As a continuation of the story of arba she-nikhnisu ba-pardes – four tanna’im who embarked on the study of esoteric secrets of the Torah – our Gemara discusses the case of Aher, the Tanna Elisha ben Avuya, whose experience in the pardes led him to become a heretic. According to the Gemara, Aher peered into heaven and found the Archangel Mitatron who had received permission to sit down to write the merits of the Jewish people. From the midrashim it appears that Mitatron is the angel responsible for the entire world, and seeing him gave Aher the sense that there existed shetei reshuyot (two competing forces in heaven) – Mitatron and God – which was a common belief of Gnostic sects at that time.
Even after Elisha ben Avuya’s heresy, his student Rabbi Meir continued to study with him, and our Gemara relates a series of conversations that went on between them. The Gemara reacts to this by quoting Rabba bar bar Hana in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, who interprets the passage in Malakhi (2:7) as forbidding anyone from studying with a teacher unless he is on the level of a heavenly angel. Two responses are offered:
Reish Lakish quotes a passage in Mishlei (22:17) that instructs a person to learn from scholars, but to heed God’s word, indicating that one can learn from a problematic scholar, as long as it is the word of God that remains primary.
Rav Hanina quotes Tehillim (45:11), which he understands as permitting study with a Sage, as long as the problematic teachings are ignored.
So is it appropriate to study Torah from a heretic or not?
The Gemara suggests that we must distinguish between a katan (literally “a small person”) and a gadol (“a great person”).
Alternatively, Rav Dimi taught that, in Israel, Rabbi Meir’s behavior was explained by saying that he treated this relationship like the fruit of a date: eating the good part and throwing away the pit and the inedible peel.
It is interesting to note that we do not find the Rambam or the Shulhan Aruk accepting the distinction between a katan and a gadol when discussing whether it is permissible to study with a heretic. The commentaries on these works explain that we no longer have Sages who can be certain that they will be able to accept only what is valuable from such a teacher without being affected by his belief system. Some suggest that the term gadol in this context does not mean a great scholar, but only the leader of the generation. In his Zekher LaHagiga, Rav Mordechai Zvi Rheinhold suggests a different approach entirely to this teaching. He argues that the katan and gadol do not refer to the student, but to the teacher. In other words, the Gemara is teaching that it is only when the heretical teacher is a great person (as was Elisha ben Avuya) that it would be permissible to learn from him (as did Rabbi Meir).