by R. Gidon Rothstein
When people today discuss core beliefs, they often point to the first Mishnah in the last chapter of Sanhedrin, a Mishnah Rabbenu Yonah brings up in paragraph 154 of the third sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah. The Mishnah lists beliefs a Jew must adopt to be part of the Jewish people.
[A point I may not have clarified as well as I should have, as per the kind note of a reader: I am less concerned here with punishment than the seriousness of the issue. I believe Rabbenu Yonah means his discussion here in that sense as well. After all, no human court is going to enforce any of these wrongs, and his topic is repentance, the seriousness of the sin as a way to know the kind of repentance needed to restore and rejuvenate the relationship with Gd.
He wants us to know going wrong in any of the ways we are listing are among the worst ways a Jew can go wrong, the height of leaving what Gd wants of us, and call for a more significant, sincere, and thoroughgoing repentance even than what we might assume was more serious, like murder, sexual improprieties, or worshipping a power other than Gd. As throughout Sha’arei Teshuvah, he never wants Jews to be punished for these misdeeds, he wants to show them the ways to repent, leave their sin behind, and return to full membership in the Jewish people. Doing so requires a clear-eyed view of the seriousness of any particular failing.]
Three Core Beliefs
The Mishnah then lists three core issues: agreeing the Torah itself speaks of bodily resurrection of the dead, the Torah was given by Gd, and not being an apikoros (whom he will define in a moment). He reminds us the Gemara stressed believing the Torah itself referred to resurrection; a Jew confident of a future resurrection but who denies it appears in Scripture—and is an ikkar, an essential principle, Rabbenu Yonah says—still falls short of the Mishnah’s standards.
He shares one of the many verses Sanhedrin offers (this one from 91b). Devarim 32;39 has Gd say “I put to death and give life, I wound and I heal.” Just as wounding and healing happen to the same person, putting to death and bringing to life happen to the same person. [I note the Gemara does not make clear which of its suggested verses it accepts as the source of the idea. Rambam in his Ma’amar Tehiyyat ha-Metim, Letter on the Resurrection of the Dead, claimed only Daniel 12;2 was an ironclad reference. He must assume the Mishnah counted Prophets and Hagiographa as Torah for the requirement of agreeing the Torah refers to resurrection. Rabbenu Yonah here gave a Biblical verse.]
He skips the issue of Divine revelation of the Torah [I think because he thought it was clear], so so will we. The apikoros brings us back to proper treatment of Torah scholars. Here, the person may treat the scholars themselves well, but acts inappropriately in front of them, such as by mistreating others in a Torah scholar’s presence. Rabbenu Yonah does not bring up the scholar’s reaction, because his point is the disrespect in not being on one’s best behavior in the presence of such an august person. Pesahim 22b reads the et of et Hashem Elokekha tira [et has no direct translation to English, and the Gemara often assumes it implies an addition to the verse] to mean it includes Torah scholars. [They are, I think he and the Gemara mean, representatives of Gd, so how we act in front of them displays our attitude towards Gd as well.]
Secondly, awe/fear of Torah scholars feeds awe/fear of Gd, because were we to act appropriately in front of them, they would feel more comfortable sharing their insights into how we should grow. [Where Torah scholars see people trying to act well, they are more likely to give guidance on further growth; where they are ignored, they will refrain, wait for an atmosphere more likely to bring success, I think he means.] He then repeats what he said before, apikorsim are the kind who will say, what good have Torah scholars done for us?
The Opposite of Reverence and Awe is Sacrilege
I note the repetition because it screams concern with the topic. His continuation explains why: people who see little value in Torah scholars do not understand how essential Torah study and involvement in Torah is to the Jewish people, will therefore look down on it, reject its insights, and lose their share in the World to Come/ write themselves out of the Jewish people.
Their error obligates “us” to teach them the value in being involved with Torah, ideas about which Rabbenu Yonah tells us he recorded in Sha’ar ha-Torah, the Gate of Torah (the four sections of Sha’arei Teshuvah were part of Sha’arei Tzedek, Gates of Righteousness, a ten-gate work the rest of which has been lost.] Were all Jews to have this attitude, they would either study or, for those unable, would revere those who do, know they possess knowledge and insight vital for all Jews.
The last manifestation of apikoros is calling one’s rebbe by his name, traditionally where Gehazi went bad in his discipleship under Elisha. All told—as he summarizes in paragraph 158—the issues he has highlighted are those of hillul ha-Torah, treating the Torah as if it were ordinary, mundane. He conflates this with hillul HaShem, profaning Gd’s Name, a sin Kiddushin 40a tells us Gd waits least long to punish, even unwitting violations. It’s so bad because the central purpose of giving the Jewish people the Torah was for them to sanctify Gd’s Name, bring Gd’s Presence into the world with their deeds and words. The people we have been discussing do the opposite.
The Surprising Definition of Hating Gd
We are not done with those who exclude themselves from the World to Come. Rabbenu Yonah points us to Devarim 7;10, where Gd is described as “paying” those who hate Him to their faces, so as to destroy them. Gd rewards them in this world, the payment, to pave the way to deny them the World to Come. More ordinary evildoers are described (VaYikra 23;30) as being removed from this world, their punishment and troubles a way to allow them into the World to Come [a point we often miss in our times: from Jewish tradition’s perspective, some sufferings might be a way Gd helps relieve people of the guilt of their sins, to let them into a desired future.]
Who qualifies as those who hate Gd? For Rabbenu Yonah, it can be very observant people, who avoid all sin, but dislike when others study Torah and serve Gd. Worse, some such people act to stop people from serving Gd. Perhaps it is hard to imagine an observant Jew being bothered by others’ observance; Rabbenu Yonah gives us a more familiar example, someone who is troubled by the honor given to Torah scholars, or objects to any power they may be given. [Imagine observant Jews who claim to care about Gd’s service, yet find reasons to be bothered by the social prominence or power of Torah scholars or other clearly righteous people. Since their prominence helps the cause, being upset about it signals a hole in the person’s true connection to Gd.]
So, too, anyone who honors evildoers and their rulership over a society demonstrates, Gd forbid, a hatred of Gd, a rejection of Gd’s service [since Gd so clearly does not want evildoers running the earth, I am pretty sure he means; let me add, I am pretty sure he means even if those evildoers are doing things we like, like helping the State of Israel].
More haters of Gd: moserim, those who turn Jews or their property over to corrupt non-Jewish governments (who do not follow the rule of law, because the rule of law is what stops people from plundering each other), or those who lead the public astray. In both cases, they damage Gd’s possessions, as it were—Yeshayahu 5;7 metaphorizes the Jewish people and their property as the kerem, the vineyard of the Lord. Those who trample the vineyard, either by turning it over to oppressors or encouraging the vines to grow in bad directions, show hatred of Gd and, as Rosh HaShanah 17a says, are doomed to eternal Gehinnom.
We’re not quite done with those who take themselves out of the Jewish future. As we go through the list, I hope we are noticing we can go terribly wrong, can surrender our status as those trying to serve Gd well, in ways we might dismiss as minor, before Rabbenu Yonah showed us. I am going through the list, as he did, because we can overlook significant red lines, can spend lives where we think we are devoted to the right priorities, only to find out too late we have mistaken wrong for right, and lost ourselves what we most wanted.