Jonathan's Little Corner : Torah : Divrei Torah : Categories of Heresy

Categories of heresy

Shabbat Nachamu 5760

Avot 3:11 (3:15): R' Elazar haModa'i says, He who profanes the sacred, or who scorns the festivals, or who embarrasses his fellow in public, or who reverses the covenant of Abraham our father, or who reveals faces in the Torah contrary to halacha, even though he has in hand Torah learning and good deeds, has no share in the World to Come.
Clearly the question is, what connects these five actions? Why are these five things singled out, from among the wide variety of things which can cause one to lose their share in the Future World, in this mishna? What thread binds these diverse kinds together?

There is a parallel to this mishna in Sanhedrin 99a, explained as "things which scorn the word of God." Which explains nothing. Scorned how? Why specifically these things, as opposed to, say, eating ham sandwiches in public? Causing physical injury to others? Surely they too indicate public scorn.

Two commentators (I haven't found any others) have offered unifying themes, almost identical unifying themes, discovered independently 500 years apart: the Meiri and R' Naftali Zvi Hirsh Wessely, the Yein Levanon. Interestingly, both of these sources have long been regarded as slightly fishy; the Meiri since his work was only discovered 200 years ago, even though he was a Rishon (medieval commentator), and Wessely because he became one of the first generation of Maskilim, proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment in the late 1700s.

If the one lived 500 years before the other, how were they independent discoveries? The Yein Levanon was published in 1786. The manuscript of the Meiri was discovered in the collection of R' Haim Falaggi, and was published for the first time in 1811, some 25 years later.

The Meiri suggests that these actions indicate heresy, and offers explanations.

1) Profaning the sacred denies that the Divine Word has the power to define this object as sacred, and that object as profane. In other words, God has no power to define properties of objects in the world.

2) Scorning the festivals denies that God can perform miracles. The festivals all come to bear witness to God's miracles, Pesach the Exodus from Egypt, Sukkot the Clouds of Glory that protected Bnei Israel during their wanderings in Sinai, Shavuot the mass Revelation at Sinai, and Shabbat the creation of the world. God has no power to change nature and create miracles, therefore the holidays are meaningless.

4) Reversing the covenant of Abraham (undoing circumcision) denies that God has the power to command Man to do anything - foodwise, sexual relations-wise, criminal laws, nothing. This is the root of

5) Revealing faces in the Torah which run contrary to Halacha. If one interprets "Do not eat pig" allegorically as "Do not let yourselves become like pigs", that is contrary to received Halacha. God has no power to decide for us what the Torah means.

One problem with this list is that it leaves out public embarrassment. Evidently the Meiri didn't have that phrase in his text of the Mishna. Tosfot Yom Tov also notes that some versions of the Mishna leave that phrase out, also bringing the statement from Sanhedrin as the unifying factor. Another difficulty is that it reduces the last two categories into one category, so why did R' Elazar need to list two categories? R' Wessely's understanding resolves both of these issues nicely. Note: I bring the explanation of Yein Levanon as summarized by Tiferet Yisrael (Yachin uBoaz). Wessely explains things well, but verbosely - his comment on this mishna is 6 pages of small type. Tiferet Yisrael (R' Israel Lipschitz) speaks very highly of the Yein Levanon.

Wessely sees the five actions as a progression from greater to lesser levels of denial of fundamental principles of Jewish belief.

1) Profaning the sacred denies the existence of God. There is nothing holy in the world, everything is profane, plain, the same - there are no sacrifices, no thanksgiving offerings, no god, no divine service, because nothing directs the world. The world goes as it will, nothing guides history or individual destiny.

2) Scorning the festivals indicates that although one accepts God's existence, he denies that God created the world. He holds that the world is co-eternal with God. The festivals bear witness to Creation. The Shabbat is a part of Creation, the seventh day. The pilgrimage festivals bear witness to the miracles of the Exodus and the Wandering, which are part and parcel of Creation - God created the world, consequently He reserves the power to change or suspend physical law at will. We do not mean profanation here, denying that sanctity exists, we use Scorn, which acknowledges that the festivals exist, but that they are meaningless, causelelss.

3) One who believes in God, and in the Creation of the world, but denies the existence of the soul, will feel no compunction about Embarrassing his fellow in public. As long as he considers others as no better than animals, he has no problem with treating them like dirt. I am myself, everyone else is meaningless. Had he believed that a spark of Godliness was part of his fellow man, he would be loath to cause him even emotional pain, since he would be thus causing God pain, as it were. The Yein Levanon thus sees the use of "his fellow" as crucial: if one embarrasses someone he hates, in anger, the Evil Inclination has hold of him, he is not entirely responsible. Only if he embarrasses his fellow, his friend, does he evidence this heresy.

4) One who believes in God and His creation of the world, and in Divine souls, but denies that God concluded covenants with Abraham and with his descendents at Sinai, will reverse his circumcision in protest. He denies that Abraham's descendents were chosen for a special destiny, that the Written Torah came from Heaven as the covenant at Sinai, thus there is no difference between the Jews and anyone else, and there is no reason to fulfill any mitzvot other than those that would naturally be created in a civilized society. (Starting to sound familiar, in terms of modern Jewish theologies?)

5) Revealing faces (interpretations) in the Torah which run counter to Halacha indicates that one does not accept the authenticity of the received tradition as to what the written Torah means. One can accept God, God's creation, the soul, and the Written Torah's Divinity, but if one constructs interpretations of biblical texts, or of mishnaic texts, which oppose the usual understanding of halacha, and teaches *this* as what one should do, then one denies the authenticity and binding nature of the Oral Law, as originated with God's transmission to Moses at Sinai. This is not to say that all of what we have as Oral Torah is exactly what was transmitted at Sinai, rather than the best possible good-faith reconstruction of that Torah. However, teaching that the Torah tells us to do otherwise than our tradition, and our authorized tradents (authorized by the Torah itself), is a clear denial of the Divine origin of the Oral Law.

Yein Levanon's explanation makes the most sense, textually and logically. Each category introduces a new type of heresy which is clearly not included in an earlier one, therefore it is necessary to state each one separately. The parallel passage in Sanhedrin does indicate that we are talking about heresy. Wessely talked about theological trends that were just beginning to form in his time, in western Europe where he wrote, trends which have evolved into today's major Jewish movements. His categorization is therefore just as meaningful today as it was 215 years ago, and 1800 years ago when the mishna was written - R' Elazar haModa'i was speaking to us as well as his contemporaries.

Copyright 2000 Jonathan Jay Baker