Heresy in Judaism
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Jewish heretics (minim, from minuth, Hebrew for "heretic") are Jewish individuals (often historically, philosophers) whose works have, in part or in whole, been condemned as heretical by significant persons or groups in the larger Jewish community based on the classical teachings of Rabbinic Judaism and derived from halakha (Jewish religious law).
Talmudic definition of heresy
The Greek term for heresy, αἵρεσις, originally denoted "division," "sect," "religious" or "philosophical party," is applied by Josephus (B. J. ii. 8, § 1, and elsewhere) to the three Jewish sects—Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes (comp. Acts 5:17, Acts 26:5, and, with reference to the Christian sect, the αἵρεσις of the Nazarenes, Acts 24:5,24:14, 28:22). In the sense of a schism to be deprecated the word occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:19, Galatians 5:20, and particularly in 2 Peter 2:1; hence αἱρετικὸς ("heretic") in the sense of "factious" (Titus 2:10). The specific rabbinical term for heresies, or religious divisions due to an unlawful spirit, is minim (lit. "kinds [of belief]"; the singular "min," for "heretic" or "Gnostic," is coined idiomatically, like "goy" and "'am ha-areẓ"; see Gnosticism). The law (Deuteronomy 14:1) "Ye shall not cut yourselves" (לא תתגדדו) is interpreted by the Rabbis: "Ye shall not form divisions [לא תעשו אגודות אגודות], but shall form one bond" (after Amos 9:6 [A. V. "troop"]; Sifre, Deut. 96).
Besides the term "min" (מין) for "heretic," the Talmud uses the words "ḥiẓonim" (outsiders), "apikoros," and "kofer ba-Torah" (R. H. 17a), or "kofer ba-ikkar" (he who denies the fundamentals of faith; Pes. xxiv. 168b); also "poresh mi-darke tzibbur" (he who deviates from the customs of the community; Tosef., Sanh. xiii. 5; R. H. 17a). Of all these it is said that they are consigned to Gehinnom for all eternity (Tosef., Sanh. l.c.; comp. ib. xii. 9, apparently belonging to xiii. 5: "He who casts off the yoke [of the Law], and he who severs the Abrahamic covenant; he who interprets the Torah against the halakic tradition, and he who pronounces in full the Ineffable Name—all these have no share in the world to come").
The Mishnah (Sanh. x. 1) says the following have no share in the world to come: "He who denies that the Torah is divinely revealed [lit. "comes from Heaven"], and the apiḳoros." Rabbi Akiva says, "also he who reads heretical books" ("sefarim ḥiẓonim"). This is explained in the Talmud (Sanh. 100b) to mean "sifre Ẓeduḳim" (Sadducean writings); but this is an alteration by the censor of "sifre ha-Minim" (books of the Gnostics or Heretics). The Biblical version, "That ye seek not after your own heart" (Numbers 15:39), is explained (Sifre, Num. 115; Ber. 12b) as "Ye shall not turn to heretic views ["minut"] which lead your heart away from God" (see Maimonides, Yad, Akkum, ii. 3). In summarizing the Talmudic statements concerning heretics in Sanh. 90-103, Maimonides (Yad, Teshubah, iii. 6-8) says:
The following have no share in the world to come, but are cut off, and perish, and receive their punishment for all time for their great sin: the minim, the apikoresim, they that deny the belief in the Torah, they that deny the belief in resurrection of the dead and in the coming of the Redeemer, the apostates, they that lead many to sin, they that turn away from the ways of the [Jewish] community. Five are called 'minim': (1) he who says there is no God and the world has no leader; (2) he who says the world has more than one leader; (3) he who ascribes to the Lord of the Universe a body and a figure; (4) he who says that God was not alone and Creator of all things at the world's beginning; (5) he who worships some star or constellation as an intermediating power between himself and the Lord of the World.
The following three classes are called 'apiḳoresim': (1) he who says there was no prophecy nor was there any wisdom that came from God and which was attained by the heart of man; (2) he who denies the prophetic power of Moses our master; (3) he who says that God has no knowledge concerning the doings of men.
