Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Getting a Read on the Oral Torah: An Ongoing Dialogue with Tim Hegg (Part 1)

"One does not read oral Torah," --Tim Hegg, from Oral Torah and The Seat of Moses: A Response

Your interpretation of Matthew 23 affects your entire way of life.  

If you read Yeshua's "do and observe" as an endorsement of oral Torah then you might find yourself seeking out rabbinic halacha--either as an advisory opinion (as to the nature and substance of oral Torah) or as a mandatory authority to be followed in its own right.   If, on the other hand, you read Yeshua's statement as merely an endorsement of written Torah then you will have little interest in searching out rabbinic halacha for normative value.

Hegg seems to take the latter position.

His exegesis of Matthew 23 depends upon a single keystone argument that could be articulated as follows:

Premise 1:  Yeshua commanded His disciples to obey the Scribes
Premise 2:  However, the Scribes were merely transmitters of the written Torah and not the oral Torah
Conclusion:  Therefore, Yeshua's command was for His disciples to obey the written Torah (not the oral Torah as some claim)

[Let's skip the rather glaring exegetical omission that Yeshua also said to obey the Pharisees--a group that was indisputably known for its adherence to an oral type of Law in addition to the written Law]

And so I challenged this argument, citing to Nehemiah 8 in which the Levites (Scribes) went around giving the sense of the Torah so that people understood what it meant ("sechel vayabinu").  Now, I didn't go into a deep exegesis because the logical and textual proofs for the oral Torah are widely known.  However, sechel (wisdom) and understanding (binah) are associated with the process of turning mitzvot into halacha (i.e. the process of oral Torah):

"Only the LORD give thee wisdom and understanding [sechel ubinah], and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the LORD thy God," 1 Ch. 22:12.

Hegg, however, in exegeting Neh. 8:7-8 focuses on three things (1) the connection between Scribes and "writing"; (2) the term mephorash which "may well mean to 'divide the text into sections,' that is, reading a section, then making sure the people understood the meaning of what was said"--meaning that the Scribes were purely concerned with presenting the text itself to their audience; (3) the fact that "One does not read oral Torah."  In short, he argues that the Scribes were strictly concerned with presenting the written Torah and not any sort of oral explication of the Torah.


First, how can one understand (binah) the written Torah without an oral Tradition?  If the written Torah is perfect then it must either contain no ambiguity or come with a tradition to resolve that ambiguity.  However, it does contain ambiguities as to how one should put into practice--how one operationalizes--various commandments (e.g. tzitzit, totafot, ritual slaughter, Shabbat, etc).  David Stern writes:
"The common Christian idea that Judaism became 'degenerate' because human tradition was added to God's Law is mistaken.  The five books of Moses have rightly been called the constitution of the Jewish nation, but a nation needs more than a constitution.  There could never have been a time when tradition of some sort was not a necessary adjunct to the written Torah -- for the written Torah simply does not contain all the laws and customs needed to run a nation.
      For this there is evidence even in the Pentateuch.  Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 12:21 that the people of Israel could slaughter animals 'as I have commanded you,' but no commands concerning how to slaughter are found anywhere in the written Torah.  Something external is implied--legislation, tradition, an oral Torah.  God could announce his will from heaven whenever uncertainty arises, but this not his normal means of guidance either in the Old Testament or in the New.  Nothing in the Bible suggests that God opposes accumulating knowledge and experience or creating guidelines and rules,
"  pg. 148 of Messianic Jewish Manifesto by David Stern
Therefore, the Scribes must've known some sort of proto-oral Torah in order to "give the sense so the people could understand" (sechel vayabinu).  

Second, we have examples where the Tanak refers to serious consequences for violating prohibitions that do not exist anywhere in the written Torah!  Consider that in the book of Jeremiah (17:21-27) the L-rd says that He will destroy Jerusalem if the People of Israel violate the prohibition against carrying burdens on Shabbat.  But where is this command to be found in the written Torah prior to the writing of the book of Jeremiah?  

The inescapable conclusion is that G-d entrusted His Scribes with something beyond the written Torah.  There must have been an oral Torah.  

Many thanks to Mr. Hegg for engaging in this dialogue.  I look forward to your response.

Shalom and Blessings to the Torah Resource Staff,


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