In praise of the apikoros

Epicurus himself led a simple life and practiced extreme temperance - and he was not an atheist.

terror attack 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
terror attack 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In view of the present rabbinic strictures on conversion, marriage, shmita and other controversies, it may be worth examining the role of their bête-noire, the apikoros. Rabbinic opinion, as expressed in the Talmud, is quite clear that "the apikoros has no share in the World to Come." As the apikoros, according to most definitions, does not believe in the World to Come, this is not a big threat. But what exactly is an apikoros? Definitions vary, but by and large the apikoros is made out to be an unpleasant character. He does not believe in future salvation, he does not believe in the pharisaic interpretation of the Bible and, in so many words, he does not believe in the Oral Law as handed down by the rabbis. In short, he does not like the rabbis and he criticizes them in public. IN NO way is he an atheist, as he does believe in God; nor is he an agnostic, believing only in material things. He refutes the opinions of the rabbis, so he must have knowledge of their works, and he has knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, as he does not like their interpretation of it. Maimonides says he "breaks away" (from the root p-k-r) from the Oral Law, which assumes that he knows it - and from the written one. That is why he is such a dangerous animal. Maimonides was careful to find a Hebrew or Aramaic root for the term, and the standard commentators shy away from the idea that the term apikoros is related to Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived at end of the fourth century BCE. HOWEVER, in the New Testament (Acts 17:18) we hear that "the Epicureans and Stoics" challenged Paul when he spoke in the synagogue and in the marketplace at Athens about the coming of Jesus. There could well have been Jewish Epicureans in the synagogue at that time, who were probably believers somewhat along the lines of the Sadducees, who also did not follow the rabbinic interpretations, nor believe in the World to Come. If the apikoros, as the word implies, is an Epicurean, what does that entail? The general belief is that the Epicurean is an out-and-out hedonist, believing only in a life of pleasure and self-indulgence. But that is a crude misconception of a much more sophisticated philosophy. Epicurus was a believer in the natural world, and propagated the view that God made the world and created Man and Nature, and then stepped back to let things run their course. In that way responsibility was a heavy burden on man, who had to conduct himself in a moral way: He was not to interfere with other mortals, or with the flow of nature. Man was allowed to seek pleasure within these limits, and the pursuit of happiness was to be one of his goals, the purpose being to be rid of the anxiety of guilt and of death. Epicurus himself and his school in Athens led the simple life and practiced extreme temperance. Unfortunately, this admirable program was distorted by later commentators into the idea that the Epicurean was solely after his own pleasure, with no concern for others. But 17th-century France saw a revival of Epicurus's original ideas and his philosophy became respectable again. IT COULD well be that the Pharisees had the popular distorted view of Epicureanism but did not want to lambast the apikoros for that reason. They were intent on showing that the disbeliever in the Oral Law was an infidel who had to be put down. His ideas were dangerous to the teachings they felt necessary to feed to the Jews of their times, and which any form of skepticism could have undermined. That is why they kept to the idea, later underlined by Maimonides, of showing that the apikoros was a person who "broke-up" their teachings and in general "disrupted" their view of the orthodox way of things. If we equate the apikoros with the true Epicurean, we can only see good in his behavior. For him, God is the creator of everything and Man and Nature are his creatures. The difference from Judaism is that God has stood back from His creation and does not interfere in human history, contrary to what conventional Judaism would have us believe. This does away with the idea of God's miracles, as everything is done in the course of Nature, and it also resolves the role of Evil. Under Judaism, God is the creator of Evil, which is hard to understand but which is clearly expressed by Isaiah when he says, "I form the light, and create darkness, I make peace and create Evil, I am the Lord that does all these things" (45:7). ONE HAS to accept that God creates Evil as well as Good if one believes that God commands everything. This difficulty is avoided by the Epicurean, who can say that God created everything at first, and then at some time and place Man distorted it to make Evil. Although the Jew may believe that, it goes against the Jewish concept of the all-powerful Deity. So the Epicurean has it easier, and can explain the wickedness of the men of the generation of the Flood, and those of the Tower of Babel, better than conventional Judaism. To explain Evil, the Kabbalist may claim that there are times when God withdraws from His creation, but then, lo and behold, the Kabbalist is being a good Epicurean, though he is unlikely to admit that. The Epicurean can resolve the terrible enigma of the Holocaust and see it as the horrible outcome of a distorted mankind, while the conventional Jew has to blame it, like Isaiah, on God and see it, terrible as it was, as part of God's plan for the Jews. Thus Epicureanism is a valid philosophy for which there should be room in the world of Judaism. Epicurus did not deny God, but saw him as a more remote figure than Judaism might like to imagine. But then God as he appears in the Hebrew Bible is both terrible and awesome when approached too closely. Such closeness led to death in the case of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and in the case of Uzzah, who got too close to the Ark of the Covenant, even as he tried to save it from the oxen that stumbled. Closeness to God also led to the death of the 50,000 people of Beit Shemesh when they thronged around the Ark, which had been sent back by the Philistines. TO MY MIND, there is an important place for the apikoros in Judaism. He is the skeptic who does not readily accept the word of the rabbis as expressed in the Oral Law and codified in the Shulhan Aruch by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid-1500s - the work that is strictly applied by rabbinic Judaism. Today many Orthodox Jews talk of the Torah way of life, but what they really mean is the Shulhan Aruch way of life, which is not the same thing at all. The Shulhan Aruch is a document fashioned in the 16th century by expert rabbis interpreting the fifth-century talmudic sources, neither of which are the Torah, that was handed down at a much earlier date. In fact there is a distinct paradox here. The conventional Orthodox Jew will talk of the Torah way of life, really meaning the Torah as interpreted by the Shulhan Aruch and later authorities, while on the other hand he claims that the Torah was handed down as the Word of God well over 3,000 years ago. So why is he so keen to see the original Torah as it is interpreted by much later authorities? He has to rely on the fiction that the Oral Law, a creation of the Pharisees of the second century BCE, is part of the true Torah that was dutifully recorded in the Shulhan Aruch some 1,700 years later. THE APIKOROS does not accept that artificial construction. He sees the Torah in its original state and tempers it with the doctrine of the Epicurean philosopher who, after all, lived not long before the time of the Pharisees. He lived at the dawn of Hellenism, when the Sadducees ruled the Temple, and when Jewish belief rested with them. Unfortunately, the true Sadducee beliefs were not recorded at the time, and we only have the negative version of their opinions, as transmitted by their rivals, the Pharisees. The apikoros is prepared to give the Sadducees the benefit of the doubt, as the Hasmoneans did at certain times, and to question the polemic interpretations of the rabbis, following the Pharisees. In that sense we should say that the apikoros, who challenges the conventional wisdom, has a role to play in Judaism today. He may not have a place in the World to Come, but he should certainly have a place in the Here and Now. The writer is a fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.