#79 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (1)

This podcast episode launches David Solomon’s eight-part series on Jewish Philosophy. In this first lecture, David explores the earliest Jewish responses to the ancient Greek philosophers.

Beginning by providing a summary of the early Greek philosophers, David defines Jewish Philosophy and how it fits within the overriding framework of Judaism.

Watch the lecture here.

He examines the life and ideas of Philo of Alexandria. Philo’s extensive philosophical writing looked at, among other things:

  • Stoic allegory, which includes a commentary on the Book of Genesis (Bereishit) and an exploration of Middle-Platonism
  • Logos and its relationship to humanity and the Divine
  • Responding to Platonimism and the stoics
  • The importance of the revealed tradition of the Torah
  • Ethics, including Moses as a fully realised individual.


David delivered this Zoom talk in 2020 for Caulfield Shule in his capacity as scholar-in-residence.


This is going to be an eight-week journey. The class is going to be about 45 minutes long. So, we have to be very tight because there is so much material I’ve had to choose from – some highlights to give us an overview, an understanding, and a framework of Jewish philosophy. So, let’s get right into it. 

I have to warn you, as I always warn people when we study philosophy or something related, that we’re going to be dealing with ideas. So, if ideas scare you, or if you find them too hard, then take it slow and you can do some extra reading on what I’m talking about, or maybe you might decide that philosophy is not for you. But I think it is very exciting and incredibly informative.

I want to make a specific definition of Jewish Philosophy because a lot of people have a very ambiguous concept of what philosophy is. Every taxi driver has a philosophy on the world that he’s happy to share with you, particularly in Israel. But philosophy is a more concrete and specific discipline where we talk about ‘capital J’ ‘capital P’ Jewish Philosophy. We’re talking about Jewish contributions to the discourse and discussion known as philosophy. And what is philosophy?

Philosophy is not really a Jewish exercise, and that’s why it’s interesting to do a journey through Jewish Philosophy. Philosophy was started by a people we know as the Greeks – the ancient Greeks – about two and a half thousand years ago when Greece was just entering into its golden age of philosophy.

Philosophy is the study of what we can know about the world and reality, using our mind. We as human beings have this incredibly amazing, precise, rational instrument in our heads called the mind. What can the mind tell us using tools like logic, language, mathematics, and observation? What can we know about the world in an ultimate sense? The reason that’s not a Jewish exercise – it’s not like Jewish people don’t like to use their minds – it’s that Jewish thought has always relied, in the ultimate sense, on a different way of knowing things and that, of course, is revelation. We can use our minds to do all sorts of clever things. But what the world is, and what it’s made of, what it’s for, and all the things that compose reality, the Jewish people have always relied on revelation as the source of ultimate knowledge and not the mind.

Nevertheless, Judaism and Jewish thought engage with philosophy. But we must remember that it is first and foremost a reactive project. The world comes up with ideas about reality that would seem to accord with logic and observation – and Jews needs to respond to them where there are challenges to our traditional way of seeing the world based on revelation. So, we need to always bear that in mind. I’m going to be looking primarily at what are the challenges arriving from philosophy and who are the Jewish philosophers coming to try and mediate those challenges. And we need to remember, as I said, that it does not really start with us. This project of understanding reality through the mind starts with the Greeks. There were some Indians and some Chinese sitting around and thinking about things – so it’s not only the Greeks – but the classic paradigm of Western philosophy as we understand it, starts in Greece, in the 500-600 BCE, with various observations – mathematical and others.

They eventually arrive at some fundamental questions. One of the questions that’s bothering them – and I have to spend just a few minutes backgrounding this because unless we background what the concerns of ancient philosophers were. It’s hard to understand how we react to it. So, I need to spend some time just looking at that.

Those of you who are familiar with philosophical discussions will realize that I am summarising obscenely and reducing two very core elements. But I think that there is a way in which we can understand this, even in great summary.

One of the things that the Greek philosophers, the ancient Greek philosophers, were concerned about was the question of “Why there are so many different things in the world.” If you think about it, the world is matter. It’s substance. There really should only be one substance. People ask: “Why are there different substances? What causes those changes? What is there, underlying all that are fundamental subjects?” So, many people are contributing and thinking about this until you eventually get to the guy who was called the father of Greek philosophy, who is, of course, Thales.

