Which Errors Fault Us?


Nativ Winiarsky





Towards the end of your article entitled “Astrology – Disregarding the Incomprehensible”, which is an absolute “must read” for all individuals interested in religion (and not just Jews), there appears to be a rather innocuous statement that is simply stated, but carries far-reaching implications and is of supreme import. You write:


“Our methods of decision making are crucial, not who we follow in the end. This may sound odd, but provided we use our intellects granted by God, we are not to blame for concluding something God knows is false. The principle “Lo Beshamyim Hi (It is not in heaven)” teaches that our objective is not to make sure we know what God knows, but that we arrive at decisions to the best of our abilities.”


While I applaud you for this courageous declaration, and am in general agreement with you (provided some caveats are first expressed which are explicated below), we should be aware that the position you expressed has been the subject of a great debate amongst the greatest minds Judaism has produced and has piqued the interest of many of our Sages.

Given the utmost veneration I know you have for the Rambam, I begin with his famous commentary to Perek Helek of Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah wherein he sets forth Judaism’s thirteen (13) principles of faith. After setting forth all thirteen (13) principles, he states:


“When all these foundations are perfectly understood and believed in by a person, he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love and pity him and to act towards him in all ways in which the Creator has commanded that one should act towards his brother, with love and fraternity. Even were he to commit every possible transgression, because of lust and because of being overpowered by the evil inclination, he will be punished pursuant to his rebelliousness, but he has a portion of the world to come. But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community of Israel, denies the fundamentals, and is called an apikores (heretic), and one who ‘cuts among the plantings.’ One is required to hate him and destroy him.” (Emphasis added)


Thus Rambam holds that the individual who accepts his 13 principles is entitled to join the community of Israel and as a result thereof, he is entitled to be treated with love, pity, and fraternity. Moreover, and perhaps of even more far reaching impact, one’s entitlement to the world to come is solely conditioned on his accepting of the 13 principles as propounded by the Rambam. Critically, and in stark contrast to the position expressed in your article, denial (or rather the mere “doubting”) of any of the principles causes one to be excluded from the community of Israel with the consequence that a Jew is halachally obligated to hate and destroy such a person.

Therefore, we see that Rambam denies the very possibility deduced from your article, specifically, “the objective is not to make sure we know what God knows, but that we arrive at decisions to the best of our abilities.” Thus, there is no room within Rambam’s system for the inadvertent or accidental heresy (kefirah be-shogeg). Accordingly, even if a person denies a Torah teaching (or affirms a teaching denied by the Torah) because he thinks that is what the Torah demands of him, he is still a heretic, cut off from the Jewish people, and denied a portion in the world to come. In order to be considered a heretic it is sufficient to question the principles for any reason and Rambam makes no distinction between the adoption of incorrect beliefs intentionally, and the adoption of incorrect beliefs unintentionally. It is assumed that Rambam’s position is predicated upon the position that if one’s faith is defined by the specific beliefs one holds, then, if one holds incorrect beliefs, for whatever reason, one is a heretic.  

Nor can it be asserted that we are taking Rambam out of context or making too much of the matter. In fact, the position being ascribed to the Rambam is supported by the Rabad of Posquieres. In attacking Rambam’s position that anyone who believes God has a body is an apikores (heretic), the Rabad comments:


“Why has he called such a person an apikores (heretic)? There are many people greater then and superior to him who adheres to such a belief on the basis of what they have seen in verses in Scripture and even more in the words of those aggadot which corrupt right opinion about religious matters.” (See Twersky, Rabad of Posquieres, pg. 282)


It is very much doubted that Rabad sought to to validate belief in the corporeality of God. It was clearly his point, rather, that even though God was incorporeal, a simple soul might be led by the highly anthropomorphic accounts of God in the Bible and in the midrashim to believe that God had a body. Such a person whose misbelieve (as you would define it in your article) was occasioned by honest mistake, and who thought that he was believing what the Torah thought, ought not to be considered a heretic. 

In accord with the Rambam’s position on this issue, Abravenel, while emphatically and pointedly disagreeing with Rambam’s reduction of Judaism’s principles to a mere thirteen (13), states in his Rosh Amanah, xii (p.122) “…for a false opinion about any one of the principles of faith (which includes every teaching and proper interpretation of the Torah) turns the soul from its true felicity and will not bring one to life in the world to come, even if the opinion is held without intention to rebel.” This must be so, for if it were otherwise:


“Even one who unintentionally denies every principle will acquire a portion in the world to come…It would be possible, according to this, to find a man who does not believe in any of the principles or beliefs in the Torah and yet who should not be called an apikores (heretic) if he were brought to this blind foolishness by his failure to understand the meaning of the Torah.”


