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Jewish Heretics and Heretical Jews

Bennett Muraskin
January 25, 2018

by Bennett Muraskin


A JEWISH HERETIC, in Yiddish and Hebrew, is an apikoyris -- a reference to the 3rd-century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus, who taught that the gods have no interest in human affairs and that people would be better off if we did not believe in divine rewards and punishment. (It is not surprising that Karl Marx, who was a materialist and atheist to the core, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Epicurean philosophy.)

To Jews, however, the word was directed not only at atheists, deists, and others who delimited the role of “God” in human affairs, but at anyone who questioned, scoffed at, or rejected certain traditional aspects of Jewish religious practice, even if they were observant themselves. Maimonides was once called a heretic, for example. So were khasidic rabbis. So were those, like Shabtai Zvi, who took his religiosity so far as to claim to be the messiah.

Nevertheless, most apikoyrim whose reputations have endured until today were not religious heretics but secularists, with one group as a major exception: the heretics in the Bible itself!

Read the book of Job, in which Job boldly accuses God of acting unjustly. Or the Book of Ecclesiastes, in which we are told that there is no overriding purpose to life, only what we make of it. And for sheer khutspe, you cannot do better than Jeremiah 44, in which a bunch of heterodox Jews tell the great prophet what he can do with his threats of fire and brimstone. Although they worship a female god, they still consider themselves Jews — just not the same kind as Jeremiah.

Didn’t Abraham confront God over saving the lives of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah? Didn’t Moses twice convince God not to destroy his “chosen people” for their disobedience? Without overlooking their ignoble deeds of obedience (Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, Moses’ purge of Israelite dissidents), their defiance of God created an important precedent for a humanistic approach to religion that sets limits on the deity’s arbitrary power.

Then there is the Talmud’s key apikoyris, the early 2nd-century figure, Elisha ben Abuyah — a revered scholar and teacher who became a heretic and disavowed key rabbinic concepts of divine reward and punishment, the resurrection of the dead, and the coming of the messiah. The rabbis refused to call him by name, instead referring to him as Akher, “the other,” and recorded that he was “always singing Greek songs and carrying heretical books.” He was not excommunicated, however, because of the stature of his student, Rabbi Meir, who continued to study with Elisha even after his break from Judaism. The story of Elisha’s heresy was preserved as a cautionary tale in the codification of the Talmud. Legend has it that when Elisha died, his tomb caught fire, as a sign that God had rejected him, but Meir put the fire out with his tallis, declaring, “If He shall refuse to save thee, then as God lives, I shall save thee!”

The Talmud says that the only Jews who have no hope of getting into “the world to come” are “One who says, there is no resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah, one who says, the Torah is not from Heaven, and an apikoros.” As the contemporary Talmud scholar Adam Kirsch writes, “What’s interesting about these offenses is that they seem so modern in spirit; they are the opinions of a rationalist and a skeptic.” It was not until the 17th century, for instance, that Baruch Spinoza became the first Jew to argue in print, in his Theological-Political Tractate, that the Torah was “not from Heaven” but was the work of human authors. Today, that view is held by nearly everyone who studies the Bible using the tools of academic, secular criticism.

Clearly, the Talmud would not have warned so harshly against these heresies if they hadn’t presented a strong temptation for Jews even in ancient times. In fact, this kind of thinking was prevalent in the Greco-Roman world and must have influenced many Jews, not just Elisha ben Abuyah. If Epicurus was correct that the gods are indifferent to human affairs, how could there be a personal God who chose the Jewish people as his own and controls their fate? Such a question could not be tolerated, however, so the rabbis, lacking much temporal power, meted out the harshest sentence in their arsenal — a ban from acquiring eternal life.


FROM 9TH-CENTURY Persia (today’s Afghanistan), then an intellectual hot spot, comes another prominent Jewish heretic, Hiwi Al-Balkhi, author of a book that offered some two hundred objections to the idea that the Bible had divine authorship. His questions included: Why does God permit human suffering? Why does God demand ritual sacrifice? Why did God choose Jews over other people? Why does the Bible contradict itself? Why does God act unjustly? Hiwi had the privilege of being denounced by the greatest Jewish scholar of that age, Sa’adia ben Joseph, also known by the honorary title “Ga’on.” (Sa’adia’s response was itself lost until its discovery by Solomon Schechter in 1898 among the famous Geniza documents stored in the attic of an old Egyptian synagogue.)

