What about the Oral Torah?
|Written by Michael Brown|
Whether you are a religious Jewish person or not, it is clear that all modern forms of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform, are based upon the idea that two Torahs were given on Mount Sinai-one written and the other oral. Eventually, the oral Torah was written down, codified, commented upon and passed along to future generations of Jewish people and became known as the Talmud-the judgments and interpretations of our Sages.
All Jewish people today-whether religious or not-generally participate in Jewish religious life by engaging both biblical truth and the traditions passed along by our rabbis. It is impossible to practice normative Judaism without relating to Jewish tradition. But we should ask the question, "Does Jewish tradition carry the same weight and religious authority as the Bible?"
This might be something that many of our Jewish people take for granted, but have you ever considered the implications of this way of thinking about God and our relationship to Him as Jews?
What do you think about Jewish tradition and Scripture? This is the significant subject addressed by Dr. Michael Brown in the following article.
“You don’t even know Hebrew! How can you tell me what the Bible says?”
“It’s true, Rabbi. I don’t know Hebrew—but I will learn. In the meantime, I can use the dictionary in the back of Strong’s Concordance.”
“Meantime, shmeantime. If you don’t know Hebrew, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
I will never forget those words spoken to me in 1972. I was a brand new believer in Jesus, just 17 years old. My life had been dramatically changed—and I mean dramatically. Only months before, I was shooting heroin, using massive quantities of LSD and speed, and living in total, reckless abandon. My nickname, “Drug Bear,” was well deserved, and I was sinful, proud, and rotten to the core. All this was in spite of a typical, Long Island, Conservative Jewish upbringing by very happily married parents. In fact, my father was a highly respected lawyer working as the Senior Law Assistant to the New York State Supreme Court judges.
My drug abuse was not due to some inner turmoil or spiritual quest. I used drugs because they made me feel good! You see, I was a fairly talented, teenage rock drummer, and the whole Woodstock, cast-off-restraint, get high, do-your-own-thing mentality appealed to me. I wanted to be like the rock stars! Soon, life became one big party.
The Surprise of My Life
But God had other plans. My two best friends (the bass player and guitar player in our band) were raised in homes that were “Christian” in name only. They were no closer to Jesus than I was. But they were friendly with two girls whose father was a dedicated, “born-again” Christian, and their uncle pastored a little church in Queens, New York. The girls went to the church to please their father, my friends went to the church to spend time with the girls, and then I went to the church to pull them all out. I didn’t like the changes I was beginning to see in them!
What happened? I got the surprise of my life. In that little church, I met with the God I was not seeking, and I found out the truth about Jesus, the Savior and Messiah in whom I had never believed. I was transformed! The love of God broke down my resistance, and in answer to the secret prayers of a faithful few, I turned away from the filthy life I had been leading.
My father was thrilled to see the change. He had only one problem: “We’re Jewish! Now that you are free from drugs, you need to meet the rabbi and come back to our traditions.” And so, I began to talk with the young, scholarly rabbi who had just become the spiritual leader of the synagogue in which I was bar mitzvahed.
I Must Learn Hebrew
I knew beyond any doubt that my experience was real, but how could I answer his questions? What could I say when he told me that the English translation I was using was wrong, and that, time and time again, the New Testament writers misinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures? He could read the original text. I couldn’t!
He also brought me to meet with Ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitcher rabbis in Brooklyn who specialized in dealing with “straying” young Jews like me. For my part, I was happy to have the opportunity to share my faith with these sincere men. After all, I was reading the Bible day and night, memorizing hundreds of verses, praying for hours, even persuading a Jewish Jehovah’s Witness that her religion was not biblical. But these rabbis in Brooklyn had answers I had never heard before. And all of them had been able to read and understand Hebrew since their childhood. I could barely remember how to pronounce the letters! Plus, they looked so Jewish, with long black beards and all. Their faith seemed to be so ancient and authentic. Was mine?
So it was that I began to study Hebrew in college. If my faith was based on truth, it could withstand honest academic scrutiny. If Jesus was really the Jewish Messiah, I had nothing to fear. Serious questions deserved serious answers, and I was determined to follow the truth wherever it led, regardless of the consequences.
