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From Philo to Plotinus: The Emergence of Mystical Union

Author(s): Adam Afterman


Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 93, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 177-196
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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From Philo to Plotinus: The Emergence of
Mystical Union*
Adam Afterman / Tel Aviv University

Mystical union in Judaism has always been a controversial matter.1 Scholars


of past generations, Christians and Jews alike, consistently denied the possi-
bility of unio mystica in Judaism, citing as their reason that the Mosaic Law,
rejecting incarnation on the one hand and pantheism on the other, main-
tained a fundamental gulf between man and God.2 A famous example from
Christian scholarship is the oft-cited opinion of Edward Caird, writing on
the evolution of religion, who argued that the “Jewish mind” is not capable
of real contemplation and, consequently, not capable of reaching what he
considered as the ultimate full mystical state of union. Caird contrasts Plo-
tinus, “the mystic par excellence,” with Philo, for it was impossible “for a pi-
ous Jew like Philo to be a mystic or a pantheist and so to reduce the God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to an absolute substance, in whom all the reality
of the world is merged.”3 Similarly in the field of Jewish studies, a Hegelian-

* I would like to express my gratitude to Moshe Idel for his critical yet encouraging reviews of
early drafts and to Yakir Paz for his enormous help. The article benefited from the engagements
and critical reflections of colleagues and friends including Charles Stang, Daniel Abrams, Ishay
Rosen-Zvi, Israel Knohl, Jonathan Garb, Maren Niehoff, Menachem Lorberbaum, Menachem
Fisch, Moshe Halbertal, Ron Margolin, Ronit Meroz, Shlomo Biderman, Yair Furstenberg, and
Yoav Ashkenazi. Special thanks are due to the anonymous reviewers for their critical input that
substantially improved the article. Any errors of fact or analysis remain my sole responsibility.
1
See Yosef Ben-Shlomo, “Gershom Scholem on Pantheism in the Kabbala,” in Gershom Scholem,
the Man and His Work, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), 56–72; Nathan Ro-
tenstreich, “Symbolism and Transcendence: On Some Philosophical Aspects of Gershom Scho-
lem’s Opus,” Review of Metaphysics 31, no. 4 (1978): 604–14; Moshe Idel, “‘Unio Mystica’ as a Cri-
terion: ‘Hegelian’ Phenomenologies of Jewish Mysticism,” in Doors of Understanding: Conversations
in Global Spirituality in Honor of Ewert Cousins, ed. S. Chase (Quincy, IL: Franciscan, 1997), 303–33,
and “‘Unio Mystica’ as a Criterion: Some Observations on ‘Hegelian’ Phenomenologies of Mys-
ticism,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 1 (2002): 19–41; Peter Schafer, The Origins of
Jewish Mysticism (Tubingen: Siebeck, 2009), 1–8, 17–20.
2
See the detailed discussion by Moshe Idel, Enchanted Chains: Techniques and Rituals in Jewish
Mysticism (Los Angeles: Cherub, 2005), 4–26.
3
See Edward Caird, The Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, Gifford Lectures, vol. 2
(repr., Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2009), 210, 195; and the discussion in Idel, Enchanted
Chains, 18–19.
© 2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
0022-4189/2013/9302-0003$10.00

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The Journal of Religion

type theory stipulating that Judaism did not evolve into what some consid-
ered as the most advanced form of mystical life culminating in full mystical
union was dominant in the form of Gershom Scholem’s denial of full mys-
tical union even in the most radical forms of Jewish mysticism.4 Scholem
claimed that theological assumptions regarding an unbridgeable gap be-
tween God and man prevented Jewish mystics from developing a practice
and theory of full mystical union, restricting themselves rather to mild
modes of mystical communion.5
Scholem’s widely influential typology of the mystical experience in Ju-
daism, including the absence of full mystical union, has been powerfully
contended by the last generation of scholars, particularly Moshe Idel and
Elliot R. Wolfson, who demonstrated that kabbalistic and Hasidic sources
include a variety of forms of mystical intimacy including clear expressions of
full mystical union.6 The articulation of the category of mystical cleaving
(Devequt) and union with God is one of the most important innovations of
medieval Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, reflecting the creative absorption
of medieval trends of Greek philosophy in the midst of rabbinic Judaism and,
at the same time, drawing on several ancient sources, primarily the Hebrew
Bible.7 Bernard McGinn has demonstrated how unio mystica developed in me-
dieval Western Christianity, drawing on earlier Neoplatonic sources.8
Both McGinn and Idel have noted the importance of mystical union in
Philo’s thought and its possible influence on the articulated discussions of
unio mystica in Plotinus and consequently on the entire Western mystical tra-
dition.9 In what follows, I argue that the Neoplatonic scheme of elevation,

4
See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1965), 8–11,
122–23, “Mysticism and Society,” Diogenes 58 (1967): 58, The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other
Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971), 203–4, 227, and Kabbalah ( Jerusalem:
Keter, 1970), 174–76; and the comment by Joseph Weiss, Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism
and Hasidism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 90 n. 5.
5
See Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, trans. A. Arkush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1987), 299–309, 414–16, 454–60.
6
See Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988),
59–73, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 1–31, Enchanted Chains, 3–30,
and “Universalization and Integration: Two Conceptions of Mystical Union in Jewish Mysti-
cism,” in Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, ed. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn
(New York: Macmillan, 1989), 27–57; Elliot R. Wolfson, Language Eros Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneu-
tics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 160–210, and Luminal
Darkness: Imaginal Gleanings from Zoharic Literature (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), 111–43.
7
See Adam Afterman, Devequt: Mystical Intimacy in Medieval Jewish Thought [in Hebrew]
(Los Angeles: Cherub, 2011), 36–43, 273–85, 340–44.
8
Bernard McGinn, “Love, Knowledge, and Mystical Union in Western Christianity: Twelfth
to Sixteenth Centuries,” Church History 56 (1987): 7–24, and “Love, Knowledge and Unio Mys-
tica in the Western Christian Tradition,” in Idel and McGinn, Mystical Union in Judaism, Chris-
tianity and Islam, 59–86.
9
On Plotinus as the first articulated source of unio mystica, see, e.g., the classic presentation by
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: Meridian, 1955), 372–73; and Walter Terence Stace, Mys-
ticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1961), 236. On the Western mystical tradition, see
Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 1:38–40; Moshe Idel,

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From Philo to Plotinus

illumination, and unio mystica, absorbed later into the three monotheistic
traditions, has an important precedent and possible source in Philo’s alle-
gorical commentary on the Torah.10 Philo’s interpretation of the biblical
commandment to “cleave” to God as mystical union is a fascinating moment
when “theistic union” was born out of a synthesis of Platonism and Philo’s
Judaism.11
It is through his commentary on the biblical commandment to “cleave” to
God that Philo introduces his understanding of henōsis as mystical union
with God. It seems that Philo’s discussions of henōsis might have had an im-
pact on Plotinus and the entire Neoplatonic tradition of henōsis and conse-
quently on a wide range of medieval Jewish, Christian, and Arab articula-
tions of the idea and experience of unio mystica.12

Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (New York: Continuum, 2007), 627, Kabbalah: New Perspectives,
39, 289 n. 13, and Enchanted Chains, 18–19, 22. On the importance of Neoplatonic unio mystica
for the development of medieval Jewish mysticism, see Afterman, Devequt ; Moshe Idel, “On the
Language of Ecstatic Experiences in Jewish Mysticism,” in Religions: The Religious Experience, ed.
Matthias Riedl and Tilo Schabert (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008), 56–60, and
Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 42–46; and McGinn, “Love, Knowledge and Unio Mystica,” 61. An-
other possible source in ancient Judaism can be found in the Qumran texts that describe how
the mystic may commune or cleave with the angels but not with God. Some scholars employ
the term unio mystica in the analysis of this experience of unity with the angels; see the impor-
tant discussions by Philip Alexander, The Mystical Texts (London: Continuum, 2006), 101–43;
and Schafer, Origins, 122–53; cf. Elliot R. Wolfson, “Seven Mysteries of Knowledge: Qumran E/
Sotericism Recovered,” in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel, ed.
H. Najman and J. H. Newman (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 177–213.
10
See, e.g., the discussion in Plutonis, Enneads, 6.7.34 and 6.9.9; and McGinn, Foundations of
Mysticism, 53–55. I assume that the Platonic scheme of elevation and contemplative vision of
the Ideas lacks a clear and developed idea of assimilation or union of the Nous with the Ideas.
The most relevant Platonic discussions of the ascension of the soul to the world of the Ideas
are the Symposium, 201D–212A, Phaedrus, 243E–2457B, Republic, 514A–518B, and the Seventh
Letter, 341CD; however, cf. André J. Festugière, Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1954); and McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, 26–35, who high-
lights the commentaries of Festugière and others who find already in Plato the idea that in the
height of the soul’s elevation and Nous’s contemplation of the One there is some kind of
“awareness of identity with the present ultimate principle” (33). On Philo’s commentary on the
Torah, see James R. Royse, “The Works of Philo,” in The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam
Kamesar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 38–45.
11
On “theistic union,” see John Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1967), 227–29; Robert Arp, “Plotinus, Mysticism, and Mediation,” Religious
Studies 40 (2004): 145–48.
12
See Alexander Altmann, “Ibn Bajja on Man’s Ultimate Felicity,” in Studies in Religious Phi-
losophy and Mysticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 104: “The notion of ‘union’
(ittihad ), however, goes back to the Neoplatonic concept of henōsis in Plotinus and his successors
and designates the ultimate stage of mystical union”; Alfred Ivry, “Averroes on Intellection and
Conjunction,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 86 (1966): 81 n. 22; Alexander Altmann and
Samuel M. Stern, Isaac Israeli: A Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century (repr., Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009), 185–95; Philip Merlan, Monopsychism Mysticism Metaconscious-
ness: Problems of the Soul in the Neoaristotelian and Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963).
For the history of the idea of henōsis in Dionysius the Areopagite and especially Philo’s back-
ground for his discussion in the De Mystica Theologia on Moses’s entrance into the dark cloud,
see the important discussion in Ysabel D. Andia, Henosis: L’union a dieu chez Denys L’areopagite (Lei-
den: Brill, 1996), 309–18.

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Although scholarship has addressed mystical union in Philo, the fact that
this original notion was articulated out of Philo’s commentary on the bibli-
cal commandment to “cleave” to God was overlooked.13 Philo introduced
this element of “cleaving” or union with God through his original interpre-
tation of the meaning of the biblical “cleaving” to God. Since he drew on the
already developed Platonic theory of elevation and contemplation of the
ideas,14 he was in the unique position to offer a Platonic interpretation of
the biblical injunction: cleaving to God is possible because man is ultimately
a Nous that can escape the sensible realm, elevate itself to Gods “place,” and
there unite with the transcendent God.15
My analysis considers Philo’s writing to be exceptionally diverse and to in-
clude different opinions and approaches to the question of the possibility of
the union with God or alternatively with God qua logos. I do not assume that
all of his writings, written to different audiences and over a period of time,
are necessarily coherent and consistent regarding this sensitive matter. It is

13
Leisegang and Goodenough maintained that Philo borrowed the element of mystical
union and hieros gamos from the Greek mystery religions and adopted it to his theology of mono-
theistic Hellenized Judaism: see Hans Leisegang, Der Heilige Geist: Das Wesen und werden der
Mystisch-Intuitiven Erkenntnis in der Philosophie und religion der Griechen, vol. 1, pt. 1, Die vorchristli-
chen Anschauungen und Lehren vom pneuma und der Mystisch-Intuitiven (Leipzig: Teubner, 1919),
231–33; Erwin R. Goodenough, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (Amster-
dam: Philo, 1969). For a detailed survey of their views, see Gary Lease, “Jewish Mystery Cults since
Goodenough,” ANRW 20 (1987): 858–80. Eric Robertson Dodds, however, categorically denied
the possibility of mystical union of any sort in Philo: see Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety:
Some Aspects of Religious Experiences from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (New York: Norton, 1965),
71–72. See also Henry Chadwick, “Philo and the Beginnings of Christian Thought,” in The Cam-
bridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, ed. A. H. Armstrong (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1967), 137–57, esp. 154, where Chadwick notes: “Philo does not speak
of an undifferentiated identity of the soul with the One, but of an ‘unbroken union with God
in Love’ which is ‘deification’”; Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Ox-
ford: Clarendon, 1981), 18–35, who ignores the subject; Schafer, Origins, 154–74, 352–53, who
seems to agree that Philo promoted some kind of mystical union; and Cristina Termini, “Philo’s
Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism,” in Kamesar, Cambridge Companion to Philo, 106–9.
Some suggest that Philo might have been influenced by “eastern” sources that introduced the
possibility of mystical union later adopted into Platonic terms: see the comment by Dan Merkur
in Idel and McGinn, Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 175–76. David Winston, who
analyzed Philo’s mysticism systematically, reached a different conclusion that Philo does not pro-
mote union with God per se. Winston states in his Logos and Mystical Theology in Philo of Alexandria
(Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), 43–58, esp. 49–50, that union with God is pos-
sible only through the logos who functions as a living hypostatization of an essential “aspect” or
dimension of the deity, the “face of God” turned toward creation. According to Winston’s anal-
ysis, union with God qua logos, that is, God’s “face,” is the highest possible human achievement.
See more of his detailed analysis in David Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in The Ancestral Philos-
ophy: Hellenistic Philosophy in Second Temple Judaism, ed. Gregory E. Sterling (Providence, RI:
Brown Judaic Studies, 2001), 151–70, esp. 151, where he states: “human’s highest union with
God, according to Philo, is limited to the Deity’s manifestation as Logos,” “Was Philo a Mystic?”
in Studies in Jewish Mysticism, ed. Joseph Dan and Frank Talmage (Cambridge, MA: Association
for Jewish Studies, 1982), 15-40, and “Philo’s Mysticism,” Studia Philonica 8 (1996): 78–82.
14
See, e.g., Philo’s discussion in De Opificio Mundi, 69–71, and Quaestiones et Solutiones in Gen-
esim, 3:3, drawing on Phaedrus, 243E–247E.
15
On God as “the place,” see, e.g., Philo, De Somniis, 1:63; Idel, “Universalization and Integra-
tion,” 34–35.

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From Philo to Plotinus

possible, however, to recognize a line of thought, a distinct voice in the sym-


phony of Philo’s corpus, where the possibility of mystical union with the
One is clearly and explicitly articulated.
Before moving on to Philo’s original interpretation of the biblical verses, I
first introduce the relevant verses, their translations, and rabbinical inter-
pretations in order to fully appreciate Philo’s original innovation. I then in-
troduce the main elements of Philo’s religious experience including his no-
tions of seeing God, standing beside God, and dwelling in God as the divine
portion and place of the soul. All of these elements of religious transforma-
tion and experience are present in Philo’s commentaries on the various
biblical verses. Next, I present Philo’s commentary on the biblical command-
ment to cleave to God and his analysis of Gen. 2:24 that adds another dimen-
sion to Philo’s theory of mystical union. I conclude with a reflection on the
significance of Philo’s discussion to the understanding of the history and ori-
gins of the idea of henōsis as “theistic union” and its significance for the his-
tory of medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought.

