Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why the Ben Sorer is an apikores

וסובא -מרבה לשתות והוא המשתכר, והנה זה כמו אפיקורוס כי לא יבקש חיי העוה"ז כי אם להתענג בכל מיני מאכל ומשתה.

This is a very straightforward ibn Ezra comment, I think. He is saying here that the wayward son discussed in Deuteronomy 21 is "like an Epicurean who seeks nothing from the world other then to savor all kinds of foods and drink." The trouble is that in Hebrew the word apikores has undergone a semantic shift. Today it means any kind of Jewish heretic, but in this comment ibn Ezra clearly has in mind an actual follower of Epicurius, the Greek philosopher who discounted everything supernatural and taught that pleasure was the greatest good.

The difficulty is that Epicurius was not a hedonist as we typically use the word. Though he did put the pursuit of pleasure above all other things, arguing that we should use our time in the world for the pursuit of pleasure alone, he would not have agreed that "savoring fine foods and drinks" were the greatest pleasure. He taught that true pleasure came from knowledge of the world, and control over ones desires. In Rabbinic lore he is remembered as a hedonist and disbeliever which is how his name became our word for those who dissent from Jewish dogma. However, I don't think ibn Ezra is using the word this way. I think he means the boy is pursuing pleasure for the sake of pleasure in the manner of an Epicurian.

This misunderstanding leads to hilarity and confusion. Here's one of our blogging Rabbis getting caught up in the problem and going to great and unnecessary lengths to untangle himself:
The Ibn Ezra says that a ben sorer umoreh is punishable by sekiloh because since his sole goal in this world is to pursue the pleasures of food and drink he has acquired the status of an apikores. Why does such a person deserve the extreme appellation of an apikores?  
A person who conducts himself in a completely unbridled manner without any desire to achieve closeness to the Creator is presumed to eventually become a robber, and is already currently considered to be an apikores (heretic) because he has two disadvantages. Firstly, he does not believe that he will be held to account for his actions before Hashem, and secondly, his actions of stealing from his father and being a glutton indicate that his character traits are also corrupt. Someone with only bad character traits and correct views can overcome his corrupt nature with some intellectual effort, and someone with some positive character traits can utilize those to improve his behavior, but a ben sorer umoreh, who has neither advantage, has no hope.
I'm not unsympathetic to the Rabbi's predicament. I remember quite clearly being taught, in the ibn Ezra's name, that someone who eats and drinks all day long at the expense of Torah learning and commandment performing is no better than disbeliever. This error comes from an inability on the part of our pious ones to recognize the sense in which ibn Ezra employs the word apikores.

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