Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”, and to his great-granddaughters, Noa and her sisters.

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

The Talmud teaches us that simply reading the Book of Esther can be an act of courage in defense of the Jews

War by word, not sword, in exile

Jews, destroyed and exiled by Rome, may have enjoyed periods of peace. Their leaders at times may even have been personal friends like Judah the Prince and Marcus Aurelius. But it could all turn on a denarum. As the Roman Empire becomes the Holy Roman Empire, too much is at stake and the people are slipping away. Romans slaughtered Jews and then Christians. Now, Romans are becoming Christians. More than ever Jews must keep themselves together, retain their tradition, and know how to avoid further splintering. They need to be told how to distinguish false prophets from true ones. So the sages of the Talmud 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, one about disguises, furtiveness, veiled meanings, hidden identities, revelations and final triumph? As her people face an official final solution in Persia, Queen Esther the crypto-Jew realizes she is both the avatar and only hope for her people. She risks death by exposing herself to King Ahashveros, and her act saves the day. She deserves her own book of Scriptures, the Megillah, and that book deserves an entire volume of the Talmud commentary, also called tractate Megillah. The Purim drama deserves re-enactment every year in the Jews’ most unrestrained celebration. Indeed, as the Kabbalah tells us, the story is so joyous and potent, Purim will be the only holiday we will still observe after the Messiah comes; not Passover, not Yom Kippur, nor Simcha Torah, but Purim.  

After Esther saves the Jews and the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther tries to call God again from the palace garden. But she has lost her super-power of prophecy. She is so heartbroken and forlorn, she cries out

‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.[1]

Now to the most shocking part of this. This cry is not found in the original Megillah. Instead, it seems that the sages have made a stunningly bold – or foolhardy – move by putting in Esther’s mouth the single most dramatic sentence from the other team’s story! By the time this part of the Talmud was written in the third century CE, everyone from Jerusalem to Rome would hear in Esther’s alleged cry a clear echo of perhaps the most dramatic moment in the most famous story of their time. The gospels of Mark and Matthew say Jesus cried out as he is about to die, crucified

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[2]

What were the sages thinking? How dare the rabbis borrowing from the gospels? And for what purpose?

Whose line is it?

To untangle the answer, we have to look at the timeline and intertextuality of the line.  When we do, we find a story in miniature of the battle between Judaism and Christianity over words and their provenance, and inside that story, a tale of how the sages of the Talmud were modeling the practices that would preserve Jews and Judaism in exile.

It goes without saying that Jesus is the ultimate false prophet for the Jews. He and his disciples were all Jews, as was Paul, the first convert. Followers of Jesus expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures and re-purpose them as a prelude to the story of their hero. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is prefigurement of the crucifixion. Chosen by God, Jacob/Israel is a prototype of Jesus. The Passover Seder becomes Jesus’ Last Supper. The lamb of Pesach is a symbol of Jesus’ bloody sacrifice. As redeemer of the Jews, Moses is the archetype, even giving his name to the role: messiah. In short, the gospels deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God by appropriating all the relevant Jewish phrases, memes, characters, and tropes as foreshadowing, making the Jews’ Torah an honored but obsolete allegory, an “Old” Testament testifying to the “New” one.

So if this is a textual war, why would the sages steal signals from the opposing team, cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs, not to mention risk the outrage of their hosts?

On the surface at least, they are simply asserting the rightful Jewish claim to it. The original source of both is Psalms 22,[3] King David’s prophetic lamentation, a wonderful poem whose conceit is that God has forsaken David personally and by extension the nation of Israel:

Many bulls encompass me
strong bulls of Bashan surround me
they open wide their mouths at me
like a ravening and roaring lion

I am poured out like water
and all my bones are out of joint
my heart is like wax
it is melted within my breast
my strength is dried up like a potsherd
and my tongue sticks to my jaws
You lay me in the dust of death

for dogs encompass me
and evildoers surround me
they have pierced my hands and feet
I can count all my bones
they stare and gloat over me
they divide my garments among them
and for my clothing they cast lots[4]

The Gospels borrow this metaphorical, highly charged imagery for a literal description of the crucifixion. King David cries that the teeth of dogs and bulls pierce his hands and feet just, as nails did Jesus’. David imagines his spiritual defeat as if he is killed in war. Enemy soldiers gloat over his dying body and gamble by throwing lots, shooting craps, for his clothes as booty. In Matthew’s appropriation of this imagery, soldiers under the cross gamble for Jesus’ clothes.[5]

The imagery throughout Psalms 22, especially of this metaphor of gambling, evokes Esther’s story, so the Talmud brings it down as a passage missing from the Megillah,[6] a beautiful expression of the pain that Esther must have felt when she, too was abandoned by God at discovering her loss of prophetic power. But by boldly re-claiming the words of David that the disciples put into the mouth of Jesus and putting it into the mouth of Esther, are the rabbis simply asserting a copyright claim? Given the circumstances, as guests in exile to an often hostile host, they are taking quite a risk for the boasting rights.

