"Those who cause the public to sin, whether one who brings them to
sin in a serious matter, such as Jeroboam, Tsaddok and Bysos, or whether one
brings them to sin in a minor matter, even to annul a positive mitzvah
(commandment). Likewise, one who forces others until they sin, as Manasseh
(Menashe), who used to kill Jews until they would perform idolatry, or one
who causes others to err and pushes them away [from Torah observance] as
This week the Rambam continues to list sinners so reprehensible they lose
their share in the World to Come. We are now in the second half of the
Rambam's list, discussing people whose rebellion in not philosophical --
they presumably believe in G-d and His Torah, but whose behavior is so
sinful as to set them apart from the Jewish nation entirely.
The Rambam illustrates this week's law with several examples from Scripture
or Jewish history. Jeroboam (Heb: Yeravam; see I Kings 11-12) was the first
ruler of the Kingdom of Israel, the breakaway nation from the united twelve
tribes of Israel. After King Solomon's death, his son Rehoboam (Rechavam)
insisted on taxing Israel oppressively, against the advice of his older
advisers. As a result, most of the nation rejected him for his rival
Jeroboam, a former servant of Solomon. Ten of the twelve tribes sided with
Jeroboam. Only the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained faithful
to the House of David.
Now Jeroboam had a difficulty maintaining a kingdom in the north. The Temple
stood in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom (which then became
known as the Kingdom of Judah). Not only was that the center of Israel's
religious life, but by Torah law virtually all Jews are obligated to
pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year on the major holidays. Jeroboam
justly feared that as a result of such a mass exodus, with his entire nation
viewing Rehoboam presiding over the Temple service occurring in his capital
city, the hearts of the people would naturally return to Jerusalem and the
House of David.
To halt this feared process of reconciliation with the south, Jeroboam
forbade the triannual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, instead erecting two golden
calves in his kingdom, one in the territory of Dan in the north, the other
in Beit El in the territory of Ephraim in the south, complete with their own
altars, priests (not from the tribe of Levi) and holidays. From that point
on, idolatry basically became accepted and routine in the northern kingdom,
until its well-deserved destruction at the hands of Sennacherib centuries
later (II Kings 18), as well as the dispersal and almost complete
disappearance of the northern tribes until modern times.
Throughout Jewish writings, the Sages basically view Jeroboam as the worst
of the worst. He was one of the very few individuals listed in the Mishna
(Sanhedrin 10:1) as not receiving a share in the World to Come. The Rambam
himself, when he discusses the concept of free will in Chapter 5, writes
that every person can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.
Likewise, Scripture often refers to later wicked kings of Israel as
following in the footsteps of Jeroboam -- even though many of them were far
worse than he (see Talmud Sanhedrin 102b). Jeroboam became the paradigm of
wickedness, the benchmark against which all later kings were compared. To
this the Talmud explains, all was laid on Jeroboam because he began the
process . Once he made idolatry acceptable and fashionable, there was little
holding Israel back from wholesale depravity and destruction.
This begins to shed light on the true evil of one who bring the many to sin.
The reason it is so destructive and irreversibly evil is not only because it
brings so many to wickedness. The Rambam's final example was Manasseh, a
later king of Judah (see II Kings 21) who forced his citizens to idol
worship at sword point (I'm actually not sure what the Rambam's source for
this is). Although one *is* obligated to give his life rather than perform
idolatry, the people were hardly as culpable for what they did under duress.
Likewise, no sane Jew in the Kingdom of Israel really believed that
Jeroboam's magic cows created the world and redeemed Israel from bondage. It
wasn't as if everyone in the north to a man was so thoroughly wicked (and
gullible) -- nor was everyone in the south so pious.
Even so, Jeroboam's evil was virtually unmatched -- and unpardonable. And
the reason for this is very basic. There is a difference between sinning and
making sin acceptable. Ordinarily if a person sins, he knows he's rotten. He
knows G-d is disappointed and he should be better. "Truth" has not been
tampered with, only an individual's adherence to it.
If, however, "everyone" starts engaging in certain sins, even minor ones and
even halfheartedly, the standards of society have been lowered. There is all
of a sudden nothing "wrong" any more with acting a certain way. Idolatry is
"official;" it's condoned, it's state policy. Personally someone may want to
be a little bit more traditional, but that's a matter of personal conscience
and conviction. Formally, there is nothing wrong with idolatry. And once
that intellectual red line is crossed, whether whole- or halfheartedly, all
hell basically breaks loose -- figuratively and literally.
