo turns to the red heifer explicitly and describes it essentially in the manner that he has put forward for the overall purification system.


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