[From the Archive note: This was originally three posts, but herein made it one]
I’ve been increasingly using the term “Jewish Heresy” to refer to my current path/framing, and I’m struck by the discomfort is seems to cause to almost everyone who hears it.
Let me be clear: I view Heresy as the road forward societally vis a vis religion. If we don’t question and challenge all dogma and assumptions, I believe we will, so to speak, throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But I think a lot of the discomfort in the term is simply a result of “Heresy” being a negatively charged term, so let’s start with taking a stab at meaning… I’ll get to more examples, efficacy, reasons, etc another time…hopefully soon now that The Enthusiast is officially on hiatus due to fraud-related hurdles….anyway…
Let’s start with dictionary definition, shall we? “1. belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine; 2. opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted.”
I am focused on religious heresy right now (though I do also believe in the need for #2, for another time…), so we can simply look at Heresy as believing something that contradicts orthodoxy. Gasp!, right?
Of course, Orthodoxy in any specific religious modality is de facto Heresy against another modality. I was pleasantly surprised to find this truth inherent in the etymology: “1175-1225; Middle English heresie … school of thought, sect < Greek haíresis, literally, act of choosing, derivative of haireîn to choose”.
So, Heresy is simply choosing a different school of thought than the standard orthodoxy. And any even cursory glance at religious history makes it clear we are all heretics in one form or another.
Let’s get a bit juicier before moving to Jewish stuff. As a simple decision to view the world and/or the divine in a different way or under a different definition is Heresy, to my previous line, I ask, Who isn’t a heretic? The answer of course is the millions (billions?) of people who truly believe that their religious sect is, was, and always will be correct.
And whose Truth is it, exactly, that they are pursuing? By definition, its the truths of sages/prophets who died long ago; its the conventional religious Truths of his/her country or (to a much lesser extent) community, which generally means Christian, Hindu, or Muslim. It is truths that have been handed to him/her by others, with fixed forms of imitation communicated by tradition.
It is second-hand religion, detached from any demands of efficacy or meaning to the individual.
At any point that the individual experience comes in to overrule the tradition, Heresy is born. At best, the heretic finds something that allows him/her to have a greater connection to something bigger than themselves, something providing greater meaning and fulfillment, or even just more truthful. At worst, this simply becomes a new sect, determining a new second-hand religion for people to follow as devout Believers.
(A favorite quote by a John Edwards, no not that John Edwards, but the one he was probably named after, a greatly influential preacher from the 19th century: “these cold dead saints do more hurt than natural men, and lead more souls to hell, and that it would be well for mankind if they were all dead.”
Okay that’s getting a bit big for now, so let’s zoom in to Judaism, and Jewish Heresy. The term in play in Hebrew is “Minim”, plural of “Min”. Pleasantly, the etymology seems to jive with that of Heretic as well. There’s some debate, but Biblically “Min” (mem yud nun) meant “species”, later “sort”, or “kind”.
The Torah isn’t so strict here (mostly against idolatry), but the Talmud is full of descriptions of what makes a heretic/min. From Hilchot Teshuva and Senhedrin sources, here are some examples of what makes for a Jewish heretic:
(Obvious ones): One who denies the existence of God or the ruler of the world, maintains He has a body or a form, or denies that He is the sole First Being and Creator of all existence, or denies the Creator is aware of men and other deeds
(Torah) One who denies that even one verse or one word of Torah is from God, or One who denies Torah’s interpretation, the oral law, or disputes the authority of its spokesmen.
One who believes in an independent divinity of evil.
One who denies Israel’s chosenness
One who denies the coming of the Messiah and the physical resurrection to follow
Anyone reading still left standing? Because the next one is my personal favorite:
One who believes in a power intermediary between God and man, or who serves entities that serve as intermediary between him and the eternal Lord.
Why is that last one my favorite? Because it’s the one I most believe in – that our religious/spiritual lives should be governed by our own uniquely personal relationship with the divine, however defined by the individual. I also find it contradictory to the rest, as it (a concept inherent in much of Judaism) demands that we interact with God without placing anyone or anything between us as intermediary. (This is also the definition of The Enthusiast, after all).
It is also the one rule against Heresy that, while I’d be most vehement about following, actually leads us to Heresy. If we ignore the intermediaries, what is our religion anyhow?
Just to round out the conversation about Jewish Heresy, since especially after writing this diddy I would at the very least be a Kofer (a “free thinker”, a type of Jewish heretic), here are some examples of Jews in history that were deemed to be Heretics (thx wikipedia, links left in):
- Jesus (obviously)
- Maimonides: His works were condemned and burned; today they are Orthodoxy
- Baruch Spinoza: Excommunicated
- Moshe Haim Luzzatto: A great Jewish ethicist, excommunicated
- Chassidism: For believing in the powers of the Tzaddik  and the immortality of the Rebbe
- Mordecai Kaplan: Excommunicated by Union of Orthodox Rabbis
Heresy, as believing in ways contradictory to Orthodoxy or to “normal”, causes discomfort from both sides – the religious and secular. I hit the religious more last time, so on the secular – for those without religious “baggage”, it’s an uncomfortable term because it reeks of religion (and for good reason). But I believe (independent of and ignoring reasons) our minds are simply hard-wired to at a minimum contemplate systems that are greater than those that can be seen or measured.
Example – I was talking to a secular Jewish friend last week (so, yes, not devoid of religious baggage, but stay with me), and the question at hand was, in a totally secular perspective, what is a Jew? I was expecting something about ethnicity (a severe discomfort of mine, blog post on that coming whenever I get around to it, and am ready for the backlash), but what she said was that Jews seem to be a group that share a common history and common path forward.
