Writing Yourself Off
Chapter 3, Law 9
"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 such a person
would reject the Jewish religion for another 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 grass and wider opportunities, perhaps. But to leave for
conviction and theology -- 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.
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.
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 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.
(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, a large body of ambitious, enterprising Jews
allegedly *did* become Christians -- and could no longer be excluded -- and
the Gentiles' troubles really began.)
If so, why is such 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 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 abandons 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.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org