On Not Bashing the Oral Law and the Rabbis of Israel

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On Facebook I recently saw a video debunking the idea that God gave an Oral Torah to Moses on Mt Sinai. But the presentation went further than this, raising two subsidiary objections.   You may see the video here.

First Objection: They said that the Rabbis “invented” the Oral Torah as a means of controlling the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple.

I would strongly urge that one be very careful about making such a statement because it attributes to the rabbis as a class a Machiavellian intent which must be proven on a wider basis than “impressions” or prior negative experiences with someone in today’s rabbinic establishment. Do we really want to say that on the heels of the Destruction of the Temple, the rabbis , in collusion, invented this body of Law as a means controlling the Jews?

A more reasonable position is as follows: Students and scribes tended to write down their methods and notes on various issues. At this earlier stage, there was no intent to translate these notes into a system of law. What was valued instead was a living tradition, where each person was expected to seek out the wise and learned ones in their community as well as the judges of that day in order to determine a righteous judgment on what might be the best verdict on the behavior being contemplated.

After the destruction of the Temple, with the Jewish community in danger of disintegrating now that the symbolic, political, and judicial center was gone, the authorities welcomed the codification of a standardized Jewish law as a means of preserving the legacy of this people and fostering their continuity. This led to the creation of the Mishna, completed sometime around 200 A.D., while referencing older discussions. But the Mishna was not an invention: it was a codifcation, an authoritative collection of discussion already extant in the community. 

Returning to our earlier point, it seems mean-spirited and uncalled for to attribute to the rabbis as a class a certain cunning and malevolent intent, and to deny that they, and all Israel, were doing the best they knew how, fighting for their survival in the aftermath of a profound national tragedy. The accusation is just plain nasty. 

Second Objection: They said that there is obviously no such thing as an Oral Torah since this is not mentioned in the Tanach, hut only written sources are.

First I will agree that the idea that God gave all of the details of Oral Torah to Moses at Sinai is problematic, but this view is really a caricature of the position held by most religious Jews, and the idea that Moses received every jot and tittle of Oral Torah at Mt Sinai is a way of saying it remains authoritative for Israel, but it should not be taken as the party line that needs to be refuted. There are other stories in the Jewish tradition which highlight that Moses does not know all of Oral Torah, and these stories, likewise fanciful are given to make one or more important points.

For example, there is a place in the tractate Menahot when the Rabbis imagine what took place when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Moses ascended to heaven, where he found God busily adding crown like ornaments to the letters of the Torah. Moses asked God what He was doing and God explained that in the future there will be a man named Akiva, son of Joseph, who will base a huge mountain of Jewish law on these very orthographic ornaments (Akiva lived in the first century). Intrigued, Moses asks God to show this man to him. Moses is told to ‘go back eighteen rows,’ and suddenly, as in a dream, he is in a classroom, with the class is in session,  and Rabbi Akiva, the teacher.

Akiva is explaining Torah to his disciples, but Moses is completely unable to follow the lesson. It is far too complicated for him. This makes him very sad until one of the disciples asks Akiva how he knows something is true and Akiva answers: ‘It is derived from a law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.’ Upon hearing this answer, Moses is satisfied – though he can’t resist asking why, if such brilliant men as Akiva exist, Moses needs to be the one to deliver the Torah. At this point God loses patience and tells Moses, ‘Silence, it’s my will.’”

Clearly, such stories are told for the values they explore, and for the tensions they examine within the tradition. And equally clearly, picking fights with rhetorical points in such legendary stories is a weak method of commending one’s own position.

Finally, the idea that there is no Oral Law because it is not mentioned in Torah is an argument from silence that has no  value. Saying that because the Bible does not address X, then X did not exist among the children of Israel is strange. Remember too that the authors of the video I was watching insist there is really no such thing as an Oral Law prior to its having been “invented” by the rabbis after the Destruction in 70 C.E. That this is a worthless argument is easy to demonstrate.

To believe it is true, we must assume that after the Jews received the Torah on Mt Sinai, they never discussed how they were going to obey it, because the MOMENT you discuss how you are going to obey, and how it is to be applied under varying conditions, etc. you have an Oral Law. This video imagines that this discussion NEVER happened but that the Rabbis “invented” the Oral Law after the destruction of the Temple. As pleasing as this must be to many people due to their theological grids, it is obviously false, unless you can credibly assume that the Jews, for at least fifteen hundred years, NEVER discussed how they were going to obey, how they were going to prioritize matters, when they were going to do what, and what about X, Y, and Z circumstances? To say that such discussion never took place for 1500 years is obviously a fairy tale, but one to be received with joy by those looking to discredit “the religion of the rabbis.”

