Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Irreligious Jews


The status of Jews who are not observant of halacha is discussed by Chazal in many places. The overall picture one gets is that we are to distance ourselves from such individuals. Many of the obligations we have toward our fellow Torah-observant Jews, do not apply to those who do not view themselves as bound by the commandments of the Torah.[1]

While Chazal also tell us that we must bring people closer to Torah[2] and act in a manner that causes people to love Hashem,[3] it is hard to believe that this was intended to supersede or overshadow the more dominant message of distancing ourselves from non-believers. It appears that Chazal believed it possible to have sufficient of a positive influence on others just by setting a good example from a distance.

However, today a very different approach is taken by almost the entire religious Jewish world. Many institutions exist for the sole purpose of outreach to our non-religious brethren, and much stress is put on showing them our love. Rabbis differ as to who should be involved in these outreach activities and at which stage in their lives, but opposition to the entire concept is rare.

This change did not take place due to ignorance of the words of Chazal, and much has been written to explain why different circumstances call for this different approach. Here my aim is to analyse some of these explanations, examining which of them are persuasive and when, together with some important ramifications.


Chazal tell us that heretics and those who flagrantly transgress in order to anger Hashem should be 'lowered in to a pit' (i.e. killed through indirect means).[4] However, the Rambam writes that this only applies to one who made the decision to rebel of their own accord, following their 'weak mind' and the 'whims of their heart.' The offspring of these people, who were raised as non-believers, cannot be held responsible for their actions, even if they later saw religious practice. Such a person is akin to a Jewish baby kidnapped and raised by non-Jews (Tinok Shenishba).[5]

Today it is generally assumed that most irreligious Jews fall into the category of Tinok Shenishba, as they were not raised with the awareness that the commandments of the Torah are binding. This is the halachic justification for the prevalent attitude towards these Jews, and the logic appears to be sound.

However, there are also a large number of Jews who were raised as religious, but have either left the fold completely or rejected major parts of the Torah. It would appear that we cannot grant these individuals exemption from the punitive measures of Chazal due to ignorance. Yet generally, no differentiation is made between these different categories of irreligious Jews, and we are encouraged to show love to all of them.


Another example of Chazal's attitude to transgressors is their explanation of the Torah's command to assist even a person one hates with the unloading of his overburdened donkey.[6] Chazal question how it can be permitted to hate another Jew, and answer that the donkey owner referred to is one who has transgressed. It is permitted, or according to one opinion, even a mitzvah to hate this transgressor.[7]

The Chafetz Chaim claims that this 'leniency' or mitzvah to hate transgressors does not apply today. He quotes a responsa of Maharam miLublin (1558-1616, Poland), who writes that initially it is forbidden to hate the sinner, and instead one must rebuke him for his actions. Only if the transgressor refuses to accept rebuke and persists with his actions, it is a mitzvah to hate him.[8]

In our times, the Chafetz Chaim argues that no-one is able to give (effective) rebuke, and as such, there is no transgressor who 'refuses to accept rebuke.' Were the sinner to have received effective rebuke, he may have accepted it. It follows that it remains forbidden to hate him.[9]

The difficulty with this is that the concept of there not being anyone able to give effective rebuke is not a new one. This was first stated by R' Elazar ben Azarya, in a beraisa quoted in the gemara.[10] Yet it was never suggested that this exempts us from attempting rebuke, and the halachos of giving rebuke appear explicitly in Shulchan Aruch.[11] The Chafetz Chaim himself, in the Mishna Berura, does not mention any difference in the application of these laws due to the lack of ability to give rebuke.[12]

Certainly, the corollary drawn by the Chafetz Chaim was not applied or even suggested previously. The same responsum of Mahram miLublin quoted by the Chafetz Chaim, states explicitly that if rebuke is not accepted, the transgressor should be hated. Perhaps the Chafetz Chaim felt that our ability to give effective rebuke had diminished further by his generation, but if this were the case, we would have expected an exemption from the mitzvah of giving rebuke.

It should also be added that even were we to accept the claim of the Chafetz Chaim, it is not obvious that his argument remains relevant today. The numerous outreach organisations who devote huge amounts of time on bringing Jews back to religion, clearly believe that it is possible to give effective rebuke.[13] If this is the case, one who has been exposed to such outreach and has not been convinced, does not have the 'excuse' of the Chafetz Chaim for not being religious.

Divine Hiddenness

The Chazon Ish writes that the halacha of 'lowering into a pit' only applied when Divine Providence was clear through regular miracles, and to be a heretic required a unique level of impudence. Then, it was clear to all that killing off these people was a means of sealing a breach for the benefit of society. At a time when faith is lacking even among simple people, applying the same rule would only be seen as destructive and violent, and widen the breach rather than seal it.[14]

Although the Chazon Ish only explicitly writes this difference in relation to killing people, it seems fair to assume that any active sanctioning of transgressors would also be ineffective and therefore should not be attempted. However, this appears only to be for practical reasons. Internally, we should know that the actions of transgressors are as inherently bad as they always were.[15]

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch and other earlier poskim appear not to subscribe to the position of the Chazon Ish. They do not make any distinction between earlier generations and their own. The Chazon Ish may have felt that in the Middle Ages, Divine Providence was still apparent, and only became hidden relatively recently. The only alternative is that earlier poskim failed to notice the change, or its effect on halacha.