The following three are called 'koferim ba-Torah': (1) he who says the Torah is not from God: he is a kofer even if he says a single verse or letter thereof was said by Moses of his own accord; (2) he who denies the traditional interpretation of the Torah and opposes those authorities who declare it to be tradition, as did Zadok and Boethus; and (3) he who says, as do the Nazarenes and the Mohammedans, that the Lord has given a new dispensation instead of the old, and that he has abolished the Law, though it was originally divine.
However, Abraham ben David, in his critical notes, objects to Maimonides characterizing as heretics all those who attribute corporeality to God, and he insinuates that the Kabbalists are not heretics. In the same sense all Biblical critics who, like ibn Ezra in his notes on Deuteronomy 1:2, doubt or deny the Mosaic origin of every portion of the Pentateuch, would protest against the Maimonidean (or Talmudic; see Sanh. 99a) conception of heresy.
Five people who can be classified as heretics (Hebrew minim):
- One who denies the existence of God or the ruler of the world
- One who says there are two or more rulers of the world
- One who accepts there is one Master of the world but maintains He has a body or a form
- One who denies that He is the sole First Being and Creator of all existence
- One who serves entities that serve as intermediary between him and the eternal Lord such as stars, constellations or any other entity
The Birkat haMinim is a malediction on heretics. The belief that the curse was directed at Christians was sometimes cause for persecution of Jews. Modern scholarship has generally evaluated that the Birkat haMinim probably did originally include Jewish Christians before Christianity became markedly a gentile religion.
Three people who can be classified as Epikoros
- One who denies the existence of prophecy and communication from God to the hearts of men
- One who disputes the prophecy of Moses
- One who denies the Creator is aware of other deeds
One who denies Torah
Three people who can be classified as "One Who Denies Torah" (Kofer ba-Torah):
- One who denies that even one verse or one word of Torah is from God. Including those who say: "Moses made these statements independently"
- One who denies Torah's interpretation, the oral law or disputes the authority of its spokesmen as did Tzadok and Beitus
- One who says that although the Torah came from God, The Creator has replaced one mitzvah with another one and nullified the original Torah, like the Muslims and the Christians
On legal status
The status of heretics in Jewish law is not clearly defined. While there are certain regulations scattered throughout the Talmud concerning the minim, the nearest approach to the English term "heretic," these are mostly of an aggadic nature, the codes taking little cognizance of them. The governing bodies of the Synagogue frequently exercised, from motives of self-defense, their power of excommunication against heretics. The heretic was theoretically excluded from a portion in the world to come (Maimonides, Yad, Teshubah, iii. 6-14), he was consigned to Gehenna, to eternal punishment (R. H. 17a; comp. Ex. R. xix. 5; compare D. Hoffmann, Der Schulchan Aruch und die Rabbinen über das Verhältnis der Juden zu Andersgläubigen, 2d ed., Berlin, 1894), but the Jewish courts of justice never attended to cases of heresy; they were left to the judgment of the community.
There are, however, in the rabbinic codes, laws and regulations concerning the relation of the Jew to the heretic. The sentiment against the heretic was much stronger than that against the pagan. While the pagan brought his offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests accepted them, the sacrifices of the heretic were not accepted (Ḥul. 13b, et al.). The relatives of the heretic did not observe the laws of mourning after his death, but donned festive garments, and ate and drank and rejoiced (Sem. ii. 10; Yad, Ebel, i. 5, 6; Yoreh De'ah, 345, 5). Scrolls of the Law, tefillin, and mezuzot written by a heretic were burned (Giṭ. 45b; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 39, 1; Yoreh De'ah, 281, 1); and an animal slaughtered by a heretic was forbidden food (Ḥul. 13a; Yoreh De'ah, 2, 5). Books written by heretics did not render the hands impure (Yad, She'ar Abot ha-Ṭum'ot, ix. 10; comp. Yad iv. 6; see Tumah); they might not be saved from fire on the Sabbath (Shab. 116a; Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 334, 21). A heretic's testimony was not admitted in evidence in Jewish courts (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 22; see Be'er ha-Golah ad loc.), and if an Israelite found an object belonging to a heretic, he was forbidden to return it to him (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ 266, 2).
