Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”

At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.

On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy,  a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram[1] in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view. Continue reading “Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy”

Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion

(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day. I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Kippah + American Flag
(From Jewish Boston, photo by selimaksan/iStock)

Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Continue reading “Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion”

It can turn on a dime

My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.*  And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.

I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”

Destruction of Secomd Temple
“Destruction of the Temple” by Francesco Hayez, 1867.

Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945.  In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.

Continue reading “It can turn on a dime”

We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile

The Talmud re-reads Esther to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false gods and re-appropriate Jewish tradition from the ruling culture

War by word, not sword, in exile

The prophets talked to God. The ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah), the patriarchs and matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.), and prophets (Moses, Miriam, Devorah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) had a direct line. They conversed with Him like an intimate.

There was a second way to talk to God. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore a mystical Breastplate of Judgment (the choshen or the Urim v’Thumim), an array of jewels that would light up, like a mystical computer, receiving coded transmissions directly from God.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 1.36.59 PM
A sketch of the Urim v’Tumim.

In 536 BCE, the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon and eventually rebuild the Temple. But when the High Priest dons the urim v’thumim again, he finds that the line is cut (or a local call has become a long distance one). So the High Priest mostly wears it as a symbol of authority, aspiration, and perhaps nostalgia, hoping it will one day ring again. It never did.

When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, prophecy is completely lost. The Romans martyr the great rabbis horribly and scatter the Jews into another exile, worse than their first in Babylon. Fearing that the Jews will disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah the Prince compiles the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness. Over the next 300 years, rabbis gather in academies in Babylon and what’s left of them in what is now called Palestine (the Romans renamed Israel after her enemies, the Philistines, to humiliate her). These sages elucidate the Mishnah in a long, hypertextual, and incredibly complex symposium. The thousands of pages recording their stories, debates, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries across centuries and countries is called the gemarah. Together, the mishnah and gemarah comprise the Talmud, which has been the foundation of Jewish life, thought and religion in the Diaspora, along with Zionism, the hope of returning to Israel.

The sages of the Talmud are prescient. They anticipate that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is going to be a long one. So they transmute Judaism into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. They transform the authority of the Temple, the physical home for God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, discourse, and exegesis. Architecture becomes architexture, a sprawling text, a vine with many roots and branches sprouting, intertwining, and still spreading. One offshoot may die out but another springs up somewhere else. Burn it, eradicate the people attached to it, and still a single Jew (and a donkey or two) could transport the Talmud to revive the Jewish legacy.

In this milieu, a charismatic Jew might arise and declare he has a new vision of God’s instructions for us and pose a serious threat to the Jews, vulnerable because they are exiled from their spiritual and geographical home. By the time of the Talmud, this threat has become the problem. Christianity becomes ascendent throughout Palestine and the Roman Empire is transforming into the Holy Roman Empire. So the sages now have a dilemma. It is urgent to address the threat, but they obviously have to do so furtively. After all, they are living precariously as guests of idolators and Christians. They often have to speak about it in code. They remember how gruesomely the Romans martyred the rabbis and leaders of the Jews. They are witnessing Romans slaughter Christians around them, many of them former Jews. Although Judah the Prince may have enjoyed periods of peace under enlightened rulers like Marcus Aurelius and even been his personal friend (“Antoninus” in the Talmud), it could all turn on a dime (or rather, a denarum). Too much is at stake, and the people are slipping away. Now more than ever, in the face of Christianity, they must explain how to tell false prophecy from true. So they wage a war, not by sword but by word.

For this, they summon Esther, the queen of living precariously, and press her into service. What better story than hers? It is all about disguise, furtiveness, veiled meanings and hidden identities. Further, it marks the very moment that prophecy departs from the Jews. The chronicle of the events in Persia historically coincide with the return of the Jews to the Second Temple to discover that the choshen, the urim v’thumim  is broken. But finally, according to the sages, Esther experiences this disconnection from God, this loss of prophecy, as a personal tragedy, a heartrending loss. She is avatar and paradigm of the Jews.

And then, in a stunningly bold or perhaps foolhardy move, they put in Esther’s mouth the single most dramatic sentence from the other team’s story, a line the gospels say Jesus cries out while he is being crucified. What were they thinking?

