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HERESY, belief in ideas contrary to those advocated by religious authorities. Because Judaism has no one official formulation of dogma against which heresy can be defined, it has no clear-cut definition of heresy. A heretic may be distinguished from an apostate in that, although he holds beliefs which are contrary to currently accepted doctrines, he does not renounce his religion and often believes that he represents the true tradition. Since the heretic is still a Jew, various halakhic questions concerning his relationship to the Jewish community arise, such as whether he may offer a sacrifice, be counted in a minyan, or have his testimony admitted as evidence in a Jewish court (Ḥul. 13a; Git. 45b; Av. Zar. 32b; Sh. Ar., ḤM 34:22).

The Bible, although it does not have a specific term for heretic, regards as a heretic one who "whores after strange gods." It sets forth procedures to suppress idolatry and prescribes stoning for anyone who introduces idolatry into the community (Deut. 13:7–12).

Heresy in the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

In talmudic literature a number of terms are used to refer to heretics, *min, *apikoros, kofer, and mumar, each of which also has other meanings. Min is the most common term and the one that appeared originally in the 12th petition of the daily *Amidah. Some identify the talmudic minim with the Judeo-Christians, others with unspecified groups who denied rabbinic authority and/or the belief in the coming of the Messiah. There is an early tradition that there were 24 groups of minim as early as the destruction of the Second Temple (TJ, Sanh. 10:29c). Among the errors of the minim, the Talmud lists denial of God's unity; belief in an independent divinity of evil; the portrayal of God as a cruel jester (Sanh. 38b–39a); and the denial of Israel's chosenness (Sanh. 99a), physical resurrection, and the coming of the Messiah (Sanh. 91a). *Maimonides identified minut with atheism, with the denial of God's unity and incorporeality, with the denial of creation ex nihilo, and with the belief in a power intermediary between God and man (Yad, Teshuvah 3:7).

The term apikoros seems to be derived from the *Epicureans, whose skeptical naturalism denied divine providence, and hence, divine retribution. The sages in accordance with their method of interpretation derived apikoros from an Aramaic form of the root p-k-r-, "to be free of restraint" (Sanh. 38b). The suggestion is that one who denies divine providence and retribution will feel free not to obey the laws of the Torah. In the Talmud the term apikoros refers to the *Sadducees (Kid. 66a); to those who denigrate rabbinic authority even in such seemingly insignificant ways as calling a sage by his first name; and to those who shame neighbors before the sages (Sanh. 99b). Maimonides defined the apikoros as one who denies the possibility of prophecy and divine revelation, that Moses was a prophet, or that there is divine providence (Yad, Teshuvah 3:8; cf. Guide of the Perplexed, 2:13 (end), and ibid., 3:17 (start), in which Maimonides identifies the apikoros with someone who agrees with the opinions of Epicurus).

Kofer may be best translated as "freethinker." In Sanhedrin the kofer is identified as one who asks needling questions and points out contradictions between biblical texts (Sanh. 39a–b). The term kofer ba-ikkar in rabbinic literature refers to one who denies a basic and essential ikkar ("dogma"; on the various formulations of dogmas in Judaism see S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1896), 147–81). Maimonides defines a kofer ba-Torah as someone who denies either the divine inspiration of the Torah or the authority of the Oral Law and the rabbis who teach it, or one who maintains that the legislation of the Torah has been superseded (Yad, Teshuvah, 3:8).

Mumar, literally, "one who changes" or "converts", refers to an apostate, i.e., to one who converts, but in the talmudic tradition it sometimes means heretic, especially when it is used to refer to one who rejects only one commandment of the Torah (Hor. 11a). While the apikoros seems to be led to his heresy by intellectual uncertainty, the mumar seems to be brought to it by his appetites or emotional unbalance (see J.J. Petuchowski, in: HUCA, 30 (1959), 179–90).

