07 Jan

Chapter 6: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah

Can We Understand the Tanach?

What is the written Torah? The written Torah is made up of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This the first section of the general codex called “Tanach,” which is an acronym for “Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim,” (Torah, Prophets, Writings). What most characterizes the written Torah? The most central feature is that the written Torah cannot be understood by the modern state of mind.

This is because it is part of a historical era where prophecy was present in humanity.

In a world with immanent divine presence, all the parameters of life change. For example, we see that the major struggle of the prophets of Israel was against the mythologies, against paganism, but nowhere do we find a struggle against atheism.

This is for the simple reason that it was virtually impossible to be an atheist in a world with revealed divinity. But it was possible to worship idols and all types of deities, which reflected a different conception of God than that of Israel and this was the crux of the struggle.

As well, we understand that in the era of prophecy there were things that were very important to worshipers of God that today may not seem so important in a religious context. For instance, the economic welfare and success of the kingdom and the acceptance of sacrificial offerings by God. Issues that are highly important to the religious consciousness of today however, such as the afterlife or even prayer, were much less significant then. Then, man cared about the divine presence in this world, and did not focus on his life in the world to come.

Another example is the centrality of the collective consciousness in the times of the Tanach. That is, in those times what was important to people was their belonging to the collective, whereas the individual was much less significant. Today, this has been overturned. In an era with no revealed divine presence, the holiness of the collective is not revealed either, and so man comes to see his individuality as principal.

In other words, if we want to truly understand the Tanach we must remember one essential point. This is a collection of books that were written during a period when God’s presence was felt by man, where His divinity was immanently revealed to humans. Whereas today we live in an era of hidden, or concealed divine presence. In this context, all we can do to know God is by use of the intellect, like philosophers, or by emotion, like the religions. This is the fundamental difference.

The Pseudo-Science of Judaism

What is the goal of the Science of Bible Criticism? Bible Criticism is a pseudoscience masquerading as a science that began 200 years ago in Europe whose purpose is to undermine the validity of the Tanach, of the facts that are presented by the written Torah and the traditions, specifically the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and of prophecy in general.

Sometimes Biblical criticism raises doubts among people resulting from the questions that it raises by analyzing the text of the Tanach. Sometimes we see contradictions within the Tanach and other times seemingly contradictory agendas within the text itself. Maybe these instances demonstrate that the Tanach was composed by man?

Here there is a point that we must remember and that is that the basic starting point of Biblical criticism is a non-scientific one. What is unscientific about Biblical criticism?

The basic assumption is that the Torah is not of a divine source and that prophecy is a type of hallucination. And on this we must ask, how do you know this?

If we accept the assumption that God does not speak to man, then this leads to all types of questions, “So who wrote it?” “Why did he write it?” “What was he trying to achieve?” But if we remember that there is an alternative basic assumptionthat has been proven scientifically and historically: that God did reveal himself to human beings, then we have no problem making sense of the contradictions found in the Torah. For instance, if we understand them as tensions that are inherent in God’s words and message, then the difficulties in them disappear. Both regarding the textual analysis, as well as the archaeological ones, which are all built on lack of evidence.

Our Rabbis taught a great rule: Lack of evidence is no evidence of lack.

And so we must relate to biblical criticism with much caution. At the end of the day these academics have provided us with important methodological tools for analyzing the text and many details from archeology. But these scholars will never be able to prove the fundamental assumption of the non-divinity of the Torah.

The Torah that Lives Within the Nation

What is the oral Torah? It is the tradition that is passed through the nation by generation to generation. This tradition is very ancient, and it well predates the writing of the Torah. The Torah was written down by Moses in the fortieth year after the Israelites left Egypt. For forty years Moses taught orally. In any case, it can be said that the nation was living according to its customs since its founding in the times of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, according to ancient customs. Some of these ancient customs were incorporated into the Written Torah, others were annulled, some were modified and some were forgotten.

