Tag Archives: Oral Torah

Jews Defining Their Own Relationship With God and the Torah

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

PhariseesIt’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.

-Kinzer, pp.6-7

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.

Matthew 23:1-3

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.”

Matthew 16:18-19

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.

Matthew 18:18

FFOZ Bind and LooseThe 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.”

Acts 15:19-21

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, p.27

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.

-ibid, pp.18-19

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.

Talmudic RabbisA 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.

-ibid, p.23

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.

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Much Ado About the Oral Law

I adored my younger sister and felt very connected to her, but I wasn’t there for her physically or emotionally during her turbulent teens. I was far away in university or traveling, and then in Israel, where I learned in a seminary, married and became in her eyes, a foreign entity: a religiously observant Jew.

Despite the distance, I didn’t see an unbridgeable gap. I could relate to my sister because I saw and felt all our common ground. I was once a teenager, part of the artistic sub-culture of Greenwich Village. I understood what her life was like, even if there weren’t skinheads in my day. I had once been like her, but she definitely didn’t feel like she was anything like me – an “ultra-Orthodox fanatic” against intermarriage, abortion, nudity, atheism, hanging out with guys. I never had a chance to say how I felt about any of these topics; she just assumed everything about my beliefs without any discussion. She could not relate. Or more accurately, she did not want to relate.

-Naomi Freeman
“Repairing the Gap”
Aish.com

For a lot of Christians, the sort of “gap” between Jewish people doesn’t seem to exist. After all, in Church, we generally are taught to view Jews and particularly religious Judaism as a single, unified entity. It’s difficult for many believers (or non-Jews in general) to picture multiple viewpoints among Jewish people (even though it is said “two Jews, three opinions”). And yet, there can be different groups, even within religious Judaism, that are highly polarized.

Consider this recent video that has been circling the various social media venues. Here we have Jewish people saying some rather unkind and perhaps inaccurate things about the “Oral Law” and Rabbinic Judaism.

This is the sort of thing Christians eat up with a spoon.

And they have, or at least one Christian group has within the Hebrew Roots movement as represented by TorahResource.com (For reference, I’ve included a screenshot below taken from Facebook of a discussion on this video by Hebrew Roots proponents).

Oral Law opinionI don’t feel particularly comfortable “calling out” people or groups, but in this case, I think it’s important to illustrate that there are different points of view involved. What your Pastor preaches from the pulpit about Jews and Judaism may not be the only way we disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) are “allowed” to think. I say this coming off of two years attending a local Baptist church where its members do authentically love the Jewish people and the nation of Israel but who are also at least “uncomfortable” if not downright opposed to the practice of religious Judaism. They would, with all good intent, love to see all Jewish people convert to Christianity and leave all but the most superficial practices of the mitzvot behind.

More’s the pity.

Earlier today, Rabbi Stuart Dauermann wrote a blog post called On Not Bashing the Oral Law and the Rabbis of Israel. Here’s part of what he had to say and how he ended his missive:

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.

You can click on the link I provided to read his entire message and I encourage you to do so.

I’ve already rendered my opinion on interpretation as tradition so I won’t repeat that message except to say that, like R. Dauermann, I don’t believe that the Rabbis are always right in their rulings or opinions. Nevertheless, the Oral Law in post-Biblical times, was (and is) highly instrumental in sustaining the Jewish people and without what we call “Rabbinic Judaism,” it’s quite possible the Jewish people would have faded from the pages of history long before now.

Of course the Jews have always been protected and nurtured by God but who is to say that the existence and process of the Rabbis was not His method of preserving Jewish people and Jewish practice of the mitzvot. After all, the Sinai Covenant (all of the covenants, actually) didn’t vanish (and it certainly wasn’t replaced) simply because of the Temple’s destruction and the dispersion of the Jewish people among the nations. In fact, about a week ago I mentioned the opinion that one of the functions of the Jewish people being in exile was to be a light to the rest of us. This “being a light to the nations” wouldn’t have been possible without the Mishnah and Rabbinic Judaism.

Why am I saying all this? Just to throw my hat into the ring on this topic?

Not exactly, although that’s part of it.

While we can somewhat separate an opposition to Rabbinic Judaism from how we feel about Jewish people, at least in theory, it’s important to remember that there are those who have no love at all for Jewish people, Judaism, and national Israel, and reports of one of their more heinous acts has been all over the news lately.

Talmud StudyAs was said on a Hebrew Roots blog recently, we aren’t going to agree on a great many things in the realm of religion, and that’s not really the problem. As I’ve already mentioned, there is a significant amount of debate and disagreement within the various streams of Judaism including Messianic Judaism, let alone all of the expressions of the Christian faith including what I think of as “Christian Hebrew Roots.”

I know I’m probably going to get some pushback for that last comment, but I think of Hebrew Roots as Gentile Christians expressing their devotion to Messiah using Hebraic practices within primarily non-Jewish community, and Messianic Judaism as Jews and associated non-Jews, expressing their devotion to Messiah within a wholly Jewish religious, cultural, and community context.

