Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify principles of faith within a legal framework as a binding theological dogma in codifying his “13 principles of faith” as commandments in his law code, the Mishneh Torah. He was thus the first to create an orthodox (correct doctrine) conception of Judaism, and to create a theological notion of heresy. It is then a widespread misconception that orthodoxy represents authentic Judaism and that Judaism has always been orthodox in nature. Orthodoxy in Judaism is not only a later historical development of the Jewish tradition following the Talmudic period, but it is actually a distortion of the orthoprax (correct deeds) nature of the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud – and, there is no binding theological dogma in the Bible or in the Talmud.
In my view, Maimonides was well aware that a binding theological dogma is a distortion of traditional Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are positive and negative commandments of action (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of faith or belief; and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a thinker) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief). Thus, the notion of a binding theological dogma as well as the notion of theological heresy have no precedent in the Bible or in the Talmud.
The Hebrew Bible is absent of any theological dogma and absent of systematic philosophy – and, there are no terms atheism or heresy in the Bible. The essence of religion in the Biblical conception, which is orthoprax and not orthodox, is morality (and not faith or ritual) as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “And you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”. The emphasis in the verse, characteristic of the Bible, is an orthoprax emphasis upon doing rather than believing, and upon doing in a moral sense of righteousness and goodness. So, in the Biblical conception a moral atheist would be seen not as a heretic, as the term heretic does not exist in the Bible – and, a moral atheist by virtue of living a righteous life is actually fulfilling the essence of religion in the Biblical conception.
There is one psalm that stands out in the Bible, Psalm 10, which depicts a wicked person who on the face of it is apparently an “atheist” – but, this is a wicked atheist and not a moral atheist. More important, the psalm might be mistakenly understood as portraying a wicked person as wicked due to a lack of theological faith or belief. However, this is a mistake, and though the term atheism does not appear in the psalm (and the term does not appear in the Bible), the “atheism” of the wicked person in Psalm 10 is not in a theological sense but, characteristic of the Bible, in an orthoprax and anti-theological sense. There is no theological or philosophic argument given in Psalm 10 attempting to demonstrate God’s existence indicating that the focus of the psalm is behavioral (orthoprax) rather than theological (orthodox). The psalm draws a portrait of an atheist, even though no such term is used in the psalm, in describing the thoughts and deeds of a wicked person:
For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, and the greedy wretch curses and renounces the Lord. The wicked through the pride of his countenance thinks, He will not seek out. All his thoughts are, God is not…His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud. Under his tongue is mischief and iniquity. He sits in the lurking places of the villages. In the secret places he murders the innocent. His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless…
The atheism of the wicked person described here in the psalm is not of a theological nature but of a psychological and moral nature, and actually constitutes a denial of God’s providence rather than God’s existence. When the speaker says of the wicked person that “all his thoughts are, God is not”, the intention is not that the wicked person is denying God’s existence in a theological sense – but, rather, that he is denying God’s providence in a psychological sense in that he is willing to act in a completely immoral manner as if there is no God who is watching over human affairs (“the wicked through the pride of his countenance thinks, He will not seek out”). That is, the concern of the psalm is not with the theology of a wicked person but with the psychology of a wicked person.
The speaker of the psalm says of the wicked person that “all his thoughts are, God is not”, and the obvious question is how the speaker of the psalm knows the thoughts of the wicked person! There are two ways by which one may infer the thoughts of another person. One is to rely on the verbal declarations of the person as to his or her thoughts and beliefs. The second is to infer the thoughts of the person from his or her behavior. It is clear that in the psalm the speaker is not concerned with philosophical declarations of the wicked person. Rather, the immoral and violent behavior of the wicked person testifies to his lack of faith, no matter what he may declare philosophically.
Most significantly, the term thoughts in the phrase “all his thoughts are, God is not”, does not mean thoughts of a philosophic nature, but would be better translated as designs or schemes, and implies evil intention morally – revealing that the concern of the psalm is not with the thoughts of the wicked person in a philosophic (orthodox) sense. Rather, the concern of the psalm is with the moral character, or lack of moral character, of the wicked person. It is likely that such a wicked person as described in the psalm would declare that he believes in God philosophically. However, his immoral behavior constitutes the evidence that he does not truly believe in God in the more important psychological (orthoprax) sense of the heart.