B I B L I C A L V ER S E S A N D TH E I R R A B B I N I CAL IN TE R P RE TATI O N S

The passages in Deuteronomy and Genesis that form the basis for Philo’s
idea of henōsis and mystical union are known as debequt passages, due to their
use of the cognate d-b-q, meaning “to cling,” “stick,” “cleave,” or “hold fast.”16
Commandments employing forms of this cognate d-b-q (‫ )דבק‬appear in Deut.
10:20, 11:22, 13:5, and 30:20,17 of which Philo interprets 10:20 and 30:20,
and the same cognate appears in Deut. 4:4 and in Gen. 2:24, the latter in the
context of the “cleaving” of husband and wife: “Hence a man leaves his father
and mother and clings [‫ ]ודבק‬to his wife, so that they become one flesh”
(Gen. 2:24).18 “While you, who held fast [‫ ]הדבקים‬to the Lord your God,
are all alive today” (Deut. 4:4). “You must revere the Lord your God; only
Him shall you worship, to Him shall you hold fast [‫ ]ובו תדבק‬and by His
name shall you swear” (Deut. 10:20). “I call heaven and earth to witness
against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Choose life—if you and your offspring would live. By loving the Lord your
God, heeding His commands, and holding fast [‫ ]ולדבקה בו‬to Him; For
thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord
swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them” (Deut.
30:19–20).

16
Gerhard Wallis, “Dābhaq,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes
Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. John T. Willis et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1978), 3:79–84. King James Version and the Revised Standard Version translate this as
“cleave.”
17
See also Josh. 22:5, 23:8; 2 Kings 18:2; and Afterman, Devequt, 16–19.
18
The English translation of the Hebrew Bible is taken from the new Jewish Publication So-
ciety translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003).

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In their biblical context, the injunctions to love and cleave to God are part
of a vocabulary regulating the religious covenant between God and the peo-
ple of Israel. Drawing on political vocabulary regulating the covenant be-
tween the king and his subjects in the ancient Near East, the terms “love”
and “cleave” refer in these verses to a formal and political obligation and not
to personal religious emotions or spiritual motivations.19 In contrast to the
key role these passages play in Jewish medieval mysticism and philosophy,
they seem to receive relatively little attention in rabbinic literature.20 Early
rabbinic commentaries viewed them as a demand for special devotion dur-
ing Hallachic performance, as a demand to stay loyal to God or as a precau-
tion against idolatry, all avoiding the possibility of direct communion or
union with God.21 Some rabbis, emphasizing that cleaving to God is categor-
ically impossible due to his numinous nature, which obviates the possibility
of any cleaving or union,22 maintained that the Mosaic imperative to cleave
referred to the creation of a familial bond with no other than the rabbis
themselves, a proof text for the requirement to make the scholars part of
one’s family, to marry them into the family, and to support them financially
as one would a family member:
“But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day”
(Deuteronomy 4:4); now is it possible to cleave to the divine presence concerning
which it is written in Scripture, “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire” (Deuteron-
omy 4:24)? But [the meaning is this:] Any man who marries his daughter to a scholar,
or carries on a trade on behalf of scholars or benefits scholars from his estate is re-
garded by Scripture as if [23] he had cleaved to the divine presence. Similarly you read
in Scripture, “To love the Lord thy God, [to hearken to his voice] and to cleave
unto Him” (Deuteronomy 30:20) Is it possible for a human being to cleave unto the
divine presence? But [what was meant is this:] Any man who marries his daughter to
a scholar, or carries on a trade for scholars, or benefits scholars from his estate is re-
garded by Scripture as if he had cleaved to the divine presence.24

19
See Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1972), 83–84, and Deuteronomy 1–11: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
(New York: Doubleday, 1991), 440.
20
See Afterman, Devequt, 13–37.
21
See Louis Finkelstein, ed., Sifre on Deuteronomy (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of
America, 2001), sec. 85, 150; Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 50b; and Afterman, Devequt,
22–32; cf. Joshua Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature (New York: Intellect-
books, 1969), 3–5, 278–303, which portrays a totally different picture of rabbinical Judaism as
promoting mystical union with God.
22
Idel assumes that this is true for all, apart from the scholars themselves, who have the ca-
pacity to cleave to the “fire,” the numinous divine; see Moshe Idel, R. Menachem Recanati the
Kabbalist [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1998), 130.
23
On the term “as if ” and its meaning in mystical discourse, see Moshe Idel, Ascensions on
High in Jewish Mysticism: Pillars, Lines, Ladders (Budapest: Central European University Press,
2005), 41, 51–54.
24
Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubot 111b (Soncino English translation), emphasis added.
See the discussion in Reuven Hammer, Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), sec. 49, 106: “‘And cleave unto him’ (Deu 11:22):
is it possible for man to ascend to heaven and cleave to fire? seeing that scripture has said: ‘For

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The rabbinic interpretation of the meaning of the verb ‫ דבק‬in Deut.


30:20, 11:22, and 4:4 is drawn, it seems, from the interpretation of the term
in Gen. 2:24 alluding to the creation of new family bonds through mar-
riage.25 It is important to notice that it is in the context of Gen. 2:24 that
the “cleaving” leads to the unity of “one flesh.” Philo, as we shall see, will
learn from here the principle that cleaving leads to unity: unity of flesh or
alternatively unity of spirit to be reached by mystical cleaving to God. For the
rabbis, however, since it is impossible to “marry” or “bond” to God on a phys-
ical level, and the possibility of a spiritual cleaving or marriage is not consid-
ered, the commandment to “cleave” to God is shifted to the scholars and
their students.26 The rabbis’ categorical denial that “cleaving” refers to a spir-
itual or mystical personal contact with God might reflect some awareness
and perhaps even a reaction to philosophical interpretations of the com-
mandment such as Philo’s commentaries to be discussed below.27 Of all
the rabbinic interpretations addressing the passages, only the statement
(rather than commandment) in Deut. 4:4, “But ye that did cleave unto the
Lord your God are alive every one of you this day,” is interpreted as some
form of collective communion with God.28
In another discussion of this statement, we find a short comment attrib-
uted to R. Akiva, “‘But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God’—literally
cleaving!” but without any further explanation how such “cleaving” takes
place.29 Given the biblical and rabbinical context of the meaning of the
commandment to “cleave” to God and the absence of spiritual and mystical
interpretations of the verses in rabbinical sources, a close reading of Phi-
lo’s writing on the topics is in order. Such a reading will not only elucidate

the Lord thy God is a devouring fire’ (Deu 4:24) and ‘His throne was fiery flames’ (Dan 7:9),
Rather cling to the Sages and to their disciples, and I will account it to you as if you had as-
cended to heaven and had received it (the Torah) there.” See also Afterman, Devequt, 24–25;
cf. Abraham J. Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations (New York: Contin-
uum, 2006), 190–93; Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 38.
25
See the discussion in the Sifre quoted above interpreting the commandment as it appears
in Deut. 11:22. See Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005),
19–21.
26
On the collective level, the “People of Israel” are described by the rabbis, as being “mar-
ried” to God; see Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. R. Manheim (New
York: Schoken, 1969), 104–9; Idel, Kabbalah and Eros, 22–35. This is not the only place where the
rabbis shift a commandment applying directly to God to the scholars and their students; see
Babylonian Talmud, tractate Kiddushin 57a, Pesachim 22b.
27
The Aramaic translations of the Torah render Deuteronomy (10:20, 11:22, 13:5, 30:20) as if
the cleaving is to be directed to God’s “fear,” rather than God himself. The Syrian translation
uses the verb “NKF” without mentioning God’s “fear,” a verb that has a more literal meaning
of cleaving, sticking, and to be joined in marriage. See Jessie Payne Smith, ed., A Compendious
Syriac Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 351.
28
See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 64a, 65b. See the analysis by Idel, Kabbalah:
New Perspectives, 38–39; Afterman, Devequt, 22–32.
29
Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 64a, trans. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 39, 288
n. 9. See also the discussion in Heschel, Heavenly, 190–93; Yochanan Moffs, Love and Joy: Law,
Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America,
1992), 49–60, esp. 51–52; Idel, R. Menachem Recanati, 125–26, 130; Afterman, Devequt, 32–37.

