Does the Talmud Contain a Hidden Anti-Epicurean Treatise?

Jan. 16 2020

Tractate Avot (“Fathers”) is unique within the Talmud in that it is composed of a series of rabbinic moral teachings and aphorisms without any discussion of Jewish law. While the first two chapters follow a clear chronological order, moving from teacher to disciple, from Moses until the end of the 2nd century CE, the fifth and final chapter begins by listing things of which there are ten, then things of which there are seven, and so on. As for the third and fourth chapters, they jump from one sage to the next in little discernible order.

Yaakov Jaffe detects in the second half of the fourth chapter a common theme: a series of attacks on Epicurus, the Greek philosopher of the 4th century BCE whose teachings were quite popular in the eastern Mediterranean at the time that Avot was redacted. For Epicureans, there is no immortal soul, and life is best spent pursuing worldly pleasures in judicious moderation. Thus, Jaffe notes that a number of these seemingly disjointed rabbinic statements refer to divine retribution and the afterlife, while others touch on yet other aspects of Epicurean teachings:

Epicurean philosophy is also known for the importance placed on friendship; indeed the 27th saying of Epicurus notes, “Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, the greatest is the possession of friendship.” Two teachings in the middle of the chapter also focus on friendship in general, and in particular on the importance to live in communities with colleagues and peers.

For Epicurus, if life was to be lived in youth, and if there was no future reward after death, it naturally followed that the pursuit of pleasure would be a major drive for human beings in this world. [By contrast], Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar teaches that “jealousy, desire, and [the pursuit of] honor remove one from this world.” [Thus he] stresses Judaism’s focus on striving toward higher ideals and away from the pursuit of pleasure.

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More about: Hellenism, Judaism, Philosophy, Talmud

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror