Jewish Journal

I’m Proud To Be A Heretic

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

June 3, 2014 | 6:58 am

At the very least, the Mayor might have said something.

Well, OK – it’s not exactly his issue.

Here’s what happened. Last week, at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, its head, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, said, in the presence of Mayor Bill DeBlasio, that “The Reform and Conservative movements have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And then he continued by saying that the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos” – filled with apikorsim, heretics.

To which Emily Hauser retorted, pugnaciously and appropriately: "I am not a heretic! You ultra-Orthodox Jews have no right to judge me and/or my way of doing Judaism!" http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/199154/im-no-ones-heretic/

With all due respect to Emily Hauser, today, on the very eve of Shavuot, I declare that I am proud to be an apikoris.

Burt, first, let’s figure out what an apikoris is.

Apikoris is one of many Greek loan words that crept into rabbinic Hebrew. It probably comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The Epicurean school of philosophy taught that God (or the gods) had no interest in human affairs. They believed that belief in divine reward and punishment was the chief source of human anxiety, and that such religion was superstitious and little more than theological terrorism.  An additional meaning of “Epicurean” is someone who loves good food and wine (guilty as charged).

Somehow, Jews of the early rabbinic period transformed the very meaning of Epicurus and they created the apikoris. The apikoris was a heretic, a free thinker, someone who argued a little too much with the tradition, sometimes even a mocker and a scoffer. According to rabbinic sources, an apikoris was one who spurned a fellow Torah scholar, or someone who called his teacher by his given name, rather than by the title Rav. An apikoris was one who said that the Torah was not of divine origin -- or perhaps it was of divine origin, except for one small detail. The ancient sages said that “normal” Jews had to know how to respond to the apikkoris.

Let me speak up in favor of apikorsim.

Modern Jewish history is the collective biography of apikorsim. Without the ability to think freely and expansively about the world and about the nature of humanity, contemporary Judaism, as we know it, could not have come into existence,

Not only modern Judaism. How about the entire modern world?

Consider the list: Spinoza, the first modern philosopher. Karl Marx. Sigmund Freud. Albert Einstein.

Take those last three – Marx, Freud, and Einstein – and you have the three thinkers who shattered the old categories and created the modern world. Each of them were secular Jews. (Marx was actually a convert to Christianity and was more than vaguely anti-semitic, but for the moment we could claim him as an apikoris). (I write about this phenomenon in my book The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham http://jps.org/product/978-0-8276-0931/the-gods-are-broken

I tend to cling, albeit in a decidedly non-Orthodox way, to many traditional Jewish beliefs. So, perhaps I am not really a bonafide apikoris.

Maybe I am merely “api-curious.”

Going all the way back to Elisha ben Avuya, the rabbinic heretic and hero of Milton Steinberg’s classic As A Driven Leaf, some of our best Jews have been apikorsimApikorsim are, at the very least, interesting. They are decidedly un-boring. Who would you have rather hung out with – Spinoza or the rabbis of Amsterdam who excommunicated him?

There are worse things in the Jewish world than to be an apikoris.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A young man from Minsk decided that his life’s goal was to be an apikoris. And so, he went to Pinsk to meet the great apikoris of Pinsk. 

The apikoris of Pinsk asks him: “Young man, have you studied Torah?”

“No,” admitted the young aspiring apikoris. “What about Talmud?” “Also no,” the young man said. “Maimonides?” “No.”

“Young man,” the older man thundered, “you are not an apikoris – you’re an am-ha-aretz!

Translation: “Young man, don’t congratulate yourself on thinking that you are a heretic and a free thinker! You’re not! If you’ve never studied Judaism in any depth, you’re not an apikoris! You’re worse than that! You’re an am ha-aretz! You’re a person of the earth. You’re an ignoramus!”

Ignorance is far more dangerous to the Jewish community than heresy and spiritual rebellion. At the very least, the rebels are thinking. And if they are not thinking, then what are they rebelling against? It often occurs to me that the Judaism that many people reject is a caricature of a badly-taught, barely-remembered version of Judaism that they last encountered when they were thirteen, if that. Sheesh.

Or, let me put it to you this way: You can be a free thinker. But you can’t be a non-thinker.

Heretics? Maybe.

Ignoramuses? Never. 

An erev Shavuot plea: Fight the dumbing down of Judaism. Battle for the smarting-up of Judaism. Reject simple and simplistic answers about Judaism.

If you must (and I am not advocating this, but if you must): be an apikoris. Some of our best Jews are.

But whatever you do, don’t be an am ha-aretz.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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