Monday, September 1, 2008

TSBP/Oral Torah issues Part II

I am still looking through the issues raised in the previous post, but I think my issue stems from a very basic question:

Why have the Oral Torah at all?

What is the point of having all these additional rules that are not specifically included in the most popular rule book in the history of the world, The Torah (Written Torah, aka 5 books of Moses)?

It can't be, as some suggest, that then the Torah would would be ambiguous, because the Oral Torah has just as much of a chance of being ambiguous. Plus you then have the issue of why God can't write an unambiguous book.

If it was to keep it from the general world population by passing it from person to person, then you have to wonder why God wanted these parts hidden from the non-Jewish population while sharing the Torah. If that is the reason, why not just make the entire Torah inaccessible to non-Jews? Are we hiding something?

Like the old kids party game of telephone, you know the message is going to get screwed up over the years. So it was inevitable that at some point the Oral Torah was written down since the Jews were losing the details. Couldn't God foresee this and just forget the whole Oral Torah idea and write it all down?

Finally, by having a chunk of the rules passed down through word of mouth, you increase the chances of some Jews keeping different rules than others. Wouldn't God want us all following the same set of rules?

If we are worried about the length of the Torah if all the rules are included, couldn't we just get rid of all the geneology stuff that seems pretty superfluous? Or maybe we could get rid of things that are repeated more than once.


Garnel Ironheart said...

I think you're forgetting a few very important points:

1) The concept of an authoritative oral tradition is not unique to Judaism but in a world obsessed with written contracts, it has become an anarchronism. However, it's worth nothing that, even today, the British Empire's constitution is unwritten and relies completely on oral tradition.
2) You're confusing a constitution with civil/criminal codes of law. For example, the United States Constitution is only a few pages long, but it is the foundation of all the laws in the country. Indeed, since any law passed must be constitutional it must find a hint at its relevance somewhere in that original document. But if one watches legal behaviour in the state when it comes to deciding whether something is constitutional or not, especially when new issues that could not have been anticipated in 1776 arise, lawyers and judges try to divine what the "intent" of the founding fathers was. Is that intent written down anywhere? No, it's an oral tradition.

Thus we come to the structure of the Torah. The Written Torah is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive legal code. It's the constitution of the Jewish people. The origianl Oral Law was the civil/criminal code based on that constitution. As a result, the Oral Law is much longer than the Written Law because it has to go into detail in various legal situations while the Written Law can afford to be brief.
For example, Shabbos. The Written Law forbids "melachah" but never defines the term but reading through the Torah it's quite clear melachah has a specific legal meaning, as opposed to other words like "avodah" or "meleches avodah". It's therefore up to the Oral Law to fully define the practical meaning of the constitutional term.
Why does the Oral Law have to be so long? Have you seen your local law books? I remember when I first saw the local Highway and Traffic Act when I was learning to drive. It was 100's of pages long. Whatever for? For all the vast and rare situations that come up and need to be dealt with consistently.
What people forget is that Judaism is not a religion, it's a nationality. Just as being Canadian is a nationality and to be a good Canadian means accepting the authority of the Canadian constitution and all the laws of the land, so too being a Jew requires accepting the Torah and its Codes.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I should also note that there are already Torah commentaries that deal with your concerns about repetitions and "needless genealogies". For example, the Ha'amek Davar of the Netziv is entirely devoted to showing how every word in the Torah is relevant and needed.
In addition, a good study of Gemara shows that our Chachamim already asked the question "If it says so HERE, why is it repeated THERE?" hundreds of times and came up with answers.

jewish philosopher said...

You want to know why God wrote the Torah the way that He did. What's the difference? This is the way He decided to do it.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> What's the difference? This is the way He decided to do it.

Sure, but that doesn't stop inquiring minds from wanting to know.

I guess that since I didn't get the "usual" Jewish education growing up, I never had to go through what Rich did. As a result, I never went through the frustrations he describes. After all, if I had a question I just went and found the answer. I didn't have to rely on someone who would just tell me "Shut up and don't ask questions" which seems to be the main reason so many people become disillusioned with the Torah lifestyle.

The real answer is that if one learns, I mean really learns the perushim on the Torah and goes through the Gemara the answers to pretty much all the existential questions are there. After all, are any of us so arrogant as to think that we're the first people to think of these issues? The problem seems to be that the standard Jewish educaiton doesn't do this but rather indoctrinates on a superficial basis which is fine for superficial people (I guess) but not for thinkers.

Rich, you haven't asked any bad, or even hard, questions yet. Take a step back and change one of your underlying assumptions, specifically: there are answers for your concerns, even if you're not aware that they exist or were never taught them. The issues you're having are not new and have lots of literature on them. Your task is to take the initiative and, assuming that the Torah is true, go and find those answers.

Joodah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joodah said...

