How To Relate To One Who Has Lost His Faith
This shiur is dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their tenth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray
I. Disbelief Resulting from Faulty Reasoning
I have already dealt at length with the general question of how we should relate to non-religious Jews. Here I wish to relate primarily to the emotional attitude that should be adopted towards those who have lost their faith. We must first consider the fundamental question: To what extent do we consider as heretics those who have come to deny the basic tenets of our faith after seriously studying and considering the issues? Rambam writes in Hilkhot Teshuva (3:7) as follows:
Five classes are termed heretics: he who says that there is no God and the world has no ruler... he who says there is one ruler, but that He is a body and has form...
Ra'avad adds the following stricture regarding those who believe in God's corporeality:
Why has he called such a person a heretic? There are many people greater than and superior to [Rambam] who adhere to such a belief on the basis of what they have seen in verses of Scripture and even more in the words of those aggadot which corrupt right opinion about religious matters.
Ra'avad maintains that a person who has come to erroneous conclusions through no fault of his own should not be regarded a heretic. As for Rambam's position, it is reported in the name of Rabbi Chayyim Soloveitchik, that while indeed there are times that a person cannot be faulted for his heretical views, a "nebekh apikores" (= an unfortunate heretic) is still an "apikores" (= heretic).
This issue is discussed in other places as well. Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz, Responsa, IV, no. 187) was asked about a person who preached in public that Moshe Rabbenu was a god. He answers that a person who has reached a heretical position through erroneous thinking is not classified as a heretic:
I have found no basis for exempting him from punishment other than that he has erred in his thinking, so that what should have brought him to greater perfection has brought him to ruin. He is no better than one who has erred in one of the fundamental religious principles on account of his deficient understanding, because of which he is not called a heretic. Surely Hillel was a great man, and he erred in one of the fundamental principles of our religion when he said that Israel has no messiah, for the messiah was already consumed in the days of Chizkiyahu. But Hillel was not regarded as a heretic, God forbid, on account of this error, for if so, how did they report traditions in his name? The reason is clear: since his heresy stems from thinking that the results of his speculation are true, he is regarded as if he were coerced, and so he is exempt. Here, too, [the preacher] has erred in his thinking.
A similar idea is found in R. Yosef Albo's Sefer ha-Ikkarim (pt. 1, chap. 2):
If a person upholds the law of Moshe and believes in its principles, but when he undertakes to investigate these matters with his reason and scrutinizes the texts, he is misled by his speculation and interprets a given principle otherwise than it is taken to mean at first sight; or if he denies the principle because he thinks that it does not represent a sound theory which the Torah obliges us to believe; or if he erroneously denies that a given belief is a fundamental principle, even though he believes it as he believes the other dogmas of the Torah which are not fundamental principles; or if he entertains a certain notion in relation to one of the miracles of the Torah because he thinks that he is not thereby denying any of the doctrines which it is obligatory upon us to believe by the authority of the Torah - a person of this sort is not an unbeliever. He is classed with the sages and pious men of Israel, though he holds erroneous theories. His sin is due to error and requires atonement.
When several important rabbis attacked Rabbi Moshe Glasner, author of "Dor Revi'i," because of his support for Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook came out in his defense. One of the arguments he put forward is that even those who think that Rabbi Glasner's entire position is wrong are forbidden to sharply criticize him, for he reached his conclusions after careful consideration. Rabbi Kook cites some of the aforementioned sources and writes:
Even if you assume he is in error, that the position that Rabbi Glasner has adopted runs counter, God forbid, to the truth of the Torah, how are you permitted to speak about him with such arrogance? Surely the words of Radbaz in his responsum are explicit, that even one who errs, God forbid, in one of the fundamental principles of the Torah on account of his speculation is exempt from punishment. For because he thinks that the results of his speculation are true, he is regarded as if he were coerced... Heaven forbid that he should be humiliated even if he has erred about a fundamental principle.
II. Disbelief Resulting from Following One's Desires
The sources that have thus far been cited deal with a person who is fundamentally God-fearing, but has come to error with regard to some of the cardinal principles of faith. These sources raise a question about one who has no faith whatsoever: What have we to say to such a person? Is it his fault that he doesn't believe?
