Should We Follow the Rabbis? Pt 4

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?


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Judaism, Mark Kinzer, Messianic Jewish, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Should We Follow the Rabbis? Pt 4

  1. Dave says:

    To answer your questions in reverse order:

    The flexible view of Oral Torah doesn’t influence my acceptance of the concept that there is no Judaism without rabbinic tradition. To me, this is an obvious fact. The only Judaism we have today is rabbinic. We cannot recreate “biblical judaism” as some claim to do as (a) we can’t travel back in time to find out exactly what it what like and (b) the temple is no longer standing.

    The more reasonable and flexible view of rabbinic tradition doesn’t surprise me either. However, unfortunately, orthodoxy today seems to be completely removed from this approach, believing that halacha is unchanging. Hence today’s rabbis will hardly ever issue a ruling that reverses a previous one. We are therefore faced with a dilemma – do we depart from orthodox halacha and be seen to be denying the wisdom of the sages, or do we follow it with all its restrictions that seem against the spirit of Torah.

    One thing that I’m not sure has been mentioned so far is why do we need Oral Torah. Why can it not be left to individuals to decide what to do? The basic answer, I believe, is that we keep Torah not as individuals, but as members of a community. This is an important concept that could do with much more attention within messianic judaism.

  2. I think the problem is not the Talmud in and of itself. As you mention, there are competing and conflicting views in the Talmud. In fact, I would bet that you will find just about everything Messianics do differently than Orthodoxy in Talmud. In fact, I was dressed down by a Lubavitcher Chassid for keeping the Shavuot count according to the Shammai reasoning, because supposedly we can’t keep the Shammai rulings until the World to Come — I have no idea why that is, but anyway she seemed to think the count starting and ending always on Sunday was a Shammai ruling.

    The problem is the way Orthodoxy has come to view and use the Talmud, because no matter what their protestations are to the contrary, de facto they have elevated not just Talmud over Torah, but specific rulings in Talmud. Yes, there are contrarian views in there… BUT NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO FOLLOW THEM.

    Hence the problem. I think most of the Messianic community — the part that wants to keep Torah, at least — has no problem accepting Talmud as a record of the way things have been done and various views on how things should be done, as long as it’s not forced down our throats as the be-all and the end-all. To suggest Hillel might’ve been wrong should not be viewed as heresy. To suggest that, in some situation, ALL of the Talmud’s commentators are wrong should not be viewed as heresy… looked at with skepticism, maybe. As heresy, no.

    But that is the view of people in the Orthodox movement. To suggest that maybe the rabbis of the Talmud are incorrect and that there’s a better idea out there is like questioning God’s existence. Trust me, I’ve done it.

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