Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Epicurus & Apikorisim: The Influence of the Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism

Edd Doerr reviews: Epicurus & Apikorisim: The Influence of the Greek Epicurus and Jewish Apikorsim on Judaism, by Yaakov Malkin. Milan Press, 173 pp, $16.80.

Apikorsim is the Hebrew word for heretics (apikorsut = heresy). The word is evidently derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus  (341-270 BCE), whose ideas spread throughout the Hellenic world, including what we call the Middle East, after the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Epicurus rejected the idea of divine providence and personal immortality. Malkin writes that Epicurus may well have influenced the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, one reason why many early Jewish religious authorities did  not want it included in the canon. Epicureanism, not to be confused with hedonism, was passed along by the great Roman writer Lucretius (95-55 BCE) and influenced secular Jewish thought, and even liberal Muslim thought, for centuries, extending all the way to the Dutch/Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a precursor of modern Humanism, and such influential thinkers as John Locke and David Hume.

Israeli scholar Yaakov Malkin makes the point that “an individual or society can improve its quality of life by adopting the principle that happiness as its ultimate goal, as did the founders of the United States of America – the only state in the world to establish the Epicurean principle of ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a bedrock of all legislation and public policy. The inclusion of this idea in the American Declaration of Independence can be traced to Thomas Jefferson, who was a declared Epicurean.”  Malkin writes that the Deism of Jefferson and his generation was essentially an Epicureanism in which the word “God” was largely code for “Nature”.

Among Malkin’s insights is this: “Capitalism driven by hedonism, consumerism and globalization is generally not restrained by the principles of social justice and legislation based upon them. One of the exceptions to this rule is the state of affairs in Scandinavia, where there is no uncontrolled population growth, and where egalitarian (between men and women) democracy has succeeded in implementing policies based on a free-market economy and social legislation. In countries and regions suffering from population explosion, the suffering of the masses simply increases, while their ‘kleptocracies’ (as termed by Saul Bellow), are the main beneficiaries of financial aid from the world’s rich countries.” (We might note that the Norwegian Humanist Association, the Norsk HumanEtisk Forbund, is the largest Humanist organization in the world in terms of both numbers and percentage of national population.)

Malkin’s book was published in 2007, but, regrettably, my library is so full that I just got around to reading it. The book, incidentally, is dedicated to my late good friend Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the modern Humanistic Judaism movement and co-founder of Americans for Religious Liberty.

Interestingly, Malkin’s views on the importance and influence of Epicurus and Epicureans are very close to those of Matthew Stewart, whose excellent 2014 book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (Norton, 566 pp), I reviewed in the most recent Americans for Religious Liberty journal, Voice of Reason No. 128, accessible at

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