Thales tells you: “Ah, don’t you worry. It’s all one substance. It’s water.” And then people are discussing that and eventually, we get to another big daddy of Greek philosophy you’ve all heard of called Heraclitus. And Heraclitus is telling you, “You know what? There is only one thing going on and that is change. You never step in the same river twice. If you want a fundamental element that would symbolize that it would be fire, but everything’s in a state of flux, everything is constantly in change.”

Then we go further. We get another massively influential Greek philosopher called Parmenides. He comes along very enigmatically and cryptically and says everything is ONE. Then people go, “Everything is one? But I see all sorts of different things going on.” Parmenides says, “Look, I’m going to leave that question for others.” And others indeed do come along and that is the discussion that is happening until the huge figure of Socrates.

Socrates drives Greek philosophy in a different paradigmatic direction, searching through questions to find the real meaning behind terms, looking at ideal concepts like justice and truth and what they mean. In other words, to set the discourse on a proper basis, before we can even discuss other variations and issues, we get to the point where there is a divergence in Greek thought that is going to be very influential for the next couple of millennia. That is the divergence between Socrates’s great student Plato, and his student, Aristotle. 

Plato and Aristotle. You’ve all heard of them. You may think: “Greek philosophers from the ancient world, what have they got to do with me?” But I can tell you that the fundamental discussion between Plato and Aristotle is still very much ongoing, as it was then. And I’m going to summarize that discussion. And I know that you’re sitting there thinking: “Well if this is Jewish philosophy, why is he telling us about Plato and Aristotle?” Because it’s very difficult to have an entry into any aspect of philosophical discussion without understanding the basic distinction between the approaches of those two great figures. And I’m reminding those who are already a little confused that Plato and Aristotle were not Jews. They were in fact, ancient Greek philosophers running around with, uh, foreskins et cetera.

They were phenomenal thinkers. And the basic distinction between Plato and Aristotle is – people have discussed this for thousands of years, but I’m going to reduce it to about 15 seconds worth of observation – that at the end of the day, with tremendous complexity and sophistication of discussion, Plato is asking us, when we are attempting to understand an ultimate reality, to make a mental movement away from what we observe here, towards a higher reality, a more perfect and ideal reality of what he calls a realm of ideal forms.

There is a perfect form of everything in some transcendent realm – Plato’s famous analogy of the cave where we’re just seeing the flickering shadows of those perfect forms on the walls. Plato wants us to stand up and walk out of the cave and attempt to perceive that ultimate reality, whereas Aristotle is asking us to move into this reality – to explore, to analyse and categorise, to define, to understand this reality, and to process and to deduct the universal forms of what’s going on from what we observe here now. 

I’m going to just share this for a second.

David Solomon: Jewish Philosophy: Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle

In basic summary, Plato is asking us to look out there and Aristotle is asking us to look in here. Armed with that, we can now start to look at some of the major issues and the philosophical thought systems that I want to look at today. Because it’s incredibly influential. It picks up really from that distinction.

Aristotle is important, but Aristotle was not as influential as Plato for the first 1500 years after them. Aristotle makes his big resurgence in the high Middle Ages. At this stage, for the next few centuries after Plato and Aristotle, everybody’s quite obsessed with Plato – and Plato is developing ideas – because the idea that there is a realm of ideal forms and one that we can contemplate and attempt to understand is a very encompassing philosophy and it fits well with a lot of the spiritual and religious systems that are developing in the world at this time.

Platonic thought itself is developing – and we go through various schools of early Platonism, Middle Platonism, which is going to become Neoplatonism. So, we’ll look at these. But just bear in mind, this distinction that Plato makes – and for Plato, part of his problem is that there is no real contact between this higher realm and this earthly reality or corruption plurality that we see. 