Little by little, I became convinced that I should pursue scholarly biblical and Jewish studies. One year in college I took only language courses, six to be exact: Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, German, and Yiddish. Talk about brain drain! I wanted to read the relevant texts for myself, in the original languages, without anyone’s help.
But college was not enough. In order to pursue my goals, graduate school was necessary. There I could study the other ancient languages relevant to the Hebrew Scriptures, languages like Akkadian (that is, Babylonian and Assyrian), Ugaritic (from a major city north of Canaan), Aramaic, Syriac, Phoenician, Punic, Moabite—the list goes on. By the time I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I had studied about 15 languages, some in great depth, others only superficially. I received my Ph.D. from New York University in Near Eastern languages.
Almost all my courses were taught by Jewish professors and, along the way, I also had the opportunity to do some private study with several rabbis. What happened to my faith? It actually became stronger. As I learned more, I became even more convinced that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the one whose life, atoning death, resurrection, and return were foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures. I had sound answers for serious questions!
I also discovered something unexpected: It was not the New Testament faith that was built on faulty foundations; the foundations of rabbinic Judaism were faulty! It was rabbinic Judaism, not the New Testament faith, that deviated from the Hebrew Bible.
Rabbinic Judaism does not even claim to be based upon a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Instead, the rabbis say that their faith is the continuation of an unbroken chain of tradition dating back to Moses and the prophets. This is a crucial point. As we will see later, such an unbroken chain does not exist.
I have often heard rabbis and anti-missionaries say—in a somewhat derogatory tone—that without Christ there could be no Christianity (or, without Messiah there could be no Messianic Judaism), whereas Judaism can exist without a Messiah, important as such a figure is in Jewish thinking. Judaism, it is claimed, is the religion of the Torah.
Of course, I agree that there could be no Christianity without a Christ, just as I agree that there could be no salvation without a Savior and no deliverance without a Deliverer. This presents no problem at all. Our faith is based on the person and work of the Messiah.
But the real question is: On what foundation is traditional Judaism based? Judaism as we know it today is not the religion of the Torah as much as it is the religion of rabbinic tradition. Without tradition, there could be no traditional Judaism; without the rabbis, there could be no rabbinic Judaism. This is very significant! For many of our people, human tradition is more important than biblical truth.
More than 20 years ago, an Orthodox rabbi told me I was reading the Scriptures through rose-colored glasses. In other words, I would always misunderstand the Word no matter how sincere I tried to be. I wasn’t seeing clearly. My vision was distorted.
That was quite an accusation, and I didn’t take it lightly. I studied the Word from every possible angle, asking myself whether other interpretations were correct, challenging the standard Christian answers with which I was familiar. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, I can honestly say that it is religious Jews—in spite of their sincerity and devotion—who read the Bible with colored glasses. They will be the first to tell you that the Bible says only what the sages tell them it says.
Who are they to differ with the great Jewish teachers of the past? Who are they to disagree with the famous rabbinic commentaries of the middle ages? How could they possibly break with the traditions they learned from their fathers? “After all, what can I know? My father learned it from his father who learned it from his father, who learned it from his father, and so on, all the way back to Moses. Are you telling me they made it up? Are you telling me they were deceived? How dare you question our sacred traditions!”
And so the myth of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Moses has kept many Jewish people from reading the Bible on their own. This is the heart of the matter.
The Game of Telephone
Rabbinic Judaism believes that God gave Moses a Written Law (found in the Torah, the five books of Moses). But, we are told, most of the commandments in the Law are briefly worded, general statements, something like the headings of a paragraph in a book. They need interpretation. They need to be expanded and explained. So, according to the traditional belief, God also gave Moses an Oral Law that interpreted the Written Law. Moses then passed this on to Joshua, who passed it on to the 70 leading elders in his generation, who passed it on to the prophets of the next generations.
And so it went, but not without lots of additions. This is because the rabbis teach that the Oral Law kept growing, since in every generation, new traditions were developed and new situations emerged which called for new applications of the Law.