Thus, the conception of atheism reflected in Psalm 10 is not an orthodox and philosophic conception of one who has denied some philosophic proposition. The philosophic beliefs of the wicked person are not revealed in the psalm, and are of no concern. The focus is upon the evil designs and schemes of the wicked person, reflecting his immoral character, and immoral behavior – revealing an orthoprax and anti-theological conception of atheism, in which the wicked person acts as if there is no God watching over human affairs. As far as I am aware, there is no condemnation in the entire Hebrew Bible of a moral atheist, who is moral but denies the existence of God as a matter of principle or philosophic argument. The condemnation in Psalm 10 of a wicked atheist whose immoral character and immoral behavior constitute a denial of God’s providence in a psychological sense, regardless of the philosophic beliefs of such an atheist, is representative of the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Book of Psalms and the Hebrew Bible.
The Talmudic rabbis, faithful to the Bible, did not formulate any binding theological dogma. Heresy in the Talmud is a behavioral concept referring to deviant behavior that is the result of scorn or derision – as reflected in the concept apikorus, which in the Talmud is scorn of the Torah or of Sages as authoritative interpreters of Torah. The two greatest Talmudic rabbis, Hillel (“what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”) and Rabbi Akiva (“love your neighbor as yourself”) formulated the essence of Judaism in an orthoprax (correct deeds) sense as moral decency. It is simply astounding to me that people do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations of what it means to be religious are completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. As in the Biblical conception, a moral atheist in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva would be seen not as a heretic – and, a moral atheist by virtue of living a righteous life is actually fulfilling the essence of religion in their conceptions.
I want to cite a remarkable Talmudic source that directly relates to moral atheism – a midrash (rabbinic commentary on a Biblical verse):
It is written “they have abandoned Me and have not observed My Torah” (Jeremiah 16, 11) – “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”, for by being involved (through study and observance) with it (the Torah) the light within it will return them to the right way.
The midrash consists of two parts. In the first part (“if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”), God declares that it would be better to abandon God (not to believe in God) but to observe the Torah (implying that more important than faith in God is good deeds). Thus, the midrash is expressing a pragmatic conception that the essence of Judaism is good deeds rather than faith in God – in dealing with people who don’t believe in God and live an immoral life. In the second part of the midrash, the midrash expresses the view that faith in God is the essence of a religious life – for, by being involved with Torah (the study and observance of Torah) people who do not believe in God will return to the right way of faith in God (as the situation is not ideal in the first part of the midrash in which faith is lacking when God says “if only Me they would abandon”). The midrash is paradoxical as the first part implies that good deeds are more important than faith in God, while the second part implies that faith in God (as the ultimate end of a religious life) is more important than good deeds. There is no contradiction, though, as the midrash holds that ideally, as expressed in the second part, that faith in God, rather than good deeds, is the ultimate end of a religious life – and, in the first part, in the unfortunate and actual situation where one is forced to choose between faith and good deeds, it is good deeds that take precedence (just as in the case of an unhealthy person physically and mentally or emotionally, the health of the body will take precedence over that of the mind only because physical health is a more urgent matter than mental or emotional health). The pragmatic conception of the midrash is in contradistinction to the orthodox (correct doctrine) conception reflected in Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma – according to which one who denies the existence of God is a heretic. Regarding one who does not believe in God but lives a life of Torah (good deeds), the midrash expresses an attitude of tolerance and optimism in that through study and observance of Torah such a person will ultimately come to faith in God. But, if not, there is no hint in the midrash that one who does not believe in God is a heretic even though according to the midrash faith in God is the essence of religion.
The codification by Maimonides in the 12th century of his “13 principles of faith” as a binding theological dogma then is a huge innovation (and distortion). There were attempts after Maimonides to formulate principles of belief of Judaism such as those of Rabbi Hasdai Crescas and Rabbi Joseph Albo. However, they did not codify, like Maimonides, principles of faith as a binding dogma from a legal point of view; in my opinion, they only formulated principles of belief from a philosophic point of view that in their conception characterize Judaism and that Judaism assumes as underlying principles.
Through the ages and already from the time that Maimonides lived there has been a great deal of criticism of his codification of a binding dogma. From a Halachic (legal) point of view, the great thinker in the Jewish tradition to criticize Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma is Ravad (Rabbi Abraham ben David) who lived at the same time as Maimonides (the 12th century). Regarding the third principle of Maimonides’ “13 principles”, the incorporeality of God, Ravad comments on Maimonides’ defining one who believes in the corporeality of God as a heretic (laws of repentance 3, 7):
Why has he (Maimonides) called such a person (who believes that God has a physical form) a heretic? There are many people greater and better than him (Maimonides) who hold such a belief on the basis of what they have seen in verses of Scripture and even more in the words of those aggadot (rabbinic commentaries) which corrupt right opinion.
