Shiur #21: Learning from a Heretic

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Shiur #21: Learning from a Heretic



And how did R. Meir learn Torah from Acher?  Did not Rabba bar Bar Hana say in the name of R. Yochanan: “‘The lips of the priest keep knowledge; seek Torah from his mouth, because he is an angel of God, the Lord of hosts’ (Malakhi 2:7).  If the Rav is like an angel, seek Torah from his mouth.  If he is not like an angel, do not seek Torah from his mouth.”  Reish Lakish said: “R. Meir found a verse and expounded upon it.  ‘Incline your ear, listen to the words of the sages, and apply your heart to my knowledge’ (Mishle 22:17). It does not say ‘to their knowledge’ but ‘to my knowledge’”...  Do the verses contradict each other?  It is not a contradiction.  One speaks of a person of stature, and one speaks of a lesser person.  When R. Dimi came, he said: “They say in the West, ‘R. Meir ate the date and cast aside the pit.’”  Rava taught: “What is the meaning of the verse: ‘I descended to the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley’ (Shir Ha-shirim 6:11)? Why are the scholars compared to a nut?  To teach you that just as in the case of a nut, even when sullied with mud and excrement, its inside does not turn disgusting, so too a scholar, even when he turns bad, his Torah does not grow repulsive.”  Rabba bar Shila found Eliyahu.  He said to him: “What is God doing now?”  He said to him: “He cites teachings in the names of all the rabbis, but not in the name of R. Meir.”  He said to him: “Why?” “Because he studied form the mouth of Acher.”  He said to him: “Why?  R. Meir found a pomegranate, ate the inside, and threw away the peel.”  He said to him: “Now He says: ‘Meir, my son, says’” (Chagiga 15b). 


            Several different Talmudic stories mention different factors that may have caused Elisha ben Avuya to abandon Jewish observance.  Potential causes include witnessing injustice (Kiddushin 39b), dangerous metaphysical speculation (Chagiga 14b), and reading heretical literature (Chagiga 15b).  Despite Elisha’s leaving the fold, R. Meir continues to learn Torah from him, even following his teacher on foot when Elisha rides a horse on the Sabbath (ibid). The radical decision to study from a heretic prompts God to temporarily cease citing R. Meir’s Torah. Yet the Gemara ultimately justifies R. Meir’s behavior and, thanks to the efforts of Rabba bar Shila, God resumes quoting R. Meir’s ideas. The Gemara’s resolution of contradictory verses regarding learning from a problematic instructor suggests that only someone of R. Meir’s stature can safely engage in such an endeavor.  Lesser individuals will become too swayed by the teacher’s behavior and ideology, whereas the R. Meirs of this world can remain unaffected.


            R. Dimi, Rava, and Rabba cite conflicting metaphors.   Does R. Meir throw out the inside as he would the pit of a fruit, or does he remove the outside as he would wash off a nut or cast aside a pomegranate shell?  R. Yaakov Reisher (Iyyun Yaakov) explains that each metaphor addresses a different point in the chronology of R. Meir’s relationship with Acher.  Before Elisha abandoned Torah, his outer behavior was fine, but there was already something rotten inside.  The discerning R. Meir sensed the internal issues and managed to enjoy the fruit while avoiding the pit inside.  Later, Acher dropped external identification with Torah, while still retaining a great deal of Torah knowledge.  R. Meir knew how to avoid the outer dirt of irreligious behavior while accessing the inner Torah.


            Alternatively, both metaphors refer to the identical time period.   According to the Gemara, Acher both engaged in antinomian behavior and held heretical opinions.  He desecrated Shabbat, had relations with a prostitute, and affirmed a dualistic approach to the universe (Chagiga 15a).  Maharsha suggests that in the behavioral realm, R. Meir delved past sinful externals to extract the Torah inside.  With regard to corrupting opinions, R. Meir avoided the impact of pernicious views located deeply within his teacher’s exposition of Torah and remained focused on the outer nuggets of Torah content. If so, R. Meir overcame challenges lurking within and without.


            Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv haTorah 14) posits an important limitation of Rabba bar Bar Hana’s principle. According to Maharal, the restrictions on learning from a deviant teacher only apply to face to face educational encounters.   Face to face study with a charismatic or erudite teacher often motivates students to identify with the teacher’s total perspective.  While books also prove influential, reading allows for greater distance from the author and enables serious reflection before students wholeheartedly adopt their instructor’s worldview.  A student need not be a R. Meir to read a book written by a heretic.


            This distinction has important implications in non-Torah subjects as well.  Many of the most profound thinkers were not wonderful human beings.  I would not have wanted to be a personal disciple of Dostoevsky or Nietzsche, but I am grateful for the insight and beauty of their writing.  Moreover, those searching through contemporary teachers in pursuit of a spiritual and intellectual guide may find Maharal’s theory helpful. They should allow much greater leeway in choosing authors to read than in selecting teachers with whom to study.  When it comes to personal relationships, we need people whose quality of character matches the excellence of their thought. 


            Maharal not only provides us with guidelines for avoiding the negative; he implies an ideal vision of what the teacher–student relationship should be.  The teacher’s life and ideas combine together to promote a vision of goodness and idealism. Instruction includes the explicit content of ideas discussed, and the behavior and personality which embody those ideas and reveal how they can be integrated into how one lives one’s life. This notion often gets lost in contemporary academia, where scholars survey the scene from a detached observers’ standpoint, and do not convey any sense of how ideas can animate a life. In addition to the quest for objectivity, modernity’s narrow specialization, a trend enabling much scientific achievement, often prevents the sweeping vision necessary for a broad outlook on life.  William Barrett powerfully expresses how modern philosophy professors differ from the ancient Greeks:


The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece, it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline, philosophy was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life had to be lived.…Philosophy is for Plato a passionate way of life; and the imperishable example of Socrates, who lived and died for the philosophic life, was the guiding line of Plato’s career for five decades after his master’s death (Irrational Man, p. 5).    


It is no accident that Barrett writes this in a book on Existential philosophy, since the Existentialists often opposed this trend of detachment. Soren Kierkegaard criticizes Hegel and other philosophers for developing a grand theory fully irrelevant to the reality of life: 


In relation to their systems, most systematizers are like a man who has built a vast palace while he himself lives nearby in a barn; they themselves do not live in the vast systematic edifice. But in matters of the spirit, this is and remains a decisive objection. Spiritually, a man's thoughts must be the building in which he lives--otherwise it's wrong (1846 Journals and Papers, ed. Hannay, p.212).


If ideas are integrated into life, then the personality of the mentor matters greatly.  Coherence of content and character represents the ideal educational experience.  Conversely, the potential negative impact of an immoral teacher of Torah often outweighs any positive gain from his Torah, so it is better to not attend such a teacher’s classes. Maharal, however, endorses reading such a person’s works, where one can access quality content while avoiding a full encounter with a harmful personality.