Ritva (Gittin 60a) and Ra”n (14a) explain that once something is put into writing, it is subject to being interpreted or misinterpreted according to the viewpoint of the reader. Putting such developed ideas into written form necessarily restricts the concepts into rigid sentences, which is too limiting for their true meaning. When, however, concepts are transmitted orally from rebbe to talmid, they are able to be articulated and explained with emotion and clarity.
The give and take which follows allows a student to ask and pursue that which needs further elucidation. This is essential for the transmission of the mesorah, and this is why the Torah prohibits us to record the oral law in written form.
P’risha (O.C. 49:1) also notes that the written word limits the ideas it represents by the usage of particular phrases and expressions. This leads to subjective interpretation and understanding based upon the author’s choice of words, which may or may not convey the accurate intent of the writer to the reader.
Daf Yomi Digest
“The oral law may not be written down”
I have to admit, I’ve never comprehended this. It’s always been my understanding that information transmitted orally from one generation from the next was subject to distortion over time. We see this demonstrated in the children’s game where kids sit in a circle and one child whispers a short story to the next. The story is transmitted around the circle, and by the time it gets to the person who told the original story, it (in all likelihood) has significantly changed. Even an individual’s memory of a single even tends to change over time, making eyewitness testimony in court unreliable, although legally, it is still considered one of the more reliable forms of evidence.
Add to all that the fact that during different periods of exile in Jewish history, there were “breaks” in the transmission process when it is very likely that the Oral Law was not transmitted at all. Once such a break occurs, how could this information be recaptured if it has not been preserved in some documented form? Once the last of the old generation dies, if they haven’t passed on the oral law to the next generation, the oral law dies with them.
That’s why we have written information. That’s why we have books, magazines, newspapers, and other physical and virtual documents. So that information can be preserved over time, unaffected by a distortion of transmission or a distortion of memory.
And yet, the above commentary is right in that, once information is nailed down in written form, it becomes accessible to everyone’s individual and subjective interpretation. We see this commonly in Bible interpretation, particularly within the church, where any individual can tell themselves that a scripture means “such and thus” to them, even if it doesn’t carry that meaning for anyone else.
(I say “particularly within the church” because Judaism tends to interpret the Bible based on established tradition rather than an individual’s “feelings.” To be fair though, it is true that Christianity also has traditions that are applied to Bible interpretation, but the “freedom” the average Christian has seems to include the freedom to ignore scholarship, at least on occasion)
Don’t look to me for an answer to this conundrum, because I have none to give you. We know that the Oral Law was finally redacted around 200 CE because of the fear that it would be lost due to the Jewish exile from Israel, and so we have a rich body of interpretation and commentary on Jewish Law that is with us to this day.
But in studying this topic in today’s Daf and the original reasons that documenting the Oral Law was forbidden, I did come across this.
Yefei To’ar (to Shemos Rabba 47:1) explains, based upon the Midrash, that if the oral law would be written there would be a risk that the gentiles would take our law and copy it for themselves. They would implement many of the aspects of our system of life, and the clear and obvious differences between the Jews and the non-Jews would be less apparent, causing many Jews to blend into the non- Jewish society.
Most Christians reading this quote will find it rather a strange concern for the Jewish sages to have, since one of the foundations upon which Christian faith is built is on the destruction of Jewish Law and it being wholly replaced by the grace of Christ. In fact, in the long history of the Christian church, most church theologians, scholars, and clergy have gone out of their way to avoid any type of practice of anything that looks like Judaism in worship or belief. Christians are not only completely uninterested in copying Jewish law, they actively disdain it.
(OK, this is overly simplistic and there are a number of parallelisms historically between Christianity and Judaism, but for the sake of this “mediation,” let’s assume that the schism between Jewish and Christian thought, faith, and practice is absolute)
But in the here and now, we have a glaring exception. Messianic Judaism.