But it can be said that the crucial issue, at least from the Jew’s perspective, is the fact that the Jewish people are an actual nation living in history, who cultivate a factual tradition; well more crucial than the texts that were transcribed by the prophets in any particular phrasing. It can also be said that the written Torah is addressed toward all the nations of the world, for all humanity, while the oral Torah is unique to Israel. The oral Torah represents Jewish life, the way that the Torah is alive within the nation. For this reason, the Talmudic sages say that when God made His covenant with the Israelite nation the principle part of the covenant was the oral Torah, and not the written one.

Notice that, rather paradoxically, the Tanach is, in a sense, more popular with the non-Jews than it is in the Jewish academies of Torah study. The Jews already know what is in the book written about them themselves. But the most crucial part of the covenant between God and Israel is the life that is lived out through the classic study hall, through the life of the Oral Torah.

The Halacha is Not Decided by Heavenly Voices

Let us continue on the topic of the Oral Torah. I would like to discuss with you a story taken from the Talmud in the tractate of Bava Metzia. It is a slightly odd story but it expresses excellently the essence of the Oral Torah. It is told of a debate between two early sages of the Mishna, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, about the law regarding the purity of a certain type of oven, called ‘Achnai’s oven.’ The Torah states that if an oven becomes impure it must be shattered and then it can become pure again. The question is about a unique type of oven that is made from a number of separate pieces with nothing gluing them together. Could this type of oven ever become impure?

Rabbi Yehoshua, one of the great Tana’im held that this type of oven could become impure while Rabbi Eliezer, who was also of the great Tana’im concluded that this oven by definition could not become impure. This is called ‘Achnai’s oven.’ It is told that Rabbi Eliezer brought many proofs to make his case but none were accepted by the rest of the sages. Eventually he said “If my opinion is the correct Halacha (Jewish law), let the carob tree outside the study hall move 50 meters.” The Talmud says that the tree, in fact, miraculously moved 50 meters. The rest of the sages said, “Proofs are not given by carobs.”

He said, “If my opinion is the correct Halacha, let the water in the aqueduct reverse its flow.” And this occurred as well. The rest of the sages said, “Proofs are not given by aqueducts.” He said, “If my opinion is the correct Halacha, let the walls of the study hall prove it.” Then, the walls of the study hall began to tilt inwards and were in danger of falling on them. The sages said ”What will be?!” Rabbi Yehoshua got up and said to the walls, “The Rabbis are debating. What do you have to do with it?” Here the Talmud says in jest that the walls froze in their slanted position; they did not return out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer but did not fall out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua and they are still frozen until today.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If my opinion is the correct Halacha, let the heavens prove it.” And so, a heavenly voice spoke out and said, “Concede to Rabbi Eliezer because his opinion is correct in all places.” Rabbi Yehoshua got up and quoted a passage from Deuteronomy, “It is not in the heavens.” We don’t decide the Halacha according to heavenly voices but rather as it says in the Torah, “Follow the majority.”

This means that it is the opinion of the majority of the Rabbis that decides the Halacha. In other words, the story teaches us that God himself waits to see what the Rabbis decide in order to decide his own will. The Halachic ruling was, in fact, decided according to Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion was rejected. The Oral Torah has unique strength, it is the living expression of God’s will as revealed through the people of Israel.

The Fragmentation of the Halacha?

Where does the authority to decide the Halacha lie? We find differing opinions around every corner, and in every field of life. Some permit, others forbid, some say pure, others say impure, some find guilty, others exonerate. How are we to know what is the correct Halacha?

Previously, this was simple because there was a central institution called the Sanhedrin, founded during the second temple period. The Torah refers to this when it directs anyone involved in a dispute to go to “the place which Hashem will choose.” On the temple mount was a convention hall (called the Lishkat Hagazit) where the sages of the Sanhedrin assembly would gather and issue judgments for any complicated issue brought to them. Any time there was disagreement, after deliberation they would put the issue to a vote and decide according to the majority of the assembly. This is how Halachic decisions were made for all Israel and they continued functioning in this way as long as the assembly was able to convene.

