Who’s (Not) a Heretic?
Like many others, I grew up with the understanding that there really weren’t any bona fide apikorsim (heretics) any longer. “Do you know how much a person has to know before he can be considered an apikorus?” teachers used to say. The assumption was that one had to have studied far in excess of the hoi poloi to be a candidate for the title. (One cynical young man I knew sported a T-shirt with the slogan “Aspiring Apikorus.”)
Discovering the Chazon Ish changed all that. The Gemara is quite clear about urging an “exit strategy” for them, in a manner short of actively spilling their blood. However, says the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 2:16), this was true only when the community clearly recognized the operation of Divine Providence in its midst, and understood that any backsliding towards transgression jeopardized society by compromising its relationship with G-d. Eliminating spiritual fifth columnists was roundly appreciated as vital to the security of the community. In contemporary times, ridding ourselves of heretics would cause even greater contempt for religion, and is counterproductive. We have no choice, he says, but to attempt to win back the heretics with bonds of love.
Implicit in this approach is that heretics are not a thing of the past. They live among us, even today. A heretic need not be a gadol hador (Torah giant) who went bad. Heretics today know enough that they can be considered genuine rejectionists, not benighted souls victimized by their unfortunate ignorance.
So heresy came back to life as a functional category of people. In more recent times, the potential for heresy grew exponentially as some uncovered a new way to bring more folks under the heresy umbrella. The argument goes something like this. “My rebbi/ rebbe/ rosh yeshiva etc. is a very important talmid chacham (Torah scholar). The Gemara states that disparaging a talmid chacham makes one an apikorus. Now my rebbi, etc. holds X. Nothing could be more disparaging of him than for you to contravene or ignore X. Since you have elected to disobey, you are therefore a heretic.”
Those who are suspect that there is something wrong with this thinking and can’t put their finger on it will take comfort in a passage in Metiv Shir (8:10), the Netziv’s commentary to Shir HaShirim.
This teaches us that we should not distant ourselves from people who are not Bnei Torah, even while they violate the Torah. We should nonetheless seek out their merit, as according to Avos D’Rav Nosson (chapter 16): “What is ‘hatred of people’ [that we are instructed to avoid]? This reaches that a person should not say ‘Love the Sages – and despise the disciples;’ [or] ‘Love the disciples, and despise the commoners.’ Rather, you should love all of them, and hate the apikorsim, as it is said, ‘Those who pronounce Your Name for wicked schemes…For indeed those who hate You, Hashem, I hate them and I quarrel with those who rise up against You (Tehilim 139:20-21) .’”
The Tanna precisely explains which apikorus we are allowed and instructed to hate – those who “pronounce Your Name for wicked schemes,” i.e. [arguing] G-d has abandoned the world; there is no Judge and no judgment. The amei haaretz – even those who hate and ridicule the Sages and the disciples (and who are termed apikorsim by Chazal in Chapter Chelek [the last chapter in Sanhedrin]) – you are not permitted to scorn and hate! Rambam and Shulchan Aruch write similarly: Apikorsim are those who deny Torah and prophecy in Israel, etc. This is unlike the Ran cited by the Shach that even those who disparage Torah scholars are included in the category of apikorsim for the purposes described there in Shulchan Aruch. Chazal term such people apikorsim only in the sense that they are treated as such by Heaven. In the laws of Man, it is forbidden to hate them.
I trust that readers will inventively find new ways we can label people apikorsim so that we will replenish any losses caused by the Netziv.