Chapter 11 of Talmud Sanhedrin (90a) discusses the topic of the Next World, “Olam Haba”. We are taught that all Jews possess a share in the afterlife…with some exclusion: those who profess that Resurrection is false, or that Torah is not divinely given, and an Apikores.
There is a debate between the Talmud and Maimonides regarding the definition of an Apikores. The Talmud’s definition is either one who embarrasses a Torah scholar, or one who embarrasses his friend in front of such a scholar. Maimonides defines an Apikores as either one who denies prophecy, or denies Moses’ prophecy, or he denies God’s knowledge of human affairs. These two opinions are quite divergent, and additionally, we are surprised that Maimonides argues on the Talmud, which is authoritative. Let us first understand both sides, and then proceed to address the argument. We must then understand why according to either view does one sacrifice his eternal life. What is the severity of the violation according to both views?
According to the Talmud, the common denominator is the Torah scholar; either a person embarrasses ‘him’, or he embarrasses his friend in front of the scholar. What is the common denominator? It appears that in both cases, the sinner views the Torah scholar in the incorrect light. For one to embarrass a scholar, his view of Torah must be severely distorted, to the point, that he looks down upon those who teach Torah, and degrades them. And if one embarrasses his friend, but in front of the scholar, what is the crime? I believe the error here is that the sinner again incorrectly views the scholar, and renders him as ‘utilitarian’. To the sinner, the scholar is but a means to his own ego gratification. He attempts to embarrass another human being, in an attempt to escalate his own self-image. This is the source of all degradation, and Lashon Hara. A person who speaks Lashon hara, or verbally attacks others is bothered to some degree by the person he attacks. He feels threatened, and to eradicate his sense of inadequacy, he verbally assassinates the person he ‘imagines’ surpasses him. The crime, according to both definitions of this Apikores, is the incorrect view of a Torah scholar.
According to Maimonides, an Apikores violates Torah life in a different realm: the intellectual. Maimonides defines the Apikores as one who denies the relationship between God and man: he denies prophecy, and God’s knowledge of human affairs. These are Torah fundamentals, upon which, the belief in the divinity of the Torah, and in Reward and Punishment are suspended. For without prophecy, God did communicate His Torah to mankind, and without God’s knowledge of human affairs, Reward and Punishment cannot exist. These ideas form Maimonides 13 Principles, principles that must be agreed to if one is to partake in the nation of Israel, and live eternally.
The difference between these two opinions appears to boil down to either a) a crime in character, or b) a crime in thought: man’s two essential faculties. Man is created as a thinking being, which also possesses emotions that contribute to his character. It appears from this argument, that man can corrupt himself in two methods: he can follow ego emotions to the point that he despises God’s favored Torah scholars, or he can deny truths. In either case, the sinner has corrupted his understanding of God’s will for man: that he lives a Torah life, where our Torah study is God’s will. Such an individual cannot partake of eternal life, for that life is based on our conviction that Torah knowledge is supreme, and nothing else shares its status.
When one speaks poorly of others, in front of a scholar, he views the scholar as a means to his ego satisfaction, and not properly, as a person who has achieved great knowledge of God. He seeks to defame his peer in front of the scholar, minimizing the scholar’s essence to merely a “social status”, since the sinner utilizes the scholar for his social agenda. And since his view of Torah knowledge is surpassed by his need for ego satisfaction, he has not reached the level where he views knowledge on the highest plane. The afterlife, Olam Haba, is available only to those who truly place knowledge on the highest plane. As a Rabbi once mentioned, it is in Olam Haba that our greatest Torah knowledge is obtained.
However, Maimonides does not completely omit embarrassing others from causing one to forfeit Olam Haba. In his Laws of Repentance (3:14) Maimonides classifies one who embarrasses others – on a regular basis – as one who also forfeits Olam Haba. Although he also defines this sin as a “lesser” sin than Apikores, one nonetheless forfeits Olam Haba through ‘regular’ violation of degrading others. What is Maimonides’ formulation, that he reduces the Talmud’s case as a “lesser” sin? Why does preoccupation with degrading others forfeit one’s Olam Haba, whereas a single act does not, as is the case when one denies prophecy or God’s knowledge of human affairs?
Perhaps Maimonides is not in that much disagreement with the Talmud…perhaps he does not disagree at all! What do I mean?
Maimonides may have read the Talmud’s case of Apikores, as an “example” of an underlying corruption. According to Maimonides, perhaps his read of the Talmud was not that “only one who degrades his fellow” is an Apikores. Maimonides may have learned that case, as an example of one whose relationship to Torah is broken, to the point, that he distorts the Torah scholar, or his friend in front of the scholar. According to Maimonides, the true, underlying corruption of the Apikores must be one of “intellect”, for this is man’s highest element. Only when man corrupts his thoughts concerning the Creator, does he forfeit Olam Haba. Therefore, a single violation of Lashon Hara does not define how the person views God: it may due to a momentary, emotional outburst. But such an outburst does not equate with one who always speaks against his fellow. In this latter case, he has ascribed to a philosophy in which he lives each day. He expresses a value system, which is truly part of himself, part of his thinking. Here, Maimonides agrees, one forfeits his Olam Haba, but not for a single occurrence. Repeated violating display a corrupt outlook.
We may suggest that Maimonides concurs with the Talmud: an Apikores is one who has corrupted his thoughts of God. The Talmud measured this in man’s value system, expressed in degrading a Torah scholar. For such degradation unveils the underlying view of Torah, given by God. Maimonides’ formulation defines the Talmud’s example: an Apikores is one who denies prophecy and God’s relationship to man. The Talmud describes the example, whereas Maimonides defines the intellectual error.
With this knowledge, we must take great care to reexamine our own thoughts of God: are they correctly inline with the Torah’s words, and the teachings of the Rabbis? Are we forfeiting our eternal lives, in place of momentary ego gratification?