A Torah Perspective on the Status of Secular Jews Today (Part 2 of 2)

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Ruchy Yudkowsky
in memory of Yehuda Yudkowsky z"l




            The question remains whether there is a significant difference between those whom the talmudic Sages refer to as heretics - koferim - and those defined as such in our time, a difference dictating a different attitude.  Here it is worthwhile to see what Rambam says in his commentary on the first mishna in Chullin:


Know that the tradition we have from our forebears that ours is an epoch of Exile when the capital code does not apply refers only to Jews who have committed capital offenses.  As to the minim, Sadducees and Boethusians, however - those who initiate any of those deviant systems are to be executed, to prevent them from leading Jews astray and undermining the faith; this has already been done in many cases in the Maghreb (North Africa).  But those born to those ideas and raised on them are to regarded as innocents who do not know any better - unlike those who conceived those ideas, who are willful sinners.


            Rambam expresses the same idea:[2]


The foregoing applies to those who deny the Oral Torah and do as they please, like Zadok and Boethus and their followers.  But the children and grandchildren of those deviants, who were born among the Karaites and raised according to that ideology - they are to be considered as unwitting offenders, who do not know what is a mitzva and what a transgression.  Even if such people afterwards learn that they are Jews and they see Jews and the practice of Judaism, they are still regarded as innocents, for they were raised on error... Peaceable methods should be used to bring them back to the correct and solid way of the Torah.


            Let us consider the status of heretics in our own time in the light of the Rambam's judgment.  Many Torah greats of our era, including Rav Kook, dealt with this question.  They declared that heretics today are to be regarded as innocents "coerced" by the prevailing cultural and general atmosphere.  And not only their children are to be regarded as "infants who were kidnapped and raised by Gentiles," but also those who grew up in a religious milieu and forsook that way of life.  Here is what Rav Kook wrote in one of his letters:[3]


But if you think that it is fitting to ignore all those young people who have been swept from the path of Torah and faith by the raging torrent of our time, then I declare unequivocally that that is not the way that God desires. Just as Tosafot in Sanhedrin 5b, s.v. hechashud, say that one suspected of adultery should not be disqualified as a witness, because he should be regarded as having been coerced by his passions, and as Tosafot in Gittin 41b, s.v. kofin, say that they are regarded as "coerced" because the maidservant seduced them, so should the torrent of our time be regarded as a wicked maidservant whom Heaven has given a last spell of free rein before she vanishes, and who is using all her many allures to seduce our young people to whore after her.  They are misguided innocents, and Heaven forfend that we should adjudge them willful sinners.


            Let it be borne in mind that the above was said before the Holocaust.  What shall we say after the Holocaust? Are we permitted to condemn people who find it difficult to have faith after all that the Holocaust did to Jewish souls?  If Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish spoke of "coerced innocents" before the Holocaust, what shall we say today?


            Furthermore, does the halakhic definition of heresy apply to what is today called heresy?  According to present-day epistemology and conventional thinking, one can at most be a skeptic; it is not possible to be a heretic, for that requires categorical assertions in the metaphysical sphere - a sphere to which human cognition has no access.  An unequivocal heretic places himself in the "religious" category of faith along with the religious person.  One can say that he does not believe in prophecy or a revealed Torah because it has not been proven to him.  But only a person who thinks on a primitive level can categorically state that there is no prophecy or revealed Torah. Consequently, we have to define the present-day heretic as a skeptic. 


            Now the question arises: What is the status of the skeptic - that is, the person who has no faith but is not committed to heresy?


            In tractate Shabbat 31a, we are told the story of the heathen who asked Hillel to convert him, saying that he believed in the written Torah but not in the Oral one, and that Hillel converted him.  Rashi explains that Hillel assumed that he would eventually be able to persuade the heathen, for the man had not rejected the Oral Torah, but had only said that he did not believe it was of Divine origin.  Rashi is suggesting that there is a difference between a non-believer and a heretic.  According to Halakha, then, a heretic is one who categorically rejects.  As Rambam says (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7):


Five are called minim; one who says that there is no God and the world has no leader; one who says that the world has a leader but that there are two or more... Migdal Oz comments on this:  There are many who do not know enough to form a clear opinion and they express themselves confusedly.  Minim, on the other hand, say exactly what they mean, in no uncertain terms.


            Ramban, in his Hassagot (Dissents) on Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, indeed speaks of a prohibition on skepticism.  Now the skeptic may be violating a ban, or he may be psychologically ill, but it is questionable whether he can be described as a min.  Rav Kook wrote in one of his letters that "we have not heard that the talmudic Sages treat as an apikoros anyone but those who deny outright."


            I once heard Rav Elimelekh Bar-Shaul declare that a skeptic is not to be treated as a heretic.  He based himself on Ramabam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2:3:


If every person follows his whims, he is apt to destroy the world out of ignorance.  How?  Sometimes he will be drawn to idolatry, and sometimes he will wonder about the oneness of the Creator, either it is true or not; will speculate on what is Above and what is Below, what Before and what After; will sometimes waver between belief and unbelief in the truth of prophecy, between belief and doubt as to whether the Torah is from Heaven; he simply does not know by which criteria to let himself be guided, and ends up tending towards minut.


            Note that Rambam does not flatly state that he has become a min; he says that the man "tends towards minut," is in a state of doubt. It is most doubtful, then, whether the so-called "heretics" of our time are heretics according to Halakha.  In any event, it is hard to classify a person who thinks in modern categories as a "heretic."


