5766 - #28


Throughout Jewish history, a major source of theological dissension within the Jewish People concerned the belief in the Torah She'b'al Peh, the Oral Torah. The Sadducees and the Karaites both challenged its existence. Fundamental, though, to Pharisaic/Rabbinic/Orthodox Judaism - depending on which term one may wish to use --  is the belief in Torah She'b'al Peh,1 also given on Sinai with the Torah She'b'ktav, the Written Torah. Simply, a distinguishing aspect of Orthodoxy is the belief that Revelation did not solely consist of a written text but included an accompanying body of Divine knowledge to be passed on orally.2 For various reasons, even to this day,3 this belief has always been an area of great controversy, challenged both within the Jewish world and outside of it.
        In response to these many challenges, proofs are often presented, from the written text itself, in support of the necessary existence of an Oral Torah. These various proof texts demonstrate the impossibility of understanding the written text without some commentary or explanation.4 The problem is that those who opposed Torah She'b'al Peh never really negated the necessity of a commentary and explanation for the Biblical text or do they necessarily reject a reality of an oral tradition. It was, and is,Chazal's, the Rabbis', specific understanding of the oral tradition that was, and is, under attack...and not without reason. Torah She'b'al Peh does not just explain the text. It fundamentally redefines Revelation,5  the nature of the tradition and the text itself.
        In technical terms, one usually finds two critiques of Chazal's presentation of Torah She'b'al Peh. One attack was that the parameters delineated by the Rabbinic view of the oral tradition limited possible understandings of the Biblical text. Torah She'b'al Peh is limiting; its rules and statements, almost by definition, reject variant possible meanings of the text. In contrast, Karaite commentaries on the text reflect a wide tolerance toward different readings of the text; in fact, Karaite theology actually called upon each individual to find personal understanding and meaning within the text. To the Karaite, the only parameters on understanding were one's own unique individuality and, of course, the text itself. Finding one's own personal understanding of the Bible, the Karaites argued, was what God wished each person to achieve. The Rabbinic Torah She'b'al Peh, with its strict parameters on textual analysis and meaning, undermined this.
       This, however, was only a secondary irritant for the Karaites. Another problem with Torah She'b'al Peh was that it seemed to override the text. While Karaism offered tremendous flexibility in the interpretation of the text, it still demanded full loyalty to the text. They still demanded that the meaning fit the words. An acceptance of Torah She'b'al Peh demands of one to understand the text's meaning pursuant to Torah She'b'al Peh regardless of what the text actually says,. It is Chazal's words that are paramount, not the text.
   An excellent example of this is Bamidbar 12:1 which describes Miriam and Aharon discussing the Cushite woman that Moshe took. Rashi, voicing the thoughts of Chazal, states that this reference is to Tzipora and concerns Moshe's separation from relations with her. This is clearly not the simple reading of the text.6 While Chazal;s reading of the text can be worked into the text,7 such workings are always a bit strained. This is not because these presentations lack merit; as can be expected, there is always great wisdom in the workings to connect Torah She'b'al Peh to Torah She'k'ktav. Powerful insights into the language of the text also often emerge. The difficulty is that, while usually in textual analysis, the text is paramount, an acceptance of Torah She'b'al Peh declares the explanation paramount.  In the normative study of texts, we read the text and try to explain its meaning. In reading Torah She'b'ktav with Torah She'b'al Peh, we declare what the meaning is and try to show how it fits into the words. Miriam and Aharon are talking about Tzipora; the challenge is to figure out how the text is conveying this message. And the reality is that, without such directive, one would never offer such an understanding based solely on the text itself.
This is precisely the problem for so many people. The text is seen as being overridden by the Rabbis; isn't our faith in the Divine text and not the human rabbis? Torah She'b'al Peh basically declares that our trust must ultimately be in the transmission of the thoughts of Chazal and not even the text. This, of course, is not to say that the origin of the text is not Divine. Orthodoxy clearly believes in the Divine origin of the text. But what Orthodoxy ultimately is declaring is that the understanding of this text, in fact our fundamental link to Sinai, is not through the text but the human transmission of the Rabbis. The result can perhaps be summed up by the famous words of Hillel in T.B. Shabbat 31a: "If you are to rely upon me to explain the letters to you,  rely upon me as to the truth of Torah She'b'al Peh." Ultimately truth flows from person to person even in regard to the nature of a certain text. The call ofTorah She'b'al Peh is to recognize this simple fact and to accept the ultimate authority of the human chain of Sinai.
The acceptance of this principle may, indeed, be daunting. We are so immersed in the concept of the Divine origin of the Bible that we may be somewhat at odds with a concept that challenges the paramount nature of the text. We also may find it difficult to accept Divine significance to that which may be tainted by human fallibility. Yet, as Hillel points out, even the acceptance of Torah She'b'ktavsuffers these weaknesses. The text is only seen as holy because one was informed as such by another person. The authenticity of this text, furthermore, is also dependent upon the human diligence extended in protecting it. The daunting nature of this principle, though, may actually emerge from another concern A commitment to a text, while limiting to some extent, also presents much freedom of expression. A text cannot respond to us, critique us, direct us. To declare the human link to Sinai to be paramount is to declare that knowledge of tradition most flow through the human being, which for any person means his/her teacher. It is a sad fact of our generation that we lack in the development of therebbi-talmid, teacher-student, relationship. To accept Torah She'b'al Peh  demands an acceptance of the need for a teacher -- a living human being who can relay  the truth of Torah, respond to us, critique us, direct us. To accept Torah She'b'al Peh means to accept such direction. This indeed can be daunting.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  While people usually quote Rambam's Eighth Principle of Faith (as found in his Commentary to the Mishna, Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek, Introduction) in regard to the necessary belief in Sinai as the source of the Written Torah, Rambam clearly includes the Oral Torah in this principle, both in regard to its origin and its accuracy, at least in regard to matters clearly enunciated at Sinai.
(2)  The exact nature of Torah She'b'al Peh is a matter of discussion within the commentators. See, further, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Forum: Torah She'b'al Peh, Nishma Journal VI.
(3)  Upon reflection, many of the modern issues between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, in fact, do parallel the historical disagreements regarding the relationship of the text and the tradition. I thankMichael Schweitzer for this insight.
(4)  A classic example of this is Devarim 12:21. See, further,Rashi, Ramban and the comments of Rabbi J.H. Hertz.
(5)  See, for example, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, The Cloud of Revelation, Nishma Introspection 5763-1.
(6)  Even within the Rabbinic tradition, see the comments of Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor on this verse.
(7)  Rashi, in fact, does do so, to some extent. See,  also and perhaps more extensively, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch..Further on this general point, see Kuzari 3:41 which, in the context of a general discussion and critique of Karaism, explains how the Rabbinic understanding of the count of 7 weeks leading up toShavuot fits into the text. Bottom line, Orthodoxy also insists that Torah She'b'al Peh or the meaning of the text connect with Torah She'b'ktav. The question is how.

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