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Philo’s unique position but also provide insight into the type of mystical inti-
macy he considered as the core of Mosaic Law.

S TA N DIN G W I T H G O D : VISION AND UNION AS THE FUNDAMENTAL S OF


R E LIG I O U S E X PE R I E NC E

Before launching into the intricacies of Philo’s exegetical writings as a ba-


sis for mystical union, it will be helpful to understand the context of Philo’s
characterization of religious experience. In his allegorical commentaries on
the Mosaic Law, Philo describes two vital experiences that characterize this
religiosity. The first is a capacity for visio dei, a direct mystical vision of the
creator not mediated by the logos or other emanations. The second is unio
mystica itself: the capacity to cleave to and unite with the transcendent God.
Both states are distinguished and different from many of the other mystical
experiences (e.g., vision and union with the logos) described by Philo
throughout his exegetical enterprise, in that their core is a state of unmedi-
ated access to God.30
It is my assumption that it is possible to reconstruct a Philonic theory of
human transformation leading to an unmediated and intimate experience
of God that ultimately allows mystical union to take place. In contrast, in
some of the other religious and mystical experiences described and analyzed
by Philo, including prophecy, ecstatic divination, and “sober intoxication,”
man is not required or even able it seems to achieve full transcendence, and
as a result, the experience is focused on mediating entities, mainly the logos,
as opposed to a direct interface with the creator himself.31
In his famous characterization of the “people of Israel” as those who attain
the unique capacity for mental vision of the transcendent God,32 Philo em-
phasizes the visibility of the transcendent deity, drawing not only on the Pla-
tonic tradition and Greek mystery religions but also on the Septuagint.33

30
See, e.g., the discussions in Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 93–96; and Louth, Origins, 33–35.
31
See the analysis of Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 49–50.
32
The “people of Israel” in contrast to the “Jews” is an abstract category that includes all phi-
losophers and prophets who seek the knowledge and intimacy with God; see Ellen Birnbaum,
The Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought: Israel, Jews and Proselytes (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Liter-
ature, 1996), 91–127. See also Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 44; Gerhard Delling, “The
‘One Who Sees God’ in Philo,” in Nourished with Peace: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism in Memory of
Samuel Sandmel, ed. Frederick E. Greenspahn, Earle Hilgert, and Burton L. Mack (Chico, CA:
Scholars, 1984), 34–35, 39; Birnbaum, Place of Judaism in Philo’s Thought, 91–127; Schafer, Ori-
gins, 164–74.
33
See the classic discussion in Philo, Legum Allegoriarum, 3:100–103 (F. H. Colson, G. H. Whita-
ker, and Ralph Marcus, eds., Philo, Loeb Classical Library, 12 vols. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1929–62], 1:369), and De Praemiis et Poenis, 43–46 (Colson, Whitaker, and Mar-
cus, Philo, 4:337–39). On the visibility of God in ancient Judaism, see Elliot R. Wolfson, Through
a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Prince-
ton University Press, 1994), 13–51; on Philo, 50; and cf. David Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the
Timaeus of Plato (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 474.

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From Philo to Plotinus

Philo is thus introducing a type of unmediated mental vision of the uncre-


ated Father that is not mediated by the logos.34 This capacity is expressed in
Philo’s famous phrase “light by light,” viewing God’s light through his own
light, rather than through the light of the logos.35 The direct vision of God
does not include knowledge of the divine essence, nor does it necessarily in-
clude ecstatic passion or divination.36 The mind beholding this vision has
the unique capacity to elevate itself above the created universe and reach
a direct, unmediated vision of the uncreated.
The precise nature of this vision is a matter of scholarly debate. David Win-
ston has argued that the “unmediated intuitive vision” as described by Philo
is actually an inner intuitive illumination, the result of analytical thought
and deduction.37 In contrast to H. Wolfson and H. Lewy, who maintain that
Philo is describing an experience that completely bypasses the rational facul-
ties and depends entirely on God’s grace, Winston argues that this particular
experience of vision is rather the result of a process of reasoning in the style
of an “ontological argument” that leads to inner illumination and vision of
the mind: “It is this inner intuitive illumination, constituting a rational pro-
cess of an analytical type, that is to be identified with the divine revelation
taking shape in the human mind and enabling it to have a direct vision of
God.”38
While some of Philo’s discussions indeed yield perfectly to Winston’s anal-
ysis, in the following example, Philo asserts a vision in which the soul must
first transcend the created world in order to achieve direct sight of the un-
created One:
There is a mind more perfect and more thoroughly cleansed, which has undergone
initiation into the greater mysteries, a mind which gains its first knowledge of the first
cause not from created things, as one may learn the substance from the shadow, but
lifting its eyes above and beyond creation obtains a clear vision of the uncreated One.
So as from him to apprehend both himself and his shadow. . . . The mind of which I
speak is Moses who says “Manifest thyself to me, let me see thee that I know thee”

34
From some of Philo’s writings one may deduce, however, that the possibility of seeing the
One is categorically denied. See, e.g., De Posteritate Caini, 167–69, and De Opificio Mundi, 71–73.
35
Philo, De Praemiis et Poenis, 43–46 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 4:337–39): “But
those, if such there be, who have had the power to apprehend Him through Himself without
the cooperation of any reasoning process to lead them to the sight, must be recorded as holy
and genuine worshippers and friends of God in very truth. In their company is who in Hebrew
is called Israel, but in Greek the God seer who sees not his real nature, for that, as I said, is im-
possible—but that He is. . . . As light is seen by light, so God too his own brightness and is dis-
cerned through himself alone without anything cooperating. The seekers for truth are those
who envisaged God through God, light through light.” See Goodenough, Light, 176–78; David
Winston, Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, the Giants, and Selections (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist,
1981), 27. This famous passage might have influenced Plotinus in the Enneads, 5.3.17, 5.5.10.
See the discussion in Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 44.
36
Loath, Origins, 19–20; Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 158–59.
37
See Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 155–61.
38
Ibid., 157–61, 159; Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 46–47; Runia, Philo of Alexandria,
437.

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(Exod. 33:13). . . . One receives the clear vision of God directly from the first cause
Himself. The other discerns the Artificer, as it were from a shadow, from created
things by virtue of inferential reasoning.39

Since the intellectual vision is direct and not mediated by the logos and “in-
ferential reasoning,” it seems that the soul must first transcend with his “in-
ner eye” all created reality and only then view the transcendent “uncreated
One.” Philo distinguishes between the great minds, those who reached such
direct contact with the uncreated, and the rest of humanity that must dis-
cern the creator through the shadow of the logos.
In another discussion, Philo introduces his interpretation of the divine
“portion” granted to those who choose to become intimate with God:
“The tribe of Levi,” He says, “shall have no lot or portion among the children of Israel,
for the Lord is their portion” (Deuteronomy 10:9); and there is an utterance rung out
on this wise by the holy oracles in the name of God, “I am the portion and inheri-
tance” (Numb 18:20): for in reality the mind which has been perfectly cleansed and
purified, and which renounces all things pertaining to creation, is acquainted with
One alone, and knows but One, even the uncreate, to whom it has drawn nigh, by
Whom also it has taken to Himself.40
Here we are introduced to another facet of knowing the One, via the idea
that through human transcendence the Levitate mind can become “ac-
quainted” with the One not through any mediators. God may become the
“portion” of that human mind.
Another notion that Philo links to the process of human transcendence,
of soaring above all created reality and reaching an unmediated experience
of God, is referred to as “standing” beside God: “There are still others, whom
God has advanced even higher, and has trained them to soar above species
and genus alike and stationed them beside himself. Such is Moses to whom
he says ‘Stand here with me’ (Deut. 5:31).”41 God’s invitation to Moses to
stand beside him is interpreted as a capacity of his mind to soar above and
beyond all earthly reality in order to reach him at his place and stand there.
The Mosaic religiosity allows the personal engagement with the transcen-
dent deity; this intimacy with God is alluded to as “standing” with him at or
in his “place,” where God becomes his only portion.42 Given that only the
transcendent God “stands” and all creation moves, in order for the human

