Who’s the Apikoros now?

Parshat Terumah

If, as a yeshiva student, I was found thinking, reading or espousing a particularly heterodox view, there were a number of choice words of reproach I could expect:

Kofer or long form: kofer baikkur means one who rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]. We all encounter this term once a year in the Passover Haggada regarding the Wicked Son. Compare to the Arabic kāfir.

Shegetz (feminine shiksa) is another popular term mostly reserved for non-Jews, but when a Jew calls another Jew a shegetz, it is in condemnation of behavior or a lifestyle not considered Jewish enough.  (For another blog post… how Jewish is Jewish enough?)

Apikoros, my favorite label for a Jewish heretic not only because it has a Greek-cosmopolitan ring to it, but because it suggests a thinking man’s heresy. Most scholars assume that Apikoros is derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (around 307 BC).

Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility. Epicureanism includes a determinism which led to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention.

The Rabbis of the Talmud used this term as a target of their attacks on heretics, but Saul Lieberman, the greatest scholar on Greek in Jewish Palestine (and the Rabbi who married my wife and me) writes “There is no evidence that the Rabbis knew about the teaching of Epicurus more than the current general phrases.” Text and Studies by Saul Lieberman, Ktav Publishing House, 1974 p 223)

So, Apikoros has become a pejorative label pasted on Jewish heterodox thinkers accused of being corrupted by Greek and other alien thought.

I always found this amusing, because my “splitting of paths” with mainstream Jewish Orthodox thought and Jewish Mysticism was, in large part, because I believed that they had absorbed to the point of saturation,an alien.. and even contra-Jewish thought process, more typical of Christianity, which was antithetical to the most fundamental Jewish beliefs in Creation and Revelation. Let me explain…

Any liberal-arts student will remember from their freshman Great-Ideas course, a dialog from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates and Thrasymachus hash out a definition of Justice. Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) argues in Book I of the Republic as follows:

I will proceed by asking a question: Would you not say that a horse has some end?

I should.

And the end or use of a horse or of anything would be that which could not be accomplished, or not so well accomplished, by any other thing?

I do not understand, he said.

Let me explain: Can you see, except with the eye?

Certainly not.

Or hear, except with the ear?


These then may be truly said to be the ends of these organs?

They may. …..

And that to which an end is appointed has also an excellence? Need I ask again whether the eye has an end?

It has.

And has not the eye an excellence?


And the ear has an end and an excellence also?


And the same is true of all other things; they have each of them an end and a special excellence? …..

Certainly, he replied.

I might say the same of the ears; when deprived of their own proper excellence they cannot fulfill their end?


And the same observation will apply to all other things?

I agree.

Well; and has not the soul an end which nothing else can fulfill? for example, to superintend and command and deliberate and the like. Are not these functions proper to the soul, and can they rightly be assigned to any other?

To no other.

And is not life to be reckoned among the ends of the soul?

Assuredly, he said.

And has not the soul an excellence also?


And can she or can she not fulfill her own ends when deprived of that excellence?

She cannot.

Then an evil soul must necessarily be an evil ruler and superintendent, and the good soul a good ruler?

Yes, necessarily.

And we have admitted that justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul?

That has been admitted.

Then the just soul and the just man will live well, and the unjust man will live ill?

That is what your argument proves.

And he who lives well is blessed and happy, and he who lives ill the reverse of happy?


Then the just is happy, and the unjust miserable?

So be it.

But happiness and not misery is profitable.

Of course.

Then, my blessed Thrasymachus, injustice can never be more profitable than justice.

Plato’s use of the word “end” and “excellence” could be taken to be just a concept. Meaning that in reality, there is nothing that actually exists which represents the “end” or “excellence” of something… but that the idea of such a thing serves as a benchmark.

But there is another, even more famous Platonic dialogue in The Republic called “The Allegory of the Cave” which takes this thought process one stop further:

Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

This gave rise to Plato’s Theory of Forms. Whether Plato ever ascribed real existence to these forms or Ideas is an open question. But his followers, especially Plotinus, the Platonists and latter Neoplatonists did. This gave birth to a popular understanding of a higher and parallel world of perfect Ideas which could actually interact with the imperfect physical world below. In the universe of the mystics .. one aspired to achieve unity between the two worlds. This Neoplatonism was the prevailing Greek thought that suffused the world inhabited by the Rabbinic Jews of Israel, Babylonia and Alexandria.

