January 15, 2021   ✦   2 Sh'vat, 5781   ✦   Torah Portion: Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35   ✦   Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

There are two types of apostates — one who repudiates a single prohibition and one who repudiates the entire Torah.

One who repudiates a single prohibition is one who determines to do a particular sin willfully. It has [further] become well known and he has become accustomed to it. [This is so] even if the prohibition is minor, as one who has become accustomed to wear ‘sha’atnez’ (clothes containing a mixture of wool and linen) or to ’round off’ the corners [of his hair] (i.e., to shave off his sideburns), so that it is as if this commandment is annulled from the world as far as he is concerned. Such a person is an apostate regarding that [particular] matter — provided he does so out of spite (lit., ‘to anger’).

One who repudiates the entire Torah is such as one who adopts to the ways of the Gentiles at a time when they are promulgating decrees against the practice of Judaism (lit., ‘they are decreeing apostasy’). He cleaves to them (the Gentiles), saying, “What benefit is there to me to cleave to Israel, since they are lowly and pursued?” [thinking] it is better for him to cleave to these, who have the upper hand (lit., ‘whose hands are stronger’). Such a person is considered an apostate to the entire Torah.

This week the Rambam continues to list the very few exceptions to the principle that all Israel is granted a share in the World to Come. Up until now the Rambam has been listing people who reject Judaism philosophically — who refuse to accept Judaism’s basic tenets, such as the belief in G-d or the authenticity of the Torah. Now the Rambam turns to people who do accept Judaism philosophically but whose behavior is so sinful as to warrant their exclusion from the Chosen Nation.

The Hebrew term the Rambam uses here (according to the more accurate edition) is “meshumad”. It is based on the word “sh’mad”, which literally means destruction, but which the Sages often employ to refer to religious persecution. When the Gentile authorities would force Jews to apostasy or would make decrees against the observance of the Torah, they would be decreeing “sh’mad” — destruction — on the Jewish people. Likewise, a “meshumad” is one who adopts the religion of the Gentiles, ultimately dooming himself to eternal damnation.

As the Rambam makes clear over here, a full-fledged apostate is one who converts out, but does not do so for philosophical reasons but for pragmatic (or better: opportunistic) ones. He sees no reason to be a part of the downtrodden, persecuted Jewish nation, but would rather side with the winners. Who needs the snubs, discrimination and disadvantages which are the lot of the Jews? Better to join the winning team — if they’ll let us that is — and lose ourselves within the majority.

Note that the Rambam does not even seem to entertain that a person would reject Judaism for another religion for philosophical reasons. He does not categorize the apostate as a rejecter of Judaism’s tenets — as the earlier categories until now, just as an opportunist. This is because it was unimaginable to the Rambam (and the Sages for the matter) that a person would actually reject a religion so logically based and firmly grounded for a newly-invented religion for any reason other than the practical. To leave for greener pastures and wider opportunities, perhaps. But to leave for conviction and theology — because you actually believe in a virgin birth, the prophecy of Mohammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, etc. — forget it.

The first example the Rambam gives this week is one who rejects a single Torah law, and he does so not out of weakness but out of spite. Thus, one who knows and admits his behavior is wrong but claims he cannot control himself is excluded. Such a person will deserve punishment for his sin but will ultimately earn a share in the World to Come.

The truth is, such an attitude is also a terrible fallacy. For a person to claim he just couldn’t control himself and had to sin is plain wrong. G-d never puts man in a situation in which he is forced to sin. That would fly in the face of the entire purpose of creation — that G-d places us here to overcome challenges and earn reward. (In truth, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 4b) actually mentions two exceptions to this in history — situations in which G-d made the challenge unnaturally difficult — the Golden Calf and David with Bathsheba. The Talmud explains that these were in order to create a precedent of repentance for those who do sin. But, regardless, those were one-time historical exceptions to an axiomatic rule.)

Thus, there is virtually no such thing as an impossible situation. If G-d challenged us with a tempting situation, it was because He knew we could overcome it. Thus, one who basically gives up on himself and just completely ignores a Torah law out of weakness is not only tragically wrong, but is fooling himself — and deep down knows this. (In fact, one opinion of the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 26b) considers the rejecter out of weakness also to be an apostate who loses his share in the hereafter.) There is simply no such thing as a G-d-given challenge we cannot overcome.

Even so, on one level such behavior is excusable. If a person knows and admits he is doing wrong — even if he doesn’t even try to stop himself, at least he subscribes to G-d’s Torah. He knows G-d said he shouldn’t; he knows G-d is angry and deeply disappointed. He may do nothing about it today, but at least he adheres to the right beliefs. He may be willingly bringing upon himself terrible burdens of sinfulness and guilt, and he certainly has a very warped view of himself and of G-d’s ways, yet bottom line his rebellion is out of weakness rather than rejection. He does accept G-d’s commandments and knows that ultimately he must adhere to them — or be called to task for his failure. And perhaps one day his knowledge will spur him to action.