Given those definitions, it stands to reason that Hebrew Roots will take a traditionally Christian stand, that is a “low view” on many aspects of Judaism including the authority of the Rabbis and Oral Law, while Messianic Judaism, as a Judaism, will take a “high view” of those same elements.

However, depending on which perspective we employ, our attitudes about Judaism and thus Jewish people will be affected. This doesn’t mean that holding a low view of Oral Torah necessarily equals taking a low view of Jewish people or even the Jewish practices in general, but it does require making an effort not to let what one believes about the Rabbis spill over into other Jewish realms, particularly if you are supposed to believe that “One Law” fits all (though I obviously don’t subscribe to the One Law perspective).

If you have a low view on Oral Torah and the Rabbinic Sages, you are certainly within your rights to hold such an opinion, but it doesn’t mean that those who have a high view of Rabbinic Judaism are bad or even particularly wrong. It does mean they’ve made a decision about how to express their faith on the level of lifestyle as well as belief. If that is not your decision also, that ‘s fine and dandy, but please don’t denigrate someone who has taken a different path from your own. For them, that path is right and correct, particularly if they are Jewish and you’re not.

For more on this topic, read Rabbi Stuart Dauermann’s article Who Needs Oral Torah? On Living a Jewish Life.

Also, you can read what Rabbi Mark Kinzer has to say about Messianic Judaism and the Oral Torah in a paper (PDF) located at Ourrabbis.org (which can also be found in the body of Rabbi Dauermann’s blog post and over at the Rosh Pina Project).

Addendum: I’ve written something of a sequel on this topic called Jews Defining Their Own Relationship With God And The Torah. I invite you to have a read and let me know what you think.

Hitler’s Final Solution, the Oral Torah, and its Meaning to Christianity

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.

-Rashi

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)
Torah.org

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

Talmudic RabbisOrthodox Judaism generally believes that the Oral Torah was handed down in an unbroken chain as described above. Given the history of Israel’s exiles, that seems difficult to believe.

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)

-Hurtado, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions

Rabbi Label Lam
Rabbi Label Lam

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).

Holocaust survivor David Faber
Holocaust survivor David Faber

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.”

Defining Judaism: A Simple Commentary

Talmud StudyWe find on today’s amud that one who is called up to the Torah has to have heard at least three verses—two if three is impractical—for his aliyah to count.

Someone once presented Rav Moshe Feinstein with a very common concern. He asked, “What if someone failed to hear some words of the Torah reading? Did he discharge his obligation if he missed a few? Many great scholars and tzaddikim were very careful and would make up any word missed by joining another minyan during their reading. But perhaps such stories are not because of any halachic obligation. Maybe they are merely a stringency?”

Rav Moshe ruled decisively, “It is obvious that one should not skip even one word of the reading if it is at all possible. Post facto, if one skipped and it was a day where we lain three verses, on the surface it would appear as though one does discharge his obligation. It is not permitted to read less than three verses. Since the person in question did not hear the minimum, he did not discharge his obligation. This is no different than the case of one who was called up to the Torah and they did not lain three verses—he also did not discharge his obligation if he did not hear the minimum number of verses.

Rav Moshe concluded, “If the reading contains more than three verses and he heard three he discharges his obligation with this aliyah, and if he heard another two aliyos he has fulfilled his obligation. Of course, on Shabbos and Yom Tov one has the problem that if he missed a part of the reading he will not merit to finish the public reading of the Torah for that year. However, in such a case one often has no recourse since he cannot have them repeat the reading only for him!”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Minimum”
Siman 137, Seif 5-6

Recently Dan Benzvi on his blog Fellow Heirs challenged me to discuss the relationship between the Torah, Oral Law, and the Talmud in his blog post The oral Torah. Authority of God or man. I’m not sure we “solved” anything, but at least we got the opportunity to (again) air our different perspectives on the matter.

Dan really does bring up some good questions, though. Can we believe that everything in the Mishnah and all of the rulings in the Talmud are indeed directly tied to the oral Laws God gave Moses at Sinai (assuming you believe that event actually took place) and that a Jew must obey all of the relevant Rabbinic rulings?

Take a look at the example I posted above from Mishna Berura Yomi Digest. There’s nothing in our written Bible that lends itself to describing the traditional Jewish Torah readings in anywhere near this level of detail. Can we believe that God gave these specific details to Moses? If so, why is there a question here? If not, then where did these questions and answers come from and why are they considered binding in Judaism?

If you’re a (non-Jewish) Christian, this entire discussion is moot. People who aren’t Jewish aren’t considered bound by any of the Rabbinic judgments under any circumstances, so we don’t have to give all this a second thought. But what about if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re a believer (i.e. a “Christian” or a “Messianic Jew”)? If it’s not in the written Bible we have with us today but rather, in the extended Jewish documented wisdom, does it really matter?

