In the first century Philo wrote On the Contemplative Life, in which he
describes a group of individuals called Therapeutae who devoted their lives to
serving a divine being or to healing and curing. For years, my class and I read
excerpts from this work that describe an amazing phenomenon: a Jewish monastic
community located on the shores of a lake outside Alexandria. Its members were
adherents of the allegorical school of scripture devoted to study and prayer and
thus quite educated. Even more surprising is reading that this community was
comprised of male and female members – “purged souls” – chaste by choice, all
yearning for wisdom.
The women are described as “aged virgins” while the
men appear to have left their family lives behind them. While men and women were
secluded from one another on a daily basis, worship on Shabbat and festivals was
communal. As Philo wrote: “The women regularly make part of the audience with
the same ardor and with the same sense of their calling… the modesty becoming to
the female sex is preserved... the feast is shared by women also… after supper
they hold the sacred vigil... form themselves into two choirs... so filled with
ecstasy both men and women that forming a single choir they sang hymns of
thanksgiving to God their savior, the men led by the prophet Moses and the women
by the prophetess Miriam.”
The impression one receives is of an elite
group of wealthy and educated Jews who opt to live a life of egalitarian
asceticism. In place of married life was a spiritual marriage of the soul with
the divine. The groups were secluded for six days of the week while they
composed psalms, prayed, fasted, wore basic clothing and read sacred writings.
Philo’s description of the 50th day (most likely Shavuot) refers to the white
robes they wore while sitting on hard benches; a wall separating the men from
the women. All listened to a lecture followed by participation in the
vocal performance described above. What an amazing phenomenon!
Last year, my
dear friend and colleague Ross S. Kraemer published Unreliable Witnesses
University Press, 2010) in which she questioned the accuracy of this report. How
reliable are Philo and his story? While Kraemer is not the first scholar of to
question the veracity of Philo’s witness report, her analysis of the numerous
interpretations that abound makes one stop and think: Was this possible? Could a
community like this actually have existed? Was this a figment of Philo’s
imagination? Did anyone, male or female, actually engage in such practices? What
is the likelihood that women like this, “aged virgins,” childless educated
ascetic women, actually existed in the first century?
Was Philo fantasizing? Was
this description a rhetorical work? Doesn’t it seem to be rather detailed for a
fantasy? Kraemer brings up an interesting possibility that perhaps Philo began
with his perception of the prophet Moses as the ideal philosopher and proceeded
to create an image of the community based on how he perceived the life of Moses.
Was this based on his biblical interpretation of Exodus 15, which contains the
songs sung alongside the Red Sea by a choir led by Moses with the Israelites and
singing by Miriam after they were delivered from the Egyptians (Kraemer,
How can I teach this great text now? I no longer know if this community
existed, and am always emphasizing that we need to learn from factual texts.
However, the study of Jewish life in late antiquity, and particularly of women’s
lives, is no easy task. Sometimes the questions that remain point the way to
enlightenment. Could there have been a community like this? Were there
Jewish women who opted for celibacy? What were the practices in which
first-century Jews actually engaged? Was Philo, like Plato, whom he admired,
suggesting a utopian society, but in this case, a Jewish one? Is this his story?
Her story? Or just a story?
Renée Levine Melammed is a professor of Jewish
history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the
journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental
Jewry and on Jewish women.