As the discussion that follows will demonstrate, I would not argue on behalf of all that Rabbinic authorities have asserted about Oral Torah. For example, I would not advocate the view that the teaching now found in the vast Rabbinic corpus was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Still, I would contend that the term is useful, for it rivets our attention on the central issues we must confront: Does the Written Torah require an ongoing tradition of interpretation and application in order to become a concrete reality in daily Jewish life? Does the tradition of interpretation and application of the Written Torah developed and transmitted by the Sages have any kind of divine sanction?
-Mark S. Kinzer
from “the 2003 Hashivenu Forum Messianic Judaism and Jewish Tradition in the 21st Century: A Biblical Defense of “Oral Torah,” pp.1-2
found at OurRabbis.org (PDF)
I assume that at least some of you who read my previous blog post about the “Oral Law” also clicked in the link I provided and read Dr. Kinzer’s paper. After I read it, I found myself pondering certain matters brought up by Kinzer, namely whether or not whatever we consider to be “Oral Torah” is at all authoritatively binding on the Jewish people as a whole or conversely, specific local communities of Jews.
Of course, why should I care? I’m not Jewish. Nothing we could consider a “Rabbinic ruling” was ever intended (perhaps with rare exception) to apply to a Gentile and particularly a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus).
But as I’ve mentioned before, Christians have used the Talmud and the wider concept of the Oral Law as one of their (our) clubs or blunt instruments with which we’ve battered, bruised, and bloodied (both literally and figuratively) the Jewish people across the history of the Church. If nothing else, it behooves us to take a closer look at our own behavior and whether or not we are actually opposing God in opposing Jewish traditions.
I know the concepts of “Oral Law,” “Jewish Tradition,” “Talmud,” and other similar labels are not exactly synonyms but they all point to the central question of whether or not the Torah contains all that a Jew needs to know to obey God and live a proper Jewish life. I’m not even arguing for the idea that the traditions as we find them today in Judaism were delivered whole to Moses on Sinai. I began this blog post quoting Kinzer who also does not believe such a thing.
What I want to explore is whether, both in ancient and modern times, those who lead or rule the Jewish people have the right, as appointed by God, to interpret the Torah and then to have those interpretive rulings be binding for general or local populations of Jews.
This idea probably seems a little ridiculous to many Christians, but I think Kinzer made a good point that it is at least possible that leaders in Israel have had and do have the divine right to issue halachah and expect that halachah to be adhered to, with penalties for non-compliance.
According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.
–Deuteronomy 17:11-13 (NASB)
This is one of the foundational scriptures that establishes a divinely appointed right of the Priests in Israel to issue authoritative rulings with consequences if their rulings are disregarded.
However, authority was not limited to the Priests:
The Lord therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone.
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.
–Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25
It’s important to note that, as was established earlier (Exodus 18:17-26) these judges were to hear the common disputes among the individual tribes and clans of the people and issue binding rulings, and only the most difficult cases were to be brought to Moses. This means there were many local judges who had the authority to make legal decisions and establish binding procedures, resolving disputes, including any over how a particular mitzvah (commandment) was to be carried out.
It’s critical to realize that these seventy elders or judges were not relying only on their human wisdom, nor were they only appointed by Moses. We saw in the Numbers 11 passage these elders being appointed and approved of by God as evidenced by the Holy Spirit resting upon each of them.
Now that’s authority.
The importance of this central judiciary and its role as the latter day expression of the Mosaic office becomes clearer with a careful study of the pericope. The passage begins by directing that certain types of cases should be brought from the local courts to the central court. These are cases that are “too difficult for you (yipalay mi-mecha),” and that involve homicide (beyn dam le-dam), personal injury (nega), or disputes over the appropriate law (din) to apply (Deuteronomy 17:8). The meaning of this last type of case (beyn din le-din) will become clear in a moment. The central court shall hear the case, and render a decision. The persons involved are not free to disregard this decision, but “must carefully observe all that they instruct you to do” (ve-shamarta la’asot ke-chol asher yorucha) (Deuteronomy 17:10). The words “carefully observe” (shamarta la’asot) appear frequently in various forms in Deuteronomy, always enjoining obedience to the words of the Torah itself. Here they enjoin obedience to the high court.
