The Pious Apikoyres

As a follow-up to an earlier thread about introducing religion in the secular Yidishist schools [see earlier post here], I’ve been reading a rather obscure pamphlet called Di goyrl fun unzre Yidishistishe shuln (The Fate of Our Yiddishist Schools). My grandfather published this pamphlet in 1956, hoping to influence the response to the crisis in secular Yiddish education. It was becoming all too apparent that the children of immigrants, who were not speaking Yiddish to their children at home, had different needs for their children’s education than the previous generation had. The major competitors to secular Yiddishism— assimilationism, religion, and Zionism— were all taking their tolls.

The Yiddish secular schools were failing because they were not connected to a coherent all-encompassing way of life. My grandfather’s preferred solution was apparently to bring back Halakhah (Jewish law), but absent superstition, empty practice of ritual for its own sake, or a personified God. Good luck with that, as the young people say. He also wanted the Folk-Shules to be not just schools, but bsey-midroshim— by which he appears to have meant comprehensive institutions that would serve as schools, libraries, settings for religious observance, and community cultural centers.


The most entertaining parts of the pamphlet are in Zeidy’s descriptions of the hypocrisy of the apikorsim around the secular Yiddishist movement. The Hebrew/Yiddish word apikoyres (pl, apikorsim), has no equivalent in English. It is a rather inclusive term that can mean ‘apostate’, ‘heretic’, ‘free-thinker’, or ‘atheist’. That is, according to the frum (somehow ‘pious’ doesn’t have quite the ring of ‘frum’), an apikoyres is anyone who is Jewish by descent who does not merit a share in the world to come.

Though it had never occurred to me it until I looked it up (I am grateful every day for the internet), the word apikoyres self-evidently derives from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus was famous as a (qualified) hedonist— he thought that the central point of life was to seek (physical, but mostly psychic) pleasure and avoid (physical, but mostly psychic) pain. He also taught that there is no immortal soul. The soul and body come together at birth, he said, and the soul disperses again after it leaves the body. Some combination of this latter teaching, his insistence on empirical observation as the route to truth, and the claim that the Gods have no interest or involvement in human affairs, made his name synonymous with ‘heresy’ in Greek, from which it somehow made its way into Yiddish.

Medieval Jewish philosophers (again, thank you, internet) tried to attribute the origin of the word to Aramaic, pointing either to the root p’kr (licentious), or to the closely related hefker, which can also mean ‘arbitrary’, ‘lawless’, or ‘abandoned’. More about hefker in a bit. Here’s my Zeidy on the contradictory behavior of his fellow Yiddishists:

“The great majority have not become pious, but go to synagogue on the High Holidays, or on holidays more generally, and once in a while also on Shabbos. They try a Seder, light candles on Friday night. When the family gets together, the old apikoyres puts on a yarmulke, and makes Kiddush. Kosher is kept up to a certain point, and a mezuzah is nailed onto the door.”

Now it might seem that what he’s talking about is just Reform or Conservative Judaism, in which Jews can to a greater (Reform) or lesser (Conservative) extent decide which mitzvot are meaningful for them to practice individually. Bit the big problem for the Yiddishist movement (for whom Yiddish literature and community life had earlier been a substitute for religion) in the late forties and early fifties is that this all took energy from the Yiddish community. Additionally, my grandfather saw it as hypocritical, because the Jews did not join as members of the synagogues to which they turned in order to meet their personal nostalgic needs.

More crucially, it was these same Jews who were arguing most vociferously against introducing religious study into the curriculum of the Sholem Aleichem and Arbeter Ring schools. And they were the same Jews who did not want a Torah scroll nor a bar-mitzvah ceremony as an option for the children. And then, paradoxically, because for them religion was not a living thing but an object of nostalgic longing, when any religious observance was suggested, they complained about any slight alteration to the rigid traditional orthodox observance of their own childhoods! Zeidy turned to oxymoron when describing these contradictions, calling out the “conservatism”, or “orthodoxy of the radicals”, and talking about the “pious apikorsim”.