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, Hy"d, is one of the few authorities to have dealt directly with this question. In his work, "Dugma'ot le-Be'urei Aggadot al Derekh ha-Peshat" (printed in some editions of his Kovetz He'arot on Yevamot), no. 1, he writes:
It must be understood how there can be a mitzva to believe. Regarding mitzvot pertaining to the limbs, there can be a mitzva to perform [this] or refrain from doing [that], for that is in man's control, depending upon his will to act or to refrain from acting. However, belief in God and His Torah come on their own, so that either way, if one has this faith, there is no need to command him to believe, and if, God forbid, faith has been cut off from his heart, he cannot attain it. He would appear to be completely coerced in this matter, for his heart has compelled him. We see, however, from the laws of the Torah that the sin of heresy is very severe, more severe than serving idols, for an idolater must be judged in a court with witnesses and a warning, whereas heretics in all places and at all times are thrust down [into a pit] and not rescued...
Rabbi Wasserman refers here to explicit laws in Rambam, e.g., Hilkhot Avoda Zara (10:1):
But as regards informers and Jewish heretics, it is a duty to take active measures to destroy them and hurl them in to the pit of destruction - the reason being that they persecute Jews and turn the people away from following God.
And similarly in Hilkhot Rotze'ach (4:10):
The heretics - that is, Jewish idolaters, or one who transgresses out of spite, even if he [only] ate the meat of an improperly slaughtered animal or wore a garment containing a mixture of wool and linen; and the infidels - those Jews who deny the Torah and prophecy - it is a mitzva to kill them. If one has the possibility of killing them with a sword in public, he does so; if not, he should use stratagems to bring about their death. How so? If one sees such a person fall into a well and there is a ladder in the well, he should remove the ladder and say: "As soon as I get my son down from the roof, I will return it to you." And so on.
We see, then, that there is a mitzva to kill or bring about the death of a non-believer. The question returns in full intensity: In what way is the non-believer at fault? Moreover, can we say that had we grown up in the same environment as did the non-believers, we would have reached faith?
In answer to his own question, Rabbi Wasserman argues that every person naturally should be able to come to belief in God. Man, however, is drawn after his desires, which bring him to heresy:
The fundamentals of faith in and of themselves are simple and compelling for any person who is not a fool, it being impossible to doubt their truth. This is true, provided that a person not be bribed, that is, that he be free of this-worldly lusts and desires. Thus, heresy is not rooted in a breakdown of reason in and of itself, but in a person's desire to satisfy his lusts, which distort and blind his reason. We may now understand the Torah's admonition (Bamidbar 15:39): "And you shall not seek after your own heart" - this refers to heresy (Berakhot 12b). That is to say, a person is admonished to suppress and subject his desires in order that his reason be free from the distortions they cause so that he may recognize the truth... Heresy has no place in man's reason, but rather in his desires and lusts.
I believe that Rabbi Wasserman's explanations do not suffice. Many people come to a secular outlook not in order to satisfy their desires, but rather because of their dedication to ideals that may, at times, even demand great sacrifice. It is difficult to pin all disbelief on following after one's desires.
III. Disbelief Based on Doubt
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook also struggled with this issue. He maintains (Iggerot Ha-Ra'aya, I, letter 20, pp. 20-21) that, rationally speaking, it is impossible to deny God with absolute certainty; at most, one can cast doubts. A heretic is one who denies God with certainty, and he indeed acts out of evil:
Even though it is absolutely forbidden and an evil sickness even to doubt or question matters of [our] perfect faith, we nevertheless find that Chazal judged as a heretic only one who denies outright, i.e., one who reaches the opposite determination. This antithetical determination cannot possibly be found in Israel in any individual who is not an absolutely wicked man and intentional liar. For even the greatest wickedness can cast doubts only among the weak-minded. He who dares to say that he denies with certainty must be an absolutely wicked man, who is rightfully judged with all the punishments explicitly assigned to him.
In light of Rabbi Kook's words, it may be argued that the majority of non-religious people today do not fall into the category of "heretics," for that classification applies only to those who deny God with certainty.
