Rambam on Heresy
Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 3: Rambam on Heresy
In the introduction to Chapter 3, R. Schmeltzer explains that the chapter will deal with how doubting any of the words of Chazal, whether in halachah or Aggadah, is heresy (see the scan of the page below). R. Schmeltzer takes the situation of such a “heretic” very seriously; in reference to this, he has a footnote quoting the Shulchan Aruch that one should bring about the death of such a person by any possible means. (Considering that R. Schmeltzer was at the forefront of the campaign to condemn my works as being heretical, I find this quite troubling.) But immediately following his words about how heresy includes doubting any of the words of Chazal, whether halachah or aggadah, he writes that it is our obligation in this regard to fulfill the words of the Rambam with regard to "not making our faith an abomination in lacking the correct understanding of words of wisdom." Yet it is quite clear that Rambam was referring to a specific class of Talmudic allegories, not to every statement of Chazal, since he himself considered several statements of Chazal to have been refuted by science:
It is one of the ancient beliefs, both among the philosophers and other people, that the motions of the spheres produced mighty and fearful sounds. ... This belief is also widespread in our nation. Thus our Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its orbit. ... Aristotle, however, rejects this, and holds that they produce no sounds. ... You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Sages. The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favor of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel." It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory; for everyone treats speculative matters according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof. (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8)
You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:14)
In the opinion of all who are knowledgeable in science, the words of the stargazers are all lies. I know that if you will search you may find isolated statements from the Sages of the Talmud and the Midrashim, which show that at the time of one's birth, the stars will cause him some specific circumstance. This should not be a problem; just as it is not proper to follow various obscure opinions when it comes to a matter of halachah, so too it is not right to discard things which are reasonable and have been proven to be true, to reject them and base oneself on the words of an individual Sage who may have been unaware of the facts, or whose words may be an allusion [and not to be taken literally], or may only refer to a specific time or incident which happened to him. (Letter to the Sages of Montpellier)
In the first quotation in this chapter, to support his claim that it is heretical to doubt any statement of Chazal, R. Schmeltzer cites Rambam’s description of a makhchish maggideha as a heretic. But Rambam explicitly defines makhchish maggideha as “someone similar to Tzaddok and Baytus,” who Rambam explains denied the very concept of an Oral Torah (Perush haMishnayos, Sanhedrin 11:3). He certainly did not intend it to refer to someone who denies any statement of Chazal, as he would then have been defining himself as a heretic!
In a footnote, R. Schmeltzer attempts to deal with this obvious problem by citing Rav Moshe Cordovero’s position that since the sefiros are part of Torah SheBe’al Peh, the status of makhchish maggideha also applies to one who denies sefiros, and by extension, any part of Torah SheBe’al Peh. But this is Rav Moshe Cordovero’s extension of Rambam’s position; it is not Rambam’s position! One can choose to adopt the position that it is heretical to doubt any of the words of Chazal whatsoever, but one cannot draft Rambam in support of this.