Historically, the worst punishment one could receive in the Jewish community was herem, or excommunication. One was completely ostracized from the Jewish community, yet – unlike today – generally could not turn to the secular or non-Jewish world for refuge. Many were put in herem for immoral actions but many for unpalatable ideological positions, such as Baruch Spinoza and Leon Trotsky. Maimonides, generally thought to be the greatest of Jewish philosophers, had his own books burnt, as did the great 20th century legal authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Distancing thinkers who have strayed from dogma often push them further away from the very ideology the authorities were seeking to protect. It also hurt some of the greatest thinkers. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, the early 20th century scholar and son of the Arukh Hashulkhan, wrote:
This phenomenon, to our sadness, seems to repeat itself in every generation. Whenever people quarrel over matters related to ideology and faith, and a person discovers his more lenient opinion is in the minority, all too often—although his original view differed only slightly from the majority—the total rejection he experiences pushes him over the brink. Gradually, his views become more and more irrational and he becomes disgusted with his opponents, their Torah and their practices, forsaking them completely…. Instead of instructing him (da Costa) with love and patience and extricating him from his maze of doubts by showing him his mistake, they disparaged him. They pursued him with sanctions and excommunication, cursing him until he was eventually driven away completely from his people and his faith and ended his life in a most degrading way… (Mekor Baruch, chapter 13:5).
Rabbi Epstein alluded to Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish Dutch philosopher who was banned by the Amsterdam community, and addressed the earlier tragic case of Uriel da Costa (who died in 1640). Da Costa was born into a family of Conversos (Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who had been forcibly converted to Christianity); after a period of religious study, da Costa and his family converted back to Judaism. Upon resettling in Amsterdam, da Costa became disenchanted with Judaism as practiced there, as he believed it was too immersed in the minutiae of ritual to the exclusion of spiritual content. For this, he was denounced, his writings were burned, and after seeking in vain to find a Jewish community to identify with in Europe, he increasingly began to view all organized religion as harmful. On his return to Amsterdam, his synagogue ordered him to be whipped and then to be trampled by the members of the congregation. In his despair, he committed suicide.
Other religions have begun to examine unjust persecutions, even though the process may take centuries. The Catholic Church has started to address some of their past mistakes of distancing intellectuals. In 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy and forbidden to teach or publish his ideas. In spite of his public denunciation of his supposedly erroneous beliefs (e.g., that the Earth was not the center of the universe), he was kept for the rest of his life under house arrest. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized to Galileo on the Church’s behalf.
The United States has also apologized for past wrongs. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology and $20,000 compensation to all survivors among the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans who were detained in camps during World War II. In 2005, Congress issued a resolution of formal apology for failing to approve legislation outlawing lynching, which had been used for decades by white Southerners to terrorize the black population. Sadly, the senators from the state with the most recorded lynchings, Mississippi, were not on the list of 80 cosponsors of the resolution.
Today, the Jewish community must also ask forgiveness from great intellectuals in our past whose reputations were destroyed because they disagreed with the established dogmas. We’re sorry because it was just wrong. As we can see from numerous examples from other religions and nations, an unwillingness to even consider any criticism proves to be historically harmful and regrettable. More importantly, we must never destroy another’s life because of their theological beliefs and teachings.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”