Classes of heretics
The "mumar le-hachis" (one who transgresses as to anger), as opposed to the "mumar le'teavon" (one who transgresses to indulge), was placed by some of the Rabbis in the same category as the minim (Ab. Zarah 26a; Hor. 11a). Even if he habitually transgressed one law only (for example, if he defiantly violated one of the dietary laws), he was not allowed to perform any religious function (Yoreh De'ah, 2, 5; SHaK and Pitḥe Teshubah, ad loc.), nor could he testify in a Jewish court (Sanh. 27a; Yad, 'Edut, x. 3; Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 34, 2). One who violated the Sabbath publicly or worshiped idols could not participate in the "eruv chazerot" (Er. 69a; Yad, Erubin, ii. 16; Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 385, 3), nor could he write a bill of divorce (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 123, 2).
One who would not permit himself to be circumcised could not perform the ceremony on another (Yoreh De'ah, 264, 1, Isserles' gloss). While the court could not compel the mumar to divorce his wife, even though she demanded it, it compelled him to support her and her children and to pay her an allowance until he agreed to a divorce (Eben ha-'Ezer, 154, 1, and Pitḥe Teshubah, ad loc.). At his death those who are present need not tear their garments (Yoreh De'ah, 340, 5, and Pitḥe Teshubah, ad loc.). The mumar who repented and desired readmittance into the community was obliged to take a ritual bath, the same as the proselyte (Yoreh De'ah, 268, 12, Isserles' gloss, and Pitḥe Teshubah, ad loc.; comp. Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. Wistinetzki, §§ 200-209). If he claimed to be a good Jew, although he was alleged to have worshiped idols in another town, he was believed when no benefit could have accrued to him from such a course (Yoreh De'ah, 119, 11, and Pitḥe Teshubah, ad loc.).
Jews accused of heresy
The present section lists individuals who have been declared heretical, independent of the particular criteria applied in the assessment. The list below is intended to be inclusive, and thus contains both individuals who have been fully excommunicated, as well as those whose works alone have been condemned as heretical. (The list is in chronological order.)
- Kórach: considered a heretic by the Talmudic Sages
- Elisha ben Abuyah: heretical Talmudic Sage.
- Anan ben David: His works reject the Oral Torah.
- Maimonides: His works condemned and burned by Solomon of Montpellier and Yonah Gerondi (who later publicly repented of his actions)
- Gersonides: His works condemned by Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov
- Abraham Abulafia: His works condemned by Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet.
- Shabbethai Zvi: The famous "false messiah" who converted to Islam
- Jacob Frank: A second wave "failed Messiah" who later converted to Christianity
- Baruch Spinoza: Excommunicated in the Netherlands for his pantheistic views
- Moshe Haim Luzzatto: Excommunicated in Italy for teachings regarding the messianic era
- Jonathan Eybeschutz: Charged with the Sabbatean heresy by Jacob Emden
- Shneur Zalman of Liadi: Charged with heresy by the Vilna Gaon
- Chassidism: For believing in the powers of the Tzaddik  and the immortality of the Rebbe
- David Zvi Hoffman: His work Mar Samuel judged to contain heresies by Samson Raphael Hirsh
- Mordecai Kaplan: Excommunicated by Union of Orthodox Rabbis following the publication of his Sabbath Prayer Book
- Louis Jacobs: Prevented from becoming British Chief Rabbi and removed from his pulpit due to his published views
- "Hilchot Teshuva". Mishneh Torah. Moznaim Publications.
- The Cambridge History of Judaism: The late Roman-Rabbinic period pp291-292 ed. William David Davies, Louis Finkelstein, Steven T. Katz - 2006
The JE cites the following sources:
- Krauss, Begriff und Form der Häresic nach Talmud und Midraschim, Hamburg, 1896;
- Goldfahn, Ueber den Ursprung und die Bedeutung des Ausdruckes, in Monatsschrift, 1870.