If you haven’t read parts 1-3, you should. Thanks to Benjamin for the insightful and passionate comment. He basically said that: (a) there is no Biblical Judaism that omits rabbinic tradition since you can’t keep Torah without tradition, yet (b) we should not feel ashamed about picking our halakhah since no one follows all the tradition. The reason no one follows all the tradition is that there are competing and opposing views. Benjamin thinks it is fine if we look Orthodox in some areas and Reconstructionist in others. Having met him, I know that it is primarily regarding Gentile inclusion that he feels we should be more like Reconstructionist. Yeshua’s powerful inclusion of Gentiles necessitates a change in the way Torah is applied (Eph 2). I agree. Anyway, back to Dr. Kinzer’s paper.
In part 3, I summarized Dr. Kinzer’s explanation of views of Oral Torah in Orthodox Judaism. A strong and very reasonable view is that commandments are divided into d’oraita (written) and d’rabbanan (rabbinic). The rabbinic commands are authoritative because the rabbis fill the role in Deut 16 and 17 of the central court of Israel.
Dr. Kinzer then considers some objections to rabbinic authority. Dan Gruber has written that the rabbis far exceeded the authority of Deut 17, seeking to supersede written Torah. Lawrence Schiffman has proposed a lesser objection, noting that the Tannaim (earlier scholars quoted in the Mishnah) objected to having their decisions written down so that no one would confuse that lesser authority with the greater authority of written Torah. It was the Amoraim (later scholars quoted in the Talmud) who began to imply that their rulings had equal or greater authority than Torah. Schiffman says that the Talmud “became the new scripture of Judaism…Scripture had been displaced by Talmud.”
Dr. Kinzer disagrees with both Gruber and Schiffman on these points. Admittedly, some Amoraic sayings can be interpreted as giving Oral Torah precedence over Written Torah. Also, admittedly, post-Talmudic Judaism gave priority to Talmud. Yet this is not, Dr. Kinzer asserts, a balanced view of what Talmud itself teaches.
The overall teaching of Talmud is that d’oraita (the written) is greater than d’rabbanan (the rabbinic). Dr. Kinzer cites examples in Talmud where a Biblical law is given greater weight than a rabbinic one. This principle (the Biblical is greater than the rabbinic) is the consistent principle throughout Talmud.
Certain apparent contradictions of this principle are considered, such as Hillel’s prosbul. Hillel’s prosbul was a case where a sage (Hillel) overturned a Biblical law (or at least aparently). Dr. Kinzer shows that these are not really violations of principle. Rather cases such as the prosbul have to do with occasions where two or more Biblical laws come into conflict. It is a matter of giving some Biblical laws weight over others rather than overturning a Biblical law.
Next, he quotes some Orthodox scholars who argue that Oral Torah is not to be considered fixed for all time. Oral Torah is the communal process of applying Written Torah to specific issues from generation to generation. Change should be expected as conditions change. That is one of the reasons Oral Torah is needed. If this view of Oral Torah can be accepted, then it is not necessary to accept all the ancient rulings as fixed and unchangeable.
Another idea, TREMENDOUSLY IMPORTANT, is the notion of popular consent and Oral Torah. That is, no law can be made by the rabbis that the people are not likely to keep (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 36a). In disputed cases, sometimes the rabbis appealed to the popular custom, saying the final decision should take into account what the people are doing (Talmud, Berachot 45a). This principle is important and prevents tyranny in formulating rabbinic traditions. A rabbinic command should not be harsher than what the people will keep.
Thus, again VERY IMPORTANTLY, we see that Oral Torah is often misunderstood in Christian and Messianic Jewish discussion as being rigid and inflexible. It is not, as is often alleged, intended to supersede the Written Torah.
In Part 5, we will look at Oral Torah in the New Testament. That promises to be an exciting and controversial topic. But for now, here are questions for thought or discussion:
1. Does the more reasonable and flexible view of rabbinic tradition surprise you?
2. Does the flexible view of Oral Torah make it easier for you to accept the idea that there is no Judaism without rabbinic tradition?