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Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be patient in administration of justice; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

The Jewish world was fundamentally altered during the late stages of the Second Temple period, the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the last phases of the Second Temple there were several competing Judaisms, including the Pharisees, the Essenes and any number of mystical, messianic cults that were an integral part of the Jewish World. The destruction of the Temple was, however, a death blow to the Temple sacrificial cult where the blood of animals afforded the giver of the sacrifice absolution from his or her sins. In the days following the destruction of the Temple, the various Judaisms began to form more permanent structural and theological attitudes. Christianity went in one direction while the birth of Rabbinic Judaism took a completely different turn. While both of these Judaisms used specific language to make their case, I wish to concentrate on the language of Rabbinic Judaism most clearly revealed in the Mishnah quoted above.

One of the problems the Rabbis had to deal with was the issue of continuity, how were they in a direct and unbroken lineage from Moses to the present day. Moreover, they had to wrestle with the problem of how their writings fit into the lineage of the revelation at Sinai. To help explain the latter problem, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds engaged in the fantasy of the two Torahs; the written one and the oral one. But what gave the oral Torah authority? The answer devised was simple; it too was revealed to Moses at Sinai. That brings us to the issue of proving lineage from Moses to the present day to which the Rabbis answered that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God himself (both oral and written) and passed on in a direct lineage to us making us the recipients of the revelation. Implied here is that so long as the Torah is passed down, studied and understood by following generations, the lineage remains intact. The language used is self-serving in the sense that it supports the contention of the Sages that they are the true and only recipients of the Torah because they are a part of that succession. The problem with self-serving language, however, is that it simply doesn’t stand up to that which is now understood about the historical development of the Jewish people. It fits into a neat package, almost a marketing package, that solipsistically turns in on itself to prove its very existence but this vision fails when subjected to a deeper understanding of the times.

The second half of the Mishnah raises other kinds of questions. Much of the Mishnah, the redaction of Jewish Laws attributed to Judah ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) deals with the underlying structure of solving legal problems that arise from time to time. It is much like a casebook in law. The first instruction, to be patient in the administration of justice implies that the “oral” Torah is a work in progress, not a fixed document revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed on as described in the first part of this Mishnah. The implied flexibility in the application of the law suggests that the law as “oral” Torah was not revealed at all but hammered out by human beings to meet the needs of the day.

The instruction to make a fence for the Torah is also related to the very idea that where a vague commandment is made in the written Torah, it is the job of the oral Torah to both describe how one complies with the commandment but also that this description must take on a more or less conservative modality in the sense that anything that appears to be like the commandment is also either forbidden or required in order to be sure that the commandment itself is fulfilled. The fence could not have been revealed at Sinai because only through the discourse of debate among learned Sages could the fence be built. Another reason to reject the very notion of the two Torah fantasy. The language reveals a deep discord between that which is and that which is to be accepted as a fundamental belief without questioning the validity of the claim.

The instruction to develop many students is a practical one. The more students one develops, the more likely it is that the message will be preserved. Interestingly, some modern day research suggests that these Sages, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and other documents, had only a handful of students, perhaps no more that 15 to 20 at any given time, perhaps even fewer. In this context the 12 disciples of Jesus actually makes some sense. The idea that one develop students is one that preserves the message while providing for the possibility of new interpretations as new problems are faced. This language is practical; it also implies that the “oral” Torah was not a revelation but, rather, a growing body of literature redacted to compliment the written Torah itself.

The language of the Sages, the Rabbis writing the core documents of Judaism outside of the Torah and the Tanakh, is contradictory. On one hand it suggests a direct revelation from Moses to the present day while on the other it seems to support the idea that the authors recognize their own role as interpreters, authors, and commentators making the written Torah come to life. I do not find this unusual. These kinds of contradictions are found in all religions because they otherwise their beliefs could not be explained. Stories are created to respond to that which we don’t know but I find in far more interesting to uncover the fundamental truths contained in the stories while not being concerned about who or what put them out for public consumption.

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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