This having been said, we remain with question of what attitude we should adopt towards those who deny God with certainty. Rabbi Kook's assertion that one who denies God with certainty is "an absolutely wicked man and intentional liar" is not necessarily true. It can be demonstrated that according to some halakhic authorities, there is a class of people who deny God with certainty out of conviction, they being defined by Halakha as "heretics" ("minim"). Rambam, in the passage cited above, explains who are termed "heretics" ("Jewish idolaters, or one who transgresses out of spite, even if he [only] ate the meat of an improperly slaughtered animal or wore a garment containing a mixture of wool and linen"). Elsewhere (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:9), Rambam explains who is an "apostate" (mumar):
There are two classes of apostates - an apostate with respect to the violation of a single precept, and an apostate with respect to the whole Torah... An apostate with respect to the whole Torah is one, for example, who at a time of religious persecution becomes converted to the idolaters' religion, clings to them, saying, "What advantage is it to me to adhere to the people of Israel, who are of a low estate and persecuted? Better for me to join these nations who are powerful." A person who acts in this way is an apostate in respect to the whole Torah.
Ra'avad asks, why those "who become converted to the idolaters' religion" are classified as "apostates" and not as "heretics"?
Surely one who "becomes converted to the idolaters' religion" asserts his belief in their gods, and he is a heretic!
The Kesef Mishneh answers:
It may also be suggested that a "heretic" is one who believes in one of the five things mentioned above, whereas "one who becomes converted to the idolaters' religion," even though he does not believe in their religion, converts in order not to be of low estate and persecuted. He is called a Jewish "apostate," but he is not called a "heretic," because he does not believe in his heart that there is a god other than our God.
The Migdal Oz writes there as follows:
...For he does not convert out of conviction, but because of the low estate of [the Jewish people] and the greatness of [the others], and many do not have the intelligence to distinguish, and their mouths and hearts do not agree. This is not the way of the "heretics," who believe in their hearts what they say with their mouths.
In other words, according to the Kesef Mishneh and the Migdal Oz, the term "heretic" (as opposed to "apostate") applies to one who believes in what he is saying. This opinion runs counter to that of Rabbi Kook, who maintains that anyone who claims that he is certain in his denial of God is a liar.
IV. Disbelief Due to Compulsion
One of the most well-known attitudes towards non-religious Jews is based on the novel position of Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 3:3) regarding "a child who has been taken captive":
To whom does this apply? To one who denies the Oral Law because of what he thinks and what appears right to him, following his worthless ideas and the stubbornness of his heart, and denying the Oral Law like Tzaddok and Boethus and all those who strayed with them. However, the children and grandchildren of these errants, whose parents have misled them, those who have been born among the Karaites, who have reared them in their views - each is like a child who has been taken captive among them, who has been reared by them, and does not hasten to cling to the path of the commandments; his status is comparable to that of one who has been coerced. Even though he later learns that he is a Jew and becomes acquainted with Jews and [the Jewish] religion, he is nevertheless to be regarded as a person who is coerced, for he was reared in the erroneous ways [of his parents].
Rambam expands the idea of "a child who has been taken captive" to include one who may have become familiar with the Jewish world, but nevertheless retains the outlook upon which he had been raised.
The possibility of viewing the non-religious Jews of our generation as victims of compulsion follows from the words of Rabbi Kook (Iggerot ha-Ra'aya, I, letter 138, p. 171). Rabbi Kook views the zeitgeist of the secular world as a sort of "bad maidservant" "to whom Heaven had granted control, for she uses all of her many magical spells to convince our sons to stray after her. They are victims of total compulsion, and God forbid that we should judge compulsion as free will... They cannot be likened to wicked people who follow their bestial lusts in the absence of any goal of uprightness."
V. The Law of "Thrusting Down and Not Rescuing" In Our Time
A different approach, one that tempers the problem to a significant extent, was proposed by the Chazon Ish. We already mentioned above the law of "thrusting down and not rescuing" with regard to heretics and apostates. According to the Chazon Ish (Yoreh De'a 2, no. 16), this is not a punishment, but rather a way of protecting society from negative influences:
It seems that the law of "thrusting down" applies only during a period in which God's providence is clear, for example, at the time when miracles were common, and heavenly voices issued forth, and the righteous of the generation were under Divine providence that was evident to all. Then the heretics were particularly perverse, inclining their impulses after lusts and lawlessness. Then the eradication of the wicked was the fence to protect the world, for everyone knew that leading the generation astray brought calamities to the world, such as plague, war, and famine.
