How does a Jew atone for apostasy?

Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

* Since I just mentioned R. Hayyim Eleazar Shapira, let me mention something else he says that is fascinating. In the past two posts I discussed apostate rabbis. It is bad enough when an average person apostatizes, but for a rabbi to do so could have had terrible consequences on the community in that it could lead to many weak of heart to follow. Can anyone imagine, however, someone apostatizing as an act of teshuvah? It sounds crazy, but R. Shapira reported that he had it by tradition that such an incident happened in medieval times.[14]

The story he tells is that there was a popular preacher who in his public talks inserted all sorts of heretical ideas. After he was rebuked by one of the rabbis for preaching his heresies, the man confessed his sins and asked what he should do to repent. The rabbi told him that his repentance would not help, as for years he has gone from place to place spreading his heresy. How could he possibly repent for this? The rabbi said that what he must do is convert to Christianity. The Jewish world would then hear about this and this would remove the legitimacy from any of his sermons, as people would assume that even before his apostasy he was a heretic. Only by doing this could he destroy the impact he made with his earlier sermons.

* [R. Herschel] Grossman begins his review—and I will be going through it page by page responding to his attacks—by stating that “the academic approach to matters of Torah learning is radically different from that of the talmid chochom” (p. 36). This is an incorrect statement, as many followers of the academic approach are themselves talmidei hakhamim. What Grossman should have written is that the academic approach is different than the traditional approach. With regard to academic works, Grossman states: “Many of the conclusions of these works are at variance with accepted Torah teachings” (p. 35). No doubt that this is a true statement, but of course, the issue we will have to get into is what is the definition of “accepted Torah teachings.” As all readers of this blog are aware, R. Natan Slifkin’s books were banned because they were seen to be at variance with “accepted Torah teachings,” so the fundamental issue will be which teachings are supposedly accepted.

* Grossman further states that “while some earlier scholars have disputed whether some of the Principles deserve to be listed as basic to Judaism . . . all have conceded that the tenets expressed by the Principles are correct” (p. 36). This statement is grossly inaccurate, as virtually every page of my book demonstrates (and in various blog posts I have also cited numerous authorities who disagree with certain of Maimonides’ principles).[19] Even if all of Grossman’s criticisms of particular points of mine are correct (and I will come back to this), it still leaves loads of sources at odds with the Rambam. The sentence is nothing less than shocking, since rather than acknowledging that other authorities disagreed with certain Principles of the Rambam, but claiming that these authorities’ views are to be rejected for one reason for another, Grossman states that “all have conceded” that the Rambam’s views are correct. It is hard to know how to reply to such a statement that completely disregards the truth that everyone can see with their own eyes.

* Regarding R. Emden, Grossman refers the reader to p. 16 n. 63. Nowhere in this note do I mock an opinion of R. Emden. What I do say is that his sexuality was complex. In retrospect, I regret including this comment, since it is not really relevant to the matter at hand. Yet there is no question that when it comes to sexual matters, there is something very much out of the ordinary, especially for rabbinic greats, in how R. Emden writes about these things. This is something that I believe is acknowledged by everyone who has studied R. Emden’s writings, including the most haredi among us, even if they won’t put such statements in writing. Mortimer Cohen, in his book on R. Emden, famously pointed to sexuality to explain how R. Emden could have attacked R. Eybeschütz the way he did, with such outrageous accusations. Still, I believe that Jacob J. Schacter is correct when he states: “[W]hile it is clear that Emden had a complex and contentious personality, all this emphasis on his sexuality is really irrelevant to his attack on Eybeschütz.”[23] I for one am not comfortable with psychological interpretations, even if in this case such an interpretation can be used as a limud zekhut for some of the shocking things R. Emden says, and if I was writing the book now I would leave out the passage mentioned above.