Honest Heresy

There is also another possibility which may have been overlooked by at least the majority of the classical poskim, including the Chazon Ish. Some people may fail to be convinced that they are obligated by halacha, even if they have learnt Torah and don't fall into the category of Tinok Shenishba. They are aware of the Torah's value system, but reject it in favour of alternatives.

Such individuals have always existed, but historically, the assumption was that these people did not honestly deny the truth of the Torah. They followed their evil inclination, despite knowing internally that their path was wrong. Therefore no exemption applied, and they remained subject to all the sanctions Chazal impose on transgressors.

This assumption was likely correct in the overwhelming majority of cases in the past, but today this may no longer be true. From my own experience with people who either used to be religious, or never were but have learned about Jewish religious practice to some depth, many of them appear genuine in their non-belief. Although they are misguided, it is hard to accuse them of knowingly rejecting the truth.

This phenomenon was already noted by the Radvaz in the sixteenth century. He writes that one who makes a mistake in his philosophical analysis, leading to denial of one of the fundamental principles of our religion, is not a heretic.[16]

If it is correct that 'honest heresy' has become more widespread in recent times, and that those who fail to arrive at the right conclusion are not necessarily to be blamed, this means that the responsibility lies with those who know the truth. We must make every effort to ensure that Judaism is presented accurately, and dispel some of the myths which may be preventing others from seeing the light.

Special Privileges?

We have seen several reasons why many transgressors today may not be to blame for their actions, which explains why we do not impose active sanctions on them. However, there is also the issue of certain mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro, which Chazal tell us only apply towards those who "act in the way of your people"[17] or are "with you in Torah and mitzvos".[18] If we take these phrases literally, it would appear that those who do not keep mitzvos are not included, even if they are not to be blamed.

However, the Meiri writes explicitly that the phrase "with you in Torah and mitzvos" is not to be taken literally, and applies to anyone who is "restrained by religious ways."[19] His main point is that applies to decent non-Jews as well, and in his time (13th century, Catalonia), he felt that adherents to the prevalent religions (Islam & Christianity) were in general decent people. The same would hold true for civilised secularists today, whether they are Jewish or not.

Although some assert that the position of the Meiri is a lone view, and some even attribute his words to the Christian censors, their criticisms tend to be directed towards the favour shown towards other religions. Apart from this Meiri, I have not seen any discussion of the more fundamental question of the exact meaning of the terminology of Chazal. From the prevalent attitude towards irreligious Jews, it appears that this aspect of the Meiri's words has been accepted by all.

[1] For example, the prohibition on cursing a fellow Jew does not apply to transgressors (Bava Metsia 48b) and at least in some circumstances, one is not obligated to honour parents who were transgressors (see Bava Kama 94b).

[2] Pirkei Avos 1:12

[3] Sifrei, Devarim 32 (quoted by the Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos, Asei 3).

[4] Avoda Zara 26b

[5] Hilchos Mamrim 3:3

[6] Shemos 22:5

[7] Pesachim 113b

[8] Shu"t Maharam miLublin, siman 13.

[9] Ahavas Chesed, Margenisa Tava, rule 17.

[10] Arachin 16b

[11] Orach Chaim 608:2

[12] He also quotes the mitzvah to hate heretics in Biur Halacha siman 1. Although it may be possible to differentiate between heretics and those who are just irreligious, this is not straightforward when the rationale is the lack of effective rebuke.

[13] 'Rebuke' in this context does not have to mean 'telling off.' The more educational or even experiential methods of outreach popular today, assuming that they are successful, are also a fulfilment of the mitzvah of giving rebuke.

[14] Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 2:16

[15] Although the Chazon Ish himself also quotes the logic of the Chafetz Chaim quoted above, in Yoreh Deah 2:28.

[16] Shu"t Radvaz 4:187. He proves this from the case of the sage Hillel, who believed that there will be no Mashiach, as this potential was already used up in the time of Chizkiyahu HaMelech. See also Mehalchim bein Ha'Omdim (R' Michael Avraham), chapter 34.

[17] See for example Bava Kama 94b, where the gemara says that the son of a thief only has to compensate those who his father stole from if the stolen item is still in his possession, or if the father was repentant and didn't manage to pay before he died. In the second case, the obligation is part of the mitzvah of honouring parents. If the father was unrepentant, there is no mitzvah to honour him by paying compensation, as the mitzvah of honouring parents only applies to those who 'act in the manner of your people.' The poskim dispute whether the same applies to honouring living parents who transgress.

[18] Bava Metsia 59a, Shevuos 30a

[19] Beis HaBechira, Bava Metsia 59a 

No comments:

Post a Comment