It follows from what the Chazon Ish says that the law of "thrusting down and not rescuing" is not only an expression of our negative attitude towards the non-believer, but it is primarily a defense mechanism directed against the negative influence that the heretic is likely to exercise. Hence, in a generation when this approach will not prevent such influences, it should not be activated, but instead a different approach should be adopted. The Chazon Ish continues
But in a time when God's providence is not obvious, when the people have lost faith, "thrusting down" does not serve to fill the breach, but rather it adds to it, for they view it as destruction and violence, God forbid. And since our sole intention is to improve, this law does not apply when it will not lead to improvement, and it falls upon us to bring them back with chains of love, and to stand them up in a ray of light to the extent possible.
VI. Unintentional Sin of the Congregation
According to yet another approach, non-believers should be viewed as unintentional sinners. The Torah in Parashat Shelach (Bamidbar 15:22-26) states:
And if you have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the Lord spoke to Moshe, all that the Lord has commanded you by the hand of Moshe, from the day that the Lord gave command, and henceforward throughout your generations. Then it shall be, if it be committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock for a burnt offering... And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance, and they have brought their offering, a sacrifice made by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for the ignorance. And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourns among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance.
What sin are we talking about here? Rashi writes (ad loc.): "Scripture speaks of idolatry." Ramban, however, understands otherwise (ad loc.):
The language of the verses [here], without being taken out of its simple meaning and implication, is [to be understood as if] He were saying: "And when you shall err in all the commandments, and transgress all that God has commanded you by the hand of Moshe"... Thus this section according to its plain meaning refers to [the duty of] one who is unwittingly an "apostate" with regard to the entire Torah, [to bring] an offering, such as one who goes and becomes assimilated among one of the nations, and behaves as they do and does not want to be part of Israel at all. This applies if it were all done in error, such as - in the case of an individual - a child who was taken into captivity among the nations [and grew up unaware of his Jewish origin], and in the case of a community, if they [mistakenly] thought that the time of the Torah had already passed, and that it was not given for all generations; or if they say - as is mentioned in Sifre (parashat Shelach 115) - "Why did God give [the Torah]? Was it not so that we should observe it and be rewarded for it? We will not observe it, and will take no reward"... Or [the section here may refer to a time] when people forget the Torah. This has already happened to us, because of our sins, for in the days of the wicked kings [of the kingdom] of Israel, such as Yerav'am, most of the people forgot the Torah and the commandments completely, as in mentioned [also] in the book of Ezra, concerning the people of the Second Temple.
Ramban understands that we are dealing here with a situation in which the Jewish people have reached the point that - out of ignorance - they deny the entire Torah. According to Ramban, the Torah is not referring here to a case of heresy stemming from an erroneous belief in a particular matter, as discussed by Ra'avad and Radbaz in the passages cited above. Rather, it is talking about a denial of the entire Torah, but nevertheless the situation is defined as unintentional, owing to the fact that we are dealing with a widespread phenomenon, and not just a single individual who separates himself from the rest of the community. Ramban offers several examples of such a situation, for example, if people think that the Torah is no longer in effect, or if they forget the entire Torah. It is possible then that in our time the entire non-believing community should be classified as unintentional sinners.
VII. Our Emotional Attitude Towards The Non-Believer
In the final analysis, our moral evaluation of non-believers is a complex issue. But how should we relate emotionally to such people? There is no doubt that it is sometimes difficult for us to feel a connection with people whose way of life is so distant from the world of Torah and mitzvot. Feelings of connection and consideration for non-believers are liable to give legitimacy to their positions.
The Zohar (Bereishit 254b) implies that Noach may have faced such a dilemma:
How did the Holy One, blessed be He, respond to Noach when he emerged from the ark, saw the world destroyed, and began to cry before Him, saying: "Master of the Universe, You, who are called compassionate, should have shown compassion to Your creatures"?