39
Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 3:100–103 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 1:369).
40
Philo, De Plantatione, 63–64, and Quaestiones et Solutiones in Exodum, 2:29 (Colson, Whitaker,
and Marcus, Philo, 3:245, 12:69–70).
41
Philo, De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini, 8–10 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 2:99); see David
Winston “The Philonic Sage” [in Hebrew], Da’at 11 (1983): 15–17.
42
Following David Winston, I use the term “mystical intimacy” rather than “mystical gnosis” to
classify the apex experience of Mosaic Law as portrayed by Philo in some of his commentaries;
see Winston, “The Sage as Mystic in the Wisdom of Solomon,” in Sterling, Ancestral Philosophy,
110–13; Dan Merkur, Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions (Albany, NY: SUNY
Press, 1993).

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From Philo to Plotinus

mind to reach this state of “standing” with God, who becomes the “place”
and portion of the soul, it must first transcend the created moving universe.
David Runia, who investigated the Philonic theme of the “standing” God,
has shown that in some of Philo’s discussions the theme of the standing God
is “transferred to the wise man par excellence, Moses (or Abraham), who
cleaves to God and achieves the same stability of thought and purpose.”43
The notion of the standing God and the wise men that stand next to him is
further developed (possibly under some impact of Philo) in the Neoplatonic
tradition as evidenced in Numenius and Plotinus and later in Procolos,
Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine.44
Both experiences described by Philo—mystical vision and mystical “stand-
ing” in/with God, who becomes the mind’s portion—concern the intimate,
personal journey of the soul, which, by transcending its corporeality and as-
cending beyond the created universe, is able to encounter directly the tran-
scendent God. This process, which is a condition for both the vision and, as
we shall see, mystical union, is not executed necessarily by the more “com-
mon” ascending and vision of the logos but rather by bypassing the created
universe and the logos altogether.45
In order to attain immediate access, the individual must uphold certain
moral virtues that enable him to come close to God.46 The embodiment of
divine virtues such as piety and faith is a condition for the direct perception
of the first cause and for a personal encounter with the transcendent crea-
tor, which at times Philo describes as the product of divine grace.47 The in-
sight that the Torah demands that human beings strive for an intimate and
direct encounter with the transcendent God, who despite his transcendence
is capable of having an intimate relationship with those who have sought
him, is characteristic of Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Mosaic Law.
It was the Platonic tradition that provided the anthropological and theo-
logical foundations that enabled Philo to articulate the possibility for the
soul to ascend to the end of the created universe and then return to God.
The odyssey of the soul to God is probably the most important theme in
Philo’s thought, which embodies, on the one hand, the transcendence of

43
David Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers: A Collection of Papers (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 199; see
also the discussions in Philo, De Posteritate Caini, 19–30, De Cherubim, 18–19, De Gigantibus, 48–49,
and De Confusione Linguarum, 30–32.
44
See Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers, 182–205; Merker, Gnosis, 147. For further discussion
of possible links between Philo and Plotinus on a related topic, see Tatjana Alekniené, “L’‘ex-
tase mystique’ dans la tradition platonicienne ‘Philon d’Alexandrie ET Plotin,’” Studia Philonica
22 (2010): 53–82. On the possible influence of Philo on Plotinus via Numenius, see the refer-
ences indicated by Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 38–39, 289 n. 13, and Ben, 642 n. 97.
45
Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 157–59; Chadwick, “Philo,” 148.
46
See Philo, De Migratione Abrahami, 24:132 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 4:207–9),
to be discussed below.
47
On the first cause, see Naomi Goldstein Cohen, “Philo’s Cher. 40–52, Zohar III 31a, and
BT Hag. 16a,” Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (2006): 197. On divine grace, see Louth, Origins, 30;
Chadwick, “Philo,” 150–53.

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the deity and, on the other hand, the idea that the encounter is personal, in-
timate, and mutual.

MYS TICAL HENŌS I S IN PHIL O ’ S CO MM E NTA R Y O N TH E BIBL I C A L


“ CLEAVING ” TO GO D

While interpreting the “cleaving” verses in Deut. 30:20 and 10:20 and Gen.
2:24, Philo clearly follows the Septuagint terminology.48 For these verses, the
Septuagint uses three different verbs: “proskollēthēsetai” (Gen. 2:24), “kol-
lēthēi” (Deut. 10:20), and “echesthai” (Deut. 30:20).49 Philo seems to con-
nect Deut. 30:20 and 10:20 not on a philological basis, since the Septuagint
uses two different verbs to translate Davak (‫)דבק‬, but rather on a thematic
and theological basis.
The common ground is the commandment itself—the commandment to
“attach” to God—and its correlation to the idea of the divine “Portion” and
the idea of “coming near” God and “standing” next to/with him. Due to this
underlining structure, it is possible to bring together the two verses, despite
the difference in terminology. While coming to interpret Deut. 30:20, Philo
makes a note to the reader in one of his discussions of the exact meaning of
the Greek verb “echesthai” used in this context.50 Since for the Greek reader
this verb is not usually associated with mystical or spiritual cleaving, Philo
makes a note that in this context it means spiritual union with God.
Philo’s first discussion of Deut. 30:20 appears in a long section beginning
at On the Posterity of Cain and His Exile (De Posteritate Caini, 12), where he de-
scribes the “man of God” who continuously seeks God’s presence and the
“material man” represented by Cain who chooses to cleave to his sense ex-
periences and, consequently, lives a life of wandering and restless move-
ment. The man of God seeks the stable and constant existence of the tran-
scendent One, leading to a life of tranquility achieved by standing in God’s
place and transcending the movement of the universe.

48
Philo is interpreting the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible; there is generally no ev-
idence that Philo knew or read Hebrew.
49
Wallis, “Dābhaq,” notes that the Septuagint uses thirteen different verbs to translate the
various occurrences of ‫דבק‬. For the various meanings of these verbs in the Septuagint, See
Johan Lust et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, 2 vols. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblelge-
sellschaft, 1996); T. Muraoka, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (Louvain: Peeters, 2002),
s.vv. “kollaō,” “proskollaō,” “exō.” See also John William Wevers, Notes on the Greek Text of Deu-
teronomy (Atlanta: Scholars, 1995), 120. On the range of the meaning of kollaō in later Chris-
tian writings, see Cecile Dogniez and Marguerite Harl [et al.], La bible d’Alexandrie: Le Deuter-
onome (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1992), 156–57; see also Geoffrey William Hugo Lampe, A
Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961). These verbs do not seem to
carry any theological or mystical connotations in profane Greek literature; see Henry George
Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon—with a Revised Supplement (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1996).
50
See Liddel and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. “echo” (C. Med): “to hold oneself to, hold
on by, cling to, make fast to.”

