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Heresy in Orthodox Judaism

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Heresy in Orthodox Judaism (Hebrew: kefira‎ or kefiro) is defined as which depart from the traditional Jewish principles of faith to be heretical. In addition, mainstream Orthodox Judaism holds that all Jews who reject the simple meaning of Maimonides' 13 principles of Jewish faith are heretics.[1]

Background of the term

The Greek term άίρεσις originally denoted "division," "sect," "religious" or "philosophical party," and is applied by Josephus to the three Jewish sects: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. The specific rabbinical term for heresies, or religious divisions due to an unlawful spirit, is "מינים/minim" (lit. "kinds {of belief}"; the singular "מין/min," (literally, "a kind") for "heretic" or "Gnostic," is coined idiomatically, like "goy" and "'am ha-aretz";). An alternative term, אפיקורוס (Apiqoros/Apikoros), which may have a different status[2], and is often used for apostates who turned towards agnosticism or atheism, is derived from Epicurus and the philosophy of Epicureanism.

The law "You shall not cut yourselves" (Deuteronomy 14:1) is interpreted by the Rabbis: "You shall not form divisions, but shall form one bond." (Source: Talmud Yevamot 13a, Midrash Sifre on Deuteronomy 96)


Besides the term "min" for "heretic," the Talmud uses the words "Hitsonim" (outsiders), "apikoros," and "kofer ba-Torah" (R. H. 17a), or "kofeir ba-'ikar[2]" (he who denies the fundamentals of faith; Pes. xxiv. 168b). Similar statuses may apply to some of those those branded "poresh mi-darke tsibbur" (he who deviates from the customs of the community; Tosef., Sanh. xiii. 5; R. H. 17a). Some authorities opine that all of these 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,") or possibly have no afterlife at all[2].

The law "You shall not cut yourselves" (Deuteronomy 14:1) is interpreted by the Rabbis: "You shall not form divisions, but shall form one bond." (Source: Talmud Yevamot 13a, Midrash Sifre on Deuteronomy 96)

Views of Maimonides

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 apiḳoresim, 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 guide; (2) he who says the world has more than one guide; (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 Kabbalists are not heretics. Similarly, Biblical critics who doubt or deny the Mosaic origin of every portion of the Pentateuch, would protest against this Maimonidean (or Talmudic; see Sanh. 99a) conception of heresy (some ascribe a similar view to Ibn Ezra based on his commentary to Deut. i. 2).

Legal status

The status of heretics in Jewish law defined in several places, as it has been summarized above. While there are certain regulations scattered throughout the Talmud concerning the minim, the nearest approach to the English term "heretic," some claim the governing bodies of the synagogue exercised their power of excommunication against heretics arbitrarily, from motives of self-defence. The heretic was 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; see Apikoros, and 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 judgement 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 (Git. 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-Tum'ot, ix. 10; comp. Yad. iv. 6; see Purity); they might not be saved from fire on Shabbat (Shab. 116a; Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 334, 21). A heretic's testimony was not admitted in evidence in Jewish courts (Ḥoshen Mishpat, 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 Mishpat 266, 2).

Non-Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism considers Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, and Conservative Judaism to be heretical movements.

The more liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy is more tolerant of Conservative Judaism, as there is some theological and practical overlap between these groups. However, mainstream Orthodox Judaism - both Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism - considers Conservative Judaism to be just as heretical as other forms of non-Orthodox Judaism.

Classes of heretics

The "mumar le-hak'is" (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 Mishpat, 34, 2). One who violated Shabbat publicly or worshiped idols could not participate in the "'erub ḥaẓerot" ('Er. 69a; "Yad," 'Erubin, ii. 16; Orach Ḥayyim, 385, 3; see 'Erub), 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 "Pitche 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 "Pitche Teshubah," ad loc.; comp. "Sefer Hasidim," 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.

The Mishnah says the following have no share in the world to come: "He who denies that the Torah is divinely revealed, and the apiḳoros." R. Akiba says, "also he who reads heretical books". 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).


  1. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised, by Marc B. Shapiro, ISBN 1874774900
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 See Maimonides, and his differentiation between different statuses in Hilchos Teshuvah

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