Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Ode to Epicurus

            This past shabbos, my Rosh Yeshivah gave his weekly schmooze. This week the topics were the internet and apikorsus, with a reference to its founder, Epicurus. Epicurus was a name I had heard before but did not know much about, and obviously never heard about him in a good light. Never one to take peoples word for it I started reading up on him and was astounded with what I found.
            Before I discuss what I found I would like to bring to the forefront the attitude that Judaism has to the followers of such a despicable philosophy. It starts with a gemara (avodah zara 26) which discusses the value of a non-jewish life and whether it should be saved. It says that you should not throw a non jew down a well (to kill him) but you should not save him either, since he might be a murderer. However an apikorus not only should you not save him, but you should throw him down as well. Now you may say that that is a gemara and that is not the halacha (jewish law) however the rambam (Maimonides) rules (hilchos rotzeach chapter 4 halacha 10)
“minin i.e.  anyone who transgresses jewish law to spite god (a level of faith I never attained)…and apikorsin…it is a mitzvah to kill them. If you can kill them by sword (the preferred method of killing heretics, any old stoning just won’t work) in public you should (if that’s not possible, don’t worry there is a contingency plan). If not you should make up stories about them until the public will rise up and kill them (sneaky bastard! But he does have it down pat). Or (I guess this is for those with no imagination, not so uncommon in orthodox judaism) if you see one drowning in a well and there is a ladder in the well you should hasten and remove it (and like a good Mafioso he will teach you just what to say) and say to him ‘I am removing this ladder to help my son down from the roof’”
He seems not to worry about the pain and suffering he will cause to the poor soul who did nothing more than a thoughtcrime. At least I’m sure he will have some sympathy for his poor family. Wrong again. Here he is again discussing the laws of mourning (hilchos avel chapter 1 halacha 11) regarding the death of an apikores,
“Their brothers and other relatives should dress in white (even if it’s past labor day) eat, drink, and be happy for one of the enemies of god has died”
Maybe the rambam has been hanging out with Muslim fundamentalists for too long; he did live in the arab countries. Here is the Ramah, he lived in Europe in the 1500’s (shulchan aroch yoreh deah simin 158 seif 2) discussing the shulchan aruchs ruling as to regarding the killing of an apikores
“see what I wrote in choshen mishpat siman 425 that anyone who tries to assimilate with the non-jews is equivalent to someone who sins to spite god and therefore is lowered (thrown in to a well to kill him) and should not be saved”
So anyone who tries to assimilate is viewed as bad as those terrible apikorsim, wow. So what does it take to become one? You surly must kill babies, rape children, or torture sick people. No. As usual there are a few opinions including someone who disgraces the holidays (we take partying very seriously), and one who consistently transgresses one commandment. The most prevalent opinion however is one who embarrasses torah scholars, notice no one says it means those who embarrass nice people, good hearted people, charitable people, but torah scholars. That’s it. For that you deserve to be put to death by any means possible.
So who is this Epicurus, founder of this terrible movement, apikorsus?
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher lived in the third century BCE in a time of great turmoil and tried to teach people how to be happy. He was a student of Democritus (founder of atomic theory) and a sort of hedonist. What do I mean by sort of hedonist? Well, he felt that life was to be lived for pleasure, but he did not mean the live fast, die young, sex, drugs, rock n roll sort. He was more interested in prolonged pleasure not the fast intense sort, he was interested in sustainable pleasure. To him the goal of life was what he called ataraxia; meaning to have a peaceful mind, to be relaxed, the closest term I can think of is chilled out. To him three things maximized a person’s pleasure in life: friends, freedom, and constant analysis of one’s life.
Pleasure that mattered to him was pleasure that could go on as long as you wanted, not kind that came crashing to an end causing even more pain. He advocated the pleasure of music, long walks, philosophical discussions, things that caused the maximum amount of pleasure with the least pain. Sounds to me like a most logical idea.
The lengths he went to procure what he called “freedom” were quite amazing, and what is even more amazing is that eventually there were entire epicurean communities living in his ways. He moved away from the city lived a very simple life, he once wrote to a friend to please send him some cheese so that he may have a “feast”. He realized that to live you need only a bare minimum “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity”. One of his greatest values was friendship “Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship”.
In his time most people believed in the Greek gods, they were fickle and insecure ones indeed. Punishing for any small thing, and smiting on a level that would give Yahweh inferiority complex. In addition to the gods there were a plethora of demons and all amounts of other nonsense that terrified people and haunted their lives. They were scared about life in this world and the next. This kind of fear can really mess with your happiness and was an unnecessary distraction in this short life we have. As a student of Democritus, Epicurus believed in atomic theory and that all we are is atoms. With this understanding he knew that there is no reason to fear death “Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us”. He was an advocator of scientific materialism and the happiness it brings “It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure”.
I haven’t been able to go through all the points of his philosophy here, but I hope I have given you at least a taste. Epicurus seems to me to be a logical man who put forth some ideas that I hold very dear, and truly give my life meaning. Music and scientific curiosity are for me, the greatest treasure life can offer, and in true epicurean style they cost almost nothing. Freedom is a fickle thing; I have come to the opinion that freedom is an action, not a state of being. Nonetheless I still applaud what he did in order to be self sufficient and free from the mental and emotional shackles which society and culture place on us.
I don’t care why the rabbonim were so scared of him, maybe it was the freedom, and maybe it was the natural worldview, either way I have found in him a new perspective on life that I shall never forget. I can now say that I am a proud apikorus.

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