Within two centuries after the time of Jesus, this Oral Law was so bulky and complex that it had to be written down lest it be forgotten (that’s right, the basics of the Oral Law were now written). This became the Mishnah, which was expanded into what is known as the Talmud over the next few centuries. After that, according to the rabbinic belief, those who studied the Talmud continued to develop and pass down the Oral Law to each succeeding generation. Every religious Jew believes with all his heart that it is impossible to understand the Scriptures or follow God’s Law without these oral traditions.
And what happens when an observant Jew is approached by a Jewish believer in Jesus? The believer is regarded as an ignorant newcomer, and his interpretations are totally scorned: “We have an unbroken tradition going back to Moses! How dare you differ with us! How dare you try to teach us!” Yes, tradition carries quite a lot of weight. And it can stop people from thinking for themselves. (I find it amusing, to say the least, when Orthodox Jews tell me that I have been brainwashed!)
Now you can better understand why so many Jews with whom believers try to dialog will immediately say: “I have to ask my rabbi. He will tell me what that verse really means. He will look it up in his books.”
You see, the rabbinic Jew believes that the further back in time you go, the closer you get to the original revelation at Mount Sinai (kind of like a thirty-five-hundred-year-old game of “telephone”). And Talmudic tradition teaches that, since the days of Moses, we have been on a steady spiritual decline. This is all the more reason that we have to depend on the views of the earlier generations! They were closer to those who received the original revelation, and they were on a higher spiritual plane. They can tell us what the Scripture means. Talk about reading the Bible through colored glasses!
Are the Traditions True?
“But,” someone might ask, “how can you be so sure that these traditions aren’t true? Why do you say that they don’t provide the correct interpretations?” The answers are simple: 1) They take for themselves an authority that the Scriptures never gave them. 2) They put the voice of earthly reason on a higher plane than the prophetic word from heaven. 3) They contradict the plain meaning of the Scriptures. 4) At times they even contradict the voice of God. 5) There is no biblical evidence for an unbroken chain of tradition and plenty of evidence against it.
Before I give you some examples, I want you to understand that this is not a matter of finding minor contradictions and interpretative difficulties. No. The issues here deal with the very heart and soul of traditional Judaism, a religion which stands or falls on its traditions.
The question that every honest Jew must ask is: What if the Bible says one thing and my traditions say another? Will I follow God or will I follow man?
It is not a question of whether these Jewish leaders were evil men and deceivers. Most of them were zealous for their faith. They sought to lead good lives and please the Lord. But were they right? Did their traditions really originate with God or did they originate with man? Let’s take a careful look. None of the examples that follow are taken out of context in any way. They are plain and straightforward.
First, let’s see what traditional Judaism says of itself. According to the contemporary Orthodox scholar H. Chaim Schimmel, the Jewish people “do not follow the literal word of the Bible, nor have they ever done so. They have been fashioned and ruled by the verbal interpretation of the written word ….”1
As expressed by Rabbi Z. H. Chajes, a leading nineteenth-century authority, the Talmud indicates that the words “that were transmitted orally” by God are “more valuable” than those transmitted in writing. Chajes goes so far as to say that: “Allegiance to the authority of the said rabbinic tradition is binding upon all sons of Israel …. And he who does not give adherence to the unwritten Law and the rabbinic tradition has no right to share the heritage of Israel ....”2
How can such a claim be made? The rabbis assert that it is the Bible itself that gives them the exclusive authority to interpret Torah and develop new laws. They find support for this in Deuteronomy 17:812, probably the most important text in the Bible for rabbinic Judaism. This is what the verses say:
If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the LORD your God will choose. Go to the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the LORD will choose. Be careful to do everything they direct you to do. Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. The man who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the LORD your God must be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel.
What Moses is clearly saying is that in every generation the Levitical priests and the current “judge” in Jerusalem would function as a kind of Supreme Court, a court of final appeal, the likes of which exist today in many nations around the world, including Israel and the United States. This court would be responsible for settling disputes regarding various legal matters such as homicide, civil law, and assaults. That’s it!
The text does not give any authority to subsequent generations of rabbis around the world (where does it even mention rabbis?), nor does it give anyone authority to tell all Jews when to pray, what to pray, how to slaughter their cattle, what to believe about the Messiah, when to visit the sick, whether or not one can write on the Sabbath, and on and on and on. Nothing of the sort! Yet, it is from this little text that the sages have derived so much power.