This is a good and age-old question. Why leave the torah open for interpretation? why set up a dual law system; one that is written down and one that is passed down from generation to generation, only to be written down at a later date?

Here is my take on the subject:

The oral tradition, passed from G-d to Moses, and from moses to his disciples, the actual "semicha" from one rabbi to the next, was set up because Judaism is supposed to be a "living" religion. It is meant to be intellectually discussed, debated, argued and analyzed.

The 5 books of moses are supposed to be a law book that needs to be an immortal book that stands the test of time. In order to do that, it cannot be too specific, or risk clashing with a certain era. If the 5 books of Moses produced direct paradoxes to the jewish nation of a certain era of time, it would lose its credibility and eventually be lost, and along with it the Jewish nation.

The oral tradition was a way for the Jewish leadership, to apply the laws of the torah to the current era. to take the esoteric law system and apply it to their current age. Unfortunately, with the invasions of Babylonia and later Rome, forced the rabbis of those eras to write down their teachings to prevent them from being lost, but still, the analytical work never stopped. Even know, you have Bet Din's and rabbinates all over the Diaspora and israel who are doing their part in applying the oral tradition to our era.

The problem i see, and this is one of the major issues i have with Orthodox Judaism, is that since the Sanhedrin was disbanded, the Jewish community as a whole has fragmented into many different factions, so that the Syrian or Polish, or Russian, or African Jews will have very different interpretations of certain laws. The Rabbinate of our time has become so limited in what it can do with interpreting and applying the law to our era, that We have situations where all the rabbinate can do is make loopholes in order to get around specific laws. Many laws just don't make sense anymore, and new discoveries and hallachic challenges are arising that the rabbis of the Talmudic era never had to deal with. IMHO , Orthodox Judaism is dying a slow death. The cure is consolidating the different factions and forming a new governing law body, essentially a new Sanhedrin, that can Paskin a universal law that is accepted by all factions. I think most of the orthodox jews i know believe that this will probably never happen until the days of the messiah.

Garnel Ironheart said...

A good point. The other problem that dovetails with this is the lack of respect each group has for each other. For example, Ashkenazi chareidim tend to dismiss Sephardim, MO's, Mizrachi but even within the Chareidi community there are divisions such as chasidic vs misnagdic, Lubavitch vs everyone else. Instead of appreciating that there are a variety of ways to reach God within the framework of halachah, each group sees the others' approach as a sin.
Yeah, I'm waiting for Moshiach too.

cipher said...

Just as being Canadian is a nationality and to be a good Canadian means accepting the authority of the Canadian constitution and all the laws of the land, so too being a Jew requires accepting the Torah and its Codes.

Garnel, are you saying that a "Jew" who doesn't accept the Torah and its Codes is not, actually, a Jew?

Garnel Ironheart said...

No, reread the last paragraph carefully. Being a Jew, claiming association with the "Jewish people" comes with an obligation to follow Jewish law, just as calling oneself Canadian requires fealty to Canadian law (as well as saying "eh?" all the time).
The differences between Canada, for example, and Judaism are important though:
a) Canada has a police force and authoritative justice system to support enforcement of its laws. Judaism does not, excepting self-style modesty patrols who think they're God's policement.
b) Canadian law generally limits its impact on personal behaviour except when it infringes grossly on the rights of others, eg. zoning laws, assault, human rights claims, etc. Jewish law governs pretty much all behaviours which is something that can seem pretty invasive from a secular perspective.

But just as a Canadian who breaks Canadian law remains a citizen, so a Jew who doesn't live according to Jewish law still remains very much a Jew. Hopefully that's clearer.

cipher said...

OK, thanks. I couldn't imagine that was what you were trying to say.

Recently, a Satmar kid told me that if I don't follow Jewish law (Hareidi-style), I'm not a Jew - however, I'll still go to Gehinnom for not following Jewish law! (It didn't make sense to me, either.)

Rich Perkins said...

i'll be offline for a few days as I take a break from work and the daily routines of life :)

I'll be back next week hopefuly all refreshed.

Garnel Ironheart said...

hey Cipher,
I'm glad I clarified it okay. I'm sorry about miscommunicating before.
Anyway, while Rich is off, why don't we ransack his blog and put up bawdy ads to surprise him when he gets back?

As for the Satmar and Gehinnom, God decides where we go. All we can do is make an educated guess and I don't guess about things like that.

cipher said...

Anyway, while Rich is off, why don't we ransack his blog and put up bawdy ads to surprise him when he gets back?

I think he has enough problems!

David said...

"You want to know why God wrote the Torah the way that He did. What's the difference? This is the way He decided to do it."


Wow! If all the Gedolei Yisroel had your driving intellectual curiosity, then Orthodoxy would be... well, I guess right about where it is.

cipher said...

Wow! If all the Gedolei Yisroel had your driving intellectual curiosity, then Orthodoxy would be... well, I guess right about where it is.

HA! Good comeback!

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