The First Jewish Philosopher and Torah Commentator
A 16th-century illustration of Philo Judaeus
Yedidya “Philo Judaeus” HaKohen (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) was born to a wealthy Jewish family of kohanim in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire and had one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. His father had earned Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar, and his nephew was a Roman prefect and military commander. Philo received an extensive education in Judaism, as well as the wisdom of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He became a well-known philosopher and scholar, and a leader of Alexandria’s Jewish community. Around 37 CE, he led a diplomatic mission to the emperor Caligula to seek the end of the oppression of Jews in Alexandria and to reaffirm Jewish civil rights. He also convinced Caligula not to put a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, for that would surely instigate a war, and explained why the Jews could not accept him as a deity or worship him in any way. Philo is most famous for his written works, producing what may very well be the first commentary on the Torah. He also wrote several texts to explain Judaism to the non-Jewish world, and a number of detailed works about the Roman Empire—now a gold mine for historians. He was also the first to synthesize Greek wisdom with Jewish wisdom (and in this regard, predated the great Maimonides by more than a millennium), and demonstrated how many fundamentals of Greek philosophy had already been laid out in the Torah long before. Philo advocated for a democratic government with the Torah serving as the constitution. Because of his numerous easy-to-understand Greek explanations for the Torah, Philo’s works ironically became more popular among Christians, and mostly forgotten in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he was a noted defender of Judaism at a difficult time of persecution, an important scholar and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and an inspiring philosopher and political figure. Interestingly, he is the first to mention the custom of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah and recite holy hymns, in his description of a group of Jews associated with the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the Five Books of Moses and the Bible as a whole.
– Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the Big Bang
Yolande Gabbai Harmor (1913-1959) was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She went to school in France and returned to Egypt at 17 to get married. Working as a journalist, she soon became a noted writer in Egypt, as well as a popular socialite and member of Egypt’s “high society”. Meanwhile, Harmor was also drawn to Cairo’s Zionist circles. In 1945, she was recruited by the Jewish Agency and became a secret agent, gathering intelligence about Egypt’s royalty and politicians. She was able to get close to people like the Grand Mufti of Cairo, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Egypt’s King Farouk himself. Her intelligence reports included detailed accounts of Arab military plans and troop numbers, giving the nascent Israeli state critical information to win the War of Independence. In July of 1948, Harmor’s cover was blown and she was arrested. However, as a favourite of some of Egypt’s most powerful people (many of whom had fallen in love with her), she was dealt with fairly lightly. After a few months, it became apparent that Harmor had developed stomach cancer. She was released from prison and deported out of Egypt. Harmor moved to Paris, and served on Israel’s UN delegation, and then for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Throughout this time, she continued to use her sources in Egypt to secure key intelligence information. In 1951, Harmor finally settled in Israel. Unfortunately, her efforts for the State of Israel were soon forgotten. Saddened, and further weakened by the passing of her beloved second husband, Harmor succumbed to her cancer at the young age of 46. In recent years, her incredible story has come to light once again. The city of Jerusalem established ‘Yolande Harmor Square’ in 1997, and a documentary film about her life was released in 2010.
Words of the Week
The Jews have been objects of hatred in pagan, religious, and secular societies. Fascists have accused them of being Communists, and Communists have branded them capitalists. Jews who live in non-Jewish societies have been accused of having dual loyalties, while Jews who live in the Jewish state have been condemned as ‘racists’. Poor Jews are bullied, and rich Jews are resented. Jews have been branded as both rootless cosmopolitans and ethnic chauvinists. Jews who assimilate have been called a ‘fifth column’, while those who stay together spark hatred for remaining separate…
– Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, ‘Why The Jews?’