Now, that’s not going to affect the Jews very much. They’re sitting around, they’re doing their thing. It’s the time of the Second Temple, but we are always absorbing different ideas and reacting to them. And in the first half of the first century, we get the person who is generally regarded as the first Jewish philosopher. Not because he’s the first Jew to have an idea, but because he’s the first Jewish thinker to respond directly to the challenges and the findings of the official discussion in philosophy. And that, of course, is someone called Philo of Alexandria.

Philo is living in the first century and so I’m going to show you what that means.

David Solomon: Jewish Philosophy of the Talmudic Period
Jewish Philosophy of the Talmudic Period

Now Philo lives at the beginning of what we call the period, which is a period from around about the year zero to 500 CE. And you can see here, the temple is destroyed here – there’s Bar Kokhba, there’s the publication of the Mishnah. These are familiar to students of Jewish history. We can place Philo just here at the beginning of the first century and Philo is living in Alexandria.

Alexandria was like the New York of its day – an incredibly cosmopolitan, large vibrant Jewish community with lots of things going on. And Philo is one of the major intellectuals – even a spiritual leader of Egyptian Jewry. We don’t have time today, unfortunately, to go into Philo’s incredible history or his biography, which is astonishing. Some of the documents that he wrote we still have which show his involvement in the world at large, including political delegations and the famous delegation to the Roman Emperor Gaius, which he led. We know that he visited Jerusalem at least once and that he had famous family members, including his nephews Marcus Julius Alexander and Tiberius Julius Alexander who rose to great positions of significance in the Roman Empire.

Philo was a Roman-Jewish citizen living in Alexandria. He was very much embedded in his day, his generation, and the product of it. Philo was also a humungous philosopher. He was reading everything. He read it all. He read on Plato, Aristotle, and just about everything in between. And he had some very important things to respond to from that. So, what I want to look at is how Philo uses what we call Hellenistic syncretism. Philo is taking Jewish culture in which he is also quite learned and embedded – with some caveats I’ll discuss in a second – and Jewish thought and Jewish approaches and he is welding them together with a number of philosophical traditions.

First, there’s Plato. Philo is completely immersed in Plato, but he’s also a Stoic. We don’t have time to go into exactly everything that the Stoics were about. The Stoics were emphasising several different philosophical positions but primarily those of virtue. The famous four virtues of the Stoics are: prudence and temperance, fortitude, and justice. And the creation of refining and perfecting the individual to become more like an ethereal of G-d in many ways.

The Stoics had various metaphysical positions. This is going to sound interesting from a philosophical point of view, but it’s very important in terms of Philo’s work, and that is that the Stoics were very into philosophical allegory. Now, what that means is they were taking some of the major myths that belong to Greek culture, and they were saying: “Well, you’ve got the stories and you’ve got the narrative, but the narrative of all these stories – whether you’re in Homer or other forms of classic Greek myth – they’re all indicative and teaching about virtue, and about symbolic values, about the world, and so on – philosophical issues. We understand the meaning of the word allegory. The Stoics spent a lot of time with Greek narrative and Greek myths, working out their cosmology allegorically, inside those myths. So that’s a very important consideration when we come to look at Philo.

He was also into Pythagorean mysticism a bit – working with numbers and other types of scientific observations to try to work out the inner mystical meaning of all of this. Philo was bringing all these things together – and his thought is huge and complex. His philosophical discussions range across a variety of areas and are very complex. If you research Philo, you’ll see lots of people with opinions on what Philo is talking about, but with the limited time we have today, I want to look at two or three key issues of Philo’s thought. I want to show how Philo, on the one hand, uses the resources of Judaism to respond to certain philosophical questions. We can see how Philo is going to influence the journey we’re going to have going forward.

The first thing I want to talk about is this idea of allegory. Jewish people today, 2,000 years after Philo, are very used to the concept of allegory because we see allegory all the time. Every time you go to a Shabbat meal and someone says, “Oh, I’ve got a Dvar Torah,” and they take an idea and they try to communicate an inner moral message in the symbolism of Torah. That is an allegorical exercise and the first time we’ve seen that is in Philo.

It’s a very different thing from Midrash. I’ll touch upon this later because Midrash, which is the dominant form of exegesis in Jewish law, really takes as its starting point the texts and then drives into the deeper meaning. Whereas Philo and the Stoics generally take a conceived system that emerges from contemplation of the mind about virtue and cosmology and then sees that in the text. Except that for Philo, this was the meaning of the text and I’m going to look at that just briefly.

