Banning the “H” Word

The “H” word is one that is commonly thrown around our circles. Heretic. Often the label is bestowed in jest, sometimes more seriously, but the use of the “H” word always comes about in the same way: someone brings up a religious phenomenon that makes their peers uncomfortable, or they question a current norm held as religious truth. Rather than directly addressing another person’s ideas, opinions or thoughts, many choose instead to label the instigator a heretic, thereby closing the door on any further conversation. The “H” word keeps pesky questions and doubts at bay. The word heretic essentially circumvents the issue at hand and places the blame on a person for having unorthodox views.

As with any ad hominem argument, the logic implicit in labeling someone a heretic is invalid, the charge bringing nothing to the table and offering no resolution. Meanwhile, the questioner is left with the sour taste of being simultaneously mocked, marginalized, and just as unanswered as before. The “H” word shuts down discussion; it creeps into the school system and students feel like they cannot ask questions out of fear of being labelled. This promotes an environment with no room for mahloket, dialogue, a cornerstone of our Jewish intellectual arena.

This may seem like an overreaction; after all, many who level the “H” word against their peers claim to just be joking around. But none will deny that words have far more power than the speaker can imagine. In the past, heretical status was a grave sentence, demanding excommunication, consignment to hell, and exclusion from certain Jewish rituals. So today what exactly is meant by the remark?  Are there Jewish theological implications involved? Is it really a joke, an epithet, or an accusation?

The proliferation of this word into our common parlance is driving itself into obsolescence. The term lacks the specificity of the Jewish tradition’s different kinds of heretics, each of which has its own implications. Even our Rabbis differed in their definitions of heresy, leaving the judgment to the community for arbitration. One question apropos today is if Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles stand to define who is a heretic and who is not? Is belief in the Thirteen Principles the baseline for believers, and, subsequently, a lack thereof the hallmark of heresy?

Because the “H” word is thrown around so profusely, some have found it too difficult to remain inside the ‘approved’ guidelines and have instead embraced their outsider status. In certain circles, the word is actually perceived as praise. Scott Kalmikoff, Yeshiva College ’14, an aspiring rabbi, comments, “I’ve been called a heretic so many times that I take it as a compliment at this point.” “Why do people call me a heretic? Because they aren’t comfortable with opinions and ideas they never heard before, even if they are totally acceptable. I’ve come to realize that when people call me a heretic, it was less about me and more about them and their ability to accept ideas and beliefs they are unfamiliar with,” he added. Some people who are called heretics have reclaimed its connotation as a testament to sophisticated and truly thoughtful beliefs. Some use the “H” word as a contrast with simplistic belief systems–intellectualizing seems an indictment of religion. This is ironic, since Maimonides suggests achieving the World to Come is purely an intellectual exercise.[1] Many consider the “H” word recognition of knowing a great deal—in order to achieve heretical status, one must know quite a lot about the opposing ideology. To some, it is considered praise of intellect and logical prowess to be deemed outside the bounds of normative belief.

Whatever your personal association with the word, the “heretics” in question also deserve respect. In all likelihood, that person questioning the practice of Judaism today, or the interplay between Jewish law and Jewish tradition is not a heretic in the literal sense, or maybe he or she is. Whatever the case, these questioners deserve the same respect and recognition that the members of the community who espouse traditional views enjoy, simply because they are Jewish. Some people stick to what they know and are comfortable with the mores endorsed by their communities. Others have reached entirely opposite conclusions through the same intellectual exercises. Give them the benefit of the doubt as well. Goldie Guy, Stern College Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Study (GPATS) ‘14 notes, “When an Orthodox Jew calls another a heretic, the danger is that his friend may just believe it. Placed outside of the Orthodox camp, they might be more likely to act accordingly. In using the word heretic, you’ve taken on the authority to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. But let me ask you: What gives one Jew the authority to strip another Jew of their personal Orthodox identity?” Even if you do not respect their belief, realize the ramifications of that It’s possible that turning a fellow Jew away from Judaism is in and of itself antithetical to Judaism.   

We tout the Talmudic story of “Tanur Shel Achnai” and its principle that jurisdiction resides on earth not in heaven. On a good day, debate should be the hallmark of intellectual pluralism and on a bad day, tension. And yet, based on our current usage of the “H” word and accompanying attitudes towards non-mainstream beliefs, I’m surprised the Talmud itself has not been put in excommunication.

I do not suggest free reign on attributing anything you want to Judaism—there are some beliefs that are simply wrong. However, wrong does not necessarily imply heresy, and wrong deserves to be addressed- after all, there are no bad questions, only bad answers. Our entire Oral Tradition functions on questions. On Passover we are obligated to teach our children and engage them in asking questions–the Passover narrative itself is loaded with theological questions and the Passover Seder begs you not to be that simple minded Jew sitting complacently.

The next time you are engaged in dialogue, address the idea, not the person. Let us confront our differences instead of hiding them behind the “H” word.

[1] Mishneh Torah- Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:7 as Qtd. in Marc B. Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology p. 12-13 and Rabbi J. David Bleich’s With Perfect Faith p. 179-180

About the Author
Rebecca (Rivka) Hia is a New York-based freelance writer and editor.
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