Thus the Priests and Judges were divinely empowered to interpret the Torah and to issue what amounts to extra-Biblical halachah as to how to perform the mitzvot, and these rulings were legally binding for the immediate situation and across time.
We can certainly see where the later Rabbis get the idea that God authorizes all leaders and teachers of the Jewish people to be able to issue binding halachah.
But you are probably saying that in the Apostolic Scriptures, we only see the Holy Spirit being granted to disciples of Yeshua (Jesus). Doesn’t this mean that, even if this authority continues to exist, it is only available and effective within the Church?
If the answer to that question is “yes,” then God has abandoned the Jewish people, national Israel, and every single promise He made as part of the Sinai Covenant. But as you know, I don’t believe that the Sinai Covenant was rendered void because Yeshua inaugurated the very beginnings of the New Covenant, nor to I believe one covenant ever replaces another.
So if the Sinai Covenant remains in effect, then God’s relationship with all Israel remains in effect, both with Messianic and all other branches of Judaism. I’ve also said before that a Jew is the only person automatically born into a covenant relationship with God, whether he or she wants to be or not. You don’t have to be a religious Jew to be a part of the covenant, you just have to be a Jew.
So if under the Sinai Covenant, God established that Judges and Priests have the authority to issue binding rulings upon the Israelites, we can at least suggest that authority moved forward in time and across ancient and modern Jewish history.
But does having authority automatically make you right?
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
I’ve previously referenced Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper (PDF) as evidence that Yeshua, though he had specific disagreements with the Pharisees, recognized that they had the authority to issue binding rulings on the Pharisaic community (and Yeshua’s teachings were very much in keeping with the Pharisees generally). If the Master acknowledged Pharisaic authority, this suggests that what once rested upon the Priests and Judges of ancient Israel was passed down to later authorities, and these authorities would eventually evolve into what we now call Rabbinic Judaism.
Yeshua didn’t always consider the rulings of the Pharisees correct, and even when he did, he recognized that they didn’t always obey their own decisions, so they could have authority and yet wield it imperfectly…but they did have authority
We even see Yeshua granting his own apostles that same authority; the ability to issue binding rulings upon the Jewish and Gentile disciples in “the Way”.
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
The concept of binding and loosing isn’t always well understood among some Christians. For an excellent treatment of what these legal terms mean in Judaism, please see the First Fruit of Zion (FFOZ) video teaching on binding and loosing which I reviewed some time ago. The video is only about thirty minutes long and well worth your time in helping you understand this important concept and how it applies to the current conversation (the image above isn’t “clickable” but the links in this paragraph are).
As far as how the ancient Messianic community applied this authority, the most famous example can be found in Acts 15.
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Here we have James the Just, head of the Jerusalem Council of Apostles and Elders, issuing a legal ruling after the Council had heard testimony, deliberated, and cited Biblical proof text. This ruling established the requirements and limitations regarding the entry of Gentiles within Messianic Jewish community, specifically exempting them (us) from having to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism as a requirement of admission.
The importance of this text for our purpose cannot be underestimated. Yeshua here employs the same verse to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Pharisaic teachers as is later used in Rabbinic tradition to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Rabbis. As we have seen, such a reading of Deuteronomy 17:10 suits well its original function within the Pentateuch. Though Matthew 23 proceeds to castigate those very same Pharisees for their unworthy conduct, this fact only throws the initial verses into bolder relief. In effect, the Pharisaic teachers have authority to bind and loose – even as the students of Yeshua have authority to bind and loose.