What He Believed

But he himself was deeply conflicted. He could be viewed as something of a mirror image of the atheists who practiced religion. He did not daven, and did not keep most of the mitzvot, yet was absorbed in religious study, and said that he was a believer. Was he in some strange way also calling out himself? Was he just as hypocritical, but in reverse? Or were his professions of belief disingenuous?

In the wake of January’s Forverts article, which depicted him as a champion of the religious wing in the Folk-Shul curriculum battles, members of my family shared our opinions on what he had or hadn’t believed. My brother did some digging and reading. He pointed out that no God as such appeared either in his article “A Renewed Halakhah” (in Judaism, 3:1, 1954), nor in the excerpt my brother found among his papers from the book “Faith of a Generation”. This was a section that had been translated (by my mother) into English. Meanwhile, I seemed to remember him saying something in his autobiography like, “I used to still practice after I stopped believing, and now that I believe again, I don’t practice”. But I couldn’t find it. Above all, what was most amazing to me was how, all this time later, we still cared what he did or didn’t believe.

Both my mother and her brother, my Uncle David, remembered him saying that, “Der velt iz nisht hefker.” (The world is not random). Hefker means, roughly, ‘abandoned’. It can also mean amoral. The statement strikes me as very similar to Einstein’s “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Exactly sixty years after his death (on April 18, 1955), people still discuss what Albert Einstein thought about God. Here, in his so-called “God Letter” [click link here] he states his disbelief in the God of Torah:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.”

Still, most individual statements leave one or another kind of wiggle room. Here [link] a deist offers his take on Einstein’s belief, saying that the “God Letter” does not preclude a belief in any God, but only in the God of Israel:

Does the ‘God Letter’ contradict the contention that “God does not play dice with the universe”? Personally, I have no idea. Einstein said a lot of things. In honor of his yortsayt, [here] is a link to some more quotes.

Wholeness or Perfection

As for my grandfather, I was most interested in his proposals for the Yiddish schools. I wanted to know what he meant when he said the school should become a beys-midrash, a word that can mean ‘synagogue’, but more literally means a House of Study. That’s why I started with the Goryrl pamphlet. His diagnosis of the trouble with the schools paralleled his criticism of the contradictions in his fellow Yiddishists behavior. Dividing one’s energy without admitting what your true spiritual needs are, he argued, is a denial that Judaism involves the striving towards Shleymos. Judaism for him had to be a comprehensive way of life, that aimed at ‘perfection’, or ‘wholeness’.

Both my mother and I prefer the word wholeness. The word shleymos is probably most familiar to you from the phrase refue shleyme from the prayer for the sick, asking for a complete healing. [It’s fascinating to me that the Yiddish word could mean either, since I see perfection and wholeness as mutually antagonistic, analogous for example to breadth and depth of knowledge. Yes, some people have neither and some have both, but at any moment and in any subject, detail and comprehensive coverage compete for energy and attention]

The Smoking Gun

Then I did find a smoking gun, in his memoirs. These two quotes are from the 1963 English translation of In The Thicket, the second volume of his autobiography. In it, he refers to himself in the third person as ‘Shimon’, or as ‘he’. Perhaps some future blog post could address his narcissism, but that is for another day:

1. “Now, however, he [Shimon] is a staunch believer; both rationally and emotionally he is convinced of the existence of a Supreme Being, of a genuine faith. Just as man cannot live without love, even so he cannot do without faith.”

And then, later on in the same section: 2. “…He also believes that the Jewish way of disciplining oneself through halakhah, through the performance of meritorious deeds and the observance of the Mosaic Law, is the best approach for the attainment of perfection, elevating the body to its divine source. Yet he has failed to observe so many rituals and good deeds related to man and God that he cannot regard himself as a righteous Jew.” [italics mine]

First, he is both unequivocal and unconvincing. The argument, “Religion is true because it is a fundamental human need,” is, of course, irrelevant to God’s existence. I might yearn for the resurrection of the dead to be true with every fiber of my self, feel that I can’t go on without it, that love must not disappear nor can it be fulfilled without its object, and so on. None of that causes it to transpire that the dead come back to life. Better is to give up this ‘need’, and to live with the fact that we are animals built to want things that aren’t there. We have an imagination. We can imagine perfection and/or wholeness in ourselves, and in the world. We can work for it, though we cannot get there. We can even imagine a whole and perfect world beyond worlds in a time beyond time.