From the same region and same era comes an anonymous text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, although it has nothing to do with the real Ben Sira, a Hellenistic Jewish sage who lived in the 2nd century BCE. It is best known for telling the story of Lilith, Adam’s rebellious first wife, who became a demon. It also includes farcical  depictions of Biblical figures such as Joshua, King Solomon, the prophet Jeremiah, and God himself. The Encyclopedia Judaica avers that the author was “a writer with an anarchistic tendency who used satire to ridicule all the institutions of established religion in his day.” Wow!

Let’s jump to late 13th-century and early 14th-century France, near the Italian border, a region known as a center of Jewish freethinking during the Italian Renaissance. Kalonymous Ben Kalonymous was a poet and translator who specialized in satire directed at the foibles of Jews and Christians alike: their hypocritical community leaders, arrogant rich, charlatan doctors, and foolish nobles. He also wrote a famous parody of Purim in the style of a Talmudic tractate. His irreverent verse earned the condemnation of the leading rabbis. Here is a prime example (translated from the Hebrew by J. Chotzner):

 . . . the Jew is a luckless creature, for he must shun all jest and play.
And must pore night and day over Mosiac and Rabbinic lore, and books which he may think a bore.
The Bible is not half enough. Commentaries there are and other stuff
In which erudite he must be . . . in things particularly small, of no significance at all.

We all know something about Baruch Spinoza, but how about his predecessor, Uriel Da Costa (1585-1640), who died in Amsterdam when Spinoza was a boy and was no doubt known to him. Da Costa’s life, and that of Juan de Prado (1612-1670), a Jew excommunicated by the same Jewish court that excommunicated Spinoza — for similar reasons — shows that there was a current of Jewish freethought among the Sephardic Jews who found refuge in Holland.

Da Costa was from a converso family that had escaped from Portugal to Holland in 1612. He had studied the Torah secretly but was unfamiliar with the Talmud. Upon joining the Amsterdam Jewish community, he observed many inconsistencies. His rejection of rabbinic law led him to a broader critique of concepts of divine rewards and punishments and the afterlife, and he ended up with the unique distinction of being excommunicated by rabbis in three cities — Hamburg, Venice, and Amsterdam. While under these bans, he published a defiant treatise, An Examination of the Traditions of the Pharisees, in which he essentially broke with religion itself as a flawed human invention. The book was publicly burned.

He became engaged to a Jewish woman, but no rabbi would marry them.  Succumbing to pressure, he recanted his heresies to gain readmission to the Jewish community — but within a month, he was reasserting his beliefs and was again excommunicated. Because he could not endure the ostracism, this entire process was repeated seven years later. Da Costa committed suicide in 1640, leaving this humanistic credo:

Defend the cause of the downtrodden against the violence of the oppressor, so that there be no complaint that justice is not executed on earth and there is none to deliver the weak from the strong. If men would follow the dictates of reason and live according to the laws of nature, they would all mutually love one another. Everyone would then contribute to his utmost to the relief of his neighbor.


OUR FIRST ASHKENAZI Jew in this survey, Solomon Maimon, was born Solomon ben Joshua in 1753 in the Kingdom of Lithuania. He took the name Maimon in honor of Maimonides, but in time he became an outright heretic. A Talmud prodigy as a youth, he fled his home to escape an arranged marriage and early fatherhood. Making his way to Berlin, he was temporarily accepted into the circle of Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Haskole, the Jewish Enlightenment — but his Eastern European origins, dissolute habits, and radical ideas soon made him an outcast.

A self-described “stiff-necked Jew,” Maimon rejected the Talmud as pilpul (meaningless disputation), and khasidism as superstition. His philosophical dissertations won the praise of Immanuel Kant before Maimon died of alcoholism in 1800, leaving for posterity a colorful, incisive autobiography. (Adam Kirsch included it in his 2016 collection, The People and the Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.)

During an era in American history when most African Americans were slaves and women were second-class citizens, Ernestine Rose (1810-1892) was a fearless and eloquent advocate for universal human rights — as a leader of the women’s rights movement along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and as an abolitionist along with Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Rose was also a militant atheist and freethinker, speaking across the country against organized religion, the sanctity of the Bible, and the existence of God. She openly proclaimed that “all children are atheists and were religion not inculcated in their minds, they would remain so.”

