These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings (Toros- plural of Torah) that HASHEM gave between Himself and the Children of Israel at Sinai through the hand of Moshe.
–Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:46
Toros: One (Torah) Written and one (Torah) Oral. This informs that both were given to Moshe at Sinai.
This is a critical and oft underappreciated nugget of information. Not one Mitzvah in the entire Torah is capable of being carried into action given only the parameters provided in the text. There are almost 30,000 details that comprise phylacteries and 5,000 in the ubiquitous mezuzah with little information to guide to their uniform completion. What’s called “killing”? When does life begin? When does it end? What one person calls “family planning” another may legitimately define as “murder!”
The Torah cries out for explanation. There must, by definition, have been a concomitant corpus of information that accompanied the giving of the laws and that is what we call the “Oral Torah”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch uses the analogy that the Written Torah is like the notes to a scientific lecture. Every jot and squiggle has significance. If properly understood it can awaken the actual lecture. The notes remain useless to someone who has not heard the lecture from the Master. Therefore in the Oral Torah is the sum of the lecture while the Written Torah is merely a shorthand record. Without an Oral Torah that book the whole world holds in such high esteem, the Bible is rendered in-actionable. It becomes a frozen document that cannot be lived. Unfortunately, so many over the ages have become lost due to a failure to appreciate this single point and its significance for our very survival as a people.
When my wife and I were engaged, at the party there was a cousin of hers that has written voluminously about the holocaust. He himself survived, somehow, seven concentration camps. One of the Rabbis encouraged him to speak. He claimed to be unprepared and not a good English speaker. He spoke amazingly well.
-Rabbi Label Lam
“Understand it Very Well” (2007)
Rabbi Lam got my attention when he wrote, ”Not one Mitzvah in the entire Torah is capable of being carried into action given only the parameters provided in the text.” Most of what I hear about the Oral Torah from Evangelical Christians is that it’s all a bunch of made up rules and cannot be considered the valid Word of God. Many in the Christian Hebrew Roots world say the same thing, believing it is possible to observe the mitzvot based on the Written Torah alone.
And yet Rabbi Lam says this is impossible.
Moses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.
-Pirkei Avot 1:1
Even the written Torah was lost for a great deal of time and when it was found (2 Kings 22:8-13), King Josiah ”tore his clothes” because ”great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” If the words of the Torah had been lost even though written, how much more so can it be true that the original Oral Torah given to Moses could have been forgotten?
But that doesn’t mean Oral history didn’t accompany the written Torah in some matter or fashion across the many centuries. The Oral tradition just might not have survived intact from its earliest inception. That is, what Judaism understands to be Oral Torah now may not be entirely traceable back over three-thousand years.
I’ve repeatedly suggested that the “Jerusalem letter” we saw crafted in Acts 15 as a set of instructions for new Gentile disciples of Jesus, had to have been accompanied by oral instructions because the “four essentials” of the letter are so barren. It’s quite possible that the Didache is the documentation of the original oral instructions for the Gentile disciples, so oral information being transmitted across time to explain written instruction isn’t foreign to early Christian tradition.
Just recently, I said I thought later Christian commentary was a refactoring of the original Jewish understanding of the scriptures, and my statements were inspired by comments made by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado on his blog, including this paragraph:
But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. (emph. mine)
Put all together, we can paint a picture of an Oral set of instructions accompanying the written Torah, perhaps changing over time to respond to the differing demands and requirements of ”particular times and cultures.” If Judaism is guilty of this process, so indeed is Christianity. We just don’t talk about it.
I’m including the rest of the quote from Rabbi Lam’s article because it includes important points from history, and we ignore history at our own peril.
First he looked out at a room filled with newly observant Jews and wondered aloud, “Where do you people come from?” He then quoted the Talmudic principle, “Torah returns to those who have hosted it.” He explained, “If you are sitting here today then it’s probably because you have some great ancestors who were willing to and did give blood to keep this Torah alive.” He went on to talk about my wife’s and his illustrious family tree.
Then he said that had he known he was going to speak he would have brought with him a document he held in his hands that morning that answered a question that had been nagging him for almost four decades. “We all know Hitler’s “final solution” for European Jewry. What was his global scheme? Where was his plan to eliminate the rest of world Jewry?” He then paraphrased what he had learned from that document. Here is a printed transcript with a partial English translation:
“This document transmits a memorandum dispatched by I.A Eckhardt from the chief of the German Occupation Power. It is an order dated October 25, 1940 from das Reichssicherheitshauptamt-the central office of the German Security Forces to the Nazi district governors in occupied Poland, instructing them not to grant exit visas to Ostjuden- Jews from Eastern Europe. The reason behind this order is clearly spelled out: the fear that because of their “Othodoxen einstellung” their orthodoxy, these Ostjuden would provide “die Rabbiner und Talmudleher” – the Rabbis and the teachers of the Talmud, who would create “die geistige Erneuerung” the spiritual regeneration of the Jews in America and throughout the world.”
The Oral Torah is essential for our existence as a people. It is our most vital organ and instrument for survival. Without it we are immediately lost. It makes sense that those who plan our demise understand it very well!
Even the reprehensible Nazis understood the power of the Talmud and Rabbinic rulings and traditions to save the Jewish people, particularly in the face of certain disaster. We see here that beyond the extermination of the six million Jewish victims of the Third Reich, the Nazis had plans to prevent the rest of world Jewry from learning of the so-called “final solution,” for fear that the Jews in America wouldn’t be easy targets if prepared (assuming the Reich was victorious in conquering the world, which, Baruch Hashem, they were not).
Oral Torah, which was eventually recorded in writing and then adapted repeatedly as circumstances required, was responsible for Jewish survival during a two-thousand year history where the world was continually trying to destroy them. For this reason alone, we should be thankful for the Jewish adherence to Talmud, but as I’ve already stated, in many ways, Christianity in its various forms including Protestantism, has a parallel set of “oral law” upon which it relies to define Biblical application across the changing historical and cultural landscape.
I only ask that the Evangelical Church “come clean” and admit that we have our own oral traditions that were eventually written down and upon which we continue to depend to define our faith. Just don’t let our traditions diminish the Jewish people and national Israel in any sense, or we might find ourselves “on the wrong side of God.”