To be more accurate, there’s a branch of Messianic Judaism called “One Law” that states Gentiles who are “grafted in” to the root of Israel are also grafted in to the full “yoke of Torah” such that, there is no distinction between Jewish and “Christian” practice of the Law. In essence, the dire worry of the sages has come to past. The Gentiles have taken the Law and copied it for themselves. Let’s read part of the quote again that predicts the result:
They would implement many of the aspects of our system of life, and the clear and obvious differences between the Jews and the non-Jews would be less apparent, causing many Jews to blend into the non- Jewish society.
This is precisely the concern many ethnic, cultural, and religious Jews in the Messianic movement have, and it seems the concerns of the sages are well justified.
It’s not the Oral Law that is being copied by the Gentiles, it’s the written Torah. The Gentiles in “the movement” have about as much interest in the Oral Law as their traditional Christian counterparts. So it seems that documenting the oral traditions really hasn’t yielded the feared result.
But the core of the concern remains. Gentiles are copying Jews and the distinction between Jews and Christians is eroding. Some Jews who have only a tenuous understanding of what Judaism actually is, are gravitating to One Law congregations rather than pursuing more significantly Jewish communities (Again, to be fair, many One Law Jews have been raised in Jewish homes and have a very strong Jewish identity). Many Gentiles who have become disillusioned with the church are flocking to One Law congregations in droves, believing they are embracing their “lost” Jewish roots and in practice, becoming “pseudo-Jews.” It doesn’t matter then, whether the Oral Law was written down or not, since the written portion of Torah was sufficient to produce a collection of Gentiles who, for all intents, believe they are “spiritual Jews,” and who have adopted many of the Jewish religious practices and traditions.
(It should be noted here that many non-Jewish One Law practitioners actually do adhere to some of the Oral Law without realizing it, since the traditions involving how to put on a tallit gadol, lay tefillin, perform a blessing before a meal, conduct a Torah service, and many other worship activities, are rooted in the Oral Law rather than in written Torah. Some of the prayers in the siddur originate in the Zohar, thus even small portions of Kabbalah are unknowingly included in One Law practice)
The irony is that, in utilizing the written but not Oral Law of the Jews, One Law Gentiles fulfill the concern of the sages which has lead to…
…a subjective interpretation and understanding based upon the author’s choice of words, which may or may not convey the accurate intent of the writer to the reader.
Modern Judaism believes that the written Torah, and the intent of the author’s choice of words, cannot be accurately understood unless seen through the lens of the oral Torah. In disregarding the oral traditions and rulings, the Jews and Gentiles in One Law may be falling into the trap that so concerned the ancient sages. Of course, there are branches of Judaism that historically have rejected the Oral Law, such as the Sadducees and Essenes, but unlike the Pharisaic tradition, they did not survive into modern times. The Kararites have survived and currently exist, but they are the only Jewish sect I’m aware of, that does not, in some manner or fashion, recognize the Oral Law.
(It is true that between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism, there are differing levels of adherence to Oral Law, but none of these branches does away with the it altogether).
Usually, in discussions like this one, the primary concern presented is Gentile “misuse” or “misapplication” of Jewish Law, which I’ve certainly addressed, but the Story Off the Daf for Temurah 14 illustrates another problem.
It is tragic that so many Jews have fallen away from Torah observance in the modern period. Immigration to America—the “Goldeneh Medinah” —played a large role in a historic shift away from tradition. The vast majority of those who arrived here from “der alter heim,” the “old country,” fell away from observance. At a superficial glance, this seems a bit hard to fathom. Throughout our long past, the Jewish People faced so many obstacles, a multitude of decrees forbidding Torah, which did not deter us at all. What was it about America, and the rest of the free world, that had such a detrimental effect on Torah and mitzvos?
Perhaps we can understand the solution to this puzzle in light of how the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, explains a statement on today’s daf. “In Temurah 14 we find that it is better for the Torah to be disrupted then forgotten. When various parties rise up and block us from learning Torah, the situation is not so spiritually dangerous as one might have thought. When they chase after people who learn, usually we find a solution. Jews learn in caves, attics and cellars, and Torah is preserved.
