The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 12/13/08, Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach
In our portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure at night. In his victorious struggle, Jacob receives a new name: Yisrael. “For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:29) Many commentators have pointed out the implications of this name. Jews carry on Jacob’s heritage of God wrestling. God is at the center of our religion and our tradition, yet our collective and individual relationships with God are not characterized by a blind or unquestioning faith. Jewish wrestling with God takes many forms and has many results.
Last Shabbat as a Shabbat animator, I was asked to wrestle and lead a conversation with this question: Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God? There were people at the table struggling with this question. It is a good Jewish question. Why? Jews are more concerned about goodness than belief in God. Being good is crucial in a world more than the belief in God’s goodness. The Talmud has a famous passage to suggest that it is better spurn God than to spurn his commandments. This is because doing the commandments produces concrete good in the world, but belief in God does not necessarily lead to this.
The Jewish preoccupation with good behavior over proper belief is illustrated in this story from the old country.
An apikorus (a blasphemer) from Yennesvelt had heard of the great Apikorus of Vilna. Like all good Jews he wanted to ‘kaneh lecha rav’-acquire a master teacher for himself. He decided to travel to Vilna to learn from the great Apikorus of Vilna. He chose to visit him on the holiest day of the year when he imagined his heroic master would be engaged in the most astonishing apikorsus imaginable. So he packed his wagon and traveled to Vilna, spending most of Yom Kippur on the road. He ate his pork sandwiches on the way reveling in his anticipated encounter with the great apikorus.
When he reached Vilna, he kept asking the irritated religious Jews on his way where he could find the Apikorus of Vilna. They curtly pointed toward the city center, wishing to avoid contact with this small town apikorus who gleefully showed contempt for them and their holy day. When he reached city center, he was directed toward the Grand Synagogue of Vilna. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt was perplexed what his hero would be doing at the Grand Synagogue, but he thought it must be completely outrageous.
When he walked into the Grand Synagogue at the hour of Neilah he discovered that the Apikorus of Vilna was in front of the congregation, draped in Tallit, serving as Shaliah Tzibbur for the holiest service of the year. The scene was astonishing: The Apikorus of Vilna chanted the prayers with fervor, the congregation wept in prayer, and the room was filled with yearning and hope. Our Apikorus of Yennesvelt was completely stunned, unable to comprehend why the most famous Jewish blasphemer was leading the holiest service of the year.
When the service ended with the dramatic Shofar blasts and people with shining faces left extending greetings of Shanah Tovah, our apikorus made his way to the Bimah to confront his hero. He reached the Apikorus of Vilna as he was folding his beautiful tallis into his bag and eating a morsel to end his fast. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt confronted him: “How can you, an apikorus’ lead the Neilah service at Yom Kippur?” The Apikorus of Vilna smiled and gave his pupil the first lesson in apikorsus. “The difference between you and me is simple. I am an apikorus. You are an am Haaretz (an ignoramus). “
This old story from the late 19th century Eastern Europe helps to answer our question. Yes, you can be a good Jew and not believe in God. The reason is that Judaism does not focus on proper belief, but on mitzvot and actions that improve the human condition. Moreover, an apikorus despite his doubt in God can see in certain aspects of religious life specific goods and needs that should be honored. Does he think his prayers will be heard by God? Maybe not. But the Neilah service helps people to be hopeful about their lives and to feel connected to each other. So it is a good to be honored and supported.
Upon deeper reflection on our story suggests a couple of things about the tradition of skepticism in Judaism. A skeptical (apikorus) Jews could be both a learned and practicing Jew. At the very least the skeptical apikorus had a profound respect for the religious traditions and behaviors and often could be an exemplary practitioner, an observant Jew in every respect.
Another revealing side of the story is that the Apikorus of Vilna was given the honor of leading the holiest service of the year in a religious community. The implication is that this religious community held this man in the highest esteem, since traditionally the person chosen to be Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the Days of Awe was chosen from among the most respected persons in the community (He was not necessarily a professional Hazzan as is contemporary practice.) The religious community depicted in our story is also tolerant and lives by a broader standard of what a good person is.
There was a rich middle ground in Jewish life recalled by this story which seems harder to achieve, in our own times, but is a worthy goal. One of the sad realities of contemporary synagogue life is the loss of this middle ground in which religious and cultural Jews interacted and shared a common way of life. But I believe that recreating this rich middle ground is critical for Conservative synagogues and the spiritual life they aspire to. Let me share with you briefly a number of approaches how we might help create and sustain this middle ground in our congregation.
1. Emphasize within the congregation Judaism’s imperative to pursue the good and to practice Hesed-kindness regardless of whether you believe in God or not.
2. The life of mitzvot is the Jewish way of focusing on individual and collective practice on living a good life and finding a common language for doing so. Can we restore to centrality the life of mitzvah as the common language and way of Jews regardless of whether we are ‘religious or cultural’?
3. Give reasons for doing mitzvot that integrate religious and humane motivations. People who do not believe can be moved by cultural, psychological and humanistic reasons for doing mitzvot. We can encourage people to do Shabbat to respect the environment, make quality time for friends and family, avoid enslavement to our working lives, and express gratitude to those we love as well as to frame this holy day as a Day for the Lord.
4. Help people to gain depth and knowledge of practices that reduce embarrassment and increase meaningful participation and a sense of the broad commitment to goodness central to Judaism. I do believe that when people have some mastery of Jewish practice and language they feel a strong attraction to our Jewish way of life.
5. Work with our knowledgeable and traditional members to cultivate a tolerant, non judgmental, flexible, encouraging, and generous stance with others who are not religiously inclined or Jewishly knowledgeable. I have worked on myself to embrace these characteristics throughout my rabbinate. I understand this as “Torah and Derech Eretz”.
6. Encourage younger parents to learn, try practice, and model devotion to practice with their children. At the same time parents need to encourage questions their children raise. Modeling the Jewish middle ground for our children is a very deep, challenging, and rewarding way of parenting.
7. Make it safe to talk about God where people can express skepticism, doubt, disbelief, and faith and encourage all parties to listen to each other with respect. Also when talking about God, we must learn about and share the remarkable diversity and depth of approaches to God in Judaism.
At the dinner we held last week the discussion we had about God and goodness was long and engaging. I don’t know if the skeptical persons around the table were moved, but I do know that they were relieved not to have been judged harshly for their skepticism. One of the lessons I learn from doing lots of Shabbatot at people’s homes is that the table conversation about Judaism, God, and the purpose of life is a precious opportunity to explore these questions interactively. This sermon that emerged from that conversation is a by product to the all important conversation that I hope continues with those who joined me at their table that night.
Our conversations about God and living a good life has a direct ancestor in our God wrestling ancestor, Yisrael who we read about in this week’s portion. The name of our people comes out of this wrestling. When we wrestle with these issues we encourage our loved ones and friends to join us, we carry on the authentic tradition of our people and our relationship to God. The Apikorus of Vilna lived in this tradition and whether we are filled with faith and filled with doubt, we all can participate in being Bnai Yisrael.