I am not a person who shuns labels. On the contrary, I find labels to be a helpful shorthand, and I am always on the lookout for better ones. This week I was given a new one that I especially cherish: apikoros.
I was speaking with an Orthodox Rabbi from Israel earlier this week, and as we shared our views on God, Torah, and Israel he calmly informed me that I was an apikoros, a heretic. I didn’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I didn’t believe the Torah was God’s word; I didn’t believe the mitzvot (commandments) were God’s law; and I didn’t believe the Jews are the Chosen People.
“Then what do you believe?” he asked.
“I believe that God is Reality, an ever flowing system of creative destruction that defies naming and theological certainty (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh as Exodus 3:14 puts it), and which, over time, births more and more inclusive levels of consciousness that eventually awaken to know all creation as God. I believe that Torah is a human creation reflecting the biases of its authors and interpreters, and should not replace reason as our ultimate guide for establishing a just and compassionate society. I believe mitzvot are folkways designed to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people, and should be voluntary and open to constant refinement so as to reflect the best insights of our people. I believe that the people Israel are a people like any other seeking meaning and purpose, and yet often trapped in jingoism and xenophobia. I believe that Zionism is a legitimate movement of national liberation which should work for the liberation of all peoples...”
“Apikoros!” he said, and walked away.
Apikoros is Hebrew for Epicurus, the 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher who taught a secular, atheistic understanding of reality that placed reason and the pursuit of happiness at the center of human life. The ancient rabbis feared the influence of Epicureanism and used the term apikoros (apikorsim, plural) to mean “heretic” in the same way Ann Coulter uses the word “liberal” to mean “godless and un-American.” The rabbis even added a curse upon apikorsim to their liturgy: “may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant” (part of the 18th benediction of the Amidah).
I knew the meaning of the word, and was not hurt by being called an apikoros. On the contrary, I took a perverse pleasure in it. Famous Jewish apikorsim include the authors of Ecclesiastes and Job, Alisha ben Abuya, Hiwi al-Balkhi, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Herzl, Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and Ben Gurion. These are all heroes of mine, and I am honored to be counted among them.
Indeed it seems to me that being an apikoros is exactly right for me. It is the Hebrew equivalent of a Holy Rascal, another label I value. In fact I’m thinking of creating a new denomination of Judaism: Apikorsut Judaism for the celebration of Jewish heretics and freethinking. I just have to figure our the dues structure and I’m in business.