Unfortunately, the Jewish world in recent years has been shocked by news of rabbis and religious leaders engaging in financial or sexual impropriety. May one study the sefarim, or listen to the shirurim, of these rabbis?
Learning Torah from a Sinner
The Talmud discusses studying Torah from a sinner in two places. One passage (Moed Katan 17a) concerns a Torah scholar who has “gained a bad reputation.” The Gemara concludes that if such a person is not excommunicated, “the name of Heaven will be desecrated.” The Gemara also cites Rabbi Yochanan, who lays down an important principle about studying Torah:
“What is the meaning of the verse, ‘For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is an angel of the Lord of hosts’ (Malachi 2:7)? [It means:] If the rabbi is similar to an angel of the Lord of hosts, perfect in his ways, people should seek Torah from his mouth; if not, they should not seek Torah from his mouth.”
Elsewhere, however (Chagiga 14b-15b), the Talmud relates that four great rabbis – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Avuya, and Rabbi Akiva – “entered the Orchard” (i.e., dealt with the loftiest secrets of the Torah). As a result, Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma was harmed (i.e., lost his mind), Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic and earned the moniker “Acher” (the “other”) as a result. Despite Acher becoming a heretic, though, his closest student Rabbi Meir continued to learn Torah from him.
The Gemara asks: How could Rabbi Meir study Torah from Acher if we know that one may only study Torah from a rabbi who is “similar to an angel.” The Gemara answers this question by distinguishing between a “gadol” and a “katan.” Rashi explains that a gadol – a person who is careful not to learn from his teacher’s actions – may learn Torah from him. A “katan” – a person who cannot refrain from learning from his teacher’s actions – may not.
The Gemara relates that in the land of Israel, Rabbi Meir was described as one who “ate a half-ripe date and threw the peel away” (i.e., he was able to extract the important content from the inedible shell).
Based on this passage in the Gemara, some Rishonim (e.g., Tosafos, Taanis 7a) maintain that a Torah scholar may learn Torah from someone who is not “hagun” (immoral). Similarly, the Meiri (on Chagiga 15b) writes that if a person is unable to find a teacher, he may study from a heretic as long as he is careful to separate “the fruit from the peel.”
The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:1), however, rules that people should not learn from a rabbi who does not follow the proper path “until he returns to proper behavior.” The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 246:8) rules similarly.
Which Sins Disqualify a Rabbi?
The Gemara states, as we mentioned, that a person may not study Torah from a heretic or a Torah scholar who “gained a bad reputation.” Rather, he must study from someone who “resembles an angel.” Since, however, “there is no righteous man on earth who does good and doesn’t sin” (Koheles 7:20), what types of sins must a Torah scholar commit for a person to be required not to study Torah from him?
Some explain that the behavior must be “somewhat licentious” in nature or amount to “a great disgrace for Torah scholars” (Ritva ibid.). Rabbeinu Chananel offers a different criterion, based on Yoma 86a: his “colleagues are ashamed because of what is told about him.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 334:42), based upon the Gemara (Moed Katan 17a), rules that a scholar whose reputation is disgraced because “he engages in the study of heresy…or if his colleagues are ashamed of him, and he cause the name of God to be defamed” should be excommunicated (and one obviously does not study the works of excommunicated people).
The Rabbis Who Repents
The Rambam (cited above) writes that one may not study Torah from a badly-behaved Torah scholar “until he returns to proper behavior.” How does one determine if a person has repented? Does it matter what the sin was? Does it matter if he sinned due to a temporary weakness or psychological pathology? There is much debate on this matter (see, for example, Rema, Choshen Mishpat 34:22; Shach, ibid. 21; Tumim, ibid. 21; and Nesivos, ibid. 13).
Even if we assume a rabbi has truly repented, should he necessarily be reinstated to his prior position? It is worth noting that the Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 19:9) writes that “a rosh yeshiva who sins receives lashes and is not reinstated to his previous positions.” The Radbaz (6:2078) explains that due to the great chillul Hashem he caused, he cannot return to his previous position.
May One Study the Books of a Disgraced Rabbi?
The answer to this question may depend on why we are not allowed to learn from a rabbi who doesn’t resemble “an angel of the Lord of hosts.” One possible reason may be that a student who maintains a relationship with such a teacher will learn from his behavior. If that is the case, perhaps his written works may still be studied. (Indeed, the passage cited above [Chagiga 15b] questions how Rabbi Meir could continue to learn “from the mouth” of Acher.)
The Divrei Yirmiyahu (commenting on Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:1) holds this position. He writes that “the connection with the evil person is bad and causes harm and [spiritual] destruction.” A written work, however, is different. One can separate the good from the bad, which is why, he argues, the Rambam was allowed to study the written works of non-Jewish philosophers.
Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Halevi 3:145), however, prohibited reading even the written works of a Torah scholar who acted inappropriately. He assumed they “undoubtedly cause harm.”
I believe it is important, especially in our day, to raise three additional considerations:
First, the presence of a disgraced rabbi’s works in our personal and community libraries causes a great chillul Hashem and reinforces the notion that the frum community does not properly sanction criminals.
Second, it is terribly hurtful to the victims of sexual crimes to see the community embrace the scholarship of their attacker.
Third, continuing to study, cite, or even sell the works of a wayward rabbi sends a message, even if unintentional, that one who commits a horrible crime can continue to be a respected member of the community. One who sees the works of a sexual predator, or a criminal convicted of financial crimes, on the shelves of our homes and sefarim stores may conclude that we are not fully committed to ridding our communities of these people. This concern – of sending the wrong message to others – is why we burn a Sefer Torah written by a heretic: “in order not to make a name for the heretics or their deeds” (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HeTorah 6:8).
For the reasons cited above, I believe it’s crucial nowadays to properly distance unrepentant disgraced rabbis and leaders from our communities, and to discontinue studying and distributing their written Torah works.