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By cleaving to God, the soul may escape the fate of all creation, which
changes, moves, and eventually disintegrates, gaining eternal life beside the
“standing” God. Philo’s characterization of the man of God suggests that
cleaving to God and standing in his place or “next” to him are one. Philo’s
interpretation of the “cleaving commandment” is part of the larger scheme
of the “wise men” that stand in/with the “standing” God analyzed in De Pos-
teritate Caini (12–23).51
Of the four Deuteronomy “cleaving” verses, Philo chooses to interpret the
two (10:20, 30:20) that correlate “cleaving” to God with gaining “true” life,
suggesting that cleaving to God leads to real and eternal life “standing” be-
side God. Philo identifies Moses, whom God calls on to stand next to him
(“but you stand [stethi] here with me”; Deut. 5:28), as the one who has the
authority to command “Israel” to cleave to God: “But Moses will lay down for
his pupils a charge most noble ‘to love God and hearken to and cleave to
Him’ (Deu. 30:20); assuring them that this is the life that brings true prosper-
ity and length of days. And his way of inviting them to honour Him Who is a
worthy object of strong yearning and devoted love is vivid and expressive. He
bids them ‘cleave (echesthai) to Him,’ bringing out by the use of this word
how constant and continuous and unbroken is the concord and union
(henōseōs) that comes through making God our own.”52
A second discussion of the same verse from Deuteronomy is found in The
Preliminary Studies: “A great and transcendent soul does such a boast be-
speak, to soar above created being, to pass beyond its boundaries, to hold fast
(periechesthai) to the uncreated alone, following the sacred admonitions in
which we are told to ‘cling (echesthai) to Him’ (Deuteronomy 30:20), and
therefore to those who thus cling (exomenois) and serve him without ceas-
ing He gives himself as portion, and this my affirmation is warranted by the
oracle which says ‘The Lord himself is his portion’ (Deuteronomy 10:9).”53
Together, the two commentaries on the commandment to cleave to God
constitute a clear ideal of mystical union.54 I would suggest that Philo’s com-
mentary on verse 30:20 is not only the first attempt to interpret the biblical
commandment in mystical terms but fundamentally the first attempt to ar-
ticulate the idea of mystical union with God, as found later in the monothe-
istic mystical traditions.55
Philo’s reading of the imperative to cleave to God, his choice to invoke the
term henōsis, suggests that a full union with the transcendent creator is not
only possible but in fact the pinnacle of Mosaic Law. God is to be the object
51
See Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers, 182–205.
52
Philo, De Posteritate Caini, 12 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 2:335); see Winston,
“Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 167; McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, 40 and n. 93.
53
Philo, De Congressu Eruditionis Gratia, 24:133–35 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo,
4:527).
54
Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 167, notes that the discussion in De
Posteritate Caini, 12, includes a “notion of actual union with God.”
55
See Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 167; Afterman, Devequt, 19–22.

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of yearning and love; his transcendence does not obviate personal intimacy
and union by Israel. To the contrary, the Deuteronomic injunction to cleave
to God is a commandment to establish a personal love relationship with
God, to make him “our own,” to become his close friend.
The union of the soul with the creator is a result of the soul transcending
the boundaries of created existence and reaching an unmediated contact
with the divine. Once the soul gains (or regains) its transcendent existence
and true life, the conditions are met for the mystical union with the transcen-
dent God who becomes the soul’s “portion.” Standing in the same “place,”
they become one.
Philo’s commentary in the De Posteritate Caini is striking because of the
clear correlation he makes between gaining unmediated access to God and
achieving union with him. In the two discussions of Deut. 30:20, we find that
by cleaving to God, the human mind “stands” in God’s place, rendering God
his portion and replacing all other concerns. God’s transcendence, which is
a fundamental idea in Philo’s biblical exegesis, does not preclude the pos-
sibility of reaching mystical intimacy with God including mystical union of
the mind, stripped of all its somatic and corporeal garments, and the tran-
scendent God.56 Philo makes it clear that the nature of the encounter is that
of total union, stressing the depth of intimacy reached through such mysti-
cal union.
The mystical cleaving to the uncreated is not a result of comprehension of
his essence, a notion categorically denied by Philo, but rather an alternative
stage achieved when the purified soul bypasses the created universe and
cleaves to the divine in a “theistic union.”57 Mystical intimacy is conditioned
on the soul’s capacity to encounter the divine at his own “place” beyond the
created world that, ultimately, is viewed as lacking true being.58 Union with
the One is not characterized as an impersonal merging with an abstract prin-
ciple or substance. On the contrary, the union takes place with the biblical
God who in spite of his transcendence is capable of loving and maintaining
personal friendships.
Deut. 4:4, which correlates the cleaving to God and meriting life as in Deut.
30:20, is interpreted by Philo to be referring to the “real” life lived in God. In
On Flight, Philo discusses this connection by returning to Deut. 30:20, in re-
lation to Deut. 4:4:
She confirmed what she said by holy oracles also, one of them to this effect: “Ye that
did cleave (hoi proskeimenoi) unto the Lord your God are alive all of you at this day.”

56
See Harry Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948), 2:94–164; Peter Frick, Divine Providence in
Philo of Alexandria (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 25–55; Runia, Philo of Alexandria, 442–43;
Winston, “Was Philo a Mystic?” in Ancestral Philosophy, 151–54, and Logos and Mystical Theology,
45–50.
57
See Philo, Legum Allegoriarum, 3:206, and De Mutatione Nominum, 7–12.
58
See Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 52–54; Chadwick, “Philo,” 151.

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[Deut. 4:4] For only those who have taken refuge in God and become his supplicants
does Moses recognize as living, accounting the rest to be dead men. . . . Again else-
where: “This is thy life, and length of days, to love the Lord thy God.” [Deut. 30:20]
This is the most noble definition of deathless life, to be possessed by a love of God
and a friendship for God with which flesh and body have no concern.59

Philo stresses once again that cleaving to God is a spiritual process that leads
to true friendship and love of God, which leads in turn to eternal life next to
him. The same process of spiritual cleaving to God is reflected in Philo’s in-
terpretation of another verse from Deuteronomy (10:20) commanding the
“cleaving” to God: “Using still loftier language to express the irrepressible
craving for moral excellence, he calls on them to cleave (kollasthai) to Him.
His words are: ‘thou shalt fear the Lord thy God and Him shalt thou serve,
and to Him shalt thou cleave (pros auton kollēthēsēi)’ (Deut. 10:20). What
then is the cementing substance? Do you ask what? Piety, surely, and faith:
for these virtues adjust (harmozousi) and unite (henousin) the intent of the
heart (dianoian) to the incorruptible Being: as Abraham when he believed
is said to: ‘Come near to God’ (Gen 18:23).”60 This interpretation of the
“cleaving” in this verse lacks the element of transcendence stressed by Philo
in his interpretation of Deut. 30:20. Here he emphasizes the idea that em-
bodying certain moral values adjusts and harmonizes the heart with God in
line with the idea that the Mosaic Law aims to unite man’s mind with
God and no other mediators. The manner in which one heeds the Mosaic
commandment to cleave to the Lord is by adhering to piety and faith.
We may conclude from the two commentaries on the commandment in
Deut. 30:20 and especially from the long discussion in De Posteritate Caini
(12–23) that the biblical imperative to love and cleave to God was inter-
preted as a commandment to transcend the created universe and to reach
59
Philo, De Fuga et Inventione, 11:56 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 5:39–41).
60
Philo, De Migratione Abrahami, 132 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 4:207–9); cf. Philo,
De Fuga et Inventione, 92 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 5:59–61): “All of this is to the
end that the word or thought within the mind may be left behind by itself alone, destitute of
body, destitute of sense-perception, destitute of utterance in audible speech; for when it has
been thus left, it will live a life in harmony with such solitude, and will render, with nothing
to mar or to disturb it, its glad homage to the Sole existence.” See also the translation of Win-
ston, “Philo’s Mysticism,” 78: “For thus left behind [the thought within the mind] it will live a
life in accord with such solitude, and will cleave (aspasetai) in purity and without distraction to
the alone existent.” See also Philo, Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesim, 188 (Colson, Whitaker,
and Marcus, Philo, 11:472–73): “Rightly, therefore, and properly does the wise man believing
(his) end (to consist in) likeness to God, strive, so far as possible, to unite the created with the
uncreated and the mortal with the immortal.” In other discussions, the terms “harmozousi”
and “henousin” are used in a nonmystical sense: see, e.g., the discussion in De Plantatione,
1:60, and Legatio ad Gaium, 1:8, where Philo correlates the ideas of divine portion, virtue, and
the number seven that cause or signify the harmony and unity of human society; see also Quod
Deterius Potiori Insidiari Soleat, 1:107, and De Agricultura, 1:6, where the term is employed in an
agricultural context, and De Confusione Linguarum, 1:69, Legatio ad Gaium, 1:37, De Migratione
Abrahami, 1:220, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit, 1:40, De Fuga et Inventione, 1:112, Moses, 2:243,
De Specialibus Legibus, 4:168, 4:168, 4:207, De Virtutibus, 1:135, De Aeternitate Mundi, 1:147, and
Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesim, 3:3, where the term is used in different nonspiritual contexts.

