Epicurus and Apikorsim Opening Chapter


Epicurus and Apikorsim

Only in Judaism did the name of the philosopher Epicurus come to mean “heretic” and Epicureanism “heresy.” All heresy however, derives from belief–religious or otherwise.

Judaism is the only culture in the world in which the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (third century BCE) has been a part of everyday language since antiquity; in Hebrew and other Jewish national languages (languages and dialects spoken only by Jews), e.g.. apikorsim (heretics) or apikorsut (heresy) in Hebrew and apikoires in Yiddish.

The term apikoros was used in ancient Judaism to designate a Jew who believed that the universe was subject to natural laws–”those who say the world is automatos (self-moving)” – rather than the will of a creator or master. These Jews also believed in man’s free will, sovereignty over his own life, and freedom from obligation to observe the halakhic precepts.

This belief–like all beliefs–necessarily implies heresy. Even the beliefs of a religious Jew necessarily imply heresy against the beliefs of others, including those of the apikorsim. The belief of a religious Jew in God as the creator and master of the universe and man, who watches over and commands them to act in accordance with his will, implies heresy against the sovereignty of man, the agelessness of the universe and laws of nature, the right of all Jews to freely choose the way in which to realise their Jewishness in their national culture, while fulfilling their moral obligations as human beings. The beliefs of the Jewish apikoros imply heresy against the obligation of all Jews to observe the alakhic precepts, worship in or belong to a religious synagogue. The apikoros’ belief in God as a fictional character created in a distinct fashion in each national culture also implies heresy with regard to God’s existence within or beyond the infinite universe.

The humanistic beliefs of Jewish apikorsim include a commitment to the principles of justice and ethical behaviour, or in the words of Hillel: the essence of Judaism is ”do not unto your fellow that which is hateful to you; the rest is commentary.” From this belief stems heresy against the supremacy of religious precepts over justice and ethical behaviour. In the eyes of the apikorsim, the right of every human being to full equality before the law takes precedence over religious precepts–Jewish and non-Jewish–that discriminate against women.

Apikorsim believe that the Bible is an anthology of literary works written over the course of centuries during the first millennium BCE, by numerous authors and redactors; and that like all literature, they reflect the social, cultural and spiritual reality of the time in which they were written, even if they are not precise accounts of historical events as they occurred, in the places and times cited by the biblical authors. This belief implies heresy against the divine origin of the biblical text and its consequent sacredness.

As early as the ninth century CE, in Khorasan, south of Bukhara, in the city of Balkh–one of the large trading centres along the Silk Road–there lived a Jewish apikoros by the name of Hiwi al-Balkhi. He was known to his contemporaries due to a work he published, containing two hundred criticisms of the Bible: pointing out its contradictions, lack of reason, and the injustice of the behaviour it ascribes to God. Among the Jewish sages who addressed the criticisms of Hiwi al-Balkhi are Saadiah Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Moses ibn Ezra. Since most of the writings of pre-eighteenth century Jewish and non-Jewish apikorsim have been lost or destroyed, the figure of Hiwi al-Balkhi, one of the pioneers of Jewish heresy, assumes symbolic significance. Apikorsim in every era have furthered the development of Jewish thought and culture, precisely because they have aroused debate and controversy, causing old conventions to be reexamined and new conclusions to be drawn.

In the following, I will provide a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the phenomenon of apikorsut in Judaism–influenced by the views and beliefs of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and the agnostic and atheistic philosophers who followed his or similar paths. I will also present popular definitions if the terms “apikoros” and “apikorsut” among religious Jews, and an account (following the book of Prof. Moshe Gil) of Hiwi al-Balkhi, the first apikoros whose ideas have survived, through the works of the Jewish scholars who opposed him.

Today, apikorsut is shared by most Jews in the world. These Jewish apikorsim are called ”secular” in everyday parlance, since they express, in their lifestyle and approach to Judaism, beliefs that coincide with those of the apikorsim: free from the obligation to observe religious precepts and customs, and not bound to obey the rulings of religious rabbis or the new laws that they invent in God’s name. Apikorsim and apikorsut are thus a dominant influence in Judaism as a culture comprising many different Jewish cultures, developing today– as in the past–through clashes between diverse views and beliefs. This culture is reflected in a vast body of art and literature, created mostly by apikorsim.