To answer this question, we have to put it in context of the texts that bring these stories to us.

Esther gets and then loses her mojo

Purim is the story of how the Jews of Persia during their exile there survive a terrible threat. The villain Haman plots to kill all the Jews throughout Persia’s vast kingdom, and he has the ear of King Ahashveros. Esther is a Jew, but the King doesn’t know it. Now she’s in an awful existential dilemma. If she exposes herself, especially by coming to the King unbidden, she is pretty sure the King will kill her like he did her predecessor, Vashti. If she doesn’t, the Jews will be exterminated. Mordechai, who is either her beloved or her uncle – the Hebrew ‘dod’ (דוד) is a pun –  and a leader of the Jews, tells her, “Perhaps you have been put in this position for just this moment.” 

At this moment, the sages tells us, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, God speaks to Esther. This detail is missing in the Megillah’s original text, but the Talmud devotes an entire tractate, also called Megillah, to uncovering the hidden messages and elaborating the transcendent impact of the Purim story.  God gives her the courage to reveal herself to her King. Her intercession saves the Jews. Haman and his ten sons are executed, and the Jews throughout Persia celebrate. Jews til this day do, too, in the most festive day of the year.

When the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther reaches for her personal line to God only to find that it was a one-night stand. She is completely forlorn. The sages tell us that she cries out:

The Divine Presence departed from her and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.

 Masechet Megillah (Talmud) 15b:

True and False ProphetsScreen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.57.55 PM

Now to the most shocking part of this. What Jews in the marketplace of the time Rabbi Levi, the Talmud sage who teaches this around 225 CE, would hear in Esther’s cry is a clear echo of a line from the pop culture surrounding them. Rabbi Levi’s expansion of the Megillah is not a casual bit of tale-telling (aggadah), and their recruitment of Esther is not just a convenience. Rather, as we peel back the layers of references in Esther’s cry, they have waged a profound and complex and dangerously aggressive war with the text of Christian gospels.

According to the Gospels, Jesus cries out during his execution:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  • Mark 15:34;  Matthew 27:46

In other words, Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are virtually identical!

Mark and Matthew are among the earliest of the gospels, composed around 70- 90 CE, so they would have had both profound resonance and enough of a history to be widely known among the Jews. For a century after Jesus, his story and Judaism may even have been entangled in the minds of most average Jews. By 200 CE, the real threat of a “new covenant” replacing the Torah would have been quite clear, as an unknown number of Jews became Christians.

How could the sages be so bold to steal signals from the opposing team? Why would they cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs? What message are they sending? Obviously, the sages are deliberately contrasting Esther’s prophecy to Jesus’.

On second look, however, there is even more than meets the eye, like everything else in the Purim story. 

Intertextual re-appropriation

It goes without saying that the exemplar of the false prophet for the sages was Jesus. A Jew, he and his disciples expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures (Tanach) and re-purpose it. The Seder becomes the Last Supper, Isaac is the sacrificed son and sacrificial lamb, Moses the archetype for the messiah, etc.. In short, the gospels craft a comfortingly familiar and accessible way to deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God. The Torah becomes the “Old” Testament, an honored but obsolete allegory of the “New” one, which is filled with echoes and cribbings and appropriations of the symbology of the Jews.

So it is not surprising that we find Jesus’ cry has its true source in the stunning opening line of Psalms 22, one of the soaring poems by King David (10th C BCE):

“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Psalms 22:2

[אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי – Eli, eli lama azvata?]

When the Talmud tells us Esther says the same thing, far from plagiarizing the gospels, they are loudly taking back the Jewish narrative and calling out the original act of plagiarism.

But this opens a whole new textual terrain to scan for what the sages are after, because the Talmud is surely pursuing something less trivial than a copyright claim, and so we peel back yet another layer in this intertextual war.