“A far worse situation is when Jews forget the Torah—when it is abandoned and considered unimportant. Then, learning Torah is something that Jews simply do not aspire to at all. In such circumstances, there is a vast spiritual danger.
“To understand the true state of a Jew without Torah let us consider a person who is completely paralyzed. Just as such a person is sadly unaware of what the senses of a normal person would perceive—since he is completely unfeeling—the same is true of those who have no feel for the value of Torah.”
My wife was raised in an intermarried family. Her mother was Jewish and her father, raised as a Christian Scientist, had left the faith and was non-religious. Her mother also had left religious, and for the most part, cultural Judaism to such a degree that my wife didn’t even realize that she was Jewish until early adulthood.
After my wife and I converted to Christianity some fifteen years ago or so, her first sustained exposure to “Judaism” was via the One Law congregation we started to attend. If she had stayed there, she more than likely would have continued her faith in Jesus. However, she wouldn’t actually have understood what it is to be a Jew, since the congregational leader and most of the board of elders were not Jewish. Even those Jews who participated in the congregation back then, had not been raised in cultural and religious Jewish homes.
But the drive in her to understand what it is to be a Jew would not let go, and she eventually gravitated to first the Reform, and then the Chabad synagogues. There, she established herself among other Jews and enjoyed the full measure of participation in a completely realized ethnic, cultural, and religious Jewish community.
But the cost was her faith in Jesus.
What would have made a difference? I’m not sure anything would have. I’m not some sort of dictator in the home, and I cannot simply tell my wife where to go, how to feel, and believe. I’m not going to tell her she must embrace Jesus as the Messiah. I believe each human being negotiates his or her own relationship with God and no one can act as a go-between. If, perhaps, we had a congregation available that offered a fully Jewish community and true Jewish worship of the Jewish Messiah, maybe…maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe my wife could have securely explored her Judaism while preserving her faith in Jesus. But we don’t live in a world of “what ifs”. We live in a world of completed actions and what is done, is done.
I know that my friends in the One Law movement (who will no doubt be upset at today’s “meditation”) will tell me that if she had stayed in One Law, she could have lived a completely Jewish lifestyle and a continued to be believer, but I know that congregation well. I love the people who attend and who lead, and they are sincere in their faith and wonderful disciples of the Master…but it’s not a Jewish congregation. The men may wear kippot and don tallitot in prayer, they may use siddurim, and call the Master, “Yeshua,” but the vast, vast majority of them are Gentiles, and most of the Jews weren’t raised within Judaism.
So should I raise Judaism above the Messiah? As Paul might put it, “heaven forbid.” But I can’t separate a Jew from the Jewish worship of the Jewish Messiah, either. I cannot demand that a Jew, in order to maintain faith in the Moshiach, water down or delete their Jewish identity in any aspect. 2,000 years of history have created the illusion that there must be a separation between Judaism and Jesus and sadly, that separation is being maintained, not only by traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity, but by (hold on to your hats) the One Law expression of the Messianic movement. For in removing the Oral Law and traditions, which I’ve said before have been the only things that preserved Jewish cultural and religious existence in post-Second Temple times, they have removed almost everything that comprises historic and modern Judaism, and that tells a Jew what it is to be a Jew.
(I’m not making this up. For an excellent illustration of the meaning of Oral Law, tradition, and Talmud to the Jewish lifestyle, read Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ book God Was Not in the Fire)
I know I’m going to be criticized for yet another one of my opinions, but like the proverbial baseball umpire, “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.” I continue to be grieved that my wife no longer recognizes Jesus Christ as the “hidden” Messiah who will one day be revealed to Israel, but I cannot behave toward her as have countless generations of Christians across the long march of history, and demand that she stop being Jewish, even in the smallest detail, for the sake of worshiping a Messiah most of Judaism disregards. I do however, continue to pray that this is not the end of her story or the final destination of her path, and that there is a milepost up ahead, or an unseen bend in the trail, where she will one day be reunited with the “Maggid of Natzaret.”
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion,he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27 (ESV)