Kinzer draws a line from the ancient Priests and Judges to the Pharisees and to Yeshua’s apostles as all having the authority from God to bind and loose, that is, to establish local interpretations that were not mere suggestions but had the force of law, even if those rulings were not explicitly stated within the written Biblical text. In fact, the purpose of “Oral Law” requires that it not be written or “hard-coded” into the mitzvot:
This view of the Oral Torah does not see it as a solidified code, given once for all to Moses on Sinai, and differing from the Written Torah only in its mode of transmission. Instead, it sees the Oral Torah as the divinely guided process by which the Jewish people seeks to make the Written Torah a living reality, in continuity with the accumulated wisdom of generations past and in creative encounter with the challenges and opportunities of the present. It thus presumes that the covenantal promises of Sinai – both God’s promise to Israel and Israel’s promise in return –remain eternally valid, and that the God of the covenant will ever protect that covenant by guiding His people in its historical journey through the wilderness.
I’ve heard the Torah compared to the United States Constitution. If the only Constitution we had was the original document from almost two-and-a-half centuries ago, it would be hopelessly archaic and incapable of dealing with many legal and social issues that exist in modern times but could never have been dreamed of by America’s Founding Fathers. If we didn’t have the ability to periodically amend the Constitution, we’d probably have to write new constitutions every so many years, just to keep the basis for our Government relevant.
So too with the Torah. Many of the issues facing modern Jews today could not have been taken into account when it was originally established. Even between the days of Moses and the days of Yeshua, hundreds, thousands, or more legal decisions and interpretations probably had to be made to address the shifting circumstances facing the Jewish people. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s Temple, with the Jewish people facing a seemingly endless exile, the Torah had to continue to be interpreted and legal rulings issued to ensure Jewish survival in a hostile world and across the changing landscape of history.
But you may disagree with my assessment and feel I haven’t proven my case. I really am not trying to provide definitive proof but rather, to open the doors to possibility. For many more details on this topic than I can provide here, I refer you to Dr. Kinzer’s original paper. All I’m saying is that, given the “paper trail” I’ve attempted to lay down and my faith that God has not abandoned the Sinai Covenant or His people Israel, I don’t think that what He once gave them, a method of continually evolving Biblical interpretation, died on the cross with Jesus.
I don’t think that God gave Moses what amounts to our modern understanding of the Talmud on Sinai 3500 years ago. I do think, at best, God gave Moses some general principles by which to interpret the written Law and gave other Priests and Judges (not just Moses) the authority to establish traditional methods of observing the mitzvot that aren’t explicit or even existent in the written Biblical text.
If that authority extends to the present, then we have to take another look at Rabbinic authority within the different streams of Judaism and the large and complicated body of work we collectively refer to as Talmud.
A final note. Are all of the rulings of the Rabbis absolutely correct and is Talmud perfectly internally consistent? Probably not. To the degree that the Sages were human, then they were driven by human as well as divine priorities making them, like all men of authority (and all men everywhere) capable of all kinds of error. Yeshua, while he agreed (in my opinion) that the Pharisees had the authority to issue binding halachah, didn’t universally agree with their rulings (see Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23 for example).
Even less often noticed is the fact that the ritual norms that Yeshua upholds in this text are not found in the Written Torah, but instead derive from Pharisaic tradition! The tithing of small herbs such as mint, dill, and cummin was a Pharisaic extension of the Written Torah. Yet, according to Matthew, Yeshua not only urges compliance with this practice – he treats it as a matter of the Torah (though of lesser weight than the injunctions to love, justice, and faithfulness). This supports our earlier inference that Yeshua’s teaching and practice encourage the Pharisees to think of him as one of their own. His criticism of the Pharisees (or, to be more precise, some of the Pharisees) is a prophetic critique offered by one whose commitments and convictions position him as an insider rather than an outsider.
Assuming I’m right about all this, I suspect when Yeshua returns, he will perform a similar function among his modern Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and encourage corrections and improvements on existing halachah and the traditions of Torah interpretation. I believe he will do so as a matter of his love for the Jewish people, not as a matter of criticism or censure. I believe we Christians, or whatever we call ourselves, dismiss God’s love for the Jewish people and His presence among them and their Rabbis at our extreme peril. Our redemption comes from the Jews (John 4:22) not the other way around.