The Jewish nation is a people of faith and, as part of our unique combination of peoplehood and religion, must grapple with defining heresy. Jewish life has a basic, structured framework, but, within that, lies a great deal of latitude for individuality. So what makes one a “heretic”?
Maimonides (Rambam, 12th century, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Repentance 3:7-8) categorizes three types of heretics:
(1) Minim - those who deny God and the Torah, those who believe there is more than one Divine law (like the Torah), those who believe God has a physical body, those who believe God did not create the world alone and those who worship stars/constellations as intermediaries to the Divine.
(2) Kofrim ba’Torah - those who say that the Torah is not from God, those who deny the authority of the rabbis and those who say that God gave a new set of laws to supplant the old.
(3) Apikorsim - those who deny that prophecy ever existed, those who deny Moses’ status as a prophet and those who say that God has no knowledge of or involvement in human activities.
In an age where questioning faith is a common public activity, this definition of heresy might be quite unsettling. However, an important caveat must be added. These determining definitions of a heretic ONLY apply to a person who has studied Torah and Jewish law extensively, someone who understands Jewish law (halacha) and philosophy but, nevertheless, rejects it. (The example being Elisha ben Abuya, a.k.a. Acher.)
The average Jewish man or woman who struggles with faith is encouraged to continue their quest for the truth. In fact, the Hebrew word “Israel” can be translated to mean “he who wrestles with God,” perhaps alluding to the fact that Jews, as individuals and as a nation, are not the type to follow along blindly, but are those who struggle to fully understand their relationship with the Divine.
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