English: The Title page of Mishnah Torah by Moshe ben Maimon haRambam, published in Venice in 1575 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In this piece, I examine the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah. I argue that the Written Torah has been given a raw deal.
The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) may refuse to give up much of its meaning; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories. Rabbi AkivaTatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. One has to enter the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to derive any lasting good. These deeper levels are not found in the Written Torah, but in the Oral Torah, which for some Jewish movements is not found deep in the Written Torah but above and beyond it. So, it is not always, or perhaps even often, the case that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah complement each other. Often it is rather that the Written Torah implements what the Oral Torah dictates it to mean.
All writing starts out as speaking. So, the Written Torah was, of course, once oral. Indeed the oral Torah was also once oral and was only written down in its seminal form in the second century after the Christian era. This compendium is called the Mishna:
“The Oral Torah, explanations of the Written Torah, was originally passed down verbally from generation to generation. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was decided the Oral Torah should be written down so it would not be forgotten. In the 2nd century C.E., Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and a group of Sages compiled the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a written outline of the Oral Torah.”
I shall examine the notion that the Oral Torah is a compedium of “explanations of the Written Torah” (above quotation).
“Torah” is used in two ways: 1. the Pentateuch, and 2. the whole Hebrew Bible, the Tanach. For our purposes, the distinction is not important, because our focus is on principles of transmission, not on content. When I refer to content, it is to give an example of the discord between the Written and Oral means of communication.
Which of these two means of communication is primary? There are two senses of “primary”: 1. order of importance” and 2. chronological order. We examine these two meanings of “primary” in terms of Oral and Written Torah. There are two views:
- Oral Torah is primary in both senses of the word, that is, it is of first importance and it produces the Written Torah.
- Oral Torah is primary in one sense only, namely, it is of first importance; but it is the Written Torah that produces the Oral Torah.
||Order of Importance
|1. Oral Torah
||Produces Written Torah
|2. Written Torah
||Produces Oral Torah
In both these views, the Oral Torah is of primary importance; the Written Torah without the Oral Torah is nothing more than a naked ghost in the linguistic machine.1
Here is the argument for the first view, namely, the Oral Torah produces the Written Torah.
In his “Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law,” Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal maintains that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:
Some of Judaism’s detractors attempt to invalidate the second method of communication; the living transmission of parent to child. These critics of Judaism argue that the written text; i.e. the Bible, is God’s word, and as such is reliable and trustworthy, but the living transmission is only words of men. Why should we rely on the words of men? What indeed is the basis for the Oral Law?
Judaism affirms that God made use of two methods of communication in order to transmit the truths of Judaism from one generation to the next; the written text and the living communication of parent to child. These two methods of communication complement and support each other. It is only when we absorb the message through both of these mediums of communication that we can arrive at a proper understanding of God’s truth.
If we examine the Bible itself, we will see that this criticism [namely, that the Oral Torah is man made) of Judaism does not get off the ground.
Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.
Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then argues that it requires an authority outside the text to pack flesh onto the dry bones. This external authority is the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view: “…the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart.” The implication is that there is no joy and no heart (skeletons don’t have hearts) in the dry bones of the Written Torah, which is only to be expected if the Written Torah is seen as nothing more than a bone yard.
The problem is that this Oral authority is not uniform, and often contradictory. For example in the time of Jesus, the two main “houses” of Judaism were those of Hillel and Shammai, who often disagreed on the content of the Oral Law. A century later, Akiva ben Joseph, a proponent of the Hillel camp, won the day. Akiva developed the Mishnah. It is from Akiva that the chain of rabbinical authority, from the second century after the Christian era, was forged (as in “ironmongery;” and as in “contrive”?). It was also Akiva, though, who believed that Bar Kochba, the Jewish leader of the revolt against Roman rule, was the Messiah. It wasn’t a good beginning for such a highly regarded sage, on which so much of the clout of the Oral Torah was grounded, to have been bowled over by a false Messiah. But then, the rabbis could take a leaf out of the Catholic book by claiming that not even the gates of hell/sheol can overpower the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh), who has promised to guard his oral revelation/oral Torah against error.
So far, we have examined the Oral Torah as the creator of the Written Torah.
Another view is that the Written Torah is the “raw material of human creation.” Here is an excerpt from Rav Chaim Navon’s lecture on “Torah Study – Creation or Revelation,” which cites several sages that support this “raw” view of the Written Torah: (Judaism considers the sages chochomim to be the God-appointed human channels of the Oral Torah).