As for verse 11, which says, “Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left,” this was actually interpreted by the thirteenth-century commentator Nachmanides to mean: “Even if it seems to you as if they are changing ‘right’ into ‘left’ ... it is incumbent on you to think what they say is ‘right’ is ‘right.’” Why? Because the Spirit of God is on them, and the Lord will keep them from error and from stumbling.3 This is quite a claim! If the sages tell you that left is right, you are to follow the sages.
Let’s take this a step further. What if 1,000 prophets of the caliber of Elijah and Elisha tell you that the Torah means one thing, but 1,001 sages tell you it means something else? Whom do you follow? Maimonides, the most influential medieval Jewish scholar, is emphatic: “The final ruling is in accordance with the 1,001 sages.”4 Yes, the Talmud even teaches that if Elijah himself differed with a rabbinic tradition or a prevailing custom of the people—not a biblical Law itself but simply a tradition or custom concerning that Law—then he should not be followed.5
“But,” you might say, “there may be something to that. Shouldn’t we follow the plain and obvious meaning of the Bible even if some prophet claims that God told him otherwise?” Of course we should. But that is not what Maimonides was saying. He actually argued that if someone like Elijah favored the plain and obvious meaning of the Scriptures instead of the rabbinic tradition, the tradition was to be followed.
So even a proven prophet, backed by the power of God and following the plain sense of the Bible, has less weight than rabbinic tradition. And the sages, by a majority of even one, outweigh the likes of Elijah and Elisha when it comes to interpreting the Law. Are things getting clearer now?
More Weight—Rabbis or God?
But it doesn’t stop there: A legal decision made by the majority of the sages carries more weight than even the voice of God! According to one of the most famous stories in the Talmud (Baba Mesia 59b), there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer the Great and the sages about whether or not a particular kind of oven was ritually clean. He answered every one of their arguments, but they refused to accept his decision. Rabbi Eliezer then called upon a series of miracles to verify his ruling: If the Law is in accordance with me, then let this carob tree be uprooted; let this stream of water stop flowing; let the walls of this house of study collapse. Amazingly, the Talmud teaches that each miracle happened, but still the other rabbis refused to be moved.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called on God Himself to verify his position. Immediately, a voice came from heaven saying, “Why are you troubling Rabbi Eliezer? The legal ruling is always in accordance with him.” To which Rabbi Joshua exclaimed, “It is not in heaven!” In other words, since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai (and is therefore no longer “in heaven”), legal decisions are to be made solely on the basis of human reasoning and logical deduction. Period. As expressed by the legal authority Rabbi Aryeh Leib: “Let the truth emerge from the earth. The truth be as the sages decide with the human mind.”6
And so if God speaks—as He did here—the sages can (and should!) overrule Him if they disagree with His interpretation. What was the basis for such an incredible position? The Talmud cites the last three words of Exodus 23:2 and interprets them to mean, “Follow the majority.” But the text says the exact opposite! Just read the whole verse. The meaning is clearly, “Don’t follow the majority.” Even J. H. Hertz, the former chief rabbi of England, wrote: “The Rabbis disregarded the literal meaning of the last three Hebrew words, and took them to imply that, except when it is ‘to do evil,’ one should follow the majority.”7 And that is their support for negating and disregarding the voice of God! A verse that says “Don’t follow the majority” was sliced up and reinterpreted so as to mean, “Follow the majority,” and, on this basis, God Himself was overruled. It almost takes your breath away.
Can Rabbis Change the Torah?
Amazingly, the Talmudic text goes on to say that Elijah later informed one of the rabbis that God laughed about the incident saying, “My sons have defeated Me!” Talk about “majority rules”! Not only is it true that 1,000 prophets following the plain sense of the Scripture don’t stand a chance against 1,001 sages, but God Himself doesn’t stand a chance against even two sages should they beg to differ with Him! Did you have any idea that the power of tradition and human authority went so far?
