Tag Archives: Spinoza

Rethinking Heresy

One of the core issues that I sought to explore in Crossing the Boundary is the nature of heresy. In fact, I originally wanted to call the book “The Way of the Jewish Heretic,” and I wanted to put forth the idea that what some call heresy, others call creative adaptation. In other words, though it generally has a negative connotation, heresy is often the source of a positive turn in thinking and experience. However, the negative association was felt to be too strong, even for some of the book participants, so I chose to make the case about heresy within the book (and here) instead of in the title.

The issue came to mind recently when I found a very interesting blog post on the internet by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin entitled, “I’m Proud To Be A Heretic.” Rabbi Salkin writes in response to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who recently made the claim that not only the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, but the modern Orthodox movement itself is “steeped in apikorsos – filled with apikorsim, (heretics).”

A bit of history can help here. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikos, meaning, “able to choose” (from the New Testament Greek Lexicon). From Plato’s time, the word heresies was used to describe the teachings of particular schools without any negativity implied. Jews in the first century (C.E) referred to their various sects, the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees as heresies. This was also the term for the “sect of the Nazarenes” (the early Jewish Christians). It wasn’t until the second century that the term heresy came to be seen negatively, as it is now, implying a deviation from the true path or beliefs.(1)

The term apikoros is also taken from the Greek, and according to Rabbi Salkin originates with the philosopher Epicurus (regarding his philosophy). Salkin argues that the early Jews changed the meaning of the term to refer to “someone who mocks or scoffs at the tradition of Torah,” giving it the negative understanding it now has in the Jewish world. He then points out the irony that some of the most influential Jewish philosophers and visionaries, including Maimonides, Spinoza, Marx, Freud and Einstein, were seen by some as apikoris. Not bad company.

The spiritual teachers in Crossing the Boundary all chose paths of belief and practice that could easily fit with the definition of heretic or apikoros. As seen in the book, they all made a conscious choice (the original meaning of heresy) as to the way in which they access the divine and creatively practice living in harmony with life. It was a choice that was different, in some cases radically different, from their family tradition. Though the words and rituals they use may sometimes be alien to the Jewish religious worldview, they see themselves (appropriately in my view) as contributing to the well-being of humanity, including their Jewish brothers and sisters.

As I say in Crossing the Boundary, “Abraham was a heretic to those who maintained the old ways, but he became the heroic founder of a new religious path for his followers and descendants, who now include Jews, Christians and Muslims. He heard an inner voice and broke with the path of his family and community. Jews honor him as the father of their people and universally accept the idea that he found the true God and left behind the superstitious, idol-worshipping pagan beliefs of many gods and goddesses. Ironically, now some Jews, (such as myself), have the heretical idea that the early indigenous, animistic and shamanistic traditions hold wisdom we need for our lives today. We don’t think of statues of gods and goddesses (which Abe is reputed to have smashed) as idols to be worshiped, but as windows to the spirits of higher consciousness.”

Today, those who choose the path of peace in times of war, who choose non-violent activism as a means to bring about social change, who enter non-ordinary realms of consciousness for healing or vision, are the heretics of modern time. While they are mocked by the media and attacked for their thoughts and actions, it is my view that they (we) hold the keys to transforming the catastrophic direction of humanity’s more destructive impulses.

-Alan Levin

1. 1 See “Orthodoxy – Just Another Heresy,” by Peter Nathan: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=145