Question: If rumors emerge that a certain Torah scholar has transgressed several Torah prohibitions, is there still an obligation to honor him?
Answer: Rabbeinu Meir Ha’Levi Abulafia (known as the Ramah, a friend of the Ramban who also authored some Kabbalistic works, not to be confused with the later Rama as in Rabbeinu Moshe Isserlish) writes that all of the laws regarding honoring Torah scholars apply only to a genuine Torah scholar who is truly G-d-fearing; however, Torah scholars who are lax in Mitzvah observance and do not possess fear of Heaven are considered to be the lowest elements of society since they desecrate Hashem’s name and about them does the prophet Micha (Chapter 3) state, “Hear this please, heads of the house of Yaakov and rulers of the house of Israel that abhor justice and pervert all equity etc. Thus, because of you, Zion shall be ploughed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house (Temple Mount) as the high places of a forest.” We see from this that a rabbi’s Torah knowledge is of no importance if he does not possess fear of Heaven, as Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch rules: “A Torah scholar who treats the Mitzvot lightly and does not possess fear of Heaven is considered like the lowest elements of society.” We have already discussed this point two days ago.
The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 17a) discusses an incident where the Torah scholars of a certain generation required the Torah knowledge of a certain Torah scholar about whom bad rumors had emerged and had been excommunicated by Rav Yehuda as a result of these rumors. Although the students needed to study Torah from this individual, nevertheless, the Gemara there expounds the verse “For the lips of a Kohen shall keep knowledge and they shall seek Torah from his mouth for he is an angel of Hashem of Hosts” that if the rabbi resembles a Heavenly angel, then Torah should be sought from his mouth, but if not, one should not seek Torah from him. Thus, Rav Yehuda excommunicated this Torah scholar although he was needed to teach Torah to others since it was preferable for others not to study Torah from this individual because of the rumors that had emerged about him.
Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch rules as follows: “If a rabbi does not go in a good path, although he is a great Torah scholar and the entire nation needs him, no one should learn Torah from him until he returns to the righteous path.” The source for this ruling is the aforementioned Gemara in Masechet Mo’ed Katan.
Although the Gemara recounts that Rav Yehuda excommunicated a Torah scholar about whom rumors had emerged, nevertheless, the issue of excommunicating a Torah scholar is simple at all because of the exalted level of Torah scholars. Indeed, if an elderly and brilliant Torah scholar or the head of a rabbinical court sin, they may never be excommunicated in public unless they have done something to the extent of Yarov’am be Nevat and his colleagues; rather, they are told to preserve their honor and stay home.
Additionally, it is possible that a Torah scholar will sin and then repent fully at which point his sin will be forgiven. These issues are full of many fine details and the rule is that one must follow the instructions of the Torah leaders of the generation, for only they will be able to reach the true clarity of the matter.