Talmudic treatment of the heretic is not uniform but reflects many different situations and differing responses. While some texts tell of a scholar who shared a meal and conversed agreeably with a heretic, others hold that the food, wine, and bread of a heretic are not permissible, that a Torah scroll or tefillin written by a heretic must be destroyed, and that one need not endanger his life in order to save the life of a heretic or take medicine prescribed by one (Ḥul. 13a–b; Av. Zar. 26a–b; Tosef. Ḥul 2:20–21).

Causes of Heresy

Heresy derives from many sources: general restlessness (cf. Er. 69b), impatience with authority (cf. Av. Zar. 26b), the agitations of other heretics (cf. Eccl. R. 1:8, no. 3), and predisposition (cf. Ḥag. 16b). Intellectual vanity is frequently cited as a motivation to heresy (based on Num. 15:39, "that ye go not after your own heart").

Assuming that the intellect has only a limited competence, rabbinic Judaism maintained that those who seek theological truth without being guided by revelation often fall into error and heresy (Maim. Yad, Avodah Zarah, 2:3; cf. S.R. Hirsch, Horeb, Section 1, 4:18). Rationalist apologetes emphasized the danger of unbound speculation as much as the more traditional sages. The ban issued by Solomon b. Abraham ibn *Adret and others in 1305 against the study of Greek philosophy by the untrained under the age of 50 and by students under the age of 25 referred to a passage from Maimonides' Guide in support of its restrictions (Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 281–305; Adret, She'elot u-Teshuvot (1958), 417, 154). Simeon ben Ẓemaḥ *Duran's insistence that thinkers who go beyond acceptable textual interpretations are in error but are not ipso facto heretics represented a novel and remarkable attitude; but he excluded specifically from this category anyone who misinterprets fundamental principles (Sefer Magen Avot, 14b).

Persecution of Heretics

The persecution of heretics, when it occurred, was generally justified as a barrier to prevent those who mock the teachings of the Torah and its authoritative teachers from leading others into sin. A ban issued by the community of Venice in 1618 contains typical language:

"They consider all the words of the sages as being without meaning and void, and they call all those who believe in them 'fools who believe everything'… Therefore, when we heard the sound of war against the Lord and His Torah and we saw the flame glowing, we were afraid lest it go forth and set fire to some thorn – a man whose soul is empty and who knows nothing so that he be smitten; and as a consequence, God forbid, the land would be destroyed and laid waste – for this generation is spoiled and all the people listen to whoever favors leniency" (E. Rivkin, Leon da Modena and the Sakhal (1952), 14–15).

Rabbinic leaders who opposed actions against heresy did not advocate the concept of intellectual freedom but argued pragmatically that divisiveness must be avoided and that restrictions by which a community will not abide should not be imposed (see Naḥmanides' letter to certain French rabbis concerning their ban on the Guide, Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Rambam, pt. 3 (1859), 8a–10b).

The concern with heresy reflected a concern with the inner stability of the Jewish community and its relationship to the outside world. Thus, the heretic presented not only a spiritual danger but also a political one. Rabbinic Judaism could not ignore the intellectual attitudes of the outside world, which held the power of life and death over Diaspora communities. The monks of Montpellier gladly burned the "heresies" of Maimonides along with those of Catholic Aristotelians (1230; see *Maimonidean Controversy; and also D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy 11801240 (1965) 152ff.); the Dutch Reformed Church encouraged the Amsterdam Jewish community in its measures against Baruch *Spinoza, whose non-personalist pantheism was also influencing many Christians.