Yet one who rejects a mitzvah — any one, even the most trivial (in his eyes) — and he does so out of anger, has written himself out entirely. Out of weakness: OK, we’re all human. But to turn that weakness into an attitude — “Who does G-d think He is telling me what to do?” “An all-merciful G-d couldn’t possible have really forbidden X — regardless of what the Torah, Talmud and Jewish law all say!” “Doesn’t G-d have more important things to worry about than how I dress or how long my sleeves are?” etc. Such G-d cannot countenance.

Now to us such arguments sound ludicrous. But there’s a little voice in us which wants to speak just that way — whether verbally or not. Who wants to admit he’s a failure? We’d much rather twist and turn, converting our weaknesses into a policy: This is the right way to behave because G-d couldn’t have really meant it, He had no business saying so, He’s probably too busy to notice or whatever. (These excuses actually border on heresy — that G-d doesn’t notice what I do etc. — and might be excluded by the Rambam’s earlier categories.) Again, laughable to anyone serious about G-d but something we’re a whole lot closer to than we’d like to admit. (To be fair, most of us are guilty of such behavior when dealing with some gray area of behavior — where we convince ourselves that what we’re doing must clearly be justified.)

Note that such a person — who theoretically may perform 612 commandments perfectly but rejects a single one — is worse than someone who really is a lousy Jew but at least subscribes to all the commandments. The latter person is a just a plain old sinner — and he is bold enough to swallow his pride and admit that he is wrong. The former person, however, has written himself off utterly. He does not accept G-d’s sovereignty in the first place.

R. Yonah of Gerona (great ethicist of 13th Century Spain) in his work The Gates of Repentance (I:6) likens such a person to a slave who tells his master he will obey everything the master says except one thing. Such a person is not a slave at all — and so even what he does perform is basically worthless. In the most profound sense, he has not accepted G-d’s sovereignty. He may be doing a lot of nice acts but he’s really no different from the proverbial good Samaritan. He may behave wonderfully most of the time, but without G-d in command he is serving no one other than himself.

(I’ve had the opportunity to counsel many wayward Jews, who have or who wanted to toss out much of their religious observance. I often tell them — beg them: Do yourself a favor. Maintain the attitude that you know G-d wants you to do more but you just can’t control yourself now. Whatever you do, don’t make a “policy” out of your behavior: “I am not bound by this.” “Who does G-d think He is telling me what to do?” etc. If you adopt the latter position, you have basically written yourself off from the nation — eternally. Rather, keep in the way back of your mind the thought that you know you should be better and that G-d wants more of you, but for whatever crazy reason, you’re not going to do it right now.)

With this we can gain a better understanding of the Rambam’s second example — one who rejects the entire Torah and joins the Gentiles on account of persecution. Clearly, such a person is not rejecting the Torah out of spite: if he were, the rejection of a single commandment would write him off. Rather, he rejects for opportunistic reasons. To avoid the physical, social or economic disadvantages of being Jewish, he joins the majority culture.

We might be inclined to ask why such a person is considered an apostate at all. He really does believe in G-d and the Torah. As so many times in history, his “rebellion” is merely a front for his personal advancement. (It was said about Prof. Daniel Chwolson (1819-1911), a Jewish convert to Christianity who became a professor of Oriental languages in St. Petersburg University, was once asked if he converted out of conviction (since a university professorship would have been denied to Jews at the time). He responded: “Yes, I was convinced it was better to be a professor in St. Petersburg than a melamed in Eyshishok!”)

(Throughout history, the Gentiles have rightly suspected such superficial converts as not really being of the faith. They were foolish enough to believe that forcing us to convert would really “solve” their Jewish problem. All of a sudden — for example in Spain after the Expulsion, a large body of ambitious, enterprising Jews allegedly did become Christians — and could no longer be excluded — and the Gentiles’ troubles really began. See Talmud Beitzah 25b that the Jews are a “fierce” people, and had G-d not given us the Torah no nation could withstand us.)

If so, why is such a person — who merely halfheartedly approached the baptismal font — truly an apostate? He may not be observing the Torah, but it is not at all because of spite, it’s nothing more than frustration or disenchantment? He doesn’t really believe it! Deep down, no doubt, he would far prefer to remain faithful to G-d’s Torah if only he had the chance. (Up until the 19th Century (at least) vestiges of Jewish practices were still found among Spaniards descended from the Marranos.)

The answer is that such a person too refuses to accept G-d’s sovereignty. One who accepts 612 commandments but not the 613’th is not a servant of G-d at all. Likewise one who jumps ship for greener pastures (hmm… well you get the idea), fundamentally is not accepting G-d’s mastery and the Jewish mission. Even if such a person would rather remain Jewish, his rejection is clearly a statement that he lives for his own agenda rather than submitting to G-d. He has placed himself outside the Jewish camp. He lives for his own purposes — whether for his own social or economic betterment or even to escape persecution. But he does not live for G-d. And so, such a person is not a servant of G-d at all. Preferring to serve G-d only if the opportunity arises is just not enough. If you’re truly a servant, you’ll stay with G-d and Israel through thick and thin. Being a part of Israel is not open to discussion, no matter how trying the circumstances and how alluring the opportunities without. It is not enough to be a Jew in your heart. For on the most profound level, being a Jew means being a part of the Jewish nation, with all the challenges, difficulties and privileges that entails.