Which brings us to Parshat Terumah and Exodus 25:9 regarding the construction of the: the Tabernacle….

“According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.”

A simple reading would take this verse to mean that although God was going to verbally describe the details of the construction of the Tabernacle, He was, like any good architect, also going to provide a pattern or blueprint. But the Rabbis… showing their Neo-Platonist colors.. took this pattern as a reference to God showing Moses the Ideal form of a transcendent Tabernacle. As Harry Austryn Wolfson writes in his seminal work on the Jewish philosopher Philo:

“According to this Jewish tradition there had been in existence an ideal tabernacle or, as it is usually called, sanctuary, prior to the building of the visible tabernacle in the wilderness; and it was that ideal tabernacle which God showed to Moses as a pattern for the visible tabernacle. This tradition is expressed in two ways, Sometimes it is said that the ideal sanctuary was created by God prior to the creation of the world (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 54a , Nedarim 39b
Tanhuma Numbers, Naso 19 ) … This ideal sanctuary is referred to as the “celestial sanctuary” (Genesis Rabbah 55:7 bet Ha-mikdash le-ma’alah..). Besides the sanctuary, there were also ideal models of all its vessels, and these, too, were shown to Moses when he was in heaven. This belief in the preëxistence of the tabernacle and its vessels is part of a more general belief in the preëxistence of certain objects or actions which were subsequently to play a part in scriptural history. … The preëxistence of some of these occurs also in the apocalyptic literature. Two of these preëxistent ten are also mentioned by Hellenistic Jewish writers. First, the preëxistence of the Law is affirmed by them in their identification of it with wisdom which in Scripture is said to have existed prior to the creation of the world. Second, the preëxistence of the tabernacle is stated in the following verse: “Thou gavest command to build a sanctuary in the holy mountain and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tabernacle which Thou preparedst beforehand from the beginning.” Wisdom of Solomon 9:8 (Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Harry Austryn Wolfson, Harvard University Press (1947) p182-184)

Although Wolfson concludes that this concept of preëxistence was “an old Semitic belief”, he agrees that “For the Hellenistic Jews it was quite natural to blend such beliefs in the preëxistence of things with the Platonic theory of Ideas.”

The old Semitic belief, that Wolfson references, is Wisdom Literature such as assimilated into Judaism in the Book of Proverbs. Normally, Wisdom Literature was kept entirely distinct from the revealed Law of the Torah. But the attraction of the theory of Forms was so strong, that the Rabbis succumbed to its pull… most famously in the first verse of the Torah the Rabbis play on the similarity between a description of the preëxistent Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old: and Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning” .. or with “Reshit” … now Wisdom-Torah.

The Torah declares: ‘I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED (1:1), BEGINNING referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord made me as the beginning of His way” (Prov. 8:22). (Genesis Rabah 1:1)

Similarly, the Rabbis introduced the absurd belief that the Patriarchs observed the Torah in so far as they kept the, as yet unrevealed laws of kashrut or even Passover… before the sojourn in Egypt. This perverse belief is commonly accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community today, which is surprising since the primary sources for this travesty of anachronism, is in the extra-biblical Book of Sirah (included in the Septuagent but not Hebrew Bible) and the Pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Jubilees whose relevant verses are paraphrased here:

The (Book of Jubilees) author’s … practice of founding essential legal practices in the time of the ancients of Genesis rather than in the age of Moses. For example, … Noah first celebrated the Festival of Weeks (see 6:17–22) and later Abraham, too, observed this holiday, which became the anniversary of the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants (6:17–22; 15:1–2). The Festivals of Tabernacles (16:20–23; 32:4–9, 27–29) and Unleavened Bread (18:18–19) and the Day of Atonement (34:17–19, which commemorates Jacob’s torment on learning of Joseph’s “death”) also were introduced in the age of the fathers. The author’s reason for antedating these practices can only be surmised, but it is clear that he wished to impress upon his audience that these essential acts of obedience to the covenant were not the innovations of a later age that were imposed upon the religion of the patriarchs. They had been in force since earliest times, were inscribed immutably and eternally on the heavenly tablets (of the numerous cases, see, for example, 3:10, 31; 6:17; 15:25; 16:28–29; etc.), and in some instances were practiced in heaven (Sabbath [2:30]; Festival of Weeks [6:18]; circumcision [15:27]). These provisions were to be observed scrupulously in the present if the ideal future was to be realized. (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Book of Jubilees see also (Two Views of the patriarchs: Noachide and pre-Sinai Israelites, Joseph P. Schultz in Texts and responses: Studies presented to Nahum N. Glatzer.. ed. Michael A. Fishbane, Brill Archive, 1975)