Many historians are not sure that Philo himself, despite being a leader of Alexandria and a huge Jewish philosopher, could read Hebrew. Chances are he did, but we are not a hundred percent sure. He was ecstatic about the Bible in Greek. He was reading the Septuagint. He knew Greek very well – and the Bible in Greek very well. But some of his etymologies of Hebrew words are a bit strange. And one of the things that’s big for him, but it’s very telling, is his etymological discussion of the word “Yisrael”. For Philo – and I’ll say this in the beginning because it’s important to understand this as we go through – the word is a contraction of the phrase “ish roeh el” – the man who sees God. Because Israel, as it emerges in the biblical narrative, is the person becoming idealised through philosophical contemplation until they perceive the Divine. And how he does this is in a huge discussion of allegorical meaning in the Torah.

He starts with Adam and Eve. Adam represents reason and Eve represents the passions, the senses. And the classic Middle Platonic position is that reason is a product of things that are up there, and the senses and the passions are the product of a down here. And what we can see is the meeting between these two and the creation of Adam and Eve. Of course, that doesn’t go so well because the passions and the sensors managed to overwhelm the reason, and that ends in catastrophe. And similarly with the catastrophe of Cain and Abel, Philo shows that this is once again the struggle between revelation and reason, between virtue and wickedness. But the really interesting one is when he gets to the avot, when he gets to the three patriarchs of the Jewish people. Because what we are now starting to see after the catastrophe – and the big catastrophe, of course, is the flood and for Philo Noah emerging from the flood represents the stage of tranquillity (in fact, the word, Noah means tranquillity). It is in the state of tranquillity when a person comes out of their shattering catharsis to attempt to rebuild themselves as an idealized human being of virtue, and that rebuilding takes place through the patriarchal project. And it’s very interesting because it is more or less what Philo does with this. 

I’m just going to share again, and I’ll show you. 

David Solomon podcast on Jewish Philosophy: Abraham, Isaac and JacobThis is not so far away from how we might look at these things today when we talk about building the ideal person. This could belong to a system of a sports coach or a life coach. Everything starts with education. And then you take the education, and you apply it to your natural talent. Notice that – and this is a very Greek thing – Abraham comes first. You don’t start with your talent and then go, “Oh, I’ve got talent, I’m going to do training.” Everyone gets the same instructional education and training. There is a whole project of work to apply that training to your natural talent, but you are not yet complete. 

Jacob is the completion because that is practical experience and that is what is going to perfect the combination of training and natural talent. Now that will seem obvious today, but in the time of Philo that’s a big chiddish (new thing).

You could write a self-help book today just based on the philosophy of Philo, although you’d have to wade through thousands of pages to extract it. But Philo is allegorising the whole Torah. It doesn’t stop with Jacob because the ultimate individual that emerges from this is symbolised by Moses. Philo is obsessed with Moses. He loves Moses. And Moses is the one that arrives at the vision of the Divine and the perfection of His virtues and so on. So, the Torah became allegorised. Stoic allegory is a huge influence on Philo, there’s a huge series of questions Stoic allegory is asking about cosmological myth, and Philo’s allegorisation is a response.

What is interesting is that very little, if any, of Philo’s insights made their way into the mainstream of chazal, of the Talmudic project. We don’t find any of those insights. It was kept entirely separate. But, as we will see in the next point, it was picked up by another religion, very, very extensively.

The next point I want to cover is perhaps Philo’s most famous contribution as a philosopher. Philo is classed in a period called Middle Platonism. The problem that the philosophers were having with Plato is: “Okay, we’ve got this realm of ideal forms up there and we’ve got this pluralistic corrupt reality here, but there is no connection between the two. How do we bridge the gap?” And this is a big problem for what? For us. It’s a big problem for revealed religions. And given the fact that we’re talking about the first century CE, so there’s no Christianity yet, and there’s no Islam. We’re it. And we are absorbing this challenge on behalf of the Abrahamic covenant revealed religions. If G-d is up there, and we’ve got this corrupt reality down here and there’s no bridge between, what are you talking about? That the Divine is revealed? That the Divine has an interaction with human beings? How does that work as the Torah tells us? How does that even happen in the philosophical system of Plato?