“I maintain that, with respect to the Oral Law, the concept of “truth” is meaningless. The Torah student is not required to strive for the absolute “truth” that is concealed in God’s hidden places. The Torah serves as raw material for human creation, and man must develop the Torah in the direction that seems right to him.”
Rav Chaim Navon then quotes):
“When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them in the form of wheat to produce from it fine flour, and in the form of flax to produce from it a garment. (Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta, ed. Ish-Shalom, parasha 2).”
“This is a revolutionary and sensational formulation: The Torah was given like raw material, and man must utilize it in order to fashion the next layer of the Oral Law. Chazal spoke in a similar vein in other places as well (He quotes):
“Had the Torah been given in the form of clear decisions, the world would have been unable to exist. What is the meaning of: “And the Lord said to Moshe”? [Moshe] said to Him: “Master of the universe, tell me the Halacha!” [God] said to him: “‘After the majority to incline’ – if there are more who favor acquittal, he is acquitted; if there are more who favor conviction, he is convicted. This is in order that the Torah be explained in forty-nine ways favoring ritual impurity and forty-nine ways favoring ritual purity.” (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 4:2).
“Some of the more recent authorities follow this position of Chazal. The formulation proposed by Rabbi Joseph Bloch, head of the Telz Yeshiva, comes closer to our view than do the words of the author of the Ketzot (he quotes):
“… When the Torah was given to Israel, its laws were given over to the Torah Sages, whose thinking, provided that it is aimed at the Torah’s reasons and secrets, establishes the reality of the Torah and the reality of the universe which is dependent upon it. Thus, it differs from the other branches of wisdom, for those who investigate them do not establish the reality of those branches of wisdom, but rather uncover it. For their thinking and decisions will never change reality. This is not the case regarding Torah, for the reality of ritual impurity and purity, forbidden and permitted things, obligation and exemption, are set in accordance with the decisions of the Torah Sages. (Rabbi Joseph Bloch, Shi’urei Da’at, I, p. 21)
“How can it be, asks Rav Chaim Navon, that the Torah is merely raw material? How can the Torah Sages give two different answers, both of which are equally valid? In the case of a mathematical problem, for example, 2 plus 2, the problem has only one correct answer. It would seem that halachic questions should also have only one correct answer! In order to resolve this difficulty, let us consider the words of Ramban” (Rav Chaim Navon quotes Ramban):
“Anybody who studies our Talmud knows that regarding the disagreements among the commentators there are no absolute proofs, and generally there are no irrefutable objections. For this branch of wisdom does not allow for clear demonstrations as does mathematics. (Ramban, Introduction to his Milchamot Hashem).”
So, according to Rav Chaim Navon, we must learn from the sages of Israel, who are the inheritors of the Oral Torah revealed to Moses at Sinai. Here we see that although the Oral Torah feeds on the raw flesh of the Written Torah, it is the Oral Torah that reveals the inworkings and inwormings of the Written Torah.
The Oral law consists of several parts, two of which is the Midrash and the Zohar, where the latter is the handbook of Kabbalah (“received” [at Sinai]).
Here is Michael Laitman in his “Zohar for all.”
“The more we try to live this inner picture through The Zohar and refrain from sinking into historic images of familiar Bible stories, the more The Zohar will promote us to the interior of the Torah, to the true Torah—the real perception of reality” (p. 129).
The upshot: we must go beyond the ”simple distillations” (Laitman) of “familiar Bible stories” that (Rabbi Akiva Tatz says) any six-year-old can understand.
I now introduce some content from the Written Torah to show how the Oral Torah worms its way into the Written Torah. En passant, we should not feel too squeamish or affronted by the phrase “worms its way in,” for the simple reason that it is the Zohar that says that if you were able to journey to the center of the Torah, you will uncover the secret In the serpent’s belly, the root of Moshe Rabbinu (Moses’) soul.
Here is an example from the Midrash Genesis (B’reshit) Rabbah, which is a collection of homiletical interpretations of Genesis. I examine how the Oral Torah works with ( would say, against) the raw data of Written Torah:
If you’re not a Midrash student, and can understand basic Hebrew, or English or whatever translation of Genesis you are able to read, you will probably assume when Genesis 1:31 says, God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good,” that “very good” means “very good;” in Hebrew טוֹב מְאֹד TOV M’OD. The Midrash, on the contrary, says that the surface text is merely deceptive packaging, and so, were you to dig deeper – which only the initiated can do – you’ll see that when God says “very good,” He really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad;” God means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah, the fleshly desire. Here is the relevant Midrash:
“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Na(c)hman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications).
