Looking Up to the Patriarchs: A Book Review of
Torah from Alexandria, Volume I: Genesis
Kodesh Press 2014
Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Reviewed by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn
A very new, very old book has been published recently. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has set out to perform the herculean task of translating Philo of Alexandria's commentary on the Book of Genesis into smooth, readable English, presented in the order of the verses and chapters of the Torah. This volume is the first in a projected series on all five books of the Pentateuch.
At the outset, I should make it clear that my limited knowledge of Philo’s philosophical milieu limits my ability to write a comprehensive review of Torah from Alexandria. I leave it to scholars well-versed in the Hellenistic Roman and Egyptian philosophical traditions to examine Rabbi Samuel's efforts to compare and contrast Philo’s commentary with the philosophical trends of his age. Instead, I approached the material hoping to discover the Torah insights of an ancient Jewish philosopher, and to consider these insights in their historical and masoretic context.
I was not disappointed. In addition to translating Philo's writings, Rabbi Samuel explains the texts when necessary, often with the aid of references and notes, thus allowing the modern reader to access and understand Philo's interpretation of the Torah. Even more importantly, through Torah from Alexandria we are able to reveal the underlying exegetical approach with which Philo explained the Torah to readers of his own generation. The relevance of his approach to our own generation is striking.
In recent years, students of Tanach, especially among the religious Zionist community in Israel, have been engaged in a debate (some might characterize it as a battle) regarding authentic and legitimate interpretation of the sacred biblical text. The debate centers around two related points: First, to what extent is fidelity to classical rabbinic commentary requisite (or even desirable); and second, to what extent is it legitimate to interpret the text in a manner that implies that the heroes of the biblical narrative were less than perfect? This debate has come to be known as interpretation b’govah ha- einayim – looking biblical heroes in the eye, as opposed to gazing up at them as a mere mortal would view a titan.
One maverick in the new school of Israeli interpretation, the late Rav Mordechai Breuer, was fond of saying that he reads the text just as the sages of old did -- without the commentary of the sages. In other words, Rav Breuer's insights were based upon an unfettered reading of the text itself, stripped of the layers of traditional rabbinic exegesis. Opponents of this approach decry the deconstruction of our spiritual forebears, denounce the abandonment of our traditional view of the forefathers and our accepted understanding of their behavior. According to the more traditional approach, looking biblical characters in the eye borders on heresy and undermines the very foundations of Jewish spirituality. According to this approach, deconstructing our spiritual heroes diminishes us all, and leaves us empty and bereft of role models. At the same time, discarding traditional rabbinic explanations of the biblical text casts a shadow on our masorah, subtly calling into question the centrality of teachings attributed all the way back to Moses and passed down to the sages of each subsequent generation.
With the help of Rabbi Samuel, we are now able to look back to the exegetical method used by Philo in Alexandria some two thousand years ago, and what we find may have important ramifications for our current debate. In Torah from Alexandria, we find a biblical commentator whose work is remarkably in sync with rabbinic tradition -- which is no small feat given that a good number of the interpretations he offers are found only in much later rabbinic writings. We must therefore assume that Philo, like the authors of those later rabbinic texts, recorded ideas and exegetical traditions that had previously been transmitted orally (or, alternatively, that these rabbinic interpretations originated in Alexandria). The masorah's centrality and antiquity are clearly reinforced.
Even more fascinating is the impact Philo's approach should have on the govah ha'einayim debate. Philo proves to be a staunch supporter of the classical approach to biblical characters, immediately and unequivocally defending them and dispelling any possible negative interpretation of their behavior. In situations where such "mainstream" commentaries as Nachmanides or Rabbi S.R. Hirsch find fault in the behavior of the matriarchs or patriarchs, Philo is quick to defend; in fact, there are many instances in which he inserts a virtuous spin on seemingly neutral situations .
