Rabbi Elazar said: Be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor."
The way that the mishna is presented and translated, leaves us with four parts to it. Personally, I prefer to maintain uniformity. Since most teachings in Avos are in three parts, I have a bias towards the versions of this mishna that are tripartite. I explained a previous mishnathis way as well. There are different warnings and textual variants in this mishna and some of them demand this translation:
Rabbi Elazar said: Be diligent in the study of Torah so that you know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor."
However, this version raises some questions. First, why does it require diligence and Torah study to answer a heretic. Wouldn't be enough to memorize some stock answers to the most common questions? Second, the Talmud, in fact, recommends not to debate an Apikores, al least a Jewish Apikores, for the more one debates him, the more heretical he becomes.
Said Rabbi Eliezer: “Be diligent in the study of Torah and know what to answer a heretic,” so that you can answer the challenges that are based on Scripture. Said Rabbi Yochanan, “That is only with regard to a pagan heretic, but as for a Jewish heretic, do not debate him, for he will become even more heretical.” (Sanhedrin 36, Shabbos 30a).
Furthermore, what is the connection between the three parts of the mishna? Finally, one wonders how and why I did different teachings of R. Eliezer are interconnected. The same Rabbi Elazar who says that one should develop a "good heart," also advises us to "know what to answer a heretic" and also tells us in Mishna 12, that we must our fellows and respect and be in awe of our teachers. How does this all fit together?
Let's discuss this whole issue of whether one should or shouldn't debate Apikorsim. Now, it is clear that the Rabbis debated heretics extensively, see for example Sanhedrin 39a, Avodah Zarah, 16b-17a, Chagigah 5b and many others. At the same time, Chazal advise not responding to an Apikores. Rambam brings this law in his Commentary to the Mishna here and in Ch. 3 of Laws of Idolatry, although this distinction needs to be read into in the latter. Perhaps, this is why Rabbi Eliezer, quietly listened to the interpretation of a Biblical verse from Yakov of Kfar Sekanya('A"Z 16b; Eccl. R. i. 8).
Parenthetically, it is interesting that in every place that Rambam defines Apikores, he defines him differently( See Hil A"Z 3, Teshuvah 3). Now is not the place to discuss it but it is noteworthy that he seems to consider Apikores to be a flexible overall term for a sinner/ heretic and not for a specific type of a person.
So which is it? Do we debate heretics or do we not? Were all the heretics whom the Rabbis of the Talmud debated always not Jewish? It does not seem that way in many passages. For examples, see Menachos 65a.
It seems to me that one must store distinction between a private and the public debate. Private disputation with a Jewish heretis would not be productive for, as the Gemara says, he or she would just get more heretical. On the other hand, in public one must still counter a Jewish heretic, so that he does not remain victorious. In such a case, we are concerned about the public's perception more than about the effect on the heretic himself.
Rabbeinu Yonah similarly explains Rebbe Eliezer's quote above as follows: "Know how to respond to heretics, so others will not see you fail, and think the heretic is correct...ultimately profaning God's name." Certainly, Rabbeinu Yonah does not advocate answering dishonestly because this would Ziyuf Hatorah(Falsification of the Torah), possibly a capital offense. The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 4:9) rules that while, ordinarily, all laws other than idolatry, murder and licentiousness are set aside under mortal danger, one may still not falsify the Torah Ziyuf ha-Torah is not overridden even by piku’ach nefesh(there are other authorities who disagree). Instead, what this means is that you must be superbly prepared, so that you will respond properly and in the winning matter. In the heat of the argument one may be pressured to resort to a falsehood in order to win. To avoid this, you must toil in Torah, so that you ALWAYS have the correct answers and never, ever fail, for failing in public for lack of knowing a response is not an option.
Maharal has an interesting explanation, which I elaborate. He says that the heretic here is the innner war voice of heresy in a person. One has truly delve into the Torah to find an answer that works for him personally and individually. Every scholar has a Torah of his own (A"Z 19a) and only that personal Torah can answer his personal questions.
In the next post, we will come back to the questions poised above.