I don’t think the rabbis are always right. Nor are they always wrong. But I do think it is wrong to attack the rabbis as a class. After all, it wasn’t the ministers and Christian Bible students that kept the Jews and their Judaism alive in the blood- and tear-soaked exilic wanderings of the seed of Jacob.  What kept the Jews alive and in faith was the work of the rabbis and the religion they presented and subscribed to.

We owe something to the rabbis of Israel.  But is not contempt and mistrust. It is gratitude and admiration, even where and when they disagree with us.

And to the extent that we have entertained the kinds of spurious and nasty arguments I outlined here, we owe them one thing more. 

An apology. 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. You raise interesting points. I agree that the religious leaders needed some means to keep the community intact as a result of the worldwide dispersion. Yet the Tanakh is the oldest document the Jewish people have and when reading it cover to cover, the prophets refer the people only to it, not to the Talmud. So it obviously raises questions how the rabbis thru the Talmud have caused the Talmud to supercede the authority of the Tanakh.

    It would have been better historically if the rabbis had allowed all Jews to read the Tanakh and come directly face to face with God’s message for them and for the Jewish people.

    1. Thank you for your response. However, it puzzles me. Perhaps you can answer these questions.
      (1) Where do the prophets refer the people to the Tanakh? Do they not refer the people to the Torah?
      (2) Who is saying the Talmud supersedes the Tanakh? Is that the Jewish consensus? Where do you find this?
      (3) On what basis do you say that the rabbis do not “allow all Jews to read the Tanakh and come directly face to face with God’s message for them and for the Jewish people?” Where is it forbidden?
      (4) Do you realize that Talmudic Judaism ranks authority of revelation such that the written word (d’oraita) trumps rabbinic opinion (d’rabbana)?

      I will be grateful for your reply.

      Thank you.

      1. I had to review some of my own thoughts after you posed these questions, leaving open the possibility that my understanding has along the way forked onto the road of error.

        (1) This question has sharpened my thought a little more. From my review of scriptures, i gather that the kings of Israel were to make a copy of the Law for themselves during their reign. Families are to teach their sons and grandsons the Law given by God. The Law was read publicly to
        the people during Ezra’s days. On the flip side, Daniel did read Jeremiah to get further clarity of God’s plan for the Jewish people. The broad range of quotes from the Tanakh, not just the Torah, by 1st century writers from the disciples of Jesus to Paul implies that the people and religious leaders of the 1st century were well versed in reading broadly all of the Tanakh and not just the Torah.

        (2) I just recently saw a video of an orthodox rabbi speaking to his congregation where he clearly says that the Torah cannot be understood by the common man because there it is basically one big run on sentence lacking any commas, semicolons, and periods. He said that because the placement of a comma can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence, it is best left to the rabbis to interpret the meaning of the Torah properly and that this is why the Talmud is necessary. It interprets the Torah for people because the common man cannot understand the Torah. Possibly this is an interpretational drift dependent on the denomination one is part of.

        (3) I have read and heard about more than a few Jewish individuals who have questioned portions of the Tanakh they were reading on their own and taken the question to their rabbi, only to be told that that particular chapter is not to be read. The conclusion I can draw is that the rabbi’s, possibly again an issue of which denomination, do not want their congregation reading all of the Tanakh.

        (4) I thought otherwise, that the oral Law gave greater clarity and superseded the written Law in Talmudic Judaism. I will need to ponder on this longer but from what i have read the rabbis after the 1st century destruction of the Temple, in the process of codifying the spoken traditions, considered themselves to be the prophets of the time and whose revelation/interpretation took priority over all else. Their interpretation, via the Talmud, became the standard. One of my difficulties in reaching a clear conclusion on this matter is the issue of the difference between the Hebrew version of the Talmud and the English version of the Talmud. Are the translations true to the original or has it been edited? Authors seem to point to differing translations and editions to make their arguments and so it begs the question, “Can i have an original unedited version in English from which I can get a more confident understanding of Talmudic thinking?”.

        1. (1) It remains the case that very few people had a copy of the Scriptures. In addition, the Jewish culture of biblical times was an ORAL culture. People heard the Scriptures repeatedly and learned them by rote. There were Torah scrolls in the synagogues. And in varying degrees, other texts. But this was an oral culture.
          (2) As for the Orthodox Rabbi you saw, do you consider Pope Francis, or Kenneth Copeland, or Charles Stanley, or Joel Osteen, or Creflo Dollar to be typical of what christians believe. Why assume that the position taken by this televised rabbi is typical of anything?
          (3) As to what you have read and heard, don’t believe everything you read and hear and consider matters in context. The only books of Scripture that I ever heard proscribed in a limited fashion were Song of Songs, restricted by some to married people because of its sexuality, and The Book of Daniel, because historically false Messiahs like Shabbetai Tzvi based their claims upon it. But the Jewish community is far more open in its learning culture than some Christian circles.
          (4) There is some discussion in the Talmud about where and how the Oral Law takes precedence over the written, but this is not the prevailing practice. You must realize that the sources you read, that have been referenced or quoted to you by others, are not objective, and in many cases seek to find fault. Modern practice is like this: If a d’oraita rule (as commandment from the written Torah) comes into conflict with a d’rabbanan rule (a commandment or understanding generated by the rabbis), the d’oraita rule (Torah rule) always takes precedence.

