Although he is chiefly concerned with attacks on religion in general (in popular books that just do not interest me, by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and, now, Christopher Hitchens) he also takes the time to jab at academic study of religion, carefully placing Gershom Scholem in his crosshairs (for finding the Zohar to be a medieval and not tannaitic work; in Klinghoffer's dramatic telling, "a cynical medieval hoax masquerading as the more ancient work it purports to be,"--as if that is what Gerschom Scholem concluded!) .
In any event, Klinghoffer cites the Mishna Avos 2:14, ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס:
In fact, the Mishnah makes it every Jew’s obligation to be an effective apologist, an obligation that most of us ignore nowadays: “Know how to answer an unbeliever” (Pirke Avot 2:14) — with the word for unbeliever being apikorus, a follower of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher.
Epicurus is known as a primary exponent of materialism, the belief that material reality is all there is in the universe. And materialism happens to be one of the most serious challenges that religion is up against today.
Now, we know--assume--that אפיקורוס comes from the Greek for a follower of Epicurus. And Klinghoffer, who eschews academic study of religion assumes, perhaps, that his explanation that Epicurus was the primary exponent of materialism is the Mishna's intention. Although in later Jewish history apikorus אפיקורוס becomes a synonym for unbeliever, Klinghoffer shows how erudite he is by telling us what it is the Mishna is attacking: materialism.
I am reasonably certain he did not find this explanation in the Ra"v mi-Bertinoro or the Tosfos Yom Tov, or perhaps in Rashi someplace. So how does he know who and what Epicurus is or what Epicurianism is?
Okay, that isn't really serious. I accept that he is not a Torah-Onlyist, nor does he purport to be.
However, how did the rabbis understand apikorus אפיקורוס? Did they truly mean an Epicurean?
Let's look at the tape.
Firstly, the Gemara explains ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס in BT Sanhedrin 38b:
ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס אמר ר' יוחנן ל"ש אלא אפיקורוס גוי אבל אפיקורוס ישראל כ"ש דפקר טפי
R. Johanan commented: They taught this only with respect to a Gentile Epikoros; with a Jewish Epikoros, it would only make his heresy more pronounced.
IOW the very rabbinic sources which enjoin us to make an apologia against Epicureanism enjoin us not to do so with a Jewish Epikoros. So much for Hitchens and Harris.
And what is an apikorus according to the rabbis? The Mishna Sanhedrin 11:1 says that an אפיקורוס has no share in the World to Come.
The Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 99b) will offer opinions, but before it does, the term itself is used as one possible meaning of a verse that is used in connection with another person mentioned in the Mishna who has no share of the World to Come, האומר אין תורה מן השמים him who maintains that the Torah is not from Heaven. But there is another interpretation of the verse: ד"א כי דבר ה' בזה זה אפיקורוס, "Because he hath despised the word of the Lord," Numbers 15:31, refers to an epikoros. But we still have no clue what an apikorus is (gotta vary the spellings for Google archiving ;) ).
Finally we get to the explanation of the Mishna San 11:1
רבי ורבי חנינא אמרי תרוייהו זה המבזה ת"ח
Rab and R. Hanina both taught that this means one who insults a scholar.
רבי יוחנן ור' יהושע בן לוי אמרי זה המבזה חבירו בפני ת"ח
R. Johanan and R. Joshua b. Levi maintained that it is one who insults his neighbour in the presence of a scholar.
Further clarification of the term is given
אמר רב יוסף כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו
R. Joseph said: E.g., Those who give, 'Of what use are the Rabbis to us? For their own benefit they read [the Scripture], and for their own benefit they study [post-Scriptural learning, particularly the Mishnah]'.
לוי בר שמואל ורב הונא בר חייא הוו קא מתקני מטפחות ספרי דבי רב יהודה כי מטו מגילת אסתר אמרי הא לא בעי מטפחת אמר להו כי האי גוונא נמי מיחזי כי אפקירותא
Levi b. Samuel and R. Huna b. Hiyya were repairing the mantles of the Scrolls of R. Judah's college. On coming to the Scroll of Esther, they remarked, 'O, this Scroll of Esther does not require a mantle.' Thereupon he reproved them, 'This too savours of אפקירותא.
רב נחמן אמר זה הקורא רבו בשמו
R. Nahman said: [An epikoros is] one who calls his teacher by name.
In short, whatever an apikorus is, there is also what it was. I don't think Klinghoffer is one who will explain a Mishna in a way unlike the Gemara, and there is no internal evidence in the Mishna to define an apikorus. Therefore, whatever דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס means, I am not at all sure it means to defend against materialists. Perhaps it means to defend against rabbi bashing? Sure. But to take up the cudgel against Dawkins? That may be a practical consideration for believers, but the Mishna doesn't say so!
Interesting historical note for all you On the Main Line chroniclers: when I first begun my blog I had spent a couple of years reading other blogs, and several months commenting on them. Realizing I wanted to say some things, I jotted down some thoughts which I planned to make posts out of when I would begin blogging. Having just finished Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, in which he informs the world that Jews don't like Jesus, but that without the Jews crucifying Jesus, America and Europe would be Muslim today. Well, that's basically the gist of his book. I wrote a long exhasperated fisking of that book. Never posted, but just so you know.