Clearly, Ravad does not believe that God has physical form, and he agrees with Maimonides from a philosophic point of view in stating explicitly that such people who do believe that God has physical form are corrupted in their thinking – as a result of literally understanding Scripture and rabbinic commentaries describing God in anthropomorphic (human) terms. However, Ravad’s criticism of Maimonides is that such people cannot be defined as heretics on the basis of “wrong” beliefs, and may be considered only as mistaken in their thinking – “Why has he called such a person a heretic?”.
In my view, Ravad is very faithful to the Talmud in his criticism of Maimonides – “why has he called such a person (who believes that God has a physical form) a heretic?”. In the Talmud, as I pointed out, heresy is not a theological but a behavioral concept referring to deviant behavior that is the result of scorn or derision – according to which even deviant ritual behavior, such as the eating of a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat, may be regarded as heresy. Whether the eating of a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat constitutes heresy or not depends upon the circumstances and intention involved. If one eats the non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat merely because it is tasty and one cannot control one’s impulses, then the act is in no way considered heresy, but is simply a violation of the dietary laws of the Torah. Such an act is considered to be an act of wrongdoing (legally), but not heresy. However, if one eats the non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat as an act of scorn or derision, then the act is considered to be heretical. Thus, Ravad is evidently arguing that one who believes God has physical form does so not as a matter of scorn or derision but due to lack of philosophic study and knowledge – and such a person should be viewed then merely as mistaken and not as a heretic.
Ravad formulates his criticism of Maimonides only in regard to the principle that God has no physical form, and not as a general philosophic position. I personally do think that Ravad intended his criticism to be of a general nature, and the reason that he formulated his criticism only regarding the specific principle of incorporeality of God is that in the 12th century it was only concerning this principle among Maimonides’ “13 principles of faith” that there were traditional Jews who held “wrong” opinions on a widespread basis. The rest of the principles were widely accepted by traditional Jews in the medieval period. In any case, from a logical point of view, there is no reason that Ravad’s argument should not apply regarding all of Maimonides’ principles. Further, it is inconceivable that one would believe any philosophic proposition as a matter of scorn or derision – as we do not consciously choose our beliefs, and our philosophic beliefs are held as a matter of conviction. Thus, if one believes anything (even including that God does not exist) as a matter of conviction in contradistinction to Maimonides binding dogma, such a person should be viewed as mistaken and not as a heretic.
Moreover, there are great thinkers in the Jewish tradition who base themselves on Ravad and do formulate a general argument regarding theological heresy. For example, Rabbi Abraham Kook (who lived in the early 20th century) came to the defense of a rabbi who was accused of theological heresy and Rabbi Kook based himself on Ravad. Rabbi Kook also cited a remarkable Talmudic source (Shevuot 26a):
What is an example of such a case (of the taking of an oath against one’s will)? It is as in the incident of Rav Kahane and Rav Asi, who had been standing before Rav. One took an oath that this was the statement of Rav and the other took an oath that this was the statement of Rav. When they came before Rav they established his statement (of Rav) in accordance with one of them (Rav Kahane or Rav Asi). The other said to him (Rav): ‘I have therefore sworn falsely’. Rav replied to him: ‘Your heart forced (compelled) you’.
The case here is one in which two rabbis, Rav Kahane and Rav Asi, hear a statement of their teacher, Rav – and, each (Rav Kahane and Rav Asi) has a different understanding or memory of what Rav said. Each swears an oath that Rav’s statement was according to his understanding or memory. They verify with Rav that one of them understood or remembered correctly – and, the one who understood or remembered incorrectly asks Rav what he is to do given that he has sworn an oath falsely, in violation of the Torah. Rav, in saying that he had been forced by his heart, is implying that there is no wrongdoing (legally or morally) and he is thus exempt from any punishment.