The Talmud relates that forty years before the destruction of the temple, the Sanhedrin left the official hall and began convening in a different location on the Temple mount. At this time its authority began to dwindle. For example, they could not continue to issue judgments for capital crimes. After the destruction of the temple, the Sanhedrin left Jerusalem and would convene in Yavneh. At this point its selfperceived authority to issue Halachic judgements was gradually reduced.

In any case, the principle is that rulings that the Jews collectively accepted upon themselves became obligatory. Rabbi Judah Hanasi, the grandson of the president of the final Sanhedrin that convened on the Temple Mount, compiled in one work the most essential parts of the Oral Torah’s traditions. A few generations later, the Talmud was compiled in two parallel versions, one in the Land of Israel, called the Jerusalem Talmud and the other in Mesopotamia, called the Babylonian Talmud.

Maimonides explains that the Talmud is authoritative for all of Israel because it was accepted as such by all of the nation. From this point onward no individual sage has the right to disagree with a Talmudic ruling. However, he is free to decide between the varying opinions presented in the Talmud as the basis for a ruling on any topic.

But what obligates me to accept the rulings of one sage or another? Here there is another concept in Halacha called the ‘Local Authority’ (Mara D’atra). Anyone who is appointed by the congregation as the Rabbi of that locality assumes the Halachic authorities for that place. For instance, if I attend a particular synagogue on a regular basis, and I am part of that congregation, I become obligated by the rulings of the Rabbi appointed by that congregation, even if he rules differently than all the other Rabbis. If I then move to another neighborhood I will become obligated by the ‘Local Authority’ of that congregation, unless he allows me to follow a different authority.

So, despite the fragmentation of the Halachic process, there remain mechanisms for giving authoritative rulings up until today. That is until, with God’s help, the Sanhedrin will be re-established and the authority on Halacha will return to the central institution of the nation.

The Hidden Torah

What is the Kabbalah? What is the hidden, or concealed Torah of Judaism? As we know, at the heart of Judaism lies hidden spiritual content. This content is studied in small groups and under strict conditions. Sometimes non-Jews wish to join these studies but if someone does not approach this topic with the proper holiness and purity, or openness to the message of this incredible content, then he will understand it only from an academic perspective. He would gain only familiarity with information that can be found in encyclopedias. But such a person will not have the inner experience that the Hidden Torah speaks of.

What is the origin of the Hidden Torah? The Hidden Torah is the core that is left from the period of prophecy, retained within the Jewish people. Once, God’s word was spoken to the world by his loyal messengers, the prophets, and all the world could hear the amazing content of the direct word of God. But, since the end of prophecy we retain only pieces, you might say the scent of prophecy, and this scent is what is contained in the Hidden Torah, the Kabbalah, as passed down through the generations.

What is the main content of the Hidden Torah? The word hidden, or secret (Sod), in Hebrew is generally meant to describe something that we do not reveal. The original meaning in the Tanach, though, is a group, a gathering, a private conferring. This ‘private consultation’ comes to complete what is seemingly lacking in the revealed Torah.

In the revealed Torah we learn what is good and what is bad, permitted and prohibited. We live in a divided world that can be called the ‘Tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But at the same time, we know that Hashem is one and he gives life to all things. Where can we turn to discover the point of unity between realms that the revealed Torah divides? For this we have the Hidden Torah of Judaism. Although, here there is a risk of confusion. Often, expressions that seem to grant legitimacy to any and all things, even to evil, have entered popular discourse. But there is a difference between a theoretical viewpoint that explains to us how God’s light gives life to all things and practical behavior that tells us to choose good and resist evil.

I’ve found amongst some friends from the nations that did not make the distinction between the Halacha and what is called Aggadah, the narrative literature which is closely related to the Hidden Torah. According to the Halacha, for instance, Christian theology is idolatrous, and forbidden for a Noahide. This is so, even though there are texts in the narrative literature that give meaning to its appearance in history. This type of understanding belongs to the Hidden Torah. We make a clear separation between the Hidden Torah and the revealed Torah. It is precisely through the ability to separate between these realms of Jewish wisdom, that a higher attention is born, that can unite them.

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