Who’s (Not) a Heretic?


Like many others, I grew up with the understanding that there really weren’t any bona fide apikorsim (heretics) any longer. “Do you know how much a person has to know before he can be considered an apikorus?” teachers used to say. The assumption was that one had to have studied far in excess of the hoi poloi to be a candidate for the title. (One cynical young man I knew sported a T-shirt with the slogan “Aspiring Apikorus.”)

Discovering the Chazon Ish changed all that. The Gemara is quite clear about urging an “exit strategy” for them, in a manner short of actively spilling their blood. However, says the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 2:16), this was true only when the community clearly recognized the operation of Divine Providence in its midst, and understood that any backsliding towards transgression jeopardized society by compromising its relationship with G-d. Eliminating spiritual fifth columnists was roundly appreciated as vital to the security of the community. In contemporary times, ridding ourselves of heretics would cause even greater contempt for religion, and is counterproductive. We have no choice, he says, but to attempt to win back the heretics with bonds of love.

Implicit in this approach is that heretics are not a thing of the past. They live among us, even today. A heretic need not be a gadol hador (Torah giant) who went bad. Heretics today know enough that they can be considered genuine rejectionists, not benighted souls victimized by their unfortunate ignorance.

So heresy came back to life as a functional category of people. In more recent times, the potential for heresy grew exponentially as some uncovered a new way to bring more folks under the heresy umbrella. The argument goes something like this. “My rebbi/ rebbe/ rosh yeshiva etc. is a very important talmid chacham (Torah scholar). The Gemara states that disparaging a talmid chacham makes one an apikorus. Now my rebbi, etc. holds X. Nothing could be more disparaging of him than for you to contravene or ignore X. Since you have elected to disobey, you are therefore a heretic.”

Those who are suspect that there is something wrong with this thinking and can’t put their finger on it will take comfort in a passage in Metiv Shir (8:10), the Netziv’s commentary to Shir HaShirim.

This teaches us that we should not distant ourselves from people who are not Bnei Torah, even while they violate the Torah. We should nonetheless seek out their merit, as according to Avos D’Rav Nosson (chapter 16): “What is ‘hatred of people’ [that we are instructed to avoid]? This reaches that a person should not say ‘Love the Sages – and despise the disciples;’ [or] ‘Love the disciples, and despise the commoners.’ Rather, you should love all of them, and hate the apikorsim, as it is said, ‘Those who pronounce Your Name for wicked schemes…For indeed those who hate You, Hashem, I hate them and I quarrel with those who rise up against You (Tehilim 139:20-21) .’”

The Tanna precisely explains which apikorus we are allowed and instructed to hate – those who “pronounce Your Name for wicked schemes,” i.e. [arguing] G-d has abandoned the world; there is no Judge and no judgment. The amei haaretz – even those who hate and ridicule the Sages and the disciples (and who are termed apikorsim by Chazal in Chapter Chelek [the last chapter in Sanhedrin]) – you are not permitted to scorn and hate! Rambam and Shulchan Aruch write similarly: Apikorsim are those who deny Torah and prophecy in Israel, etc. This is unlike the Ran cited by the Shach that even those who disparage Torah scholars are included in the category of apikorsim for the purposes described there in Shulchan Aruch. Chazal term such people apikorsim only in the sense that they are treated as such by Heaven. In the laws of Man, it is forbidden to hate them.

I trust that readers will inventively find new ways we can label people apikorsim so that we will replenish any losses caused by the Netziv.

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Moshe S.
8 years 5 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein, yasher koach. What about posting the Netziv’s intro to Haamek Davar on Bereishis?

Danny Rubin
8 years 5 months ago

I have also seen a Teshuvas Maharam Lublin quoted (“Ayelet Hashachar” written by R’Yaakov Filber p.82)which seems to say that due to the fact that Tochacha is a lost art in present generations the definition of a heretic/Rasha is severely limited. Has anyone seen any Poskim on this topic?

8 years 5 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein,

However, given your understanding of the Chazon Ish and given the choice between the Netziv and the Chazon Ish, most of the current Yeshivah world will opt for the Chazon Ish. Hence my comments.

On a side note, I have heard that the interpretation of the Chazon Ish is that there are NO apikorsim today, precisely, because we don’t know when we provided the appropriate chinuch, love and support.

8 years 5 months ago

Logarithms grow very slowly – I think you meant exponentially…

Baruch Horowitz
8 years 5 months ago

“My rebbi/ rebbe/ rosh yeshiva etc. is a very important talmid chacham … Now my rebbi, etc. holds X… Since you have elected to disobey, you are therefore a heretic.”

“The Tanna precisely explains which apikorus we are allowed and instructed to hate – those who “pronounce Your Name for wicked schemes,” i.e. [arguing] G-d has abandoned the world; there is no Judge and no judgment. ”

The more well-known Netziv in the preface to Bereshis is also relevant to tolerance among different groups vis-à-vis the Charedi world. The Netziv, there, writes that :

A) Hashem can not tolerate even tzaddikim, who believe that others with slightly different way of life are apikorsim, and that this was a problem in the Bayis Sheini era.

B)the Avos were referred to as “Yesharim”, upright, because even when they interacted with those whose conduct they abhorred, they still had a concern for them, as they were part of Hashem’s world.

Within Orthodoxy, there are groups who share similar Torah values with the charedi world. Even within the charedi world there are those who are more insular, and some who are less so. If all of these three groups do not endeavor to see what they have in common as far as Avodas Hashem and confer some degree of legitimacy on each other’s path, then this would appears to be an application of tzadikim suspecting that the next person is an apikores.

On the other hand, there are ideologies both within and without Orthodoxy concerning which Torah Jews can not simply say “elu v’elu”, and minimize the differences. Here, it is relevant the second part of the Netziv, that “yashrus” means having a certain decency in relating to even those whose ideology one feels is beyond the pale. It is also within the charedi world’s self-interest to bear this Netziv in mind, because experience has shown that today, attacks which are perceived as intemperate and overly-polemical, often are taken the wrong way and are not very productive.