Is Oral Torah Necessary to Keep the Written?

A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud
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It’s a question that is often answered in knee-jerk fashion. For many observant Jews, the answer is so obviously yes that it seems stupid to even ask it. On the other hand, Christians and many Messianics are just as quick to say “no.” (Interestingly, the answer for many Catholics is “yes,” though they would not term their traditions as “Oral Torah.”) Both sides have their proof-texts, and a brief blog entry cannot hope to address all of them, but I will nevertheless risk throwing my two cents into the mix.

In Dr. Kinzer’s paper (p. 3), he writes:

The Torah requires a living tradition of interpretation and application if it is to be practiced in daily life. This is due in part to the lack of detail in its legislation. As Michael Fishbane notes, “frequent lacunae or ambiguities in their legal formulation tend to render [biblical]…laws exceedingly problematic – if not functionally inoperative – without interpretation.” Thus, the Torah forbids all work (melachah) on Shabbat, but it nowhere defines the meaning of melachah. Similarly, it commands that we “afflict ourselves” on Yom Kippur, but it does not tell us what this means in practice. 

On the surface, the idea of an oral tradition to supplement the Torah does make a certain amount of sense. After all, the culture in Biblical times was primarily oral, the written word being both difficult and very expensive to distribute. It also makes sense that there were certain details of the ritual commands that were not recorded in the Torah, details that were best passed on by demonstration (i.e., orally) rather than in a written form. Explaining in text and without diagrams (which would be more prone to error in re-copying) the correct way to cut an animal’s throat so that it suffered as little as possible and to remove the most blood would take a page or more of text or a large number of technical terms whose meanings could be lost in later centuries due to lack of common use, whereas teaching one’s children the correct way would take but a few demonstrations and a few more times letting them do it under supervision. (See here for a longer discussion.)

However, having said that, Scripture requires that such “supplementary instruction” be the exception rather than the rule. Joshua 8:35 sates, “There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.” If we take this with rabbinic literalness, this leaves the way open for additional demonstrations that Moses made that were not read, but it does not leave open the way for additional words comprising an Oral Torah.

Kinzer points out, as many do, that the Oral Torah does not require direct transmission from Moses, but only the authority that the L-RD, through Moses, gave to Israel’s judges to make binding rulings (Deu. 17:8-13). This is very true; however, this command only provides that there would develop an oral torah, not the existence of the Oral Torah.

What do I mean by this? Simply put, Torah provides a framework, but as Kinzer points out, it leaves numerous “gaps.” Kinzer assumes that these gaps must be filled in a particular way in order for Torah to be carried out. Let me suggest to the contrary that G-d left these gaps open so that they could be filled in different ways, reflecting different cultural traditions.

Let us take the example of Yom Kippur which Kinzer raised: What does it mean to “afflict” ourselves in obedience to Lev. 16:31? The Hebrew word, anah עחה, can mean “afflict” (as in Gen. 31:50), but can also mean to “humble” or “submit” (Gen. 16:9). The traditional Jewish understanding is that this means to fast, as well as forgo all pleasures (such as bathing, leather footwear, etc.). However, is this the Biblically required practice? Consider Isa. 58:5-7:

Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the L-RD? Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

So then, we see that even the prophets understood that fasting, while not a wrong way to submit one’s self to G-d (cf. Mat. 6:16f), is not the primary interpretation of anah. Do we really require the Oral Torah to tell us how to properly afflict/humble ourselves on Yom Kippur?

Kinzer is correct that the Torah requires “a living tradition of interpretation and application if it is to be practiced in daily life” (ibid.). However, where I believe we differ is that I do not see it as requiring just a single “living tradition,” but rather as the framework for many living traditions–the traditions of every people, tribe, tongue, and nation. (As indeed there are actually many “living traditions” within the various sects of Judaism, and always have been.) If we try to claim that there can be only one correct “living tradition,” then we fall into the error of the P’rushim (Pharisees) who criticized Yeshua’s disciples for not following their tradition (Mat. 15:1-20).

I’m not writing as someone who wishes to divorce himself from Jewish tradition and halakha. On the contrary, I have dedicated myself to learning it and living it out. I believe that there is great value in adopting into our Messiah’s culture. However, neither do I want to see the full richness of the Torah to continue to be lost: When all the nations live out the Torah, each adapting their cultural traditions to it and vice-versa, then we will truly see the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as the grand variety that the Eternal One loves (cf. Rev. 7:7ff).

Shalom!

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One Reply to “Is Oral Torah Necessary to Keep the Written?”

  1. Excellent post. One of the great joys I find in a Messianic Congregation is the freedom to express our faith in ways that are unique even among the congregation. Some appear very Orthodox with long Tallit and others without even a Kippah, yet in unity we come together and worship our Creator. While I think there is much in the ways of traditions and in the way of Halakha to learn, I do not see the need for a single way, as long as we can be unified in the most important things, like who and what the Messiah is, namely Yeshua, Son of the Most High G-d.Ultimately it is a teachable spirit that will allow the Ruach to instruct us on how to act. So each can share their own “Oral Law” and then the Ruach can direct us in the path that is best for us.I have always said that although there is one path to the Father, Scripture does not indicate that there is only one way to go down that path. Some might like to run, other ride a bicycle, others crawl, yet traveling the path is the path to salvation, and to try and force others to travel that path the same ways seems to do less than bring glory to G-d.Shabbat Shalom, have a blessed weekend.

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