The Oral Torah

Posted by – October 9, 2006

The Oral Torah

What It Is And Why It Is Valid

The Oral Torah is the oral tradition of the Jews spanning from the exodus to the present day. When the Jewish people were traumatically dispersed and the Temple destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E., interpretations of Jewish law, which had always been stated and debated orally, had to be written down to save them from being lost forever. The Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud became the massive repositories of Jewish law we study today, huge written collections that make concrete the oral traditions that spanned back to Moses. When people refer to Oral Torah, they usually mean the components of the Talmud, the Mishna (retellings of Torah and its elaborate system of law) and Gemara (a compendium of commentaries on the Mishna), but Oral Torah also refers to the influential works of the post-Talmudic sages, like Rashi and his comprehensive commentaries on the Torah and the entire “OT,” Rambam and his code of the 613 Torah mitzvos, Ramchal and his Derech HaShem, Yosef Karo and the Shulkhan Arukh, and on and on and on.

Am Israel has improbably survived as a united people despite being cut off from their land, cut off from each other, under unbelievably difficult circumstances, for roughly two millenia, because of the sincere belief in the authority of the Oral Torah and our sages because of Deut. 17:11, which tells us not to deviate from the rulings of our judges (the Sanhedrin and its predecessors). And think about it, the Torah cannot work as a Constitution for Am Israel, simply cannot function as a daily, working system of law, without a canon of law explaining in detail what the Torah means and what precisely is permitted or not permitted. Someone has to decide how the Sabbath is to be observed, for example, and then, in order to keep a cohesive community, they have to follow that ruling.

Without Talmudic elaboration, we know what happens to Judaism. You get perversions like those of the Sadducees, who, because they denied Talmud, were stupidly strict on some things (no healing of dying people on the Sabbath–WTF?) and were stupidly lenient on other things (they would sacrifice whatever to Hashem, not their best stuff, like He wouldn’t notice, would eat the offerings you aren’t supposed to eat, and were also incredibly corrupt and beholden to the Romans). The Sadducees were who Jesus bashed the hardest, as they also denied the soul is immortal, etc. “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees went extinct, and the Pharisees (often unjustly bashed by the NT) are the ones whose teachings (Hillel, Akiva, etc., often running parallel to most of Jesus’ teachings) became the Talmud. Against all odds, the Pharisaic heroes of the Oral Torah brought us the Judaism we know and love today. No anti-Talmud Judaism has survived to the present-day (save a few stray Karaites) because without a canon, isolated diaspora communities would’ve simply fractured and dissolved.

I’ve read several people lately bashing Jewish practices (due to the oral Torah), denouncing Judaism as “manmade traditions,” which is what motivated me to write this. If they would study up on Judaism, they’d see that nearly ALL Jewish practices come directly from Biblical mandates. All of the Rambam’s list of 613 commandments are directly cited from Torah. The long beard thing that was later adopted by Islam? The sidelocks? They’re both derived from Lev. 19:27. The Jewish custom of not mixing milk and meat is a fair reading of Exodus 23:19 and Exodus 34:26 and is listed among the 613. It’s not from thin air, and we even have Roman writings pre-Jesus that talk about this “strange dietary habit of the Jews.”

However, not all Jewish practices are direct from the Torah. The yamulkes (skullcaps) AKA “kippot” many Orthodox Jews wear, while referenced in 1 Kings 20:31, are not in the Torah, so its mandate is purely Talmudic. The Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, which I’m currently studying, enumerates all 613 Torah commandments (mitzvos) and kippot aren’t one of them. And if you study Judaism, in Rambam’s work and throughout the canon of Jewish law, the sages themselves maticulously delineate what is D’Oraisa (direct Torah command) and what is D’Rabban (Rabbinic decree) because, obviously, breaking a rabbinic decree is very different compared to transgressing the Torah.

But my main point is, no religion can survive without an oral tradition to provide continuity and stability in practices and interpretation. With no traditional interpretation of Torah you could say “eye for an eye” means seek revenge (as I’ve heard some rednecks say), or you could even endorse cannibalism (not specifically legislated against in Torah) as kosher as long as you slaughter people properly.

Catholic and Greek Orthodox have 2000 years of unbroken canon law (similar to Judaism), and priests working with people in the Jewish mold to align their daily practices with the yoke of heaven. Protestant churches are much more free form because of Luther’s idea of “the priesthood of all believers,” i.e. you interpret the Bible for yourself, you are your own priest (can be problematic) but they do have an oral tradition, heavily influenced by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and the evangelical movements that followed them. Everyone, unavoidably, has certain traditions of practice and interpretation passed down by their priest or reverend or rabbi. The Karaites, who reject the oral Torah, have their own interpretations, which actually fall in line with normative Judaism most of the time.

I hope this gives all my readers some background and insight, and you’ll see oral Torah as a necessity, not dismiss it out of hand. I see oral Torah as a miracle that’s held the tiny branch of Jacob together as a cohesive people against all odds, and I think it’s fantastic we have such a deep wealth of sacred texts to delve into that you could study for a century and barely master them. Non-Jews could also gain a treasury of wisdom from Judaism, as, for example, they could learn what the people who received the Ten Commandments say the Ten Commandments mean before they plaster them everywhere. 🙂

Study on!

Shalom,

Nick

Filed Under: Torah Insights and Religion

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