Some Middle Platonists were developing a concept which they call the world soul, the anima mundi, which is a very amorphous concept. Philo was the first to work with that, to concretise what an intermediate being between G-d and the world would look like. And he calls this intermediate entity the Logos. 

Logos means “the word”. But logos is itself a word that is very complex and difficult to translate. That’s why people call it “the Logos”. But it implies divine speech, divine creativity, divine wisdom that is embedded in that reality. Philo was uncompromisingly transcendent in his view of G-d Itself. G-d Itself is utterly unknowable – totally beyond the world – and Plato would have been happy with that. 

In a general sense, the Platonists were having a better time – as we’ll see in subsequent talks -with revealed religions because the realm of ideal forms could be analogous to heaven and so on. But in bridging the gap, G-d Itself, is completely unknowable and above. So G-d and the world need an intermediary and that is the divine speech or the divine wisdom, the divine Logos, which is both an extension of G-d, but not an essence of G-d, and is embedded in the world. 

Now, that all sounds very well, but the problem is that Philo has got the Logos doing many different things. First of all, it’s a divine creative principle. So, it’s like a blueprint of creation. This is an idea that is familiar to us. I’ll show you what the Logos looks like because I’ve done this amazing graphic. I want to show you. 

Jewish Philosophy of the Talmudic Period: the Logo, Human and World - and GodLook at this, this is me at 2:00 AM last night drawing you a map of the Logos.

The Logos is a divine creative principle, as you can see, and it’s a blueprint of the world, an idea that was taken out by later Jewish thinkers and even in the Midrash will tell you – and the Zohar – that G-d looks at the Torah and creates the world. This is a very influential idea of the blueprint of the world. But the Logos is also effectively the Torah. It is divine speech and divine wisdom embodied in divine speech coming in to not only create the world but to address itself specifically to human beings.

Philo is also going to tell you that the Logos is acting in a more active sense. It’s also an advocate on behalf of people. And it’s their conscience. He sees it emerging in different angelic figures, which he allegorizss is in Torah – using allegory again. These angelic figures prompt humanity and guide humanity. The Logos has these functions, but it’s more interesting philosophical position that’s going to be tremendously influential is as a blueprint for creation and as a conduit and for divine wisdom and as an intermediary.

This took some time to be absorbed into Jewish thought. But the fathers of the early Christian Church found this incredibly exciting: “Oh, you’ve got an intermediary between G-d and the world. Well, what happens if that intermediary is embodied in flesh and so on? This is not a lecture on Christian theology, but it’s very interesting because not that long after Philo, we’ve got John saying, “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with G-d”. So, this idea is going to go on, not just in John, but in subsequent Christian thinkers. But in Jewish thought, we must be very careful about intermediate beings between G-d and the world. Although that idea is absorbed and emerges in other ways.  In the 12th century, people are talking about the concept of amirah, of the concept of kavod – we’re going to look at some of those – alsointermediate beings. 

The other thing that we need to realise is that Philo has different philosophical positions, all of which influence his discussion of the Logos. There’s a big discussion that Philo gets into – and I’m going to mention this because we’re going to come back to this later – and so I want to ground this at the moment. One of the big philosophical challenges that Philo is engaging with is the problem of – and this is going to sound archaic to some of you, to others who will be exciting – but it’s the problem of the eternity of the world.

Now today, we have taken it for granted for at least the last thousand years in Jewish thought – perhaps longer – that the world was created from nothing, yesh mei’ayin we call that ex nihilo – something from nothing. The first sentence of the Torah says, “G-d created the world.” So, the world is not coterminous with God. It’s not eternal. Only G-d is eternal. The world was created, but from nothing. That’s a later idea, philosophically. Philo would have told you – as would have all good Platonics – that “No, the world is made from matter, which is eternal. Matter is eternal.” What we mean by creation is that the Divine imprints form and the form of a reality, perfect or otherwise, imprints upon matter. That is the process of creation. When we say bereishit bara elokim – in the beginning, G-d created – that’s the imprint of form on matter. But the matter itself is eternal. 

