Why’s the Oral Torah Contradictory?

Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) 51-82.

At both Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, I’ve asked a question that has gotten at least three different answers: If the rabbis believed that God revealed the oral Torah at Mount Sinai, then how did they account for the different opinions in that oral Torah (i.e., the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds, etc.). Did they think God revealed contradictory ideas?

A professor at JTS replied that the rabbis thought God once gave a consistent and perfect oral Torah, but it became corrupted over the years. The task of rabbinic debates, according to this view, is to retrieve the pristine original of the oral Torah.

At HUC, a professor replied that the rabbis believed that different opinions could be inspired by God, implying perhaps that God was behind the rabbinic discourse. And, indeed, we read midrashim stating that God revealed at Mount Sinai even the questions that students would ask their teachers. The discourse was pre-planned, in this scenario, and the Torah was capable of different meanings, reflecting the complexity of life.

And I recall an HUC professor stating that the rabbis realized the same law couldn’t exist for each and every generation, since each period of history is different, with its own challenges, questions, and historical setting. Consequently, they wisely sought to adapt the Torah to their unique contexts.

I also remember an HUC rabbinic student saying that the idea that God revealed the oral Torah at Sinai was late, for the rabbis initially held that they were clarifying and developing the written Torah, as they tried to figure out what the laws meant and how to apply them. In this view, the oral Torah is a human product. And, indeed, a class of mine read a midrash that treated the “oral Torah” as a scholarly development of the written Torah.

There were so many rabbinic concepts that seemed in my eyes to contradict each other: the idea that the older traditions were more reliable, as opposed to the rabbinic need to adapt the Torah to new settings. Conservatism and liberalism appeared to co-exist. What I like about my reading of Halbertal today is that it places some names with these ideas, from the rabbinic and medieval periods.

Actually, something I found interesting was that the Mishnah itself refers to a debate over why it includes dissenting opinions, not just the decisions of the majority. In Tractate Eduyot, the majority says that including the minority opinion allows a future court to overturn the current majority ruling by appealing to what the minority had to say. And the minority opinion in this discussion stated that the Mishnah includes the minority view to tell people never to accept it, since it lost out. And so not only is this debate odd because the Mishnah doesn’t seem to have a clear idea why it does something, but it’s also ironic that the minority view is the voice that’s hostile to minority views!

Something I’ve often wondered: the Torah and Judaism emphasize the importance of ritual purity and obedience to the law. If Israel is ritually impure, then God either punishes her or withdraws from her, according to priestly writings in the Torah (Leviticus 15:31; 16). And certain Torah violations, such as Sabbath-breaking, procured the death penalty. So I wondered how the rabbis could tolerate different opinions on these issues. One side said something was impure, while another side said it was pure. Shouldn’t they get their position right, since an Israelite being impure could be deadly for the entire nation? And what about their disagreements on what constituted a violation of the Sabbath? An Israelite could get the death penalty for breaking it! Shouldn’t they be clear about what breaking it means?

The rabbinic and medieval answer is that God has given to the rabbis the authority to interpret the Torah. According to a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, the decision of the rabbinic council can override a voice from heaven. Some Jewish voices Halbertal cites affirm that Israelites should obey their rabbinic council even when it’s wrong or doesn’t make sense. But not everyone held to this view. Others say that Israelites should disobey the council only when they’re absolutely certain that it is wrong (meaning a mere suspicion doesn’t count). And the medieval Karaites, who rejected the oral Torah at the outset, said that Israelites should reject the council’s decisions when they contradicted Scripture.

The New Testament likewise has ambiguity on this issue. Jesus exhorted his disciples to obey the scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:1), yet he rejected certain Pharisaic traditions (Mark 2), asserting that some of them violated the commandments of the written Torah (Mark 7).

I can understand why Jews came up with the oral Torah, for the written Torah is not always self-explanatory about how to obey its precepts. It tells Israel not to work on the Sabbath, for instance, yet it doesn’t exactly spell out what constitutes “work.” It makes sense to believe that God gave an interpretive tradition, or delegated to a council the power to interpret and apply the law.

Yet, when humans run the show, there’s always the possibility that corruption will enter the picture, and that’s why the Gospels depict Jesus challenging certain Pharisaic traditions as violations of the Torah’s very essence.

But there are elements of the Jewish outlook that, in my opinion, are valuable insights. For example: the idea that God can accept a Jewish ruling that he didn’t exactly have in mind, provided that the Jews are making a good-faith effort to obey him. Or the notion that intention is key, meaning one’s intent is determinative to whether he’s obeying the Torah. Rabbinic Judaism could be quite obsessive over the technicalities of observance, yet it also contained a view that God was more interested in Israel’s intent to obey him than whether or not she got everything right.

I doubt that the rabbis appreciated Jesus or the early Christians’ rejection of the oral Torah, for they held fast to their own authority to interpret the law. Yet, Jesus and the early Christians acted according to conscience, meaning they had the right intent. At the same time, there’s something to be said about obedience to authority, or social order, as certain Jews contended, and as Jesus himself seems to acknowledge when he tells his disciples to obey the Pharisees in Matthew 23:2-3.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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