In a time when Christian institutions wielded great power, she demanded a complete separation between church and state. To weaken the hold of religion and extend democracy, she advocated a system of free public education, a stand that made her the target of vicious attacks by Christian clergy. When her detractors cited Biblical chapter and verse to prove women’s inferiority to men, she replied by praising Eve for having the courage to acquire knowledge in the Garden of Eden — and the decency to share it with her mate.

When one of her freethinking colleagues wrote in a newspaper that Judaism was a bigoted religion and expressed disgust at the growing presence of Jews in the U.S., Rose counterattacked, insisting that “in spite of the barbarous treatment and deadly prejudice they suffered, they have outlived much of the poisonous rancor and prejudice against them.” A Jewish periodical took note, praising Rose for her “Jewish spirit.”


BUT HOW JEWISH were Rose, Maimon, Da Costa, etc.?  They were isolated, voluntarily or not, from their respective Jewish communities and, in the absence of a secular alternative, followed no Jewish customs. It is not until the late 19th century, in the Yiddish-speaking heartland of Eastern Europe, that we can truly speak of apikoyrim with organic ties to their communities. These include the founders of the secular Jewish movement: Y. L. Peretz, Chaim Zhitlovsky, Simon Dubnow, and Ahad Ha’am.

A chapter in Sophie Dubnow-Erlich’s biography of her father, Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) is titled “The Preacher of Free Thought.” Indeed, he considered himself “a direct heir to Elisha Akher [the name, as noted, by which Elisha ben Abuyah is referred to in the Talmud] and Da Costa.” For Dubnow, the study of history and the development of a national culture would take the place of Judaism as a religion. For Chaim Zhitlovsky (1865-1943), it was the ethical teachings of the prophets and the Yiddish language. Zhitlovsky, in particular, encouraged the creation of holiday observances including Passover hagaddahs with Jewish humanist content and themes. Y. L. Peretz (1852-1915) poetically wrote that “Jewishness is the universal spirit as it is embodied in the Jewish soul.”

Dubnow, Zhitlovsky, and Peretz were confirmed Diaspora Jews. Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) advocated a non-religious, spiritual form of nationalism, based in Palestine, that would nurture Jews in the Diaspora. All were secular humanists rooted in Jewish culture.

For an idiosyncratic apikoyris, one can do no better that Ludovik (Ludwig) Zamenhof (1859-1917), the inventor of Esperanto, which aspired to be an international language. This Polish Jew also developed a philosophy called “Hillelism.” It was a cross between Reconstructionism and Ethical Culture, based on Hillel’s golden rule, the preservation of certain Jewish customs, and an emphasis on deed over creed. “With Hillelism,” Zamenhof wrote, “we do not mean a new denomination; we mean a new corporate religious order within the Jewish religion . . . Everybody who lives ethically could take part . . . with a clear conscience, no matter what the religious views he had before looked like.” Later, he renamed it “Homaranismo” or “humanitism,” in which he defined God as the unity of all human beings. Esperanto survives, with some 100,000 speakers worldwide, but Hillelism died on the vine.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) easily qualifies as an apikoyris. His religious beliefs were those of Spinoza, that “God” is revealed in the harmony of nature, but is not concerned with human beings. “What I cannot understand,” he wrote, “is how there could possibly be a God who would reward or punish his subjects . . .” Einstein believed that “ethical behavior should be based effectively on sympathy, education and social ties and needs. No religious basis is necessary.” He frequently drew connections between his commitments to peace and social justice and his understanding of what it meant to be a Jew.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was also a secular Jew with a heretical streak. In a 1926 letter to his lodge of B’nai Brith in Vienna, Freud avowed that “because I was a Jew, I found myself free from many prejudices which restricted others in the use of their intellect, and as a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do so without the agreement with the compact majority.”

Numerous Marxist revolutionaries were born Jews, including Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lasalle, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Adler, and Leon Trotsky, but in rejecting Judaism as a religion, they also appeared to reject (to differing degrees) their connections to Jewish peoplehood, heritage, or culture.

One notable exception was Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967). He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, grew up in independent Poland, and escaped the Nazis by moving to England. As a youth, he was a prodigy in Torah and Talmud, but revealed his true feelings by eating unkosher food at the grave of a famous rabbi on Yom Kippur. Later he became a revolutionary and a follower and biographer of Trotsky. Asked to define his Jewishness, Deutscher remarked:

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am however a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history, because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious security and self-respect of the Jews.