This is not such an archaic argument because this discussion is still happening today in 21st-century cosmology and theoretical physics about the beginning of the universe. And it’s not such a silly thing to say that matter is eternal. First, time stops with the Big Bang – just like matter does, just like space does. And we don’t know what was happening prior to that – multiverses, all types of things happening. But even if you don’t want to go down that road, you can realize – and this is a distinction we’re going to make between Philo and someone later like Maimonides – that G-d is outside of time (and we are all told that G-d is outside of time), then there’s no problem with matter, with the universe, being eternal. Because eternity is a temporal concept, and it exists inside time. Where you have time, you have eternity in the bubble of time and the earth is eternal. G-d is outside time.

But it’s an issue that is starting to emerge later. Maimonides and so on are not going to like this approach. For them, the world is not created out of some pre-existing primordial eternal matter. It is not created yesh me’yesh but yesh me’ayinThe whole universe is created out of nothing at a specific point. That becomes a dominant paradigm in Jewish philosophy later. But that discussion is kicked off by Philo who simply assumed, from the platonic perspective, that matter is eternal. 

It’s important to realise that Philo was distinguishing himself from the Stoics. Philo is not telling you that you need to become the perfect G-d. It’s not your job to become G-d. Your job is to become the best possible human being that you can be. Your pursuit of the virtues is going to purify you and enlighten you as a human being. Because you are of matter, and you are of the senses.          

There’s a beautiful quote that I found by the 20th-century Jewish writer on Jewish Philosophy called Steven Katz. I just want to read it because it’s such a stunning statement: “The sharp contrast between the self-loving man and the G-d-loving man is symbolised by Cain and Abel.” So, Philo takes Cain and Abel and he says one is the self-loving man, and one is the G-d-loving man. “But that contrast is utterly foreign to the stoics who viewed the self of man as his divine part.” In other words, the Stoics thought that man was capable of being divine, but Philo is coming to turn the nothing of G-d into nothing of the human. At the end of the day, the humility and the bitul – and the self-annulment – of the human being and his passions is the ultimate project to arrive at the ecstasy of the virtuous life with different types of end goals there.

And the true origin of the passions – this is also different from other aspects of Greek philosophy – for Philo is not what other Greek philosophers had thought – that passions and sensual errors arise from faulty reasoning – but they lie inside matter itself. It’s the realisation that a human being, and everything in this world, has inherently things that are going to be aspects of matter. The passions themselves are not evil – and this is an idea that is also going to be reflected in chazal who tell us that the yertzer harah, the evil inclination is in every human being – and it’s only a bad thing if you let it rule over you. But if you use the yetzer harah – the evil inclination and that’s not even the best translation, but the passions and lusts of a human being – in the service of becoming a better human being or fulfilling the commandments of G-d as they’re outlined in the revealed Torah, then you are going to arrive at the ultimate human being. As the rabbis famously point out, if it wasn’t for the passion of lust, for example, no one would even think of getting married and the world would not be regenerated. That is an idea that would have been very close to Philo who might have even been influenced by Philo’s discussions with Stoics and other Middle Platonic thinkers about what these passions, what these senses, what these aspects of the animalistic part of being human, are all about. They are not evil in themselves, but they are there because they are an inherent part of matter and human beings, who have reason, are able to overcome them, purify them, and become the best human beings that they can.

We’re already at the end and I just wanted to do this short excurses into Philo. And 45 minutes allows us to be concise but focused on Philo. Normally I would go from Philo and show how that develops into the next major phase of Neoplatonism, which is going to take that journey further – the whole platonic discussion between how we bridge, how we bridge heaven and earth. That’s going to be the exciting story next week. 

Thank you for listening to that. I hope you all stay safe and well. I urge you to have a look at Philo. Just remember these things: stoic allegory, Logos, responding to Platonism, responding to the Stoics. But, at the same time, doing that with full awareness of the importance of the revealed tradition of Torah, which is the ongoing, continuum, always, of the Jewish people.