So what is my objections to the transformation of the Torah and its commandments into the Eternal Platonic Forms or the preëxistent Wisdom? Why is it to me the heresy of heresies? Because it contradicts the two most basic tenets and the crux of that which is revolutionary about Judaism… Creation and the Giving of the Law/Covenant…. (I don’t use the inaccurate translation of Matan Torah as “revelation” since it is tainted by preëxistence. Reveal-ation presupposes an already existent law that is now being revealed)

Creation… especially creation from nothing (ex nihlo – Yeysh meAyin) means that there is NOTHING inevitable about our world. Our world and our lives truly do not have to be. It means that the world as we know it is unthinkably different from the the Divine. The divine is eternal and perfect; our world is material, finite, imperfect, made up of disconnected moments and always changing.  All creatures, including man are similarly a radical contingency.. Man is ultimately made of dirt and is given a name; Adam, to prove it. The same is true of the radical nature of Matan Torah.. the giving of the Torah. It is radically contingent on the shared history of God and a particular people who He has chosen at a particular moment in time. The Passover holiday is radically contingent on the shared experience of the Exodus from Egypt and to imagine it celebrated centuries before the exodus shows a lack of wonder at the radically contingent world and Torah we have been given. A belief in an immutable and eternal world and Torah is an implicit rejections of the possibility of God’s presence in history, the covenantal experience, the evolution of our law and beliefs and ulimatley, a rejection of the responsibility our contengcy places on us; the protagonists.

The natural progression of this thought process, is of course that since the world of Ideas or Platonic Forms is superior to the messy world below (Beit hamikdash shel matah) then our focus should be towards this ideal world. The early Christians took this leap by emphasizing the New Jerusalem. This Jerusalem was no longer a contingent and particular Jewish Capital city, but a universal idea… a Form a Logos. Such thinking produced a new covenant (aka The New Testament – Brit Hadash) which, unlike the Old Covenant, was not based on a reciprocal relationship and shared history between God and a particular people, but was an immutable ideal. A new covenant, based not on shared history, practical deeds and commandments, but based on faith… on an Idea. No surprise that The Fourth Gospel of John comes directly from the previously referenced rabbinic interpretation of Genesis Rabah 1:1 “In the Beginning was the Idea (Logos)

It is clear to me why the Rabbis would have been receptive to a preëxistent Torah, since such a Torah is eternal and immutable it becomes unchangeable and the authority of its interpreters; the Rabbis, becomes unquestionable. The Rabbis, like Plato’s philosopher-king and all benign dictators up to the present day, are the only ones with the keys to the castle of Ideas. These dictators are also quick to accuse their detractors, of exactly the crime, they themselves are guilty. My wife’s favorite Israeli expression comes to mind: “The hat burns on the head of the thief.”

In the realm of political thought, Karl Popper in his The Open Society and it Enemies has shown how dangerous the idea of a Philospher- king can be for politics and the support of tyranny.. but the book (working title: An Open Judaism and its Enemies) still needs to be written.

So if the broad definition of an Apikoros is a Jew who has been corrupted by alien thought… in deep reflection I turn with a wink to the tribunal of Heaven (Bi-yeshivah shel ma’alah) and the tribunal of earth (Bi-yeshivah shel matah) and before I beat my own heart, I ask a simple question: Whose the Apikoros now?



Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Who’s the Apikoros now?

  1. RavYossi

    One of the great failings of Orthodox Judaism in the 20th century is the failure to properly understand Midrash, and the resulting effect it had on its students. Thankfully, there are more Modern Orthodox thinkers today who are espousing the view that Midrash is simply a lesson to be taught, and to take it literally, as if it is (pardon the expression) Torah MiSinai is to miss the point. Wish you had been with us when Nati Helfgot visited Beit Chaverim…it would have been an eye-opener!

  2. I was going to cite your blog in a discussion until I noticed that you used a nominative pronoun (e.g. “Rabbi Lieberman married my wife and I”) in a context where an objective pronoun was correct (“he married my wife and me”). If one chose to substitute a plural pronoun, one would write “he married us” and not “he married we.” If you edit the error, I will be happy to send others your way, but until you do I won’t, because I believe such errors reflect poorly on the writer and the writer’s followers.

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