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his place and stand there, becoming God’s true friend and lover, thereby
gaining true and eternal life. The union is complete only when man and God
stand in the same place and develop a love relationship resembling family
relationships. The friendship with God, coming close to him and standing
in his place, represents the core of Mosaic religion.

CLEAVING TO GOD AS HIERO S GA MOS IN GENESIS 2:24

The metaphor of family relations and in particular the marriage bond for
mystical union is reflected in Philo’s commentary on the “cleaving” verse in
Gen. 2:24. As part of his commentary on the creation of man in Genesis,
Philo interprets the two different, ostensibly contradictory, versions of the
biblical account of the creation of Adam (Gen. 1:26 and 2:7).61
Philo’s typology of mankind includes the “earthly Man” who dwells in the
created and sensible things, the “heavenly Man” who has gained the capacity
to look beyond the created world toward both the sensible world and God,
and the “divinely Man” who is elevated totally beyond the created universe
and stands beside God.62 Philo introduces the possibility that the godly man
of heavenly origin may become God’s “close friend.”63 Of special interest to
us is Philo’s analysis of Gen. 2:24:
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave
(proskollēthēsetai) unto his wife, and the twain shall be one flesh” (Gen 2: 24): For
the sake of sense-perception the Mind, when it has become her slave, abandons both
God the Father of the universe, and God’s excellence and wisdom, the mother of all
things, and cleaves (proskollatai) to and becomes one (henoutai) with sense percep-
tion and is resolved into sense-perception so that the two become one flesh and one
experience. Observe that it is not the woman that cleaves (kollatai) to the man, but
conversely the man to the woman, Mind to sense-perception. For when that which is
superior, namely Mind, becomes one (henōthēi) with that which is inferior, namely
sense-perception it resolves into the order of flesh which is inferior. Into sense-
perception, the moving cause of the passions. But if Sense the inferior follow
Mind the superior, there will be flesh no more, but both of them will be mind.
The man, then, that the prophet speaks is such as has been described; he prefers
the love of his passions to the love of God. But there is a different man, one who

61
On Philo’s interpretation of the biblical account addressed to the Jewish community in
Alexandria, see Maren R. Niehoff, “Questions and Answers in Philo and Genesis Rabbah,” Jour-
nal for the Study of Judaism 39 (2008): 20–30. On the two accounts, see Runia, Philo of Alexandria,
334–46.
62
See Alan Mendelson, Secular Education in Philo of Alexandria (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union
College Press, 1982), 47–59; on Philo’s attitude toward the body and questions of self, see Alon
Goshen Gottstein, “The Body as Image of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Harvard Theological
Review 87, no. 2 (1994): 176–77; Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 3–5, 78–80, 231–34; Schafer, Origins, 160–61;
Raymond Martin and John Barresi, The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self (New York: Columbia Uni-
versity Press, 2006), 42–44.
63
See Philo, De Gigantibus, 58–64 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 2:475–77).

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From Philo to Plotinus

has made the contrary choice . . . this man forsakes father and mother, his mind
and material body, for the sake of having as his portion the One God “for the
Lord himself is his portion” (Deut. 10:9). Passion becomes the portion of the lover
of passion, but the portion of Levi the lover of God is God.64

Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the “cleaving” of man and his wife that
creates a union of flesh is as follows: the cleaving of mind (man) to sense
perception (wife) creates one union of the mind with its physical concerns.
The correlation between cleaving and union is fundamental, as when the
mind cleaves and unites with sense perception a united experience is con-
stituted by the two; however, the same unity is reached alternatively with vir-
tue and God when the mind cleaves to God and establishes a unity of spirit
or mind.
Man, who Philo identifies with the mind, has an inherent capacity to
cleave to other concerns, depending on his nature.65 The “material” man
cleaves to his physical body and sense perception, becoming one with sense
experience. The man of God cleaves not to his body and senses but rather to
God himself, until God becomes his mind’s portion, an idea we explored
above in our discussion of both the visio dei and the union with God. Finally,
the Levite, representing the man of God (e.g., Moses) who is not granted a
terrestrial portion of the Holy Land, instead has God for his portion and
dwells in him.66
The intimacy of mind and God is parallel and mutually exclusive to the
intimacy of mind and sense experience. The attachment of the mind to the
body is a metaphorical marriage; by stripping away its corporeality and con-
sorting with the divine, the soul regains its “virginity.”67 This idea is revisited
by Philo in his discussion in De Cherubim (40–53): “Souls, when they cleave to
God (proskollēthōsi theōi), from being woman become virgins; they cast off
the womanly destruction which is latent in sense and feeling, and follow after

64
Philo, Legum Allegoriarum, 2:49–52 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 1:255–57).
65
In Philo’s discussion in De Posteritate Caini, we learn that the soul’s essential quality is to
unite with any given concerns. This quality is signified in the Hebrew term “Hebron” deriving
from the Hebrew root HVR (which has a similar meaning to the verb DBQ, i.e., cleaving) sig-
nifying friendship or alliance; the soul becomes a “friend” with its concerns, be it the body but
alternatively also with virtue or God; see Philo, De Posteritate Caini, 59–62 (Colson, Whitaker, and
Marcus, Philo, 2:361): “‘Hebron,’ for instance, means ‘union’ but union may be of two kinds, the
soul being either made the body’s yokefellow, or being brought into fellowship with virtue.”
66
See Philo, De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini, 8–9, De Gigantibus, 61, Legum Allegoriarum, 3:99–102,
Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit, 45–46, and De Gigantibus, 60–62 (Colson, Whitaker, and Marcus,
Philo, 2:475): “But the men of God are priests and prophets who have refused to accept mem-
bership in the commonwealth of the world and to become citizens therein, but have risen wholly
above the sphere of sense-perception and have been translated into the world of the intelligible
and dwell there.” See also Goodenough, Light, 229–30: “Moses . . . has gone beyond any material
or created manifestation of God to cleave to God alone, and so has received God himself for his
portion.”
67
Cohen, “Philo’s Cher. 40–52,” 203.

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the true and untampered Virgin, namely that which is pleasing to God.”68 In
this transformation from woman to a virgin and the detachment of self from
body, the union achieved between that soul and God is that of a hieros gamos
replacing the marriage between soul and sense experience.69 The “cleaving”
between man and woman is the prototype for mystical union with God, and
it is achievable by those, such as Abraham or Levi, who dedicate their life to
the love of God and not to flesh. The Levitical state of mind is defined by a
mystical attachment and love for God.
In summary, Philo’s reading of the cleaving of “man” and “wife” as union
in Genesis completes the picture that emerges from the interpretations of
the “cleaving” verses. Cleaving to God means uniting the mind with God; this
is possible since the human mind is designed to cleave or unite with its con-
cerns and most importantly with God. Philo maintains that the unity of mind
and sense experience may be replaced with the unity of mind and God.