            Now to the question whether the attitude to transgressors ought to be different in a period when most Jews are defined as such.  The Torah literature does not explicitly treat this question.  I have a powerful feeling, however, that apart from the reasons I have stated above for not categorizing them as transgressors in the classical sense, the mere fact that so many Jews have forsaken God calls for a more lenient attitude to them and a special effort to find the good points in them and plead in their defense.  This feeling is bolstered by quite a few dicta of the Sages emphasizing the good points of the Jewish people in times when idolatry was rampant among them.  One of the most powerful such pleas appears in Midrash Tanchuma,[4]


Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in Rabbi Levi's name: "In David's (i.e., Saul's) time, the children, who were not even old enough to sin, already knew enough Torah to adduce 49 reasons to declare something impure and 49 reasons to declare the same thing pure.  And David would pray for them, as is written (Tehillim 12:8), 'You, God, preserve' the Torah in their hearts, and guard them from a generation doomed to extinction."


            After all that praise, the Midrash continues,


So many of them fell in war (i.e., the wars led by Saul) on account of the talebearers and slanderers among them. This is what David had in mind when he said (Tehillim 57:5), "I lie down among lions" - that refers to Abner and Amasa, who were lions in Torah; "ravenous beasts" - that refers to Doeg and Ahitophel, who were ravenous for slander; "men whose teeth are spears and arrows" - that refers to the people of Ke'ilah, as is written (Shmuel 23:12-13), "David asked, "Will the citizens of Ke'ilah surrender me and my men to Saul?'  And God said, 'They will'":  "whose tongues are sharp swords" - that refers to the people of Ziph, as written (Tehillim 54:2), "When the Ziphites came to Saul and told him, 'Why, David is hiding among us.'" At this point David said (Tehillim 57:6), "Raise Yourself, God, above the heavens" - that is, remove Your Presence from them.


On the other hand, Ahab's generation was idolatrous through and through.  Yet because there were no talebearers among them, they won their wars.  We know this from Ovadia's statement to Eliyahu (Melakhim 18:13), "Have you not been told, my Lord, what I did when Jezebel was killing off God's Prophets - how I hid 100 of them, 50 to a cave, and provided them with food and water?"...  And then Eliyahu proclaims at Mt. Carmel (Melakhim 1 18:23), "I am the only prophet of God still left"!  The entire nation knew [that, because of Ovadia's act, Eliyahu was not the only true Prophet left], but no one had told Achav. 

            Thus the Midrashim. 


            Now, if the Sages make every effort to find worthy features in a generation that was " idolatrous through and through," how much more so does it behoove us to do likewise in our generation, about whom the least one can say is what the Sages said (Kiddushin 40a), "Rejection of idolatry is tantamount to acknowledgment of the entire Torah."  It is incumbent upon us to find as many good points in this generation as possible.  For we have a situation today that, to the best of my knowledge, did not exist in olden days.  In talmudic times, people who desecrated the Sabbath were also suspect regarding theft and robbery. Today high ethical and moral standards can be found.


            But I wish to raise two additional considerations.  First, there was a time when the Jews were hated for being the bearers of the Torah.  As soon as a Jew stopped living according to his religion and accepted the religion of his Gentile milieu, the hatred ceased.  This is no longer true. Contemporary Jew-hatred is racial, directed against people in whose veins Jewish blood flows, irrespective of whether they live by the Torah or have had themselves baptized.  When Jew-hatred is aimed at a person solely because he is a Jew, regardless of his opinions and actions, so should ahavat Yisrael - love of fellow Jews - also be directed at every Jew solely because he is a Jew, regardless of his opinions and actions.  Let no one entertain the notion that someone treated as a Jew by the antisemites is going to be treated by us as an outsider.  Even in the Halakha we find that although we are not required to bewail the death of an apostate, we do mourn over him if he is killed by Gentiles because of his Jewish origins.  In Auschwitz the Germans did not check Jews for their opinions or degrees of observance.  Are we going to do so as a preliminary to observing the mitzvot of "You shall love your fellow as yourself" and "Your brother shall live with you?”


            The second consideration concerns mainly the State of Israel, with ramifications pertaining to pikkuach nefesh - the saving of life.  If we believe that the State of Israel is a haven for millions of Jews, and that the survival of those Jews hinges on peace for Israel and the Jewish state's capacity to withstand its many enemies; and if we believe that the reestablishment of the Jewish state and its survival constitute Kiddush Hashem - sanctification and glorification of God's name; if the State of Israel is precious to us; if we have not yet been infected by the "Charedi heresy," which excludes God from the history of the reestablishment of Jewish statehood and regards it as a purely human act - then we had better realize that the State of Israel is not going to endure if cordial relations do not prevail between all sectors of the nation.  Only if Jews relate to each other as brothers, irrespective of ideology, can we maintain this state. Otherwise, we live under a threat of destruction.


            I do not have to adduce any source texts to support these latter two considerations.  Concerning such instances, the Sages have already said, "Why do I need a quotation from Scripture?  It stands to reason."

[1]     Translated by Moshe Kohn.  A Hebrew version of this paper was presented to an assembly of Yeshiva University in Jerusalem, and appears in Mamlekhet Kohanim Vegoy Kadosh, ed. Rav Yehuda. Shaviv.  This article was originally published in English in Tradition 1988.

[2]     Hilkhot Mamrim 3:3.

[3]     Iggerot Re'AYaH, I:171.

[4]     Chukkat (ed. Buber, p. 71a and with slight variations in Vayikra Rabbah 20:2, Bemidbar Rabbah 19:2 and Pesikta Derav Kahana, Parashat Parah.