Any time someone says something about a “common” human path, or any other sort of “meaning” in the chaos of our world, or even about any common morality or overarching truths – I hear it as an admission of a belief in something greater than ourselves at play.
Hell, even superstitions should be categorized there.
So, back to our minds, if we are hard wired to, in fact, benefit from the contemplation of something greater, how can we “play” with that in a way that works for us? It seems the ultra-secular trend leaves much of that potential fallow. And it’s in this trend that Heresy strikes as religious. So:
Heresy keeps us in the system of actively and personally exploring the meaning and benefits of forces greater than ourselves which remain mysteries.
Call it God, YHWH, Mohammed, Jesus, Brahman – they are all simply modalities for each of us to explore the mystery, providing transcendental ways to evaluate and construct our lives.
However, these models generally don’t work perfectly if we consume them as they were dictated by humans before us, humans who had their own perspectives and hangups in their models of the world. Even pure revelation, God ‘speaking’ to man, is received by us from the hand or mouth of man in these models (eg 2nd hand religion).
Thus, the need for heresy, as it bridges the personal experience of the world, the mystery, and even the divine, with the first-hand religious experiences that have come before us. Without heresy, we lose the benefits of first hand religion. Baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
In fact, the result of a lack of Heresy seems to be a concretion of 2nd-hand religion, as that will be the modality for anyone to opt in or out of – in Judaism, this would mean what many people are assuming anyway, than in a few generations Orthodox Judaism will be all that exists.
And, personally speaking now, I find the 2nd hand religious experience to be so disconnected from the world that I perceive regularly, and the divine that I try to connect to, that I have no interest in a system that doesn’t allow for heresy.
(Maybe) last one for now in this mini-series. But I thought this point deserved its own post…
I’ve had an extremely ambivalent relationship to Judaism over my life. Love-Hate, and then some. But one aspect always deeply appealed to me: that no questions were off limits.
From the time I was 11, starting Bar Mitzvah studies, I questioned everything religious. Every rabbi I worked with (which, perhaps a key point for a reason I’ll get to in a moment) came from an Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox background, a reflection of where my family came from, including my Father. And I was never told that any of my questions were inappropriate.
In fact, I learned that Judaism encouraged questioning everything. And this became the Judaism I loved.
The Judaism I connect to nowadays, and in shrinking amounts as a result, seems a long way from that embrace of skepticism. It’s a Jewish community, ironically, not steeped in Orthodoxy or deep knowledge, and it’s one that is very uncomfortable with questions, let alone heresy. It’s a “fit-in” Judaism, where everyone participating needs to: a) believe in Jewish Survivalism, or at least put ethnicity over religious efficacy; b) be Zionist / see the modern state of Israel as our “north star”; c) believe the form of Judaism being practiced is an eternal, true Judaism; etc, etc, etc.
The times that I have questioned these principles, I was lambasted by groups of people. Even those who may have seen logic in my explanation didn’t help – for example, I have been told that even if I am right, I am “offending the identity of my fellow Jews”.
So here’s the thing – I find that heretical, and part of a tradition that doesn’t seem to want me any more than I want it.
My rabbi Asi (I’d name him fully but will get his permission before doing so in this context), is an orthodox, frum (observant of all Jewishlaws / Halakha) man who lives in the great spiritual Israeli city of Tzvat / Safed. I don’t hold back with him, and we disagree a fair amount. But he is almost always open to discussion and has some great answers to my skeptical questions.
For example on that: I don’t believe the earth is 5,778 years old. I believe in observation and discovery, and I deem those as religiously valid since they are just analysis (if one believes) of God’s creation. Asi is steadfast in his belief of a <6,000 year old earth. So, as one might guess, I turned the conversation to carbon dating. We have very good, reliable methods for determining how old matter is, and it’s a hell of a lot older than 6,000 years.
Asi’s answer: Let’s say God decided to create an apple on my desk right now. The apple never existed before, no traces, and suddenly due to divine will, it was here. Now, we take that apple to the science lab and ask them to use their dating technology to figure out how old the apple is. What will they say? One day old? Probably not. And here’s the point – they might say it’s millions of years old, even though I can go ahead and eat it now.
The conversation entered the mystery, and despite my biases to think differently than Asi, I could not rationally argue with the logic. It simply becomes an argument around “Is there a God that created the universe”, and that’s beyond human determination.
Back to my heresy point…
On occasion, I do feel the tension of my heresy with Asi’s deep belief. This came up recently with emendations (changes to the text of Torah…basically that Rabbis made changes to the Torah text, which means it’s not the 100% divine document it’s made out to be…), and I pushed him hard on it.
Honestly, I felt a little bad afterwards, because I don’t like to offend people’s beliefs to a point of offending their identity. (To the point on identity above, it’s a reason I stopped having many of these conversations/disagreements/arguments… there’s no ‘winning’). So I said I acknowledged by heresy, and sorry if I offended.
His answer: No Q is heretical. We got to figure it out and the only way to do it is to ask.
And he sent me to the ancient wisdom of the Ethics of Our Fathers, Pirkei Avot, 2:5:
[Hillel] was accustomed to say: A boor cannot fear sin. An ignorant person cannot be pious. A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn. An impatient person cannot teach. Not all who engage in a lot of business become wise. In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.
Specifically to this topic: A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn. In other definitions, it’s a “shy” person (and in other definitions, I prefer the business aphorism to read: Business dealings to not make one wise).
But the point is that: if we are afraid to be reprimanded, or hold back from a desire to “fit in”, we will never truly learn.
Here’s to embracing heresy….