In my opinion, Rabbi Kook cited this source in order to make clear a fundamental difference between behavior and belief – that we do not consciously choose beliefs as we consciously choose our behavior. Regarding behavior, I repeat that according to the Talmud if one eats a non-kosher, forbidden piece of meat not as an act of scorn or derision, but because it is tasty and one cannot control one’s impulses, then the act is not to be regarded as heresy. However, the act of eating the forbidden meat is nonetheless regarded as an act of wrongdoing (legally) and a violation of the Jewish law – and, the person is in no way exempt from punishment because he or she could not control his or her impulses. A person is expected to control one’s impulses. By contrast, in the case of “wrong” thinking, in the Talmudic source cited by Rabbi Kook, Rav is arguing that the rabbi who mistakenly believed as a matter of conviction with all of his heart (“your heart forced you”) that he understood or heard Rav correctly is not guilty of any wrongdoing whatsoever (legally or morally), and is entirely exempt from punishment. Such a person may be considered mistaken or wrong from a factual point of view (in not understanding or hearing correctly), but there is no wrongdoing either in a formal, legal sense of a violation of law or in a moral sense. In citing this Talmudic source, Rabbi Kook is, in my view, making clear this fundamental difference between deviant behavior and “wrong” belief; and he understands that this fundamental difference is implied in the criticism of Ravad of Maimonides – those Jews who mistakenly believe as a matter of conviction that God has physical form are in no way guilty of wrongdoing either from a legal or moral point of view, and thus cannot be considered heretics, but are to be viewed merely as mistaken in their thinking (in holding a wrong opinion). From a logical point of view, this argument of Rabbi Kook applies regarding all of Maimonides’ principles – if one believes anything (even including that God does not exist) as a matter of conviction in contradistinction to Maimonides’ dogma, such a person should be viewed merely as mistaken and not as a heretic.
The concept of heresy according to the Talmud is thus a behavioral and not a theological concept. Even in the case of Elisha ben Abuya who is called “the other” in the Talmud because he is regarded as a heretic, his heresy is in a behavioral rather than theological sense. There are only a few stories and passages in the Talmudic literature relating to Elisha ben Abuya. But, in the various sources in the Talmud there is always a behavioral side that is emphasized – such as being guilty of moral depravity. Yet, Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest Talmudic rabbis and the student of Elisha ben Abuya, continued to study with him even after his heresy. There is a Talmudic story that after the death of Elisha ben Abuya his grave was struck by lightning and caught fire, which townspeople saw as a punishment for his heresy, while Rabbi Meir ran to the grave and took his cloak to put out the fire saying that if God will not save Elisha ben Abuya, he (Rabbi Meir) will.
In a similar way, the concept of idolatry in the Bible is a behavioral and not a theological concept. In a remarkable passage (Deuteronomy 4, 15-19) Moses tells the Israelites that they are not to worship forces of nature that God has allotted to the other peoples to worship – “Take therefore good heed to yourselves … lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you should be misled to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord, your God, has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven“. The passage is a clear Biblical precedent for theological tolerance. Actually, the religious terms used in the passage (worship and service) are behavioral rather than theological, indicating that the passage is concerned with behavior and not abstract theological belief. Implicit in the passage is the idea that worship of the sun, moon and stars is permissible for non-Israelites as long as such worship does not degenerate into abominable behavior.
By the way, there is a Talmudic concept of “an infant that was captured”, which on a widespread basis in the orthodox world is applied to non-observant Jews who do not live a traditional lifestyle observant of Jewish law and ritual practice – in order not to define them as heretics. The concept of “an infant that was captured” refers to inadvertent sin or wrongdoing due to ignorance about Judaism – as if the Jew who is technically guilty of sin or wrongdoing had been captured as an infant and raised without Jewish education. Although the motivation for applying such a Talmudic concept to contemporary non-observant Jews is positive (in order not to define them as heretics); nevertheless, in my eyes, such a solution for not considering contemporary non-observant Jews as heretics is insulting and condescending in reflecting intellectual arrogance, and it reflects an anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic approach widespread throughout the orthodox world – especially regarding those non-observant Jews (even if they may be a minority among non-observant Jews) who do not lack in basic Jewish education. Such a solution does not flow from a commitment to pluralism (70 faces to Torah); rather, the underlying assumption is that non-observant Jews are clearly mistaken (as if religion is a cognitive matter of truth and knowledge rather than a matter of lifestyle and value judgment) – and, the unstated but clear implications are, if such non-observant Jews did not lack basic Jewish education, then there would be no room for a non-observant lifestyle in Judaism.
In my view, there is a solution on the basis of the Talmud for not considering contemporary non-observant Jews as heretics that does not reflect such insult, condescension or intellectual arrogance. We simply need to recognize that there is no basis in the Talmud for delegitimizing as heresy a non-observant way of life (not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice) unless we judge in a negative and unfavorable light that such a non-observant lifestyle arises out of scorn or derision regarding Judaism. If we judge in a positive and favorable light that a non-observant lifestyle arises out of conviction of the heart, or is simply a comfortable lifestyle for so many non-observant Jews, then there is no basis in the Talmud for considering such a non-observant lifestyle heresy.
Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .