This is the third in a series on a paper by Dr. Mark Kinzer delivered at the Hashivenu Forum. If you will read Part 1, you can find at the beginning a link to Dr. Kinzer’s original paper. I am summarizing and discussing Dr. Kinzer’s paper here.
In the third part of his paper, Dr. Kinzer discusses views of the Oral Torah in the rabbinic literature.
To begin with, Dr. Kinzer dismisses a naïve notion of Oral Torah. I have found that this naïve understanding pervades Messianic Jewish and Christian writings and discussions on the subject. What is this naïve view? Some think it is a tenet of Judaism that God gave two Torahs on Mt. Sinai, one written and one oral. The Talmud is the Oral Torah and the Pentateuch is the Written Torah. Thus, as many presume, the words of Talmud have equal authority to the Pentateuch.
Before I proceed, let me quickly explain some terms regarding rabbinic literature. The earliest written rabbinic commentary on Torah is the Mishnah, written about 200 C.E. The Mishnah is fairly short, very pithy, and difficult to interpret. So around 400 another commentary was made on the Mishnah called the Jerusalem Talmud and then in 500 the Babylonian Talmud. When people simply say Talmud, they generally mean the Babylonian one. It is the size of a small encyclopedia set. It adds a great deal of explanation to the Mishnah, but it too is often very hard to understand. Alongside the Mishnah and Talmud are the Midrashic writings, commentaries on the Bible that often add details to the Bible stories (like Biblical fiction) and interpret the intent behind passages of the Torah and other biblical books. Some of the Midrash are ancient and most are medieval.
As Dr. Kinzer explains, it does happen in the rabbinic literature that some laws not found in the Pentateuch are called “rulings of Moses from Sinai.” Yet this term is not applied to the entire Mishnah. The Mishnah and Talmud preserve the debates between rabbis and schools over Torah issues. It would be absurd to think that God charged Moses to memorize the Talmud and debates between people who would not live for thousands of years.
Another view of Oral Torah is that God revealed to Moses the content of the rest of the Bible and of the traditions that would develop about how to keep the Torah. Moses did not pass this down orally, but it was freshly revealed to the generations who needed it. In this view, the Talmud is not identical with the Oral Torah, but reflects the rabbis of those generations seeking to recall what the traditions are supposed to be. That is, the Oral Torah is not written anywhere, much of it is forgotten, but the Talmud brings it out through the discussions of the sages. The goal of the interpreter of Talmud is to determine which ruling is authoritative and what it means.
Then there is a third view, a view commonly reflected in the Talmud itself. The Talmud rarely mentions the concept of Oral Torah, which was a concept more accepted in Palestine than in Babylon. Rather, the Talmud divides commandments into two categories: d’oraita (what is written) and d’rabbanan (rabbinic law). The rabbinic laws are authoritative along with the biblical ones. Why is it authoritative? Did these rabbinic commands pass down from Moses in a chain of oral tradition? No. They are authoritative because the rabbis are the judges of Israel as legislated by Deuteronomy 16 and 17. God says you are not to turn from their rulings to the right or to the left.
A common example is the rabbinic command to light Hanukkah lights. The Torah does not even remotely command this, especially since Hanukkah is a later holiday not found in the Torah. Yet the blessing over the candles praises God who has “commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.” How can this be? The Talmud answers this in Shabbat 23a: “And where [in the Torah] did He so command us? Rav Avi’a said: [It follows] from, ‘You shall not turn aside [from the ruling that they declare to you, to the right or to the left]’ (Deuteronomy 17:11).”
I think that is enough to chew on for one day. To summarize, then, a balanced view of rabbinic tradition is that it is the rabbis doing their God-ordained job. I know this raises hundreds more questions, especially if you know Judaism and you know about the traditions. Hopefully the rest of the paper, which I will present in installments, will answer many of them.
Meanwhile, questions for thought:
Have you been told only the naïve view of Oral Torah and are you surprised by the third view?
Do you think Deuteronomy 16 and 17, about the central court of Israel making Torah rulings, is what the rabbis are doing?
If you do not think rabbinic commands are valid, then how do you think God intended the gaps in Torah to be filled?