· Abraham could have resolved the problem with Lot by force, but did not wish to humiliate him, and sought a peaceful resolution. (p. 156)
· When Abraham seems to complain to God that he has no children, Philo reads it as a virtue: “A servant must be direct and honest with his superior.” (p. 164)
· While Lot’s daughters' behavior is “unlawful,” their intentions were “not without some merit.” (p. 199)
· Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar; her motivations were “selfless and altruistic.” (p. 171)
· Sarah’s treatment of Hagar was “disciplinary, and not abusive, in nature.” (p. 174)
· Philo turns Abraham's false claim that Sarah is his sister into a virtue, explaining that a person who speaks only the truth in all situations is “unphilosophical as well as an ignoramus.” (p. 154)
· Sarah's demand that Hagar and Yishmael be banished was not motivated by spite or jealousy. It was a well-earned response to their having spread malicious rumors that Isaac was illegitimate child. (p. 206)
· Abraham acquiesces to his wife's demand; this behavior always has “the best and happiest kind of outcome.” (p. 206)
· The expulsion of Yishmael is compared to the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden: “Once the mind contracts folly, it becomes almost an incurable disease…their penchant for superficiality and mediocrity.” (p. 207)
· “The animus against Abraham stems from an envy and hatred of everything that is good.” (p. 209)
· The sacrifice of Isaac (whose name connotes joy) teaches us that “even joy must be subordinated to God.” (p. 210)
· Isaac was not misguided or mistaken in his love for Esau. Isaac’s love for Esau was compartmentalized or limited, conditional; he was attracted to Esau's skill as a hunter, because Isaac himself sought to “hunt down his passions and keep them at bay.” (p. 233)
· Esau had always been a slave, and was destined to remain enslaved for all time – with or without the blessing Jacob took. By selling the birthright, Esau proved that he was a slave to his “belly’s pleasures.” (p. 233)
· When Jacob buys the birthright from Esau, it is an act of virtue intended to save his brother from rampant materialism that would bring about Esau's downfall. (p. 234)
· Isaac wants to bless Esau because he sees that Esau is limited and lacking, while Jacob is perfect and does not need his blessing. (p. 240)
· Jacob should be admired for respecting both his parents and carrying out his mother's instructions to the letter, rather than being vilified for taking Esau's blessings through subterfuge. (p. 242)
· “Malicious people never tire of accusing Scripture of excusing Jacob’s deceit and fraud… subterfuge and maneuvering have their place in life…sometimes a general will make a threat of war, while he is actually working in the interest of peace.” (p. 243) “A good man may do something that appears wrong, but [he] acts with noble intention.” (p. 245; also see p. 248)
· Simeon and Levy “acted as a vanguard of justice and fought to protect their family’s purity.” (p. 272)
· Joseph treats the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as equals, hence drawing the ire of his other brothers. (p. 275)
· Jacob's love for Joseph was not arbitrary favoritism. Rather, he loved Joseph because of his skills, his virtue, and his nobility. (p. 275)
· Regarding Tamar: “Virtue is subtle –sometimes she veils her face like Tamar.” (p. 284)
· Joseph was physically assaulted by Madame Potiphar, but never succumbed to her advances. (p. 287)
· Joseph does not seek revenge; he wants to see how the brothers will treat Benjamin, another son of Rachel. (p. 301) Joseph sees the entire episode as divine providence (p. 313).
· Even in prison, Joseph behaves virtuously toward all the other prisoners. (p. 288)
· Joseph does not gain personally from any of the wealth accrued in Egypt; rather, he is a dedicated civil servant. (p. 318f)
· Joseph completely forgave his brothers and never sought vengeance, not only out of respect for their father, but because of his love for his brothers. (p. 326)
· Jacob enters the palace and all those present are aware of his dignity. (p. 318)
Philo proves to be a sensitive reader of the text – sensitive to the underlying philosophical issues as well as a staunch defender of Judaism. Perhaps because he lived among non-Jews, within the general society, he intuited that attacks on Abraham and Sarah are tantamount to attacks on the underpinnings of Judaism and, through a subtle process of anti-Semitism, on every Jew. Alternatively, he may simply have seen the patriarchs and matriarchs as spiritual giants – people whose thoughts and actions were far more elevated than those of common men, people who were far above the petty jealousies and foolish mistakes more cynical readers ascribe to them, people who actually were "larger than life." Philo teaches us that in order to look at them at all, to see and understand them, to learn from them - we must look up.
Rabbi Leo Samuel has done an outstanding service, both to Philo and to modern readers. In Torah from Alexandria, Philo's ancient Torah commentary becomes readable and meaningful, exciting and contemporary. I look forward to future volumes.