          1. Thanks for your perspective. Will take it into consideration as I get a better framework of understanding Judaism and the Talmud.

  2. As for demonstrating the error of those who assert that Oral Torah was invented only sometime after 70 CE, one may refer to Rav Yeshua’s peroration in Mt.23, where in verse 23 he says that the tithing of mint, dill, and cumin (herbs) is a minor matter that should not be neglected while attending to the weightier matters of Torah. The tithing of herbs is a derivation in Oral Torah and not an explicit requirement of the written Torah. Clearly, Rav Yeshua upheld the authority of Oral Torah as taught by the scribes and Pharisees whom he was criticizing for not living up to the high calling for which they bore Moshe’s authority to teach and be obeyed. Further, Rav Yeshua attended, and taught in, synagogues which were also an “invention” of Oral Torah centuries prior to his ministry. He offered no criticism to indicate that they were in any way contrary to Torah. Indeed, we should logically infer from his statement in Mt.5:18 that the finest details of Torah, which he represented as the smallest letter “yud” and the “tagim” (the crowns and similar markings that Rabbi Akiva so famously interpreted), which would remain valid as long as heaven and earth endure, include the Oral interpretations of that Torah.

      1. Thanks for the reference, Stuart — though I disagree strongly with one early statement in Rabinowitz’s paper. However, I will excuse it as merely a straw-man that aids him to pose the question he will explore in the remainder of it. I appreciate that it was published in 2003 — fully 15 years ago — and a lot of theological re-examination has occurred among Jewish messianists since then. Further allowances may be permitted in consideration of the type of publication where it appeared, and its likely editorial constraints (including the continued use of the distorted name “Jesus” rather than his actual name “Yeshua”, even without the appellation “Rav” that qualifies his position as a master teacher with subordinate disciples).

        All that considered, Rabinowitz offers on his first page the statement: “throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly in opposition to the Pharisees”. This may seem common wisdom to readers of that publication, but the statement is superficial and ignorant of the period’s religio-political dynamics among multiple sects of Pharisees, among others. This was a period during which many halachot were in development, and argumentation was the common methodology of that process. That is not to be confused with opposition, even if the arguments became vehement, even heated, and laced with hyperbolic invective. It is why the term “pilpul” (“pepper” or spice) came to be applied to characterize it. What the various parties of Pharisees who confronted Rav Yeshua wanted was to obtain his arguments and perspective about the halachot which were commonly being argued. That is actually a collegial process rather than a strictly antagonistic or inimical one; and Rav Yeshua demonstrated by his answers that he was himself a Pharisee who tended to favor Hillel’s approach. Consequently it becomes less remarkable that in Mt.23:2-3 he recognizes Pharisaic authority and commands his own disciples to do likewise — despite his criticisms of how they often fell short of their responsibilities vis-à-vis Torah-informed behavior. It is no different than later Talmudic criticism of several “types” of Pharisees.

        Regrettably, we have numerous modern examples of a similar phenomenon in which legitimately authorized or even elected leaders are guilty of legal and moral infractions. Their authority must be acknowledged and obeyed, but their behavioral example must be repudiated (and legally prosecuted where needed).

        Nonetheless, despite the implicit straw-man evoked by Rabinowitz’s early statement above regarding opposition to the Pharisees, he proceeds in the remainder of the paper to demolish arguments against Rav Yeshua’s endorsement of their halachic authority and his command to his own disciples to obey them and it. I see that he also cites verse 23 as I did to support Rav Yeshua’s affirmation of Oral Torah. I have the terrible feeling, though, that this paper represents an effort to dig one’s way out of a pit that was dug unnecessarily by folks who simply didn’t accept the “prima facie” evidence of Rav Yeshua’s instructions, his Jewish perspective, his emphasis on Torah, his rabbinic style of presentation, and the like. The pit represents numerous denials of plainly-stated elements recorded in Mt.5:17-20; and one can only try to imagine the spiritual and practical progress that could be made if one did not have to start one’s journey trying to claw one’s way out of such a pit.

        Even so, in the last couple pages of the paper that straw-man seems to be given a bit of substance via tacit agreement with the mistaken notion I addressed above as a failure to recognize the process of halachic development by argumentation. I may hope, however, that the author has himself grown in his understanding during the past decade-and-a-half, thus mitigating any lingering traces of historical mis-perceptions about internecine antagonism characterizing this process.

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