Indeed, the Mishnah contains not a hint about what its authors conceive their work to be. Is it a law code? Is it a schoolbook? Since it makes statements describing what people should and should not do, or rather, do and do not do, we might suppose it is a law code. Since, as we shall see in a moment, it covers topics of both practical and theoretical interest, we might suppose it is a schoolbook. But the Mishnah never expresses a hint about the authors’ intent. The reason is that the authors do what they must to efface all traces not only of individuality but also of their own participation in the formation of the document. So it is not only a letter from utopia to whom it may concern. It also is a letter written by no one person – nor by a committee, either. Nor should we fail to notice, even at the outset, that while the Mishnah clearly addresses Israel, the Jewish people, it is remarkably indifferent to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Mishnah makes no effort at imitating the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, as do the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Mishnah does not attribute its sayings to biblical heroes, prophets or holymen, as do the writings of the pseudepigraphs of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mishnah does not claim to emerge from a fresh encounter with God through revelation, as is not uncommon in Israelite writings of the preceding four hundred years; the Holy Spirit is not alleged to speak here. So all the devices by which other Israelite writers gain credence for their messages are ignored. Perhaps the authority of the Mishnah was self-evident to its authors. But, self-evident or not, the authors in no way take the trouble to explain their document’s audience why people should conform to the descriptive statements contained in their holy book.

from the introduction to
The Mishnah: A New Translation
by Jacob Neusner

Talmud Study by LamplightThat description of the Mishnah is fairly similar to others I’ve read from various sources such as The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee. But given all of that, what can we say about Mishnah, Talmud, and Gemara?

I’m not particularly qualified to respond, not being a scholar in Jewish studies or anything related, but from what I gather, it’s extremely important to Judaism that these texts, opinions, commentaries, and judgments do exist. Here’s why.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent eviction of most of the Jews from the Holy Land, what existed to define Judaism? Prior to this point, it was always the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Even in the times between the Temples of Solomon and Herod, it was the ideal of the Temple and the Torah that, more than anything else, defined Jewish identity in exile. The longing for the Jewish people was always the return to Israel, both as nation and paradigm, and to worship again “as in days of old and as in previous years” (Malachi 3:4).

With the Second Temple reduced to scorched and shattered rubble, and the vast majority of the Jewish people exiled to the diaspora, what was to prevent the eventual assimilation of the Jews into the nations surrounding them and outnumbering them?

Judaism was always about being distinctive, as the scripture says, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:8 [ESV]). All of the laws we see given to the Israelites in the Torah were designed to impact every area of their lives, serving as national constitution, penal and civil law, business ethics, social mores, and even personal and behavioral guides. In virtually every way, the nation of Israel was to stand out and stand apart from the nations of the world, primarily to lead its inhabitants to a holy life with God, but also to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 51:4), leading the world to God by example.

But a huge amount of the Torah laws apply only if you have a Temple, a functional priesthood, a system of courts including the Sanhedrin, and live within the geographic boundaries of the Land God gave in perpetuity to the Jewish people.

The Romans took all of that away, and then subsequent conquerors kept the Land and national self-rule from the Jews for the next 2,000 years.

Why didn’t the Jewish people assimilate and disappear into the pages of history? Many, many other people groups and religious traditions from that time have utterly vanished from our view. Why did the Jews, though extremely small in number, remain a people vitally alive with purpose and function; with faith and identity?

What do you think of when you think of a religious Jew?

The stereotypes some people have are guys in black hats and coats, wearing some sort of string off of their waistline, having large, bushy beards, and bowing over and over again when they pray. Some people think of “Jewish prayer shawls and prayer books” while others think of events such as Passover or Chanukah. Whatever religious stereotypes seem to identify the Jews, the activities are almost always different than any other people group in the world. Jews worship in different places than anyone else, pray differently, pray in a different language than anyone else, wear different clothes (at least sometimes), have different holidays, eat differently, sing differently and…well, you get the idea.

I can hardly say that the Mishnah and Talmud are direct representations of the “Oral Law” that goes back over 3,500 years to Moses and God on Sinai, especially given the description (or lack thereof) of the origins of the Mishnah. What I can say, is that what the Jews have as “people of the book”, are a set of laws and rulings that set them apart from any other nation and group on earth, and that has defined them and kept them and preserved them when everyone else was doing their best to completely annihilate the Jewish people.

No, I’m not denying God’s involvement in the preservation of Judaism and in fact, I’m counting on it. As God went down into Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:3-4), so too did He go into the death camps with the Jews during the Holocaust. So too did he go with the Jews into the newly created state of Israel and He is there with them now.

But in a very great way, one of the primary mechanisms that has maintained Judaism as Judaism for the past twenty centuries has been the Talmud. It has now taken on the status of “Holy” among the Jews, especially the Orthodox, and it has many critics, including within more liberal religious and secular Judaism. But without it, would there be a man or woman alive today that we could point to and know he or she is a Jew?

You can love the Talmud or you can hate it, but if you are a Jew, no matter who you are, you cannot dismiss its existence or its role in preserving your existence.

As an afterword, I want to apologize to all of the Jewish people reading this. I’m not trying to pass myself off as some sort of expert (I’m anything but an expert on Judaism) or to co-opt anything belonging to Judaism. I am just presenting the perspective of one Christian writer on why I think the Talmud is not just important, but historically vital for the existence of the Jewish people. Please keep that in mind when or if you decide to comment.