It is not that these rabbis were arrogant or irreverent. They simply believed that it was their God-given duty to interpret and make Laws, and, over the process of time, they came to believe that their traditions were sacred. They even claimed to have the right to change the biblical Laws if necessary. What was their scriptural support for this? Psalm 119:126: “It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken.” To which you might say, “I don’t get it. What has this verse got to do with changing the Law?” Nothing. But it was totally reinterpreted (actually, totally misinterpreted) to mean: “Sometimes, in order to act for the Lord, it is necessary to dissolve His Laws.” I kid you not.8
Is it any wonder, then, that at times the Talmud credits the sages with “uprooting Scripture” with their interpretations?9 This is something worth remembering the next time someone tries to tell you that Jesus and Paul freely went around breaking and changing the laws.
And where do the rabbis claim that the Bible itself makes reference to the Oral Law? One key text is Exodus 34:27:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”
What does this verse have to do with the Oral Law? Nothing at all! The context speaks of Laws to be written down.
How then did the authors of the Talmud find a reference here to the unwritten Law? First, they failed to quote the beginning of the verse (“Write down these words”). Then, they noticed that the Hebrew phrase translated “in accordance with” (‘al pî) was very close to the Hebrew phrase for “oral” (‘al peh). So, the verse was understood as if it said: “Write down these words, for on the testimony over these words, I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” But that is not what the Hebrew says, as any reliable Jewish translation of the Bible will tell you at once. A play on words is one thing; the real meaning is something else.
And how did Rashi, the greatest of all Jewish biblical commentators, handle the clear meaning of this verse that the covenant was based on the written Word? He interpreted “Write down these words” to mean these words only, explaining that “it is not permitted to write down the words of the Oral Law.”10 So, God says, “Write!” but the tradition says, “Don’t write it all!” God makes His covenant with Israel based on what was transmitted in writing; the Talmud says that the real essence of the covenant was based on what was transmitted orally. And isn’t it strange that a biblical text clearly emphasizing the Written Law was utilized by the Talmud to point to the Oral Law—based on a play on words alone? What an example of grasping at straws!
The complete absence of any mention of an Oral Law in the Hebrew Bible stands in direct contrast to the frequent references to the binding nature of the Written Law found throughout the Scriptures. Just read verses like Deuteronomy 31:2426:
After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end [and notice: there was no part of the Law that Moses failed to write down; he wrote it all, from beginning to end], he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.”
There are plenty of other verses that say the same thing, such as Exodus 24:78; Deuteronomy 17:1420; 28:5859; 30:910; Joshua 1:8; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:13; 2 Kings 22:13; 23:3,21; 1 Chronicles 16:3940; 2 Chronicles 30:5; 31:3; 35:2627; Ezra 3:24; 6:18; Nehemiah 10:2829; 13:1; and Daniel 9:13. I encourage you to look up these verses and read them carefully. Where is there any mention of an Oral Law?11
And, if there were such an authoritative chain of interpretation, why are there so many disagreements about the Law on virtually every page of the Talmud? One could almost say that the Talmud consists of disagreements and discussions about the interpretation and application of the Law. And why do the great rabbinic commentaries differ on the meaning of hundreds and hundreds of biblical verses? Where is the authoritative chain of tradition?
No, God did not give an Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The very first mention of even the concept of such a binding, oral tradition is more than 1,400 years after Moses. What’s more, many of the Jewish groups that existed in Jesus’ day, such as the Sadducees and the Essenes, had no belief in any such tradition. That was a distinct doctrine of the Pharisees. Why? Because they were the ones who invented the whole idea of an unbroken chain of binding, oral tradition, beginning shortly before Jesus came into the world. And, as they passed their unique traditions on to their successors, the new generations began to say: “We didn’t invent these teachings, we inherited them. They have been passed on to us from our fathers. They go back many years …. way back … as far back as we can remember … all the way back to Moses.” Not quite!
Let the truth be told. There was no secret Law given to Moses by word of mouth or passed on by him orally to the biblical prophets and leaders. Actually, our forefathers sometimes forgot the Written Law (read 2 Kings 22 for a classic example of this). An Oral Law wouldn’t have stood a chance. And there is not a single example in the Scriptures where anyone was ever punished, rebuked, or held accountable for breaking any so-called binding tradition. That’s because there was no such tradition to break. Only violations of the written Word were considered sinful.
