It was a strange sight to behold — a priest wearing tefillin.
The picture was taken at the burial site of Dovid HaMelech, located on Har Tzion in the Old City of Jerusalem. Christians often visit because it is adjacent to the alleged site of what they call the “Last Supper.” The priest had come with what appears to be about ten nuns. A rabbi, Rabbi Shraga Brand, asked the priest if he was Jewish. The priest responded that he was. The rabbi then proceeded to put tefillin on him.
The picture prompted somewhat of a firestorm. Was the rabbi correct? Do we apply the dictum of “Chatah, Yisrael hu,” a Jew who sinned is still a Jew? Or do we say, “Sorry, this man has gone so far beyond the pale that we no longer look at him as a Jew in terms of encouraging him to put on tefillin?”
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (44a) takes the verse in Yehoshua (7:11) where Hashem tells Yehoshua that Achan had sinned by saying “Chatah Yisrael.” The Talmud understands this to imply another lesson as well. Even though Yisrael sinned, he is still considered a Jew. But does this refer to Klal Yisrael collectively as a people? Or can this dictum be applied to individuals as well?
We must also realize that in Talmudic times, the term “mumar” did not necessarily mean what it means now. It meant someone who did away with the observance of a mitzvah or two. By the times of the Gaonim, the term “mumar” applied to someone who gave up his religion for another.
By the times of the Gaonim (Otzar HaGaonim, Kiddushin 78) it was established that a mumar, one who left the religion, does not inherit his father. Many Rishonim also subscribe to this view (Rashba Vol. VII #292, see Ohr Zaruah B.B. #103). They view it as an exchange of nationhood (see language of the Rashba). Rav Amram Gaon even writes “ho’il v’nafka miToras Yisrael v’ayalah b’toras goyah,” since she left being considered a Jew and chose to live as a non-Jew.
What about for marriage purposes? Rashi in Yevamos 47b rules that a mumar is considered as a Jew for all matters of Kiddushin. The Ba’al HaIttur (#‘32) writes that if a woman had a brother-in-law who was a mumar and her husband died, she requires neither yibum (the Levirate marriage where the brother of the deceased husband must marry his widowed sister-in-law) nor chalitzah (the special divorce-like procedure wherein the brother refuses to marry his widowed sister-in-law). This would seem to disagree with the aforementioned Rashi. The Ohr Zaruah HaKatan writes that if he was an apikores when his brother had died, she goes out without chalitzah even if the brother subsequently repented and did teshuvah.
The Radbaz (Vol. VII #251) writes that from a Torah perspective, an apikores’s marriage is not considered a marriage. It is just that rabbinically we are concerned that perhaps he did teshuvah.
The Targum Onkeles on Sh’mos (12:43) when discussing the Korban Pesach and the term “ben neichar,” writes that any Jew who was yishtamed may not eat of it either.
It is also important to draw a distinction between the term “mumar” when applied to victims of the Inquisition (the Anusim) and the term “mumar” as applied to someone who converted out of sheer free will. The former is still treated as a Jew in most respects while the latter is not. In the teshuvos of the early Acharonim, the term was applied also to the Anusim. Fascinatingly, if one of the Anusim had the chance to leave but chose not to, then the Acharonim dealt with him like someone who converted out of Judaism out of free will (See Maharadach, Siman 9 and 20). The Rema (Y.D. 124:9) writes that such people are treated as complete idol-worshippers.
The Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zara 2:5 writes very clearly that they are not to be considered as Jews for any matter.
The Maharatz Chajes writes (Minchas Kana’us p. 1004 in all his collected writings) about people who negate the mitzvah of b’ris milah, “u’b’sheim Yisrael ein mechunim,” they are not to be called Jews. He specifically writes this in terms of our interactions with them.
The Baalei HaTosfos in Sanhedrin (72b “Yisrael”) write that a mumar is not considered a ben b’ris. The Beis Shmuel (E.H. 141:47) cites this Tosfos as halachah, as does the Magen Avraham (O.C. 189:1).
It is this author’s conclusion that the rabbi should not have put tefillin on the priest on account of the near-unanimous views of the gedolei ha’poskim cited above. On the other hand, from the priest’s perspective, he is still obligated in all of the Torah’s mitzvos. The way we should treat him, however, is quite different. It seems that even from a Torah perspective we should treat him as a goy for all matters. This author also checked with Rav Dovid Harfenes, one of the leading poskim in New York, and he responded, “Chas v’shalom.”
This is not to cast any aspersions on the remarkable work of Rabbi Shraga Brand. Clearly, the man is a tzaddik as seen in his sheer dedication. It is just that in this particular case he erred, in this author’s opinion.
The issue is not insignificant. There is an organization that calls itself Jews for J or “Messianic Judaism. They appoint “rabbis” and have “yeshivos” as well. They are not Jewish and should not be considered or treated as Jews according to the Torah sources mentioned above. We cannot allow this false identity to persist, and it should be fought at every step of the way.
Another issue is whether we believe the priest in his identification that he is, in fact, Jewish. Generally speaking, we do not recognize claims of Judaism with no proof whatsoever. Tefillin is one of the special osos that Hashem gave His people. We are instructed to cover them, too, so that they not be seen.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.