By evolving prophetic practice into textuality, Talmud preserves the Jews

The context for the message suggests its deeper purpose. In the same page of Talmud, the rabbis praise the power and importance of dedication to texts:

… Israel busy themselves with the Torah, the other nations do not busy themselves with the Torah —… these also reel through wine, and stagger through strong drink, they totter in judgment.[7]

Israel occupies itself with Torah. Every text, every verse, every word, every letter, even the flourishes on top of the letters, their ‘crowns’, can yield multiple interpretations as they did for R. Akiva. This intense polysemous interpretive practice leads to the multiplication, not the reduction of meaning. And this intense involvement in the text is exactly what Jesus attempts to overthrow in favor of a more simple, direct, accessible engagement with God through his own person. From the point of view of the Talmud this must have been the ultimate posture of the false Jewish prophet. The Christian texts appropriate the Jewish narrative to usurp it and along the way efface the glorious complexity and richness of the rabbinic discourse. They take the complex multiplication of interpretations, the parsing of every jot, the involved and sometimes fruitless debates, and reduce them all to a vast allegory with only one symbol, one interpretation: the life and sacrifice of their heroic figure. To resist it, the authors of the Talmud re-assert their faith: Jews are distinguished from other nations because God revealed the Torah to the collective nation on Sinai. Engaging that revelation, both the part transcribed into text and the part transmitted orally and now transcribed, is the one essential practice that preserves Jews, then and now.

The sages are clearly addressing and blocking the gospels’ attempt to steal the Purim story, appropriate it in order to erase its essence. They re-appropriate, they steal it back, with textual virtuosity, reminding everyone that this line belongs to the centuries-older Esther story and the words they put in her mouth comes from the yet centuries-older Davidic psalm. They send many intertwined and cryptic messages at once. For one, the whole intertextual turn makes us see the Jewish exile in Persia as an analog of 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 Jews will survive.

But the battle over the provenance of the line is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about the truth of prophecy by David and Esther, and how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own. Their answer is to make the connections and meanings among texts as an extension of the dialogue with God.  They are reading God’s Mind.

There is no more potent text than the story of Esther and no more powerful figure among the prophets on which to play and win this game. God may be nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet He is there everywhere at once behind it. His plan for history trumps Haman’s anarchic and hateful plan to drive Jewish destiny by mere chance. Haman is just another pathetic dog soldier gambling over the remnants of Jewish subjugation. God’s name never appears in the text of the Megillah, but His meaning is ubiquitous.

In a smaller act of courage, the sages of the Talmud re-enact the Megillah drama in an entire volume of the same name. They tell the textual truth of the matter, exposing a systematic plot, a more insidious and ultimately more successful gambit for utterly destroying a nation: to undermine and erase the Jews by re-telling their own story. Why bother with genocide when you can cancel a culture with words and symbols?

This small bit of storytelling in the Talmudic volume called Megillah is metonymy for the whole volume itself and we could say for the ongoing treatment of Talmudic textual practice as a holy act, an extension of Torah and sanctification. Judah the Prince, by writing down the Oral Law as Mishnah, was prescient. He anticipated that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was going to be a long one. In the meantime, the Temple’s portal to and connection with God had to be transmuted into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. 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 keep the flame alive.

We are all Esther

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. The Purim story is a bulwark against our compromised historical condition.  Like Esther, 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 has 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, 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.

It’s a struggle to continue to believe in and act according to tradition in the absence of sustained proof and direct communication from God, but it’s the battle that has been granted us to fight, like Esther, and the one Jews have no choice but to join if we are to survive. Who knows but that we have been put into our positions for just this purpose? When I see my granddaughters in their masks and costumes and smiles on Purim, I also see little victories.

 Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo, Purim, 5780 and 5781


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 withdrawal of prophecy and 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. As always, remaining errors and narishkeit are all my own.

[1] Tractate Megillah 15b2. “The Gemara returns to its explanation of the verses of the Megilla. The verse states with regard to Esther: “And she stood in the inner court of the king’s house” (Esther 5:1). Rabbi Levi said: Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence left her. She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  R Levi lived at the time of R Yochanan, around 290-310 CE

[2]  Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46

[3] Psalms 22, certainly composed no later than the fifth century BCE but attributed to and possibly composed as early as the tenth century BCE uses the Hebrew ‘azvatani’ as it is in the Talmud’s quotation of Esther

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי;

The Gospel’s version uses the word ‘Sabachthani’, but it is the Aramaic equivalent (from the Greek root ‘shebaq” = σαβαχ = סבאח.

[4] Psalms 22:12-18

[5]  Matthew 27:35-37

[6] Psalms here uses the word goral (גורל), not pur (פור). When parties had equal claims to spoils of war or booty or simple property, the goral was an official method of divvying them up by means of casting dice or lots, common throughout ancient civilizations, including Persia and Rome.  The Megillah, sure enough, equates them: v’hipil pur hu ha’goral – literally “and they cast the pur, which is the goral.” Esther, 3:7. These were also pagan methods of determining fate through sympathetic magic. If you believe the cosmos is simply a matter of circumstance, coincidence, happenstance, or chance, then casting dice or lots is a way of divining or determining the future as good as any other. The fact that Haman’s lottery falls on the date of Moses’ birthday is one of the secret ways the Megillah signals to us who is really in control of fate.

[7] Tractate Megillah 15 b2


 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?

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 10.36.45 AM

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

“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 babies 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