Psalms 22 has the aura of a general prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel. He has put her at the mercy of animals and scavengers, symbols in the Talmud of the pagan nations who will mock Israel if she falls:

“For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evil-doers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet. I may count all my bones; they look and gloat over me. They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots (‘goral’ – גורל).” – Psalms 22:17-18

Matthew also borrow this image. According to Matthew 27:35-37, just a few lines before the lament he echoes from Psalms, Roman soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes right beneath where he is hung to die.  Now this gambling for spoils had ancient legal status in Jewish and pagan traditions: when two parties have equal claims to booty of war, the goral was an official method of divvying them up. But the soldiers’ craps game also invokes the image of the whole empire of Rome despoiling Israel.

In case we think it’s a coincidence, remember Purim is named after the casting of lots. Haman casts lots to choose the date on which to execute the Jews. Yes, it’s a completely different word –  פור (‘pur’), not גורל’ (‘goral’). But, when we look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the text uses both words:

“And [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.” – Megillat Esther 9:24

We could have called Purim Goralim! 

Prophecy in Exile?

The sages are clearly addressing and blocking the gospels’ attempt to steal the Purim story, to appropriate it for what the sages would certainly find deeply offensive: the ruling culture that committed near genocide and sent them into exile now adds insult to injury. Their oppressors have taken the Jewish story of narrow escape from genocide and put it in the mouth of their hero. By connecting to the centuries-older Esther story and connecting hers to the yet centuries-older Davidic psalm, they also show off their Jewish interpretive (exegetical) prowess by sending many intertwined and cryptic messages at once. They reflect on Jewish exile in Persia as an analog their own in Rome. Dogs and scavengers gamble over the remnants of Jewish glory after prophecy has departed from usIsrael is defeated and exiled.

But finally, the furtive battle against Christianity is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own.

Although the Name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, God’s role in the story is invisible but ubiquitous and omnipotent. He may be nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet He is everywhere at once behind it. And His plan for history trumps Haman’s anarchic and hateful plan to drive Jewish destiny by mere chance. Haman’s just another pathetic dog soldier gambling over the remnants of Jewish subjugation.

To prove the point, what day does the lot fall on? A day, like everything else in the Megillah, of doubled and paradoxical symbolism: Haman exults because the lottery has chosen the day of Moses’ death. But he doesn’t know it’s also the day of Moses’ birth! Doom seems imminent, but redemption will triumph.

After the drama is over, God withdraws from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever.  Purim, the Talmud tells us, is about this loss of prophetic power. Esther’s struggle, like ours in our diaspora, is to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and attention, however heartbreaking that loss. The sages thus erect the Purim story as bulwark against their – and our – compromised historical condition.  Like Esther, they and we inhabit a foreign domain, unsure when and if prophecy will return at any time, consigned to trying to read His mind as best we can from what He has left behind, always fighting the temptation to assimilate to false prophets and strange worship.

In other words, we are all Esthers today. Prophecy may have withdrawn, lamentably. However much we yearn for it, and however much we shape our actions to deserve it, and however much we are seized by inspiration – to the point we want to convince everyone we are right – nonetheless, Talmud tells us, legitimate prophecy doesn’t come to us now.  But instead of hopelessness, Purim tells us that the Finger of God continues to stir the pot, that His will in our affairs acts invisibly and ubiquitously behind the scenes, and there is an unfolding plan for our fates that is cosmically better conceived than a mere casting of lots.


Original draft, Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo – Purim, 5780

ENDNOTES
Thanks to Rabbi Yossi Marcos of Chabad NP (San Mateo) whose new edition of Megillat Esther includes  the chasidus underlying my insights.
Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha for teaching me about the status of the Urim v’Thumim in the Second Temple.
Thanks to my many friends and erstwhile editors, including Ron Kardos, Marcos Frid, Yael Esther and Eddy Berenfus]

 

 The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment


NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“God is the source not only of order but also novelty.” – John Haught, God after Darwin (Boulder: Westview, 2000) p. 182

The Five Books of Moses often shows surprising literary coherence that is so subtle, it belies the notion that it was written across a millenium by many different authors. 

Some connections across the whole text are so well-hidden it seems improbable that an author deliberately placed them there for later discovery, although we could always argue they are the result of gazing at the text too long and over-interpreting it like obsessive graduate students. The traditional approach by Jews to reading the Bible even promotes it. Assume nothing is there by accident because its author is Divine and utterly intentional. Every word, every letter, the cuts between words, the rhymes and puns and cross-allusions, even the decorative marks on individual letters, carry meaning. Also the Torah is frugal. If something seems weird or extraneous, it’s up to us to figure out why. So when we discover hidden meanings and parade them as proof of a divine Author, a skeptic would argue it’s tautological: of course you did because you assumed they’re there.

