Monday, November 24, 2008

Torah She'Be'Al Peh - The Oral Torah

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with an old friend of mine who somehow manages to find himself in the same basic geographic location I happen to end up in not too long after I arrive (though it DID take him three and a half years this time). We got on the topic of Dennis Praeger, the liberal-turned-conservative radio talk show host. Apparently, Praeger believes firmly in the Written Torah, the Torah She' B'Ksav, but completely delegitimizes the Oral Torah, Torah She'Be'Al Peh.

So, we naturally got to discussing the many different sects that popped up in Israel about two thousand years ago, most of which invalidated and ignored Rabbinic Torah (another term for the Oral Torah), saying the Rabbis of their times were making up most of the stuff they were saying. The most famous of these groups were the Sadducees, who did NOT believe the Rabbis' teachings and all their add-ons were valid, and the Pharisees, who WERE the rabbis and fought back ferociously to defend all the chumrahs they put in place. Now, on the other hand, some of the rules Chazal (the rabbis) put in place were actually leniencies. One such was allowing a fire to burn in AFTER the start of shabbos, as long as that fire was lit BEFORE shabbos began. This was an interpretation of the verse "do not light a fire in your dwellings of the sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3). The Sadducees interpreted this verse as meaning NO fire was allowed to be burn once shabbos begins, EVEN if lit before the start of the shabbos.

Ok, so that's really a matter of interpretation. On the other hand, the Sadducees wore their Tefillin literally between their eyes, as the verse says "between your eyes." The Rabbis interpreted the same verse as between your eyes, but above the forehead, at the hairline.

In essence, the Sadducees and other groups had a valid complaint: Stop adding so many chumrahs and making being Torah observant so difficult. And stop interpreting things that change of the meaning of what the verses say.

And it was a valid complaint. Not necessarily correct at all times, but valid.

So, how did the Pharisees legitimize their stance, their interpretations, their addition of so many chumrahs we now know as halacha, and even saying things in direct conflict with the Written Torah?

With one very simple claim: The Oral Torah is as valid as the Written Torah because the Oral Torah was handed to Moshe at Mount Sinai at the same time the Written Torah was handed to him. In other words, it was ALL given by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai in about 1312 (give or take a couple of hundred years) BCE.

That's a wonderful claim. A powerful one. But one we can shoot down as easily as fire melts butter: Of COURSE the Rabbis are going to make this claim! After all, without it, what validity do they and their teachings have? It's the claim of hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of religious leaders of ALL religions throughout human history: God, or the gods if the person happened to be a "heathen," anointed me His/their messenger to bring His/their teachings to the people. My teachings are legitimate because they're from God/the gods PERSONALLY, therefore all I say is FROM God/the gods and THEREFORE, all I say is legitimate and irrefutable.

The question then becomes: Where does this leave the Oral Torah? What status should it truly have?

I've mentioned before, I don't think even Chazal themselves intended for their rulings and arguments to be recorded. When they made a ruling, they made that ruling for their times, based on specific circumstances. Sometimes one would say white and the other black, depending on how stringent the rabbi one approached happened to be. A wonderful contemporary example of this is Igros Moshe, Reb Moshe Feinstein's many volume work of answers he gave to the thousands of questions he was asked during his lifetime. The rule of thumb with this work is, use it as a guide, NOT as a manual to decide halacha. Why? Because we have no idea what the specifics were in many of the questions he was asked. Sometimes he gave a more lenient answer because of special circumstances and deciding halacha without knowing that circumstance can lead one to deciding WRONG.

However, as happened with the works of Chazal when they were collected into various volumes of Mishnah and Talmud, turning these guides into ironclad law over the centuries, and solidifying that hold with the publication of various halachic works like the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch, the same will likely happen with the Igros Moshe in just a couple of hundred years, if not less.

So, what is TRULY from God and what isn't? I don't know. I CERTAINLY do NOT believe the Oral Torah was handed down to the Israelites at the same time as the Written Torah. I mean, seriously, I even have doubts about the Written Torah. It just happens to be MUCH better written and much more open to interpretations that make it flexible enough to roll with the times, if not for the Oral Torah. For example, the times for reciting the Shema would be totally different if Chazal had lived in our world rather than theirs. Second day of Yom Tov would never have even crossed anyone's mind if there was better communication between Israel and Babylon during the Second Temple Era. Even a telegraph, much less phones, fax, email, and computers, would have caused the concept of second day of Yom Tov to simply never have come into existence. Even better, had they OFFICIALLY set the calendar at the beginning of the Second Temple Era, there never would have been second day of Yom Tov. I say officially because it was "unofficially" set pretty early on. They just followed the forms anyway. No one really has a good reason why...

To be honest, I think the Oral Torah, which, again, I do NOT believe is from God, actually caused a lot more problems for the Jewish people than it solved. I think it is the root cause of why so many Jews want nothing to do with Orthodox/Halachic Judaism. I think it was the cause of the many fractious groups that splintered up during the Second Temple Era. I CERTAINLY think it was a mistake to write it all down, pretty much with the intent of binding us to laws that would later become completely outdated. Of course, this doesn't mean I don't learn it. I do. I learn Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat once a week. And I love it. Of course Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat deals with the halachas of Bein Adam La'Chaveiro - interpersonal laws, rather than those between man and God.

Well, anyway, just a thought that's been running around my head since that conversation with my old friend, who happens to be a Right Wing Republican (even though his father's an avowed democrat and well-respected member of the LA community) Yeshivish/Chareidi (though pretty cool) dude.

1 comment:

cool yiddishe mama said...

Official stance: I will no longer accept a p'sak halakhah until a rabbi can verify his SECULAR education. CHaZaL (that better?) had JOBS. They used real life examples for making the halakhah accessible. The Mishnah is constructed in such a way to be memorized while Gemara involves these deep conversations between rabbis who may have lived centuries apart from each other.

Frankly, in today's world, a rabbi needs to have a solid understanding of science or business to allow the "laity" to negotiate living as an observant Jew in today's society.

To extend my point, I will only accept a p'sak halakhah on kashrut from a rabbi who has actually set foot in a kitchen for more than a drink of water.

Perhaps the charedim are so messed up because many of their rebbes are so ignorant on practical matters.