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The Talmud and the Thought Police

‘Daf Yomi’: Do heretical Jewish thinkers have a say in the World to Come?

Adam Kirsch
October 31, 2017
Photo: Wikipedia
Marble bust of Epicurus, Roman copy of Greek original, 3rd century BC/2nd century BC, on display in the British Museum, London.Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Marble bust of Epicurus, Roman copy of Greek original, 3rd century BC/2nd century BC, on display in the British Museum, London.Photo: Wikipedia

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

“All of the Jewish people have a share in the World to Come,” says the first sentence in Chapter Eleven of Tractate Sanhedrin. These words are often quoted, but it was not until I read them in context, as part of the Daf Yomi cycle, that their full implication became clear to me. After all, Tractate Sanhedrin is primarily devoted to capital punishment: as we have seen over the last months, Jewish law prescribes four methods of execution for serious crimes ranging from idolatry to adultery to murder. What the Talmud is saying here, then, is that even Jews who are executed for one of these crimes have a share in the World to Come; the death penalty ends life in this world, but it does not cut the sinner off from eternal life. (Unless, of course, it is one of the crimes punished by karet, the severing of the soul from contact with God.) This is a hopeful and merciful message, suggesting that the love God bears for the Jewish people is greater than his wrath at their misdeeds.

Still, the Mishna in Sanhedrin 90a makes clear that there are a handful of crimes so terrible that they can cause a person to forfeit his share in the World to Come. Significantly, these are not crimes against fellow human beings or infractions of Torah law; rather, they are what George Orwell called thought-crimes. Specifically, they involve dissent from what the rabbis regarded as the core doctrines of Judaism: “And these have no share in the World To Come: One who says, There is no resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah, and one who says, the Torah is not from Heaven, and an epikoros.” An epikoros is a mocker of religion, someone who denies honor to God and to the rabbis, God’s representatives. It’s not clear whether the truly culpable thing here is holding these heretical opinions or “saying” them aloud, trying win adherents for them. But in any case, the rabbis make clear that a person who believes these things is in some essential way not a Jew.

What’s interesting about these offenses is that they seem so modern in spirit; they are the opinions of a rationalist and a skeptic. It was not until the 17th century, for instance, that Baruch Spinoza became the first Jew to argue in print, in his Theological-Political Tractate, that the Torah was “not from Heaven,” but was the work of human authors. Today, that view is held by anyone who studies the Bible using the tools of academic, secular criticism. Yet clearly, the Talmud would not have warned so harshly against these heresies if they didn’t present a strong temptation for Jews even in ancient times. For the truth is that, in the Greco-Roman world, advanced philosophical thinking was just as skeptical and materialistic as modern scientific thinking. The word epikoros is derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd century BCE, about 500 years before the Mishna was compiled. He was famous for teaching that, while gods exist, they are totally indifferent to human behavior, and that our destinies are completely controlled by material causes—the movement of atoms in space. To be an Epicurean was to implicitly reject the idea that God could choose the Jewish people or play any role in their fate.

Read the rabbis’ language carefully, however, and it becomes clear that one of these three Heaven-forfeiting crimes is not like the others. On Judaism’s own terms, it is clear why someone who denies the divine origin of the Torah cannot be a believing Jew. And an epikoros is an enemy of religion as such. But what about someone who says “there is no resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah”? The Gemara confirms that such a person is denied resurrection himself, in a piece of poetic justice: “He denied the resurrection of the dead; therefore he will not have a share in the resurrection of the dead, as all measures are dispensed by the Holy One, Blessed be He, measure for measure.”

Yet a person who says that the Torah does not promise an afterlife is not rejecting Judaism or God altogether; he is simply disagreeing with one article of faith. And as the rabbis knew well, such a dissenter has a strong case to make; for the fact is that the idea of an afterlife or a resurrection of the dead does not appear in the Five Books of Moses. The rewards and punishments promised by God in Deuteronomy, for instance, are entirely this-worldly: the “blessings” are good harvests and prosperity and peace, while the “curses” are starvation and conquest by enemies. A plain reading of the Tanakh suggests that it was not until much later, when Isaiah and Ezekiel made their prophecies, that the idea of the afterlife or resurrection enters the canon.

But as we have seen constantly in the Talmud, plain reading is not the rabbis’ style. Rather, in the Gemara on this passage, they search the Torah for ambiguous or figurative language that can be interpreted as references to the doctrine of resurrection. As is often the case, these interpretations are so counter-intuitive that they would hardly convince a reader who was not already prepared to be convinced. Thus Rabbi Yochanan asks, “From where is the resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah?” and answers with the following verse, Numbers 18:28: “And you shall give the teruma of the Lord to Aaron the priest.” What on earth does this have to do with resurrection, one might ask? Well, Yochanan says, “does Aaron exist forever?” By using the future tense, “you shall give,” the Torah was not referring simply to Aaron’s own lifetime; nor was it establishing a precedent for Aaron’s descendants, the priests. Rather, the verse means that all Jews forever will give teruma to Aaron personally, and this can obviously only happen if the Jews and Aaron are resurrected to an eternal life where they will coexist.

A similar logic applies in the verse cited by Rabbi Simai, Exodus 6:4: “I have also established my covenant with them to give to them the land of Canaan.” “Them” refers to the Patriarchs, who are mentioned by name in the previous verse: “and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.” Usually, God’s promise is taken to mean that he will give the land to the descendants of the patriarchs, the Children of Israel. But Simai reads it literally: God will give the land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in person, which can only happen if they are resurrected.

Given the flimsiness of these citations, it would be natural to conclude that it was precisely the problematic nature of “resurrection derived from the Torah” that made the rabbis build a fence around it. Why forbid an opinion unless it was threatening, and why would it be threatening unless it was seductive? Indeed, in Sanhedrin 90b the Gemara explains that the Samaritans—the inhabitants of the former northern kingdom of Israel, whom the rabbis regarded as counterfeit Jews—“would say that there is no resurrection of the dead from the Torah.” It was because this statement was so plausible that Eliezer replied so forcefully: “You falsified your Torah and you accomplished nothing.”

The same goes for the other Heaven-forfeiting offenses mentioned by individual Sages. Akiva, for instance, includes “one who reads external literature” in the category of those who have no share in the World to Come. External literature does not, apparently, mean secular or pagan literature; according to the notes in the Koren Talmud, the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud explicitly says that the works of Homer are not “external literature” in this sense. Rather, the term seems to refer to traditional Jewish books that were excluded from the biblical canon—what are known are “Apocrypha,” such as the book of Ben Sira, also known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. These books must have had readers who thought of them as authentically biblical, which is why Akiva made such a serious point of denying it. Clearly, as in the case of the “rebellious elder,” the rabbis feared Jewish doctrinal disunity more than anything and used the harshest threats to make sure that all Jews believed the same basic principles. If they could see our own denominational, divided Jewish world, they would surely be aghast.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.