The ideas that we
discussed in Part
One of this letter
reminded us that we,
the People of
Israel, are the
people of the Torah.
In this spirit,
Saadia Gaon, a
leading sage of the
early 10th century,
Torah and our
Our nation is a nation only through its Torah. (Emunos V’De’os 3:7)
In this letter, we will begin to discuss how our tradition views the identity of a member of our people who abandoned the Torah. Such an individual is called a meshumad – an apostate. This term refers to an Israelite who received a Torah education and who grew up in a Torah environment, but who willfully abandons the Torah – the spiritual path of our people. Although the majority of Israelites in our era are not committed to the Torah path, they, with rare exception, are not considered to be apostates, for they did not have a good Torah education, nor did they grow up in a proper Torah environment. With the help of Hashem, I shall elaborate on this idea in an upcoming letter.
The belief in Hashem, the One and Unifying Source of all creation, is a central principle of the Torah path; thus, someone who became an idolater – one who deifies anything or anyone within creation – was called a meshumad. At a later stage of our history, when we went in exile, the term meshumad was also used to refer to a member of our people who abandoned our spiritual path in order to adopt one of the religions among the nations.
The existence of these apostates has been a source of pain for our people, for their separation from our spiritual heritage weakens our ability to fulfill our collective mission. As we discussed in this series, we have a collective covenant with Hashem to fulfill the Torah and thereby become a social model of the Divine Teaching that can inspire all the peoples of the earth. In this way, we will serve as a model society of “Kohanim” – ministers of the Divine Teaching. Hashem therefore told Moshe at Mount Sinai to convey to us the following message:
“And now if you will earnestly hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant…You will be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5.6).
“And keep My covenant” – The covenant referred to here is the one that I will enter with you over the keeping of the Torah. (Commentary of Rashi)
In this letter, we will discuss the following question:
Is a member of our people who became an apostate still considered to be part of our people?
An answer can be found in the following teaching from the Talmud which is cited in the name of Rabbi Abba bar Zavda:
“Even if one sinned, one is still an Israelite.” (Sanhedrin 44a – based on Joshua 7:11)
The sinner still remains an Israelite. This teaching is not limited to an Israelite who is committed to our spiritual path, but who occasionally sins. It also includes the apostate – one who rejects our spiritual path (commentary of the Maharsha).
If such a serious sinner is still an Israelite, then we have a responsibility to try to help this Israelite to return to our spiritual path, as the Talmud teaches:
“All Israel is responsible one for the other” (Shavuos 39a).
The Vilna Gaon, a leading sage of the 18th century, actively involved himself in efforts to bring those who strayed back to the fold, and he stressed to his students the following teachings: Even a meshumad is still an Israelite; thus, the meshumad is obligated to fulfill all the mitzvos like any other Israelite. And since every Israelite is responsible for every other Israelite’s fulfillment of the mitzvos, it is incumbent upon us to do everything possible to return a meshumad to mitzvah observance. (From “The Vilna Gaon” by Betzalel Landau)
The Vilna Gaon was once informed about a Jewish youth who had “converted” to Catholicism and went to live in a monastery. The Vilna Gaon sent for the youth, who answered his summons. When the youth entered the sage’s study, the Vilna Gaon offered him something to drink and instructed him to make the appropriate blessing. The youth expressed amazement at the sage’s request and insisted that he need not make the blessing because he was no longer a Jew, and he had severed his connection with the heritage of his ancestors. The Vilna Gaon replied:
“By ‘converting’ you haven’t exempted yourself from the slightest detail of the mitzvos. You are an Israelite in every respect. Regarding the sins and errors you have committed, you will receive the fit punishment for each transgression. Your apostasy will not help you, for the seed of Abraham cannot be extinguished!”
These words of the Vilna Gaon apparently pierced the young Jew to the depths of his soul, for not long afterwards he returned to our people and our path. (Ibid)
There are also some apostates who still wish to maintain a connection to our people and even live among us. This may be due to sentimental reasons, nationalistic reasons, and/or “missionary” reasons – the desire to persuade our people to accept the religion or ideology that they adopted. Although they remain Israelites, Torah law causes them to lose certain privileges which each member of Israel is normally entitled to. As we shall discuss, one of the privileges they lose is the right to fulfill a Passover mitzvah which applies in the Land of Zion.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. The above information and story about the Vilna Gaon appear in the Hebrew and English editions of the biography of the Vilna Gaon by Betzalel Landau. The English edition – “The Vilna Gaon” – is published by Mesorah Publications: www.artscroll.com . The title of the Hebrew edition is: HaGaon HaChasid M’Vilna. The publisher of the Hebrew edition is, Torah M’Tzion.