Anti-religious people might even claim it is wrong to imagine such things, because it causes people to reject real life and practical morality in favor of an abstraction. I disagree. We can create large abstractions in the service of Reason (say, in the form of the Liberté, Egailité, and Fraternité of the French Revolution, which ended in a bloodbath) or in the service of the not-rational (in the form of a God or Gods). Either way, we ourselves remain imperfect, tribal, emotional beings, doing our best to get by. Yes, it matters what idea we point ourselves towards, but not as much as one might wish.

Conflict and Comfort

That second quoted section is conflicted, even tortured. Elsewhere he tries to reconcile his belief in the importance of Halakhah and his own holding back on practice. It is clear that he did not give himself an easy time. But was he hypocritical? He did believe in generational answers, and individual answers, but he also believed in integrity. Ideas were not just something you said. They should translate into deeds. I went back and checked, and the word that had been rendered as ‘perfection’ in the English translation of that quote is actually Shleymos. Again, I like wholeness better. Living a righteous life does not make us perfect. And, if we aim for wholeness, that might help us live with our inevitable self-contradictions, and to forgive them in others. Since my grandfather’s name was Shleyme, I figure he would have wanted me to get it right.

Then, since I was there, in the Yiddish version of Tsveygn (“Branches”, published 1960, titled In the Thicket in the English), I also looked up the first quote, too. Now that was interesting. Actually, he did not exactly say he “is convinced of the existence of a Supreme Being.” He said, again referring to himself in the the third person: Er hot gedanklikh getrakht az s’iz do khasgokhe fun dem Kavyokhl… “He gratefully thought (or realized) that there is oversight by the “Kavyokhl…” I had never heard this word before, but according to the dictionary, Kavyokhl is a name for God, used when trying to avoid even any potential hint of personification. The root of the word means, “as if it were possible”! Later, having called himself a believer, he goes all in, saying that God created the world, and that human beings were created in His image, and are distinct from the animals. But his non-personified God is much more consistent with his actions, and with his cheerful mocking of the apikorsim who feared any expression of religion, stuck as they were on a God who sat on high, looking down at every Jew to see that he cut his fingernails on the right day, in the right order, and disposed of the clippings in the correct manner.

Whatever specific kind of God-belief he came up with for himself, there was still the matter of his conduct. His justification fell back partly on habit, partly on the pressure of his contemporaries. The first maskilim (enlightenment Jews), he pointed out, continued to wear fringes, grow their beards and wear kippas. It actually took a couple of generations for them to act publicly in accord with their writings. What he seemed to be implying was that his beliefs and reasons for following halakhah were not just a reversion to what was already then present in the Orthodox community, but were a new generational approach to Judaism, one that would have to build its own kind of community over time. I strongly doubt that his own stated reasons quieted his inner conflict completely.

I don’t think, by the way, that any of his soul-wrestling came from a fear of death. There were many things that drove him to despair, including the fate of Judaism in general, and Yiddish in particular. But he was apparently serene in the face of his personal, inevitable end. My Uncle David, in the last chapter of his own memoir, tells a sweet story about going to see his father in the hospital, after he had suffered a heart attack.

David was obviously distressed. His father told him to stop troubling himself: Az ikh bin do, iz der toyt nisht do. Un az der toyt is do, bin ikh nisht do. “So long as I am here, death is not here. And when death is here, I am not here.” At such times, when a loved one needs comforting, we do not cite our sources. The formula however is an old one. As far as I know, its first use was in a letter, written about 2300 years ago. The author of that letter was Epicurus.

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.” -- Letter to Menoeceus

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”
— Letter to Menoeceus

4 thoughts on “The Pious Apikoyres

  1. Wow!! .this one would knock anyone’s socks off…particularly when we get to the punch line. And the detail. I know first hand how he struggled with these ideas, but maybe the struggle was what it was all about in the end, and all of our struggles is all it is about always. We should cherish them. And maybe that explains why understanding him is so important, even now, so many years later.


  2. Pingback: Yivo Summer Yiddish Institute, Week One | Tongue's Memory

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