Now it’s time to listen to that Word. The Torah tells us that wherever we Jews are, even scattered around the world, “if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find Him if you look for Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29). Jeremiah the prophet gave the same message: “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). And the Book of Proverbs says:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:56).
God will not let you down—if you sincerely seek His truth. Why not humble yourself and ask for His help? There is a place for reason and rational discussion, and there is a place for seeking God too. They go hand in hand! But the Lord opposes those who are wise in their own eyes. Study the Word and seek God. You will not be disappointed.
When Moses and the prophets couldn’t figure out how to interpret or apply the Law, they prayed and asked God for the answer. And God showed them what to do!12 Why not follow their lead? Why be smarter than Moses and the prophets and try to figure it all out for yourself?
Study, yes, by all means. But ask God to open your eyes when you do! (That’s exactly how the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 119:18.) Ask God to guide you into the truth.
It is not that the rabbis meant evil. They really believed in what they did, and there is often beauty and wisdom in their words. They were totally committed to their traditions, and through these traditions, they sought to bind the people of Israel together. But, while the traditions may have bound us together, they have, more importantly, bound us up.
You can be free today.
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:3132).
If you are an observant Jew, then the rabbinic traditions are very important to you. After all, without the traditions, there would be no such thing as traditional Judaism!
For you, these traditions are your direct connection to Sinai, and you believe that you stand at the end of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Moses, who, you claim, received both an Oral and a Written Torah from Yehovah. For you, these traditions are essential, telling you how to keep the commandments, how to understand the Scriptures, and how to live your life before the Lord. Without these traditions you would feel lost.
As explained by Dr. Immanuel Jakobovitz, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom:
"When our Sages asserted that 'the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not make His covenant with Israel except by virtue of the Oral Law' (Gittin 60b), they not only propounded a cardinal Jewish belief, they also expressed a truth as evident today as it was in Talmudic times. The true character of Judaism cannot be appreciated except by an intimate acquaintance with the Oral Law. The Written Law, that is, the Five Books of Moses, and even the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we share with other faiths. What makes us and our faith distinct and unique is the oral tradition as the authentic key to an understanding of the written text we call the Torah."13
But is this really true? Did God actually make His covenant with Israel based on the Oral Law? If you will study the evidence - rationally, logically, and carefully - you will find that, to the contrary, God made His covenant with our people based on the written Word alone, and it is that Word - the written Tanakh - that must be our guide for faith and life.
Obviously, it would take several large volumes to cover every possible question and answer every possible objection, but I will present some foundational truths from the Scriptures, and as you continue to research the matter for yourself, these truths will lead to one inescapable conclusion: It is the Tanakh rather than the Talmud and the rabbinic traditions that must be followed if we are to be totally faithful to the Lord.
What does the Torah itself teach? It teaches that: 1) God gave Moses His commands and laws; 2) Moses wrote down in a book every-thing the Lord said to him; 3) Moses read the words of that book to the people; and 4) based on the words of that book, the covenant was made. Read the key verses for yourself: Exodus 24:3-4, 7-8; 34:27; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; see also Deuteronomy 27:1-8. It was this Book of the Law (sefer torah) that was to be read by the king (Deuteronomy 17:18-20), and Israel would be judged based on what was written in this book (Deuteronomy 28:58; 30:10).
That's why God told Joshua not to let the Book of the Law depart from his lips (Joshua 1:8), and that's why every single reference in the Bible to the Torah or the teaching of Moses refers to what is written. Where is the Oral Torah? It simply is not there.
Consider the evidence for yourself: Every single time the Hebrew Bible refers to "the law/teaching of Moses" (torat mosheh) it is referring to the written Torah (see Joshua 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 23:25; Malachi 3:22; Daniel 9:11, 13; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Nehemiah 8:1; 2 Chronicles 23:18; 30:16; 34:14) - every single time! Conversely, there is not one time in the entire Hebrew Bible where someone is rebuked or punished for breaking "the law of Moses" when it does not refer to the written Torah. Not a single time! If someone was indicted for breaking "the Torah of Moses," or if reference was made to "the Torah of Moses," it meant one thing and one thing only: the written Torah. And it was that written Torah that our forefathers were called to keep. Why then do some put such an emphasis on the Oral Torah, claiming that without it, one cannot understand what is written?
