Thursday, January 3, 2008

Oral vs. Written tradition

I went to Yeshiva day schools K-12. I started studying Gemara (Talmud) in 5th grade and accepted as a given that what I was told, that Torah She-ba’al Peh (the oral tradition) was given along with Torah She-bichtav (the written Torah) at Har Sinai and that it was a parallel revelation meant to explain the obscure language of the Torah itself.

Except for occasional classes, I’ve neglected studying Gemara since my early 20’s. Instead, I concentrated my Torah study on Tanach on the one side, and pure Halacha on the other. Recently I’ve begun to go to a weekly gemara shiur again and it’s amazing how my perspective has changed. Since the last time I studied gemara seriously, I’ve grown much more questioning about the origins of Judaism in general, and have read up more on history and philosophy of the ancient world.

In this light, the gemara seems to me to be much more of a struggle between two ancient traditions and the challenge of reconciling them.

One was text-based and one was halachically based. Once the Torah was “rediscovered” in Ezra’s time, where he reassembled the Torah from the various texts that represented the various interpretations of divine revelation, the form of the Torah was mostly fixed. By the late 2nd Temple era, that text was assumed to be of entirely divine authorship by the majority of sages (though not by all, a point that is often overlooked today.)

Yet there was an oral law in existence as well. Torah She-ba’al peh consisted of the various laws that had coalesced over the previous centuries based on a combination of divine revelation, interpretation of various divinely inspired texts, and pragmatic traditions of an ancient agrarian society.

The problem was, it had come to be an authoritative body of laws and interpretation in its own right and that body did not match the now accepted-as-divine text.

Now two varying traditions were both claimed as divine. One was text based. The other was mostly law based, but with aggadic traditions as well. If they were both divine, how could they conflict with one another? Therefore the Talmud emerged, a diary of centuries of intricate reinterpretation to force the two traditions to not be in conflict. Every extra letter or ambiguous phrase in the Torah was claimed as evidence that it meant or implied something somewhat different or sometimes even opposite, its plain meaning.

Wherever a Mishna or Braita made a particular halachic or aggadic claim that seemed to conflict with the Torah, the phrase “Mina Hani Mili” or simply “Minalan” or similar was employed in the Gemara. “Where do we know this from? What scriptural proof is there for this claim?”

The Gemara then painstakingly analyzes the text of the Torah to find the proof, whether it be an extra letter, a repetition of something somewhere else in the Torah, or a particular turn of phrase. It is very hard to believe that the text of the Torah so often meant something other than what it plainly implied.

I don’t consider it a waste. The amoraim engaged in this beautiful dance and laid a framework for the future of Judaism. I wonder of they all really believed that the 2 traditions were both really fully divine and absolutely needed to be reconciled, or if it was simply a pragmatic way of formulating a religious tradition that would be accepted by the masses by calling upon the accepted text to bolster practices already widespread, even if they had their own doubts.

In any case, I reject the modern scholarly assumption by some that the laws were made up later than the text of the Torah itself. It makes no sense for those forming a tradition to come up with halachot that clearly contradict the accepted base text of Judaism. The halacha, albeit perhaps in an earlier form, must have been extant already.

From that point, it is a short leap of faith for me to believe that there is a divinity in much of the halachic system, through some form of revelation, just as there is divinity in the Torah (see previous post.) And to me, that makes Judaism all the richer and more meaningful.


  1. Divinity in the halachic system, not divinity in the talmud. Perhaps some sort of divine begining to the mishna too in our beleifs, but the talmud uses supposedely divine logic systems to find the written source for these mishnas that we find with us, and that we have found with us since etc..

    The proof that the talmud isn't too divine is that the content, arguments and style differ greatly between the bavli and the yerushalmi. yet there are those who say it is divinely origionated.

    There's a lot to say on the subject obviously, I just want to point out though, that it does also say in the midrash that "whatever novel understandings future students will conclude in the future about the torah using the halachic process is as if it were said to moses on mt. sinai"- meaning that differing understandings are legitimate and even necesary during different periods.

    Oh, ..'hi', by he way...


  2. Shlomo:

    > Divinity in the halachic system, not divinity in the talmud

    Yes, of course. I don't think anyone sees the text of the gemara as being itself divine other than a few people who assert Ruach HaKodesh in everything the Tana'im and Amora'im said.

    I was just saying that the tradition that they were working with has some divinity on both sides - the side that was written down as the Torah and the side that was a verbal halachic and aggadic tradition. Since they viewed both as being fully divine and both haven been given at Har Sinai, it was cricial, in developing their arguments, to reconcile them with no gaps. The Talmud is the record of that reconciliation.

    While different understandings were acceptable, they were still coming from a point that they viewed the Torah as fully divine, so I doubt that my view of human authorship and human interpretation of divine concepts would have been acceptable to them.

  3. Maybe divine in some touchy feely sense. But I don't think it makes much sense to pretend that the oral Torah is divine revelation in the literal sense, since to believe that you would have to believe that halacha was frozen solid between Sinai and the Mishnah.

  4. Woodrow:

    What I was saying is that the system of oral law evolved from a mishmash of divine sources, not that it's divine, whole-cloth. And obviously human biases and ideas are infused in every part of it. It's definitely an evolved system. But it has divine sources within iut.