(See “Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good is evil).
“Very” is a very interesting word. It is usually used with an adjective as in “very good” (as in Genesis 1:31 above). “Very” sometimes acts like and adjective (describes a noun). Here is the Latin equivalent of “very” in the Latin version of the Nicene creed: “Deum verum de Deo vero”; in English “very God of very God.” (Any similarities between vero and vermis, Latin for “worm,” may or may not be accidental. Didn’t we just see that the serpent resides in the belly of Torah; so why not also the worm vermis?)
We read in Karl Barth’s Church dogmatics, “Jesus Christ lives, very God and very man.” The reason why the Latin verum/vero is similar to “very” is because “very” derives from the Latin term verum/vero, which means, of course “truly.” Man is truly (vero) a worm (vermis).
So, in Genesis, “very good” surely means “truly good” for the reason that it seems so right for the God of truth to call his creation “truly good.” But then the Midrash goes and spoils it all by saying the reason why the completed creation is called “very good” is because without the evil inclination (lust), creation is incomplete. Rabbi Nachman (the Midrash above) is regarded as a sage, that is, an illustrious authority on the Oral Torah, without which the Written Torah is nothing but Bible stories2 that any six-year-old can understand (Rabbi Akiva Tatz). For this reason, when the Rabbi says that “very good” means “evil,” a good Jew takes notice and tries to make sense of it. If, however, this midrash is wrong, it would mean that Moses did not pass it on to the sages, for the simple reason that God did not say, “write ‘very good,’ but – wink wink – mean “evil inclination.”
God is, of course, sovereign not only over good but also over evil; and if He is sovereign over evil, He also creates it; which the scripture states clearly: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע Osê (I MAKE) shalom (PEACE) ooboray (AND CREATE) ra (EVIL)
And yet there is no evil in God. Is there a contradiction here? No, there’s only an apparent contradiction; a paradox. And as any Midrashic student will tell you,
“Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Quite a few are creative – and even daring, innovative and fascinating – inasmuch as they retell the stories by filling in the many gaps left in the biblical narrative with respect to certain events and personalities that were only hinted at. (Living with contradiction in the Midrash).
Have I contradicted myself by agreeing with the Midrash that God creates the “evil inclination?” Not at all. The Written Torah (I refer to Isaiah here) does indeed say:
“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil (רָע RA); I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, Mechon Mamre, Jewish translation)
(The New International Version pussyfoots around by translating RA as “disaster.” Bad weather?).
If you’re a Written Torah “onlyist,” (Sola scriptura) you are compelled to come to grips with (morally) difficult texts such as “I create evil” (Isaiah 45:7) and “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19b). Yet most (Jewish and Christian “Sola scripturists”) try and wheedle their way out of these hard texts which seem to show God as immoral. If, however, you’re an Oral Torah “mostlyist,” you have a embarrassment of (revealed?) choices; indeed of contrary choices, which in Oral Torah are not considered contradictory choices; how so, I cannot fathom. To wit:
“Rabbi Yannai (early third century CE) said: Words of Torah were not given as clear-cut decisions (hatikhin), but with every utterance (or, command) that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses, he communicated forty-nine arguments (literally, faces) (by which a thing may be proved) pure, and forty-nine arguments (by which it may be proved) impure. He (Moses) said before Him: Master of the universe, how long until we shall know the clear sense of the rule (biruro shel davar)? He (God) said to him: “Follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2). When a majority declares it impure it is impure; when a majority declares it pure, it is pure” my emphasis).
When words have multiple/plural meanings they are called polysemic (Greek “many meanings). What does one call a multiple of multiple pure and impure meanings of one word/phrase? Multiple polysemichosis?
So there we have it from the Serpent’s mouth: God in the Oral Torah is not a theocracy but a democracy. In such as scheme, all covenants consist of mutual agreement between He who chooses – for the sole reason that “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy – and those whom he chooses.
The rabbis say that God chose the Jewish people because they, among all peoples, were created out of divine stuff, and so are a “piece of God above.” Indeed, the Lord of Lords may sometimes need to seek out Oral Torah (via the sages) for guidance, or, failing that, study the Oral Torah (His? mind) for Himself to try and discover the reason for all the disagreements over divine revelation among His messengers. The Sovereign Endless Lord, did not reckon with the Book of Zohar, which the sages say emanate from Heaven.
The Book of Zohar (part of the Oral Torah) has a different meaning every day. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim [The Banner of the Camp of Ephraim], Portion: Bo [Come], p 84
The Written Torah has been truly cooked. Raw deal?