CO NC L USIO N

The close reading of Philo’s discussions of unio mystica deriving from his
commentary on the cleaving verses offers a rare opportunity to reevaluate
the trajectories of influence in this history of religious traditions concerning
mystical union. Mystical union emerged from Philo’s original Platonic-Jewish
interpretation of the Septuagint. Philo was the first to interpret, in writing, the
Deuteronomic injunction as referring to spiritual, mystical cleaving to God,
rather than to mediating entities, institutions, or people.
Philo converted the Deuteronomic covenantal type of cleaving into a
unique synthesis of a mystical union with the One and religious emotions of
love and intimacy with the God of Israel. Mystical union for Philo is the most
intimate experience of God, a religious experience of coming close to God
and cleaving to him in love and friendship.
The Septuagint, with its commandment to love and cleave to God, pro-
vided Philo, the middle Platonist philosopher, with the idea that it is possible
not only to ascend in contemplation and mentally view the transcendent
God but even to cleave and unite with him, an idea never before articulated
in both the Platonic and the Jewish traditions. Philo’s discussions of the
commandment, and specifically his discussion of the henōsis with God in his
commentary on Deut. 30:20, certainly signify a major innovation that should
be taken into account as an important precedent and backdrop for the later
developments of the idea of henōsis in the Neoplatonic tradition.

68
Translation by Goodenough, Light, 388, of a fragment printed in Colson, Whitaker, and
Marcus, Philo, 12:241, fragment b; cf. Philo, Quaestiones et Solutiones in Exodum, 2:3 (Colson,
Whitaker, and Marcus, Philo, 12:38): “For when a man comes in contact with a woman, he marks
the virgin as a woman but when souls become divinely inspired from being woman they become
virgins, throwing off the womanly corruptions which are in sense perception and passion.”
69
See Lease, “Jewish Mystery Cults since Goodenough,” 862.

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Philo’s allegorical interpretation of Gen. 2:24 and Deut. 10:20 and 30:20
allowed him to articulate a spiritual understanding of the biblical command-
ment and consequently to create the category of mystical henōsis. In a similar
manner although not as a result of direct influence, Jewish authors writing
under the impact of medieval Arab and Latin Neoplatonism interpreted, or
rather reinterpreted, the same verses from the Torah as a commandment for
mystical communion and union with God.70 Two of the main elements that
constitute mystical intimacy in the Philonic commentaries analyzed above,
contemplative vision and mystical union, became predominant in the Neo-
platonic mystical tradition and consequently in medieval Jewish theology
and kabbalah.71
The fact that one of Philo’s discussions of mystical union and henōsis is
part of his longer discussion of the men of God who “stand” by cleaving to
the “standing” God, a theory that was developed later by Numenius and Plo-
tinus, possibly under some influence of Philo, suggests that he might have
played some role in the later developments of the idea of mystical union.72
I find the two commentaries on Deut. 30:20 with the description of the great
souls that transcend the universe and then unite with the One as a very in-
teresting precedent and even a possible source for the Neoplatonic scheme
of elevation and henōsis with the One.
We thus have an opportunity to reevaluate the trajectories of influence in
this history of religious traditions concerning mystical union. In light of
these findings, the presumed polarity between Jerusalem and Athens as two
opposing ideological and hermeneutic dispositions must be reconsidered,
even if only within the limited scope of the current discussion, which never-
theless is a central theme in the history of the Abrahamic religions.
The new narrative that emerges is one of how under the influence of Pla-
tonism, Philo, a Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Bible, wrote in Greek

70
On the possible link between Philo and Jewish medieval mysticism, see Scholem, Major
Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 114–15; Goodenough, Light, 359–69; Elliot R. Wolfson, “Traces of Phi-
lonic Doctrine in Medieval Jewish Mysticism: A Preliminary Note,” Studia Philonica 8 (1996):
99–106 and his summary of previous disputes and literature; Yehudah Liebes, Ars Poetica in
Sefer Yetsira [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2000), 111–20, and “The Work of the Chariot
and the Work of Creation as Esoterical Teachings in Philo of Alexandria,” in Scriptural Exegesis:
The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination; Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane, ed. Debo-
rah A. Green and Laura Suzanne Lieber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105–20. There
is no evidence for any direct influence of Philo on medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy; see
Steven Harvey, “Islamic Philosophy and Jewish Philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic
Philosophy, ed. Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2005), 349–50.
71
On Neoplatonic mystical tradition, see Plutonis, Enneads, 4.8.1, 6.9.9–11, 5.3.17, 5.3.34–37,
5.5.10. Winston, Logos and Mystical Theology, 44, suggests the possibility that Philo’s theory of
mystical vision of God might have influenced Plotinus, who describes at the highest level of
spiritual ascension a vision of the light of the One; see, Pierre Hadot, Plotinus; or, The Simplicity
of Vision, trans. Michael Chase (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 61–72. On medi-
eval Jewish theology and kabbalah, see Wolfson, Through a Speculum; Afterman, Devequt.
72
See the careful discussion in Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers, 199–200.

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about the mystical union of man with God. Christianity would later emerge
from a Jewish and Greek background and assume the central role in devel-
oping these themes in a philosophic vein. This vein emerged independently
from the Platonic tradition (possibly under Philo’s influence) from Plotinus
and on through the Middle Ages.
The emergence or perhaps the revival of the ideal of mystical cleaving
and union in medieval Judaism and at the same time in the Western Chris-
tianity and Arab philosophy was a result of the creative absorption of Arab
and Latin Neoplatonism.73 As for medieval Judaism, unio mystica was recon-
structed once again through the interpretation of exactly the same key
verses from the Torah in light of the Neoplatonic scheme of elevation, illu-
mination, and communion/mystical union.74 If indeed Philo’s discussions
bore any influence on the Neoplatonic scheme of mystical union, we might
notice a very interesting closure in the way the medieval synthesis between
Platonism and Judaism led again to the articulation of a religion focused on
mystical intimacy, communion, and mystical union with God.
The most important element that emerged from the medieval synthesis is
the new/ancient idea of mystical communion and unio mystica as a part of a
fundamental shift in rabbinical Judaism toward a much more spiritual and
philosophical religion. The first-century synthesis of Platonism and Judaism
gave birth originally to the idea of unio mystica, and this idea was born once
again in medieval Jewish philosophy and kabbalah.
The study of Jewish mysticism has engaged its sources for decades from
a methodology of longue durée, learning of the implicit traditions or ideas
transmitted internally through subterranean channels to have emerged only
in much later generations. In the case of mystical union, scholars should not
marginalize Jewish traditions from antiquity, nor should the works of the
medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics be simply conceived of as only
another chapter in the reception of Greek traditions but also as late reso-
nance of original Jewish traditions, which found their later and fullest expres-
sion within the hermeneutic frameworks of medieval Jewish theology and
kabbalah.

73
See, e.g., Peter Adamson, “Al-Kindi and the Reception of Greek Philosophy,” in Adamson
and Taylor, Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, 32–51; Alexander Altmann, “The Delphic
Maxim in Medieval Islam and Judaism,” and “Ibn Bajja on Man’s Ultimate Felicity,” in Studies in
Religious Philosophy and Mysticism, 1–40, 103–7.
74
See Afterman, Devequt ; Altmann and Stern, Isaac Israeli, 185–95; Altmann, “Delphic Maxim
in Medieval Islam and Judaism.” On interpretation as a commandment for mystical commu-
nion and union with God, see Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 45–72.

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