The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: "Foolish shepherd, now you say this. Why did you not say anything when I said to you: 'For you have I seen righteous before me' (Bereishit 7:1); and afterwards: 'And, behold, I will bring the flood of waters' (ibid., 6:17); and afterwards: 'Make you an ark of gofer wood' (ibid., 6:14). I delayed all that time and spoke to you so that you would pray for the world. But from when you heard that you would be saved in the ark, it didn't enter your heart to pray for the world, and you built the ark and were saved. Now that the world has been destroyed, you open your mouth to voice prayers and supplications before Me!"
According to the Zohar, when Noach began to cry upon seeing that the world had been destroyed, God reprimanded him: Where were you during the entire time that the ark was being constructed? Why didn't you pray then for the generation? Why only now, after you built the ark and were saved, do you remember to turn to Me in supplication? The Zohar continues with an explanation of Noach's conduct:
Rabbi Yehoshua said: Why didn't Noach pray for mercy on behalf of his generation? He said in his heart: "Perhaps I shall not be spared," as it is written: "For you have I seen righteous before me in this generation" (Bereishit 7:1), i.e., in relation to his generation. Therefore he did not pray for mercy on their behalf.
Noach was unable to pray on behalf of his generation, because such an act would express a feeling of connection and concern. Precisely because Noach was not a greatly righteous man, but only righteous "in relation to his generation," he was concerned that pleading for mercy for them would lead to a blurring of the distinction between him and the rest of his generation. In order to pray for another person, one must understand his tragedy. To be able to pray for his generation, Noach would have had to understand them, and argue before God that their deeds should be pardoned in consideration of the circumstances that brought them to do what they did. It was this that Noach feared. If you really understand someone, doubts may arise within you - perhaps that other person is really right.
This is the problem facing the religious community: we are afraid to try to understand the non-religious, lest we begin to identify with them. This phenomenon leads to distancing and cutting off, and we must know how to overcome this emotional barrier. We must find a way to feel connected to people who are non-observant, but at the same time ensure that the differences between the two worlds do not become blurred.
Rabbi Kook related to a similar dilemma in all its severity in his well-known essay, "Al Bamotenu Challalim" (Ma'amarei ha-Ra'aya, I, pp. 342-345). Rabbi Kook had been asked to write a eulogy for a number of young pioneers who had fallen in battle, and he discusses the difficulty of eulogizing people who had been so far from the world of Torah and mitzvot:
I cannot assess how much spiritual strength and valor we have lost, how much holy fire has been extinguished together with these great souls... Who can penetrate the obscure depths of the values of the soul? This cloud of grief darkens the tiny sparks of light, which penetrate the darkness of our national life.
But a voice cries out behind me: Be silent, whom do you eulogize? While the deeds of those who have fallen are unknown, and one is not permitted to speak evil of them now that they are dead - surely you are familiar with most of the young workers in Eretz Israel, and their attitude towards anything holy in Israel or in man...
The pain grows steadily stronger, and the tragic war of the spirit rises most high, when we read the words of Rambam (Hilkhot Evel 1:10) expressed in clearest fashion: "As for those who deviated from the practices of the congregation - that is, people who cast off the restraint of the commandments, did not join their fellow Jews in the performance of the mitzvot, observance of the festivals, attendance at synagogue and house of study, but felt free to do as they pleased, as well as for epicureans, apostates, and mosrim (informers) - for these no mourning is observed. In the event of their death, their brethren and other relatives don white garments, and wrap themselves in white garments, eat, drink, and rejoice, because the enemies of the Lord have perished. Concerning them, Scripture says: 'Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate You?' (Tehillim 139:21)."
In many places in his writings, Rabbi Kook struggles with this complex issue. There are, however, two points that I wish to raise in this context, over and beyond the considerations of principle mentioned above.