In further support of this position that inadvertent heresy is not an option within Judaism, Abraham Bibago states in his Derech Emunah, iii, 5:


“Rabad’s statement is really amazing to me since if it were correct everyone who denied a principle without meaning to would have an excuse and a portion in the world to come. Even the belief of the Christians would not be inconsistent with true felicity since they understand Scripture literally and that think the intention of the verses as they believe it. On this basis, they would not thereby be called heretics and sectarians. It would be possible to find a man who does not believe in any one of the principles or beliefs of the Torah because of his failure to understand the meaning of the Torah. On this position such a one would be called neither a sectarian nor heretic. All this opposes reason and faith.”


Taking a position far more cognizant of the positions expressed in your article, Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran expressed quite different ideas in his Ohev Mishpat (Chapter 9) that were quite remarkable for his times (and ours as well). For the sake of brevity, I have excised the full quote, which touches not only upon this important topic but also on many critical matters of Judaism that are at the heart of our faith and strongly encourage readers to seek out his work. 


“You also ought to know that one who has properly accepted the roots of the Torah but was moved to deviate from them by the depths of his speculation and who thereby believed concerning one of the branches of the faith the opposite of which has been accepted as what one ought to believe and tries to explain the verses of Scripture according to his own belief, even though he errs he is no denier. For he was not brought to this deviation by heresy at all and if he found a tradition from the Sages to the effect that he ought to turn away from the position he had adopted, he would do so. He only holds that belief because he thinks it is the intention of the Torah. Therefore, even though he errs he is not a denier and apikores (heretic) according to what is agreed upon by our people since he accepted the roots of the Torah as he should.

This discussion has now brought us to the point where we can rise to the defense of the scholars of our nation who adopted alien ideas which we are forbidden to believe. We are not permitted to denigrate them because of this and say that they belong to sects which reject the Shechinah, heaven forefend – may there be none like that in Israel – for they have perfect faith, they are careful to avoid violating the commandments of the Torah, and they strengthen themselves to observe the commandments properly.”


In this brilliant and rather courageous analysis, Duran’s position that concerns us here depends upon the well entrenched distinction between transgressions committed purposefully (be-mezid) and transgressions committed inadvertently (be-shogeg). Only that person who purposefully rejects a Torah teaching, Duran thus maintains, can be considered a heretic. A person who rejects such a teaching without meaning to rebel against the Torah (the very same person described in your article) is no heretic. 

Joseph Albo, in the first chapter of his first treatise of his Sefer ha-Ikkarim, further supports the quite startling, if not sympathetic, conclusions reached by Duran (although in seemingly less enthusiastic terms) and opens the chapter with the following statement:


“But a person who upholds the Torah of Moses and believes in its principles, but when he undertakes to investigate these matters with his reason and scrutinizes the texts, is misled by his speculation and interprets a given principle otherwise than it is taken to mean at first sight; or denies the principle because he thinks that it does not represent a sound theory which the Torah obliges us to believe; or erroneously denies that a given belief is a fundamental principle, which however he believes he believes the other dogmas of the Torah which are not fundamental principles, or entertains a certain notion in relation to one of the miracles of the Torah because he thinks that he is not thereby any of the doctrines which it is obligatory upon us to believe by the authority of the Torah – a person of this sort is not a heretic. He is, rather, classed with the sages and pious men of Israel, though he holds erroneous theories. His sin is due to error and requires atonement.”


All this having been stated, the position you expressed in your article and adopted by Duran, Albo, and Rabad (and probably Cresces whose position from his Or Adoni I omitted for sake of brevity), to wit, that one who rejects a Torah belief by mistake and with no intention to rebel against God is neither cut off from the community of Israel nor excluded from the world to come – is not necessarily a position of theological anarchy. I do not believe it is your nor their position that there are no correct theological beliefs or the concept of Orthodoxy as we know it today. Rather, and correct me if I am wrong as it relates to you, the position of the among mentioned Sages seem to be that the criterion of true orthodoxy is not the rigid acceptance of certain carefully formulated catechismal beliefs so much as the general acceptance of the Torah and trust in God. 

It ought to be further noted that the position attributed to the above mentioned Achronim does not maintain that a person who mistakenly rejects a belief taught by the Torah, or a person who mistakenly accepts a belief rejected by the Torah, ought to be allowed to persist in his mistake. Such a person, apparently, should be corrected, but critically, ought not to be castigated as an unbeliever and condemned to perdition.


Accordingly, perhaps we should conclude this analysis by stating that while Rambam and Abravenel would reject as heretics persons who even mistakenly adopted incorrect beliefs, the other Sages cited (and you perhaps) would condemn as heretics only those Jews who consciously rejected Torah teachings as an act of rebellion against God. 

Which theory is correct? As one Rabbi once said, “Our allegiance to theory must be based on proof, perception, or Torah Traditions.”


Nativ Winiarsky