By RADM (ret) Harold Robinson, National Chaplain
Near the end of the Passover Seder, we play a table game called “Who knows…?” including “Who knows six? Six sections the Mishnah has!” Following Passover, we begin reading one chapter a week of Mishnah Tractate Avoth, which translated means “Ethics of the Fathers”. Avoth consists mostly of sage moral advice, aphorisms and a bit of theology attributed to the Tannaiem, the Rabbis of the land of Israel who lived up to around 200 CE. Tractate Avoth is the source for many of our most familiar rabbinic dictums such as Hillel’s statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone what am I? And if not now, when?” We read one of its six chapters each week for six weeks. Traditionally, after concluding the reading, we repeat the cycle until the High Holidays. Consequently, the entire tractate is found in most weekly Jewish Prayerbooks. During this post Passover reading cycle, each Chapter is preceded by a prologue, a passage from an otherwise more difficult legal tractate, Sanhedrin; “’All Israel have a portion in the world to come,’ as it is said in Isaiah 60, ‘And all thy people shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land for ever…’” thus affirming redemption – resurrection to eternal life in a perfected world- for all our people.
But our weekly reading of Sanhedrin is only an out of context snippet. In its original context, the Sanhedrin passage deals with Israelites condemned to death by the court and affirms their punishment is only human, not divine, and that in the end of days the Holy One will redeem them along with the rest of us. Moreover, the Tractate Sanhedrin passage continues by listing the exceptions – those categories of Israelites such as an apikoros, a heretic, who do not have a place in the world to come. More detail on apikorsim, also known as hertics, will be given later. Included amongst the categories is a very short list of seven individually named unworthy Israelites. Curiously, the list of unworthy Israelites singled out by name includes Balaam, the primary protagonist of the upcoming Torah portion entitled Balak, set to be read on 30 June 2018. Balaam was a non-Israelite prophet hired in by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites in the wilderness. However, each time he opened his mouth to curse the Israelite encampment a blessing came forth instead. In fact, we recite his “blessing” each time we enter our synagogues for worship in the familiar refrain; Mah tovu ohalecha Ya-akov, mishcanotecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel?”
Balaam’s inclusion in the list of the unredeemed is curious for at least two reasons.
First, he was not Jewish, so why would we cite him in a list of Israelites excluded from life eternal in the world to come? This appears to be clear evidence that our sages believed the righteous of all nations would be redeemed. Judaism teaches non-Jews who follow the seven laws given to Noah are redeemed, “saved,” just as righteous Jews are “saved.”
Second, it is curious that the rabbis condemn as unworthy of redemption the author of one of our most familiar and beloved liturgical poems. Why? Because, as the text in Torah makes clear, Balaam knew full well his intended curse was false, not God’s. Indeed, even the she-ass upon which he rode could see the folly of his mission to curse Israel and tried to steer him off his fateful misadventure. Balaam clearly knew the truth but tried to recite falsehoods. It seems Balaam’s willingness to say whatever suited the temporal powers around him, and his total disregard for truth and what is right makes him worthy of clear condemnation despite his beautiful liturgical poem, the one bit of truth that he uttered only when coerced. Parenthetically, in Avoth the rabbis declare the she ass’ ability to talk as not a miracle but one of the ten wonders built into creation itself just as the first Shabbat approached.
Now more information about apikorsim– heretics. It’s not easy to be an apikoros. You might imagine Judaism would declare an atheist, one who declares a non-belief in God or one without any faith to be an apikoros, to be outside the fold. Yet many of our most esteemed Zionists, such as Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, who was a leading founder and early intellectual leader of Labor Zionism, were avowed socialist atheists. In their day, some argued they were apikorosim, but who amongst us today would declare these greats of Jewish history to be outside the fold? Unlike these giants of our history, one who accepts some other faith is called a mishumad, an apostate, meaning one who lamentably has chosen to leave the fold.
Many years ago, I was a representative of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to a conference on Education of the Consolidated Kibbutz Movement held at the kibbutz movement education and conference center, Bet Berl, named so after the aforementioned Berl Katznelson. The director of education for the Kibbutz movement, also named Berl in honor of Katznelson, began by relating that his father kept him from studying traditional Jewish texts such as Mishnah because he wanted to raise him to be an apikoros, a heretic. What he got instead was an am ha-aretz, an ignorant one. An am ha-aretz could be learned in many fields but was ignorant of our tradition and its meaning, perhaps knowing a bit here as there as is taught to children, but not really understanding the whole of Jewish tradition on an adult level. Much like Balaam, the cursed prophet who knew the truth and tried to reject it, one must really know Jewish tradition and consciously reject it to be considered an apikoros. Anyone can be an am-haretz, but you must aspire to be knowledgeable enough, learned enough, to be an apikoros. I do not wish for a generation of apikorsim, but it would be wonderful to be amongst those sufficiently knowledgeable to qualify for the title.
Volume 72. Number 2. Summer 2018