* Limits appeared in 2004. I wonder if it is only very negative reviews that come out so long after a book’s appearance. Another example is Haym Soloveitchik’s review of Isadore Twersky’s revised edition of Rabad of Posquiéres. The book appeared in 1980 and the review appeared in 1991. See Soloveitchik, “History of Halakhah – Methodological Issues: A Review essay of I. Twersky’s Rabad of Posquiéres,” Jewish History 5 (Spring 1991), pp. 75-124.

[17] Grossman did correspond with me and ask me questions which I tried to the best of my ability to answer. He also challenged some of what I said in his emails to me. Yet I have to say that I am quite hurt that he was not honest with me in this correspondence. On July 16, 2018, he began his correspondence with me by telling me that he was writing an article on the Thirteen Principles. In this email he also said that my book was well-written. (Buttering me up, I guess.) On July 17 he wrote to me: “Thank you for your communication! You are helping me tremendously.” I guess I was helping him to bury me. Also on this day he wrote to me about his article: “maybe you can help me with the writing!” I am sorry to see now that this was all part of a grand deception on his part.

In his email to me of October 11, 2018, Grossman wrote that he completed his article on the Thirteen Principles, “and have cited you in a few places.” Is this how an honest scholar operates, by deceiving the person he has been emailing with? I responded to his questions and explained how I view things, as I do with anyone who contacts me. I would have done the same thing had he been honest with me and told me that he was writing an article devoted to disputing my ideas. His friendly demeanor in his emails led me to assume that we were engaged in a form of scholarly collaboration in trying to understand important texts and ideas. So imagine my surprise to see that contrary to what he wrote to me that he cited me “in a few places,” the entire review is an attempt to tear me down. Furthermore, Grossman has been telling people that he wants his article to destroy my reputation as a scholar. What type of person treats his fellow Jew in this fashion?

* [18] In a wide-ranging article which deals among other things with R. Kook’s view of heresy, the important scholar R Yoel Bin-Nun explains why R. Kook rejected the Rambam’s approach to heresy. R. Bin Nun also states that if you take what the Rambam says seriously, the Rambam himself, if he were alive today and saw how theological matters are no longer regarded as subject to conclusive proofs, would not regard people who disagreed with his Principles as heretics.

* >Will you be writing a response to Shmuel Philip’s book Judaism Reclaimed where he devotes two chapters to attacking your book?

MS: Yes, I will. It won’t be as hard as this post, which was the hardest one I ever wrote. People told me I had to write it, but it was incredibly painful for me to have to write against Grossman, who is also a person with feelings, even though he delighted in mocking me. I have never before had to respond to such a personal attack, and I hope I did so properly. If it was just his insults I would have let it go — נעלבים ואינם עולבים, but since it had to do with the proper portrayal of what I wrote, it was important to set the matter straight. I will be continuing to respond to his review, going through each page.

* The Seforim Blog is almost unique in that the comments have always focused on substance, not on personalities or attacking people (which unfortunately is found so often on other sites).

* R. Daniel Korobkin wrote in a Letter to the Editor about Dr. Shapiro’s book on the Ikarim, in response to R. Zev Leff’s review(Jewish Action, Winter, 2007):

“Dismissing or de-legitimizing Dr. Shapiro’s work is a disservice to that significant minority of our bnei and bnot Torah who are true theology seekers. A serious yeshivah student who finds one of Maimonides’ Ikarim unsettling or problematic may be relieved to discover that a great Rishon also had trouble with that very same issue. The fact that at some point a “pesak” may have been issued requiring everyone to accept the Rambam’s Ikarim as absolute dogma will not assuage the person who is struggling with his own personal beliefs. On the other hand, books like Dr. Shapiro’s can offer the necessary soothing balm for the troubled soul who seeks to be frum and part of the Orthodox community, even though he has trouble with Maimonidean dogma.

At the end of the day, we are a religion more of deed than creed, and Dr. Shapiro’s book—filled with multiple positions on Jewish dogma—beautifully underscores that point.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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