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Heresy in Judaism

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Jewish heretics are Jewish individuals (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 Judaism and derived from Halakha (Jewish 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 v. 17, xxvi. 5, and, with reference to the Christian sect, the αἵρεσις of the Nazarenes, xxiv. 5, 14; xxviii. 22). In the sense of a schism to be deprecated the word occurs in I Cor. xi. 19, Gal. v. 20, and particularly in II Peter ii. 1; hence αἱρετικὸς ("heretic") in the sense of "factious" (Titus ii. 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 (Deut. 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 ix. 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." R. Akiba 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" (Num. xv. 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.

It is noteworthy, however, that 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 cabalists are not heretics. In the same sense all Biblical critics who, like ibn Ezra in his notes on Deut. i. 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.

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 a haggadic 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 the Law, not for personal advantage, but out of defiance and spite) 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.

References

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

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.

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