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The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The company line is that the Torah was revealed to Moses as Sinai who conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. (Avot 1:1) This line of reasoning makes a distinction between the Written Torah including the Pentateuch and the other books of the Hebrew Tanakh (bible) and the Oral Torah, the line of halakhah (laws) that binds one to the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism. The reasoning is that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were both revealed to Moses at Sinai, even events in the Written Torah that had not yet occurred and interpretations of the halakhah that had not yet entered the realm of possibility. In order to get to this position one must jump through a whole variety of hoops that complicate rather than simplify the story itself.

One such hoop is a story from the Talmud which goes something like this. When Moses died and went to heaven God told him of a great rabbi that was to arise in the future, Rabbi Hillel. Moses asked God if he could meet Hillel and God told Moses to turn around. Moses now stood in the Academy of Hillel who was lecturing about the law in the front of the room while Moses was on a back bench. Moses, however, was quite confused. He recognized nothing of the teachings coming from Hillel when, all of a sudden, Hillel was interrupted by a student asking, “From where do these ideas come, Master?” Hillel responded, “They were revealed to Moses at Sinai.” Moses was satisfied.

Interesting little story but hardly proof. The language appears to acknowledge the disconnect between a revelation that is said to have occurred and the interpretation of the meaning of that revelation during a period of time when the whole of Judaism is in a state of flux; the core of belief and atonement was gone because the Temple no longer existed and the Rabbis were struggling to create a world in which atonement was even possible. Christians, as they diverged from Judaism abandoned atonement and turned toward salvation but the Rabbinic movement in Judaism, the authors of the Mishnah and the two Talmuds took a different path; theirs was to create a world frozen in time, a world in which Temple practices were still acknowledged as important even though they could not currently be practiced. It was the Rabbis who developed the strategy that their interpretations were part of the direct lineage from Sinai to the present day.

To claim that orality was equal to the written word is to make a bold but unsubstantiated claim. It seems that the rabbis recognized this as they mused about Moses visiting Hillel’s Academy. The fact that Moses himself was confused by the teachings that he could not understand seems to be an acknowledgement that the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmuds had moved beyond the Sinai revelation and now, in order to accomodate the changes brought on by the destruction of the Temple decided to create a strong link back to Sinai through the oral tradition they, themselves, wrote down in Avot.

I think that a more reasonable explanation is available. Teaching itself is an oral correspondence between teacher and student. But orality alone doesn’t fix learning in the student any more thad studying a text without a teacher explains the nuances of the text to the novice. No, both are required. The presence of the text and the dialectic that comes from understanding the text are both a crucial part of learning for both teacher and student. The insistance that the tradition is purely oral is also belied by the fact that the Rabbis felt compelled to produce so much writing that sprang from the oral tradition. The Mishnah and Talmuds accompanied by Midrash and the Tosefta make up far more writing than is contained in the Written Torah.

I prefer a more rational, contextualized explanation for the Oral Torah, one that considers the times in which the bulk of the texts were written, the social and political tensions that were felt by people as well as the practical understanding one has about teaching and learning and the relationship of text to orality in that relationship to come to a more rational understanding of how one should understand how and why the tradition came about.

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