(And by the way, the Talmud attests that Jeroboam was practically the
greatest Torah scholar of his generation (Sanhedrin 102a). He in fact was
appointed *by G-d* (via the prophet Achiya HaShiloni) to lead the breakaway
northern kingdom (I Kings 11). No doubt he had a long beard as well and
looked the part of the Torah scholar. If so, if *he* says idolatry is
alright it can't be all that bad... Only as great and terrible a man as
Jeroboam can single-handedly bring so much destruction upon the nation.)
Let's move on to one of the Rambam's other examples, which tragically is
somewhat closer to home. Tsaddok and Bysos were students of Antignos of
Socho, one of the great sages of the late Second Temple period, immediately
preceding the era of the Mishna (see Pirkei Avos 1:3).
Because of a misunderstood teaching of their master, they came to the
conclusion that there is no World to Come. (See the above link for a fuller
explanation.) They likewise came to the conclusion that although the
authenticity of the Bible was incontestable (as millions saw G-d at Mount
Sinai a mere millennia before), the Oral Law (the Mishna, Talmud, etc.) was
a much less authentic rabbinic innovation.
The two of them created separate but similar movements in Israel, known as
the Tsaddukim (Sadducees) and Bysusim (Boethusians), which accepted
Scripture (and no doubt much of the commentary of the Oral Law -- as the
Written Law is incomprehensible without it), but which rejected the
authority of the Rabbis, preferring to stick much closer to the literal
meaning of the Torah's text.
Tsaddok and Bysos thus perpetrated a similar evil to Jeroboam, creating new
movements within Israel. To the unlearned masses there now appeared to be
three equally legitimate and acceptable variations of Judaism. And two of
them were of course much more alluring -- the nice, inspiring,
feel-good-but-hopelessly-vague messages of Scripture unencumbered by the
many onerous details piled on by the Rabbis. It was the first of many
attempts to adopt the moral injunctions of Scripture without having to
bother with the particulars of what G-d actually wants.
And this demonstrates the true evil of bringing the masses to sin. Lower the
standards of society overall and people will no longer have to feel guilt
over their misbehavior. They're not sinning. They're simply obeying the
accepted standards -- or adhering to "alternate" Judaism.
I've heard from several people who were not raised religious that they grew
up with the notion that there are three equally authentic strains of Judaism
- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Take your pick; they're all apple pie
Pardon my throwing political correctness to the wind, but this is simply
wrong -- dead wrong, and I mean that literally. Orthodoxy is basically
Judaism as it was observed from time immemorial whereas the other two
strains are extremely recent inventions with no real historical basis. This
is not to say that Orthodoxy has not picked up many practices, customs and
stringencies in the last millennia. As I once heard R. Berel Wein put it, we've saved a lot of
bathwater over the years in the interests of preserving the baby. And
likewise, there is the very legitimate issue of adapting to new times and
new situations. There is and must be room for adaptation in Jewish law and
accommodating new surroundings and situations. Yet Orthodoxy today is built
upon the rock-solid foundation of Torah law, slowly adapted to the modern
world. The law never changes, only its application in different ages and
societies. And there is certainly much legitimate variation in its observance.
By contrast, any movement which does not accept the Torah's basic premises
and laws cannot in any way lay claim to legitimacy in the eyes of G-d. And
if its history is no older than the past 200 years -- curiously precisely as
the Enlightenment gripped Western man -- its claim to authenticity is that
much less plausible.
In spite of all of this, in the eyes of the unlearned Jewish world all
strains of Judaism are equally valid. In fact, how can one group be so
fundamentalist and intolerant as to claim only it knows the truth? Who do
they think they are insisting that theirs is the only true way of serving
G-d? How do they know? What makes them any more authentic than we? Thus,
tragically, the very adherents to the Torah become characterized as the
backward-minded enemies of the true pluralistic nature of Judaism.
And this again is the evil to which the Rambam refers. As recently as 200
years ago anyone who failed to observe the Torah knew he was sinful and at
fault. There were certainly no shortage of sinners then and now, but at
least no one had the chutzpah to deny what G-d's Torah said. That had been
handed to us in an unbroken chain from Sinai.
Today however, the world has become so turned inside out that such givens no
longer exist. All branches of Judaism are equally valid; anyone who dares
challenge that cherished and sacred premise is the arrogant and
fundamentalist enemy of enlightened man. Only Islam (equally tragically)
refuses to accept that anyone else just might be right.
I like to end my classes on a positive note, but at this point there is
little positive to say. Sadly, the evil to which the Rambam here refers has
taken such tragic and catastrophic hold upon Israel that precious little of
the truth remains sacred. The vast majority of Israel (let alone the rest of
the world) does not know what Judaism truly is and what G-d wants of them. I
only pray that G-d reveal Himself speedily and that we, the very few bearers
of His word, faulted as we may be, be granted the strength and ability to
reveal His greatness for all to see.