TURNING to the founding Jews of Israel, there is no shortage of apikorsim among them, since they were typically secular Jews, freethinkers, and socialists. David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), the first prime minister, and Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922), who is considered the father of the kibbutz movement, are prime examples.

Shulamit Aloni (1928-2014) was a longtime member of the Knesset, sometime government minister, and full-time feminist and human rights crusader. One of her great causes was to equip Israel with a constitution and a bill of rights to secure the rights of women, non-Orthodox Jews, and the Arab minority. Aloni was well-versed in Jewish sources, proving one cannot be a true apikoyris without knowing what it is one is rejecting. To the Jewish laws cited by the reactionary rabbinate in Israel, she counterposed the Prophets and the tradition of challenging unjust authority. “I would cite Abraham arguing with God to protect Sodom and use it against collective punishment,” she said. “When I quoted Jeremiah or Habakkuk, most ultra-Orthodox Jews did not know what I was talking about. And here I was, not only a woman, but also learned and a heretic.”

Aloni was fiercely denounced for seeking to replace the yizkor prayer at memorial services for fallen Israeli soldiers with a reading invoking “the Jewish people” rather than God. Her vision for Israel was a state where all citizens enjoyed equal rights. Only in the area of immigration did she believe Jews should receive preferential treatment. This position placed her out of step with most Zionists, making her a heretic in more ways than one.

Let us not forget the principal founder of modern secular humanistic Judaism, Sherwin Wine (1928-2007), also known as the “atheist rabbi.” My favorite of his many pithy sayings is “After the Holocaust, the kindest thing you can say about God is that he does not exist.” Wine relished in the term apikoyris, and I remember him jokingly saying that he would love to rename our movement “the Union of Jewish Apikorsim.” At the urging of Hershl Hartman, well-known to the readers of Jewish Currents as an avatar of progressive yidishkayt, Sherwin agreed to include in his pantheon of apikorsim Hershl Ostropolier, a legendary wit and jester from 19th-century Eastern Europe, who was known to mock the piety and pretensions of his wealthy khasidic patrons. For Wine, Jewish humor, laced with khutspe, was a wellspring of secular humanistic Judaism.

In that vein, for a humorous take on the role of the secular Jew as an inveterate critic, I offer you a “Debate with the Rabbi,” a poem by Howard Nemirov (1920-1991), who was educated in an Ethical Culture day school. (Nemirov was the brother of the famous photographer Diane Arbus.)

You’ve lost your religion, the Rabbi said.
It was not much to keep, said I.
You should affirm the spirit, said he,
And the communal solidarity.
I don’t feel so solid, I said.
We are the people of the Book, the Rabbi said.
Not of the phone book, said I.
Ours is a great tradition, said he,
And a wonderful history.
But history’s over, I said.
We Jews are a creative people, the Rabbi said.
Make something, then, said I
In science and art, said he,
Violinists and physicists have we.
Fiddle and physic indeed, I said.
Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.
The pain you give me, said I.
Instead of bowing down, said he,
You go on in your obstinacy.
We Jews are that way, I replied.

As the historian Tony Judt (1948-2010) wrote, in a serious vein, in one of the last essays he composed before he died of ALS:

I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like [Hebrew term for “so there” or “in your face”] quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

But it is not enough to be a contrarian. I would like to share with you the words of a secular Jew who was steeped in yidishkayt — the actor, folksinger, progressive political activist, and left Zionist Theodore Bikel (1925-2016):

To be Jewish is to be particular and universal at the very same time. It is [as] if being a Jew exacerbates the human condition. Everything for me is in much sharper focus because I am a Jewish human being. This is not to say that I’m anyway better, only that I can see things in a certain perspective because of my Jewish experience.

SAUL GOODMAN, a prominent secular Jewish educator and editor of the anthology The Faith of Secular Jews (1976), wrote that “Our Jewish secularism selects from the rich Jewish spiritual heritage everything that is valuable, meaningful and relevant; and there is much that is perennially relevant for modern Jews in all the currents of Jewish history. . .” The status of apikoyris, therefore, requires one to be conversant with Jewish culture, history, ethics, religious thought, language, and literature, as much — and perhaps more — than religious Jews, whose lives are marked by certain practices (most notably prayer) that secularists tend to avoid. Jewish knowledge separates the apikoyris from the amhaaretz (ignoramus) — the secularist from the assimilated.


Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.