The liturgical petition against minim in the Amidah of the liturgy was changed to include malshinim ("informers"), suggesting at least an intimate association in the Jewish mind between defiance and defamation. Heresy gave birth to schism, and schism was not only unsettling but politically dangerous; many squabbles ended tragically as a result of the intervention of the sovereign power. Early and vigorous action against suspicious ideas was justified by many rabbinic leaders on the grounds that Israel must not be divided. Communities were encouraged to follow the example of the schools of Hillel and Shammai (see *Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai), whose arguments remained academic and did not lead to division within the community. They were also reminded of the dire consequences of the split of the kingdom of David between Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

ḤEREM. Jews never organized a central agency to define heresy and establish procedures to judge and punish heresy. In the medieval period heresy was established by individual rabbis, a kehillah ("community"), or a group of kehillot, and was combated by means of a *ḥerem, a ban prohibiting social intercourse and marriage with a heretic and denying him burial rites. Those who taught doctrines considered heretical were threatened with this ban. Questionable books were sometimes banned, but, generally, they were prohibited only to the masses. Although censorship of texts seems not to have been practiced, it should be noted that a certain degree of censorship was imposed by the custom of requiring approbations (*haskamot) for books.

A ban was valid only within the boundaries of the promulgating community or in the area under the promulgating sage's jurisdiction. Therefore, after the ban was proclaimed by a sage or by a kehillah, details of the charge were circulated among well-known scholars with a request for corroboration. Scholars far from the scene of the struggle, being personally uninvolved, could point out the lack of substance in the listed charges and weigh the practical dangers of persecuting an action of heresy against the need to protect the integrity of the community (see Ẓevi Hirsch *Ashkenazi of Altona reacting to the charges against David Nieto of London – 1703, Responsa 11/8). Often one community placed a ban while another refused to do so (see Rivkin, Leon da Modena and the Kol Sakhal, 8–9, on the opposite action of Venice and Salonika in the matter of Abraham Farrar). When a theoretically universal ban was pronounced against a specific group, for example, the *Karaites, the absence of a universal authority made it possible for certain communities to overlook the ban, and for its members to live peaceably side by side. The decentralization of religious authority effectively enlarged the range of permissible theological ideas.

The practice of excommunication probably goes back to the disciplines of the *Pharisees, the *Essenes, and the Dead Sea Covenanters (see *Dead Sea Scrolls), who excluded from their fellowship those who violated their rules. For these people, who were bound by oath to eat only special foods and to adhere to special rules of purity, such a ban was a terrible punishment. There is no indication of formal bans for heresy being pronounced against individuals until the Middle Ages.

Individuals, sects, and books were at various times declared heretical. The list includes *Samaritans, Judeo-Christians, *Karaites, *Shabbateans, *Frankists, *Ḥasidim, and liberal branches of modern Judaism; books ranging from Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed to the *Zohar; and such men as Uriel Da *Costa, Baruch Spinoza, and *Shneur Zalman of Lyady.

When Moses *Mendelssohn wrote his Jerusalem, he maintained that the community had no legitimate authority over anyone's opinions, an original argument, far-reaching in its consequences and breaking entirely new ground. In the 19th and 20th centuries liberal thinkers have argued that all attempts at restricting ideas are self-defeating and that mistaken notions can be opposed only by gentle reason (see Rabbinische Gutachten ueber die Vertraeglichkeit der freien Forschung mit dem Rabbineramte, 1842–43). However, those who adhere to Orthodox Judaism can still find some meaning in the term heresy, though few modern religious authorities are likely to institute anti-heretical proceedings.


Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Baron, Social2, index vol. (1960), 61; D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (1965); I. Sarachek, Faith and Reason. The Conflict Over the Rationalism of Maimonides (1935); R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G.J. Blidstein, "The 'Other' in Maimonidean Law," in: Jewish History, 18 (2004): 173–95; idem., "Who Is Not a Jew? – The Medieval Discussion," in: Israel Law Review, 11 (1976): 369–90; M. Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (1986); idem, "Inadvertent Heresy in Medieval Jewish Thought: Maimonides and Abravanel vs. Duran and Crescas?" in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 3 (1984): 393–403 (Hebrew); idem, "Heresy and the Nature of Faith in Medieval Jewish Philosophy," in: Jewish Quarterly Review, 76 (1987): 299–318; S. Nadler, Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and The Jewish Mind (2002); M. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (2004).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.