Studying Heresy

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There is a passage in R. Ahron Soloveitchik’s Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pp. 45-47) regarding the study of biblical criticism and other modern heresies. Because it is a long passage, I will break it up with short comments.

The initial story about R. Moshe Soloveitchik:

A professor who taught Bible in a college once came to my father [R. Moshe Soloveitchik], of blessed memory, to ask whether the opinions of Bible critics, with his personal refutation, of course, could be source material. My father said, “No.” Then my father told me to bring the Rif on Sanhedrin (Perek Cheilek). He opened to the Rif’s commentary on the statement “One who reads books of foreign subject matter has no portion in the World to Come.” The Rif explains “foreign subject matter” to include commentaries which interpret the Tanach without the oral tradition of Chazal. The Rif says that “afillu d’varim tovim shebahem,” even the proper ideas found in such volumes, may not be read.

R. Ahron finds this difficult and poses the following questions:

At first glance, my father’s response would appear to contradict the dictum, “Accept the truth from anyone who utters it.” Certainly, the Rambam in Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh bases many theories on the Greek scholars. So why should we hesitate to search for truth in “foreign subject matter”?

A related question arises from Maseches Sanhedrin (38b), where Rebbe Yochanan says that ” ‘Know how to answer a heretic’ applies only to a non-Jew”: Why should we not engage in the same type of dialogue with a Jewish heretic? Does this imply that the works fo a Jewish non-believer such as Freud are prohibited, even for the good ideas found in them?

So far, so good. Here is the beginning to R. Ahron’s answer:

My father believed that just because a Jew is an apikores, or heretic, does not mean that one may not read that person’s writings in general. Just because Freud wrote pieces like “Moses and Monotheism,” which undoubtedly is heresy, there is no reason not to study his work on the intricacies of human nature and the depths of the human psyche. The intention of the Rif in forbidding “even the proper ideas of the writings of heretics” is with regard to those apikorsim whose endeavor is to undermine the k’dushas haTorah, the holiness of the Torah. Aristotle and Hippocrate never set out to undermine the religious foundation. Freud, although an apikores, never made it his goal to uproot the ideas of the Torah. Therefore, the important research and learning of these men must be studied.

In other words, R. Moshe’s injunction was against the study of those heretics who intended to uproot the Torah. He was not referring to other heretics.

Bible and Talmud critics, whose goal by definition is to undermine the k’dushas haTorah, must be ignored. The words of the Rif focus on the reason for his attitude, since he describes such people as “t’shuvasam b’tzidam,” people with answers by their side. About some individuals we might say that they are victims of some negative teachings, that they possess streaks of heresy within their outlook. But when someone’s primary goal is to uproot the divinity and sanctity of Torah, there are “answers by his side.”

I just have no idea what this means.

The untruths within such discourse often appear as emes, truth, in deceptive and misleading fashion. The Rif forbids the works of heretics, as he says, because “yesh bahem tzad minus – there is in these works a heretical side.” Why does the Rif refer to their “evil side” – after all, aren’t these writings entirely venomous? As my father explained, the danger of “foreign books” is the writing which appears salutary on one side, but whose essence is the evil side.

Now he seems to be saying that the heretics who intend to uproot the Torah are deceptive, so that even what appears to be a “good thing” might actually be a “bad thing”.

My father’s words are so true. When I read about Wellhausen, I saw that the purpose of the Bible critics is not to explain with intellectual honesty. The first step of the Bible and Talmud critics is to undermine the k’dushas haTorah.

What R. Ahron seems to be saying is that the books of dishonest heretics may not be read, even for the “good things” in their writings. But honest heretics do not fall into this category.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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