Were Some Gedolim Heretics?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Great Rabbis and Divergent Beliefs

I have been asked many times whether the act of defining lines of acceptable beliefs pushes some great Jewish thinkers outside of normative Judaism. Can we really declare that some great rabbis were heretics? Can we take away their place in the World-to-Come? If not, then we have to say that any view ever articulated by a great rabbi is within the bounds of acceptable beliefs.

This seems like a reasonable approach. While the average rabbi may veer off course, great rabbis can be assumed to remain committed to traditional Judaism. Therefore, it makes sense to accept any view articulated by a great rabbi. However, historically there have been significant variations of beliefs that can make many uncomfortable. Some great rabbis have questioned cherished beliefs, at least on the margins. If you accept that anything that any great rabbi ever said is acceptable, you will have a hard time defining the fundamental principles of Judaism within the classical framework.

Put differently, anyone who claims that Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith are binding has to say that some great rabbis were heretics. Exactly how many is a matter of interpretation and debate, but that is beside the point. Who is bold enough to declare even one great rabbi a heretic?

II. Confused But Not Rejecting

This question is so strong that it is easy to answer — because it was asked over 800 years ago. The most famous person to make this point was Ra’avad (12th cen., Provence). Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:7) lists five people who are considered sectarians (minim):
1) Someone who says that there is no God and there is no being guiding the world (atheist)
2) Someone who says that there are multiple beings guiding the world (polytheist)
3) Someone who says there is one God but He has a body and a form
4) Someone who says there is a God but He did not precede the universe
5) Someone who worships an intermediary between man and God (idolator)

Regarding those who say that God has a body or form (#3), Ra’avad asks in a gloss how Rambam could call such a person a sectarian. While Ra’avad does not himself accept this belief, he says that great Jews have said it based on their (mis)understanding of confusing biblical verses and rabbinic passages. In other words, if someone accepts that there is a God and that He gave us the Torah, and he follows the proper way to understand God by studying classical religious texts but misunderstands them, he cannot be faulted and declared a heretic. He might be wrong but he is not blameworthy.

According to Ra’avad, some great rabbis may have reached incorrect theological beliefs. They may have crossed a line on a fundamental belief. That does not make them a heretic even if one of their beliefs is heretical. (We will return later to Rambam’s view on this subject.) However, Ra’avad does not name names. Roughly two centuries later, Rav Shimon Ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz; 15th cen., Algeria) named names.

III. Well-Intentioned Heresy

Rashbatz is known primarily as a halakhic authority. His responsa are widely quoted and respected. He was also a philosopher, although his primary philosophical work — the three-volume Magen Avos (which he called an introduction to his much shorter commentary to Pirkei Avos) — is rarely quoted. The custom in Algeria was to learn Pirkei Avos in the long Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Shavuos. After Shavuos, in the same time slot, they learned the biblical book of Iyov (Job). Rashbatz published a commentary on Iyov titled Ohev Mishpat, with a lengthy philosophical introduction. In chapter 9 of his introduction to Ohev Mishpat, Rashbatz expands on Ra’avad’s point.

Rashbatz notes that Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:26) quotes the Tanna R. Eliezer who says that the world was created from pre-existing matter, not something from nothing (Bereishis Rabbah 3:7). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99a) quotes R. Hillel (not the same person as Hillel) who says that there will be no mashi’ach. Are we willing to label these sages as heretics?

Rashbatz continues that Rav Levi Ben Gershom (Ralbag; 14th cen., France; Milchamos Hashem 6:17) says that the world was created from eternal matter. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42) says that the donkey did not actually speak to Bilam, contrary to the plain meaning of the verse. Rashbatz considers this a heretical view, also. However, he shudders to think of calling Ralbag and Rambam heretics.

Rather, Rashbatz says, they believe in God and the Torah. They try to understand it all and make a mistake. As long as you believe in the Torah and intend to interpret it faithfully, you do not qualify as a heretic even if you hold heretical views. Rashbatz writes, “[T]he great principle in all of this is that one ought to believe what is included in the Torah concerning these matters. He who denies something included in the Torah, knowing that it is the opinion of the Torah, is a denier and is not included in the community of Israel” (translation from Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, p. 88). According to Rashbatz, really the entire Torah is a fundamental principle of Judaism. As long as you accept the entire Torah, you might be mistaken on a key belief but you are not a heretic. On the other hand, he points out that Elisha Ben Avuyah rejected the premise of God and the Torah, and therefore was considered a heretic (Chagigah 15a). [1]Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 1:2) says something similar but Menachem Kellner, ibid., pp. 104, 155 argues they have somewhat different approaches. Rav David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz; 16th cen., Egypt; … Continue reading

IV. Accepting the Torah

Rashbatz’s approach can be applied to any great Torah scholar in history (including the present). Even if you believe that the scholar is mistaken on key beliefs, as long as he accepts the basic premises of the Torah then he is not classified as a heretic. On the other hand, if a scholar believes that the Torah is mistaken — whether factually, morally or otherwise — then it is not at all clear whether that scholar even accepts the Torah. Certainly, that view is heretical. I would argue additionally that a scholar who hold such a view qualifies as a heretic even according to Ra’avad and Rashbatz.

But what of the Rambam’s approach? Ra’avad disagrees with Rambam. Does that mean that Rambam would consider Ralbag and others like him to be heretics, without a place in the World-to-Come? The textual problem with this suggestion lies in Rambam’s approach to the children of Karaites. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mamrim 3:3) writes that while Karaites qualify as sectarians for rejecting the Oral Torah, their children are not sectarians because they did not reject the Torah. Someone raised with faulty beliefs is a tinok she-nishbah, a child who is captured and raised outside the community of believers. He is not at fault for his untraditional beliefs and therefore he does not qualify as a heretic. Is that not very similar to the approach of Ra’avad and Rashbatz?

I do not have a good explanation for Rambam’s view. Rav Netanel Wiederblank, in his Illuminating Jewish Thought: Faith, Philosophy, and Knowledge of God, devotes chapter 11 to exploring four possible approaches to answering this question within Rambam’s approach. I’m not sure if any of those approaches offers a satisfactory explanation. However, it seems clear that Rambam’s view is not as straightforward as it may appear. Regardless, someone who wants to believe that we are not bound by any view ever articulated by a Torah scholar, can look to Rashbatz as a precedent for accepting the scholar while rejecting his view as out of the theological bounds of traditional Judaism.

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 1:2) says something similar but Menachem Kellner, ibid., pp. 104, 155 argues they have somewhat different approaches. Rav David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz; 16th cen., Egypt; Responsa 4:187) also takes a somewhat similar approach.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

2 comments

  1. Prof. Marc Shapiro wrote a whole book listing many important rabbis who did not believe in ne or another of Rambam’s 13 principles. Note that Prof. Halbertal explains how different “le’ha’amin she,” Rambam’s formulation, is from the classically Jewish “le’ha’amin beh.” In his book Nachmanides, when explaining Ramban’s kabbalistic notions, it is clear that he believes the lower part of the Godhead was corporeal.

    • Indeed, Prof. Marc Shapiro’s book is relevant. I believe there is a lot of academic literature that exaggerates debates or creates them out of whole cloth. Be that as it may, even one or a few examples are enough to raise the question addressed here. That is what I meant in this paragraph:

      “Put differently, anyone who claims that Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith are binding has to say that some great rabbis were heretics. Exactly how many is a matter of interpretation and debate, but that is beside the point. Who is bold enough to declare even one great rabbi a heretic?”

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