JW: Rabbi Andrea Myers Calls Morris the Golfer an Apostate

Nothing gets my attention more quickly than a theological discussion involving a golfer. Rabbi Andrea Myers implies in an essay in the Jewish Week that a character she calls Morris, the Golfer, is an apostate, much like the Talmudic character Elisha Ben Abuyah, whom she directly labels an apostate.

She describes how both of these characters, the modern one and the ancient one, took leave of Judaic practice and/or belief because they "had a problem of theodicy: the question of how God can exist if there is evil in the world." Both men, she implies, especially Elisha Ben Abuyah, "went from being a respected scholar to an apostate." We are not sure that Morris ever was a scholar. But he gets to be classed by Myers together with the ancient rabbi anyhow.

Rabbi Myers is sensitive and certainly appears to grapple with serious theological issues and we applaud that activity. She makes two mistakes, both critical, in her essay. First she criticizes a golfer who chooses not to attend synagogue, and who justifies to her his behavior with a theodicy story. Golfers are above criticism on this blog. They can do no wrong.

More seriously though, Myers misunderstands the term "apostate". That word is reserved in the historical and sociological literature to describe a specific personality. It does not fit to use the term for anyone with a theodicy issue who questions God and avoids organized religion. Thoughtful criticism and questioning is a valid part of organized religious life.

David Bromley in his book "The Politics of Religious Authority" says it most clearly. Apostates are subversive leavetakers from a community of faith, "who are involved in a contested exit and affiliate with an oppositional coalition." Number one, they leave the religion with a specific story of conflict, sometimes an escape-from-captivity narrative. And number two, they affiliate with another community.

Golf is not an organized religion, no matter how religiously one plays it. And Elisha Ben Abuyah does not fit the sociological apostate mold as defined by most who use the term. Elisha after all, is still talked about in the Talmud. He is a special case, not an apostate. You can argue convincingly that there is no such thing as pure philosophical apostasy. It is a term that demands demonstrable sociological acts and affiliation changes, most often joining another religion.

Myers makes a bad confusion of terminology and categories and does poor Morris, the Golfer, a major disservice.


Fred said...

It seems to me to be a mistake to interrogate Rabbi Myers' piece with respect to this criterion of terminology. The key word in this blogpost is "implies"; Myers never calls Morris an apostate. Rather, her point is clearly thar anything - including grief and loss - that others (her word) one from community is the problem of exclusion. To focus on whether or not Morris - or his historical comparison - is rightly or wrongly called an apostate seems to miss the point of the article: compassion, healing, and the welcome of return to community (even on the golf course).

Rabbi Michael Bernstein said...

I went back and read Rabbi Myer's piece again and I don't see how your comments about apostasy are at all relevant here. Even if you were correct about Rabbi Myer's use of the term apostasy, it would take away very little from her basic premise, let alone be a "critical" error. As it is, Acher is commonly referred to as an apostate (even if some scholars quibble with the exactness of this identification). As for Morris he is being given kavod, honor, by the author as she recognizes that his choice not to participate in the core ritual of attending synagogue on Rosh Hashannah comes as a result if a purposeful protest against G*d and not out of simple ignorance or laziness. Golf is not a religion, as you say. But golfing davka on Rosh Hashanna in order to declare oneself "not a good Jew" - that has everything to do with religion.
By pairing Him with Acher, Rabbi Myers finds Morris a worthy twosome for his Rosh Hashana golf game and, just as importantly, reminds us not to write him off.

tzvee said...

Glad to hear your disagreements. Still I see a difference between the problem of stemming attrition of your membership due to dissatisfaction and the problem of dealing with outright apostates. I think it's a mistake to misuse that historically and philosophically charged pejorative term for simple or even for complicated dropouts.