By Dr. Michael Brown
Whether you are a religious Jewish person or not, it is clear that all modern forms of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform, are based upon the idea that two Torahs were given on Mount Sinai–one written and the other oral. Eventually, the oral Torah was written down, codified, commented upon and passed along to future generations of Jewish people and became known as the Talmud–the judgments and interpretations of our Sages.
All Jewish people today – whether religious or not – generally participate in Jewish religious life by engaging both biblical truth and the traditions passed along by our rabbis. It is impossible to practice normative Judaism without relating to Jewish tradition. But we should ask the question, “Does Jewish tradition carry the same weight and religious authority as the Bible?”
This might be something that many of our Jewish people take for granted, but have you ever considered the implications of this way of thinking about God and our relationship to Him as Jews?
What do you think about Jewish tradition and Scripture? This is the significant subject addressed by Dr. Michael Brown in the following article.
If you are an observant Jew, then the rabbinic traditions are very important to you. After all, without the traditions, there would be no such thing as traditional Judaism!
For you, these traditions are your direct connection to Sinai, and you believe that you stand at the end of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Moses, who, you claim, received both an Oral and a Written Torah from HaShem. For you, these traditions are essential, telling you how to keep the commandments, how to understand the Scriptures, and how to live your life before the Lord. Without these traditions you would feel lost.
As explained by Dr. Immanuel Jakobovitz, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom:
“When our Sages asserted that ‘the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not make His covenant with Israel except by virtue of the Oral Law’ (Gittin 60b), they not only propounded a cardinal Jewish belief, they also expressed a truth as evident today as it was in Talmudic times. The true character of Judaism cannot be appreciated except by an intimate acquaintance with the Oral Law. The Written Law, that is, the Five Books of Moses, and even the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we share with other faiths. What makes us and our faith distinct and unique is the oral tradition as the authentic key to an understanding of the written text we call the Torah.”1
But is this really true? Did God actually make His covenant with Israel based on the Oral Law? If you will study the evidence – rationally, logically, and carefully – you will find that, to the contrary, God made His covenant with our people based on the written Word alone, and it is that Word – the written Tanakh – that must be our guide for faith and life.
Obviously, it would take several large volumes to cover every possible question and answer every possible objection, but I will present some foundational truths from the Scriptures, and as you continue to research the matter for yourself, these truths will lead to one inescapable conclusion: It is the Tanakh rather than the Talmud and the rabbinic traditions that must be followed if we are to be totally faithful to the Lord.
What does the Torah itself teach? It teaches that: 1) God gave Moses His commands and laws; 2) Moses wrote down in a book every-thing the Lord said to him; 3) Moses read the words of that book to the people; and 4) based on the words of that book, the covenant was made. Read the key verses for yourself: Exodus 24:3-4, 7-8; 34:27; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; see also Deuteronomy 27:1-8. It was this Book of the Law (sefer torah) that was to be read by the king (Deuteronomy 17:18-20), and Israel would be judged based on what was written in this book (Deuteronomy 28:58; 30:10).
That’s why God told Joshua not to let the Book of the Law depart from his lips (Joshua 1:8), and that’s why every single reference in the Bible to the Torah or the teaching of Moses refers to what is written. Where is the Oral Torah? It simply is not there.
Consider the evidence for yourself: Every single time the Hebrew Bible refers to “the law/teaching of Moses” (torat mosheh) it is referring to the written Torah (see Joshua 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 23:25; Malachi 3:22; Daniel 9:11, 13; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Nehemiah 8:1; 2 Chronicles 23:18; 30:16; 34:14) – every single time! Conversely, there is not one time in the entire Hebrew Bible where someone is rebuked or punished for breaking “the law of Moses” when it does not refer to the written Torah. Not a single time! If someone was indicted for breaking “the Torah of Moses,” or if reference was made to “the Torah of Moses,” it meant one thing and one thing only: the written Torah. And it was that written Torah that our forefathers were called to keep. Why then do some put such an emphasis on the Oral Torah, claiming that without it, one cannot understand what is written?
The phrase sefer torah (“Book of the Law”) occurs twenty times in the Tanakh, while there are no references whatsoever to an Oral Torah (torah she-be‘al peh) in the entire Tanakh. As for the supposed hints to the Oral Torah within the Scriptures, all of them can be easily explained. What then will you follow: the sure and certain testimony of the written Word, or the traditions of men, no matter how beautiful those traditions might be?
In many cases, the Talmudic interpretation of the Scriptures contradicts the plain sense of the Torah. For a famous example, see B. Bava Metzia 59b, which changes the meaning of the end of Exodus 23:2. If you are a student of the Talmud, you know that this is common, even in legal interpretations; see, e.g., B. Berachot 2 a-b, where the word vetaher in Leviticus 22:7 is misinterpreted. In other cases, the Talmud makes the Torah laws void, as seen in the well-known rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 in B. Sanhedrin 71a, where it is taught that the Torah commandment was never observed and, in fact, never meant to be observed. On what basis, then, will you follow human traditions when those traditions overrule the Word of God?
The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, taught in his introduction to the Mishnah that the rabbinic traditions were to be followed even if they contradicted the plain, grammatical sense of the Torah and even if a prophet of God confirmed that the plain, grammatical sense of the Torah was correct (using Deuteronomy 25:11-12 as his example). So, the written Word, confirmed by a prophet, has less authority than the rabbinic traditions! Add to this the Talmudic teaching in B. Bava Metzia 59b (cited above, and based on a wrong interpretation of Exodus 23:2) that states that even divine miracles and a voice from heaven cannot overrule the majority opinion of the rabbis, and you realize just how extreme this position really is.
Which, then, will you follow? The written Word or the traditions of men? When you stand before God, what will you say? A word to the wise is sufficient (vehamaskil yavin).
1. Foreword to H. Chaim Schimmel, The Oral Law: A Study of the Rabbinic Contribution to Torah She-be-al-Peh (2nd, rev. ed.; Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1996), n.p.