Whose story?

Could the Therapeutae, a Jewish monastic community, have been a Jewish utopia? Or is it just a story?

Moses holding the ten commandments 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moses holding the ten commandments 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 (Oxford 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, 83-109)?
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.