The phrase sefer torah ("Book of the Law," occurs twenty times in the Tanakh, while there are no references whatsoever to an Oral Torah (torah she-be‘al peh) in the entire Tanakh. As for the supposed hints to the Oral Torah within the Scriptures, all of them can be easily explained. What then will you follow: the sure and certain testimony of the written Word, or the traditions of men, no matter how beautiful those traditions might be?
In many cases, the Talmudic interpretation of the Scriptures contradicts the plain sense of the Torah. For a famous example, see B. Bava Metzia 59b, which changes the meaning of the end of Exodus 23:2. If you are a student of the Talmud, you know that this is common, even in legal interpretations; see, e.g., B. Berachot 2 a-b, where the word vetaher in Leviticus 22:7 is misinterpreted. In other cases, the Talmud makes the Torah laws void, as seen in the well-known rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 in B. Sanhedrin 71a, where it is taught that the Torah commandment was never observed and, in fact, never meant to be observed. On what basis, then, will you follow human traditions when those traditions overrule the Word of God?
The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, taught in his introduction to the Mishnah that the rabbinic traditions were to be followed even if they contradicted the plain, grammatical sense of the Torah and even if a prophet of God confirmed that the plain, grammatical sense of the Torah was correct (using Deuteronomy 25:11-12 as his example). So, the written Word, confirmed by a prophet, has less authority than the rabbinic traditions! Add to this the Talmudic teaching in B. Bava Metzia 59b (cited above, and based on a wrong interpretation of Exodus 23:2) that states that even divine miracles and a voice from heaven cannot overrule the majority opinion of the rabbis, and you realize just how extreme this position really is.
Which, then, will you follow? The written Word or the traditions of men? When you stand before God, what will you say? A word to the wise is sufficient (vehamaskil yavin).
1 H. Chaim Schimmel, The Oral Law: A Study of the Rabbinic Contribution to Torah She-Be-Al-Peh (rev. ed., Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1987, italics added).
2 Z. H. Chajes, The Student’s Guide Through the Talmud, translated and edited by Jacob Schacter (New York: Feldheim, 1960), 4.
3 See Nachmanides to Deuteronomy 17:11 and also the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 12a.
4 See Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah.
5 See again Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, and also the Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 102a.
6 See the introduction to his Ketzot HaHoshen on Hoshen Mishpat in Shulhan Arukh.
7 Dr. J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino, 1975), 316. The only real issue is whether to translate the Hebrew word rabbîm in this verse with “many” or “mighty.” (The Talmudic passage in Baba Mesia 59b, of course, understood the word to mean “many”—in other words, the majority.) Either way, the meaning is impossible to dispute: Don’t follow the rabbîm!
8 See the Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 54a.
9 See, for example, the Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 1:2, 59d; the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 16a, with Rashi’s comments to the words ‘oqeret and halakah.
10 See also Gittin 60a in the Babylonian Talmud.
11 It is possible that a rabbinic Jew might point to Nehemiah 8:8, the only verse which mentions that the Levites made the Law clear as it was being read. This means either that they translated it into a more understandable language (probably Aramaic for the exiles), or else they explained its meaning. This, of course, was the role of the priests and Levites: to educate the people in the Torah (see Leviticus 10:1011). But, once again, to make some connection between this verse and an alleged unbroken chain of binding tradition is to build a mountain out of a non-existent mole hill.
Also, the context makes it absolutely clear that the center of attention and authority was the written Word alone—as emphasized in the numerous verses just cited. The rest of Nehemiah 8 also shows us that the Jewish people then did what the Law literally told them to do, without any extra traditions or interpretations added on. And so, Nehemiah 8:15 says that the Jews followed what was written in Leviticus 23:3740. They obviously had no clue that the Talmud would later claim that Leviticus 23 could not be understood without all kinds of special interpretations and specific traditions.
12 See, for example, Leviticus 24:1023; Numbers 9:114; 15:3236; 27:15; Zechariah 7.
13 Foreword to H. Chaim Schimmel, The Oral Law: A Study of the Rabbinic Contribution to Torah She-be-al-Peh (2nd, rev. ed.; Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1996), n.p.
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