First of all, there were times when the hatred of the Jews on the part of the nations of the world was directed in particular toward Jews who observed Torah and mitzvot, and not towards Jews who accepted upon themselves the religion of their host nation. In our day, this is no longer true. The Jew is hated for being a Jew, irrespective of his actual beliefs. When the hatred of Jews ignores the opinions and actions of the individual Jew, then the love of the Jewish people must be directed at every Jew qua Jew, without regard for his views and deeds. It is unthinkable that non-Jews should regard a particular person as a Jew, and we should relate to him, God forbid, in a negative and alienated manner. In Auschwitz, they did not check people's tzitzit before sending them to the gas chambers; must we do that in our generation?
Second, since we believe that the State of Israel serves as a haven for millions of Jews, and the survival of these Jews depends upon the tranquility of the State of Israel and its ability to stand up to its many enemies; and since we believe that the establishment of the State of Israel was a sanctification of God's name, we must understand that the State of Israel cannot continue to exist unless brotherly relations and solidarity prevail among all sectors of the people. Only if Jews look upon each other as brothers, without consideration of the other's belief system and conduct, can we maintain our state. Without this, we will be faced with the threat of destruction, God forbid.
These two points need no proof-texts. Why bring a supporting verse for what follows from common sense?
VIII. Influencing In Ways of Pleasantness
Rabbi Dov Katz, in his book Tenu'at ha-Mussar (vol. I, p. 184), tells a story about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter:
Before Rabbi Yisrael [Salanter] came to Memel, Judaism was in a very bad state, as in the rest of the cities of Germany during that period. Jewish stores were open on Shabbat, and the merchants, most of whose business was connected with the port, would load and unload their merchandise on Shabbat as during the week. Rabbi Yisrael's attitude toward them and the moderate and graded manner in which he influenced them are very typical of his approach. When he came for the first time to the synagogue where the merchants and port agents would pray in order to preach about Shabbat, he asked whether there were any Lithuanian Jews present. When they told him that such people were indeed present, he refrained from preaching and returned home. The next week he came a second time, and when he was told that no Lithuanian Jews were there, he began to preach. After explaining to them the value of Shabbat, in their style and according to their spirit, he reached the conclusion: Dealing with the freight that arrived in the port on Shabbat may be necessary, but writing is unnecessary. The merchants accepted what he said and agreed not to write. Some time later, Rabbi Yisrael delivered another sermon in that synagogue, saying that unloading their merchandise on Shabbat may be necessary, but loading their merchandise on Shabbat is certainly unnecessary. The merchants accepted this as well. Later he arrived once again, and forbid unloading as well. In this way, he influenced the community step by step, until finally he effected a total upheaval.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was careful not to speak before the Lithuanian Jews, who would not understand his approach or his allowances. Today as well, there are those who are not prepared to consider the slightest concession to the non-religious. From this story, we learn that if we truly wish to influence others, we must know not to demand everything all at once, but rather to influence in ways of pleasantness and take into consideration how things will be accepted.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 "A Torah Perspective on the Status of Secular Jews Today," Tradition 1988; reprinted in Alei Etzion 2 (Nisan 5755).
 See Sanhedrin 98b.
 Regarding Rabbi Glasner and his approach, see the end of Chapter 2 above.
 Perek be-Hilkhot Tzibbur, in Ma'amarei Ha-Ra'aya, pp. 55-57.
 The distinction between disbelief based on uncertainty and that based on certainty follows also from another source. The Gemara (Shabbat 31a) brings the famous story of the gentile who came before Hillel in order that he convert him to Judaism. Although the gentile insisted that he was ready to accept the Written Law but not the Oral Law, Hillel agreed to covert him. Rashi struggles with the problem of how this gentile could have been converted. Surely, "If a gentile comes to accept the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him" (Bekhorot 30b). Rashi, therefore, writes: "[Hillel] relied on his wisdom that in the end he would accustom him to accept [the Oral Law], for it is not the same as 'except for one thing,' for he did not deny the Oral Law; rather, he did not believe that it comes from God, and Hillel was sure that, following his instruction, [the gentile] would rely on him." Rashash explains what Rashi says as follows: "The term 'heretic' only applies after exhaustive investigation, but this [gentile] did not investigate nor was he convinced of anything. He simply did not believe. [Hillel] was therefore sure that after he clarified the truth of the matter for him, he would believe."
 See also Chazon Ish, Yoreh De'a 2, no. 28.