However, there are some allusions and connections that are provably impossible. They couldn’t have been intentional because their meaning only become clear when we make new discoveries about the world much later than even the latest possible composition of the Bible. Some of these are archeological, like Merenptah’s Stelae describing the plundering of Canaan and of Israel that wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century. [1]

One of these is hidden in an apparently extraneous comment about a breeder of mules, tucked into an otherwise boilerplate genealogy at the end of a later chapter of Genesis, Vayishlach. As we understand it through modern evolutionary theory, it actually ripples out to embrace a theme that plays throughout the Bible. Continue reading ” The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment”

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem. Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”

The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
joseph_and_potiphars_wife_1
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to make meaning. It creates skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired poetry.

Continue reading “The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word”

Torah as Blast: Did the original have spaces between words?

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One Torah, without spaces?

The default assumption of Judaism is that there is only one Torah. It is eternal and immutable because God is its Author. Yet slowly revealing and understanding the meaning of what God told Moses on Sinai is also the essence of Judaism. Clearly, our understanding of the Torah evolves over time, dancing with the God of Becoming Who constantly creates the universe. Along the way, thousands of years of commentary, without challenging the integrity of a God-given Torah, worry the bone of precisely who composed the Torah at which point. How and when did Moses transcribe God’s words?  How did it look? How were its chapters, verses, words, and letters laid out on the page? Did the layout change?

Here, without challenging the Torah’s authority as the immutable Word of God, I would like to entertain only one small, seemingly ridiculous question about the layout of the Written Torah: Did Moses write the original Torah without inserting the spaces between words that we see today? Continue reading “Torah as Blast: Did the original have spaces between words?”

Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time

“Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them; but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee.” – Jeremiah 7:27
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:9-10

I was the first person on Earth to predict the Trump presidency and explain why he was going to win in my blogs of March, June and July of 2016. My friends are still in awe at my 127.3% accuracy prophesying current events, up 12.6% in the last fiscal quarter. In fact, just this morning (October 8, 2018 at 9.07 am), I collected the downpayment on my Tesla ($20.25) from the bets my classmates made with me last Wednesday (Oct 3 at 10.34 am). Even though Senators Flake, Collins and Murkowski looked like they were going to vote against his nomination to the Supreme Court and the FBI was in the middle of its investigation, I still confidently assured them Judge Kavanaugh absolutely would be confirmed. I could have gotten really good odds at the time, but that would have been taking candy from a baby and anyway, I’m forbidden to benefit from my gift. No Tesla. It’s part of the deal I made with the same Divine force that granted me my power.

In a moment, I’m going to tell you what else is going to happen. In fact, I’m going to lay out a complete prophecy describing the future of the Trump imperial reign and its impact on centuries to come. But first let me tell you how I knew the outcome of the Kavanaugh Kerfluffle. Prophets and magicians shouldn’t reveal their secret methods, but I don’t mind because you’re not going to believe me anyway. At best, you’re going to dismiss me as a formerly smart person who went whacko, or a religious nutball, or a paranoiac, or as my sore loser buddies did this morning, just someone who keeps getting lucky. Continue reading “Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time”

Hell for Jews? The Case of the Epikoros

How do Jews get to hell?

The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

 “They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]

In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.

Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus.  [1]

The three eternally fatal heresies

Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat [2]

#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]

#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine

#3: Be an “epikoros”

When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.

And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later,[3] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” –  in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.

So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

How to lose your portion in the world to come

Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment?  All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death.[3] In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.

But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.

Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[7] We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.

Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).  Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).

For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?

Breaking the circuit

The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure”[9] like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).

In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,”, and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property [11]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …

If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.

David Porush

San Mateo, CA 2018


ENDNOTES

 

[1] My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017].

[2]  Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[3] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )

[8] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[9] [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek  ]

[10] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/

See https://www.etymonline.com/word/epi- and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%90%CF%80%CE%AF#Ancient_Greek

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros