Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rabbinic Basis for "Core" Oral Tradition and Answering the Question "Did Rambam Really Believe the Oral Torah was Given in its Entirety at Sinai?"

Before I do a separate post to answer Rob Roy's question, I wanted to share some random musings from today.  In no particular order:

Earlier today came across an article written by Rabbi Dr. Meir Triebitz that uses my terminological distinction of "core" Oral Torah (How dare he!  Just kidding):

"In summary, laws derived through biblical exegesis comprise of two categories: 
1. A core set of laws received from Sinai, which were transmitted throughout history, undisputed and unchanging. 
2. Laws that were part of an evolutionary process, which derive their divine status from man’s divinely empowered intellect," Rabbi Dr. Meir Triebitz, "Maimonides' Philosophy of the Evolutionary Structure of Jewish Law and of Natural Processes, pg. 146

Pleased to find that another mind found this terminological distinction useful.

Another random thought from today:

People who bash the rabbis and Jewish tradition tend to focus their attack on Rambam by claiming that Rambam absurdly argues that all Oral Torah comes from Sinai.  That's not really an accurate description of Rambam's view since Rambam in addition to saying, "The mitzvot given to Moses at Mount Sinai were all given together with their explanations..." also said "It also includes marvelous judgments and laws which were not received from Moses, but rather were derived by the courts of the [later] generations based on the principles of Biblical exegesis," (both quotes from Introduction to Mishneh Torah).

To repeat, Rambam explicitly says that there are laws which were not received from Moses at Sinai.

Also, Exodus Rabbah says this:
R' Abbahu said: All the forty days that Moses was on high, he kept on forgetting the Torah he learnt. He then said: 'Lord of the Universe, I have spent forty days, yet I know nothing.' What did God do? At the end of the forty days, He gave him the Torah as a gift, for it says, AND HE GAVE UNTO MOSES. Could then Moses have learnt the whole Torah? Of the Torah it says: The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea (Job 11:9); could then Moses have learnt it all in forty days? No; but it was only the principles thereof which God taught Moses," Exodus Rabbah 41:6.
Back to Rambam... Aren't his statements contradictory?

On a literal level, they are most certainly contradictory.  But let's assume that Rambam was not a moron and that what he meant was that he believed the later rabbinic traditions should be regarded as though they have the authority of explanatory traditions that Moses received at Sinai.

Now it should definitely be pointed out at this point that NOT EVERYONE AGREED WITH RAMBAM on this idea that the later rabbinic traditions should be accorded with the status of Sinaitic authority:
 "Here we have the classic difference of opinion between these two giants of halakhah as to the source of rabbinical authority.  According to Maimonides, the command 'You shall not turn aside' implies acceptance by the jew of (1) the traditional (Masoretic) text of the scriptures, (2) the laws deduced from scripture by the thirteen hermeneutical rules of R. Ishmael (shelosh-esreh middot she-ha-Torah nidreshet bahem), and (3) the decrees (gezerot), ordinances (takkanot), and customs (minhagim) instituted by the sages.  Nachmanides regards the first two categories only as included in the biblical injunction.  Laws which are of rabbinical origin are not, in his view, enforceable by the same sanctions as those expressly stated in or directly derived from the Torah," pg. 425 of The Mitzvot by Abraham Chill.
In my opinion, people put too much emphasis on what Rambam said about the origins of Jewish Tradition.  What really matters is not what authority Rambam thinks Jewish Tradition has but rather what authority Jewish Tradition actually has.

There's basically 2 types of authority:  mandatory and advisory.  I see rabbinic authority as advisory.  McKee also seems to agree with me.  McKee says that the rabbis have "consultative" authority (LINK).   To accord the rabbis this level of authority, one is forced to defend the rabbis against attackers (like the Israeli gentlemen in the infamous VIDEO).  How does one defend the rabbis against such attackers?  Here's just a few examples of how McKee does it:
"Cranfield (and various others) goes on to conclude, though, that Yeshua rejected all of the Oral Torah as just human tradition.  Yet, those who are engaged in more targeted Jewish New Testament studies might not draw such a broad proposition, and instead emphasize that more case-by-case or issue-by-issue specificity is needed.  Vs. 9-13 following especially emphasize the sort of Jewish tradition that Yeshua the Messiah was radically opposed to, which nullified clear Torah commandments,"  McKee, Messianic Kosher Helper, pg. 361. 
"[Yeshua's] condemnation of these kinds of traditions, where the high ethical imperatives of God's Torah were subverted, does not all of a sudden mean that there were not various, mainline Jewish customs and traditions observed by Yeshua and His Apostles," McKee, Messianic Kosher Helper, pg. 363. 
"The Mishnah certainly records the history and procedure of how things were done in the Temple and much of the halachah that Yeshua and the Apostles would have been exposed to in Judea. The Mishnah is an invaluable historical resource that gives us much insight into how the Torah was followed in the First Century, and there are many good, wisdom sayings in it," McKee, The Role of History in Messianic Biblical Interpretation.
So that's an example of a defense of the rabbis from a man who must love the rabbis on some level.  Now here's an example of an attack from the aforementioned video which shows nothing but hatred for the rabbis and Jewish Tradition (the following is a transcription based on the subtitles in the video):

"After the destruction of the second Temple, while there was no priesthood, alter or sacrifices, the Sages had to find a new way through which they will be able to transfer and preserve the power to their hands exclusively, so Judaism can operate even without the Temple.  In other words, they had to invent a new Torah (Law) all together.  And so they did. They called the new law they invented the 'Oral Law.'  

This law gave them, the rabbis, the power and the control over all religious and social aspects of the People of Israel.  And in order to convince the people of Israel in this new law, the rabbis claimed, and still claim to this day, that what they call the 'Oral Law' was actually given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  The Rambam, for example, at the beginning of his introduction to the Mishna, claimed that Moses knew the entire 'Oral Law' by heart, and that he impart it to the wise men and to all the people.  It sounds nice, but the truth is that four times in the Pentateuch, Moses himself did not know to give an answer in regards to the commandments.  In each of these times, Moses turned with the question to God and waited for His answer.  That means, that despite Rambam's claim, Moses did not receive an 'Oral Law' with complete and detailed explanation regarding the implementation of all the laws of the entire Torah.  

Obviously, 'Oral Law' was never given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  The Old Testament testifies very clearly that God's covenant with the people of Israel was based only on the written Torah, that HE commanded Moses to write.  In Exodus 34:27, God commands Moses:  'Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.'  No other law is mentioned.  No 'Oral Law', or of tradition, unwritten that was supposedly transferred by word-of-mouth.  But the Sages tried to force us to think that the 'Oral Law' was indeed included.

They invented a teaching, and according to it, when God says 'for in accordance with these words', 'accordance with' actually means 'on the lips'.  But, as we know, not in biblical Hebrew and not in modern Hebrew, 'in accordance with' does not mean 'on the lips', but it means 'in accordance with'...'in accordance with these words...'  And on that, we expended in a clip about the teachings that the Sages invented.

There is no doubt that the Talmud is an impressive compilation.  2.5 million words in 63 historical books which are full with human knowledge, with arguments between wise men and with Jewish folklore of culture and tradition.  But there is no historical or biblical base whatsoever to the idea that the 'Oral Law' was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  The contrary is true.  

If an 'Oral Law' did exist, the kind that was given to Moses by God, you would expect to read about it hundreds if not thousands of times throughout the Old Testament.  But neither God nor Moses, ever mentioned the term 'Oral Law.'  Not even Joshua, Moses' successor, or Ezra the writer or any other Prophet in the Old Testament, ever mentioned the term 'Oral Law'.  In the Old Testament, no king or Prophet in Israel ever implied or spoke about Moses, as if God gave him an 'Oral Law'.  If an 'Oral Law' actually existed, it wasn't a part of God's covenant with Israel.  If it did exist, it probably wasn't of much interest to anyone.  After all, in the Old Testament, no prophet, priest or king ever speak about or even mention an 'Oral Law'.  None of them has ever expressed any interest or desire to know or to obey any sort of 'Oral Law'.  In other words, based on what is actually written in the Old Testament, there has never been and was never created an 'Oral Law' that was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai by God.  'Oral Law' is a myth, invented by the rabbis, in order to give themselves the power and the control.

The expression 'The Book of Law' appears countless times throughout the Old Testament, while, and as we said before, even that you would expect to find the term thousands of times, there is not even one appearance in the entire Old Testament of the term 'Oral Law'.  Actually, a mentioning of the term 'Oral Law' does not even appear in any place outside of the Old Testament, but all of a sudden, it appeared for the very first time, close to 1,500 years after the time of Moses!  

Rabbi Mordechai Noigreshel, claims about the 'Oral Law' that it is passed on from generation to generation, continually throughout history.  But in the book of Joshua, God turns to Joshua Ben-Nun and appoints him as a leader.  In Joshua 1:8, God says to Joshua:  'This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.  For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.'  Interesting right?

God is saying to Joshua, that he should do everything that is written in the Book of Law.  God is not saying anything or even implying anything in regards to any existence of an 'Oral Law' that was passed on to him from Moses.  Therefore, already since the beginning, we see that unbreakable historical continuity did not exist at all.  But we should mention, that wise men traditions and commandments are occasionally mentioned in the Old Testament, but always in a negative way.  

For example, in Amos 5:21, God says to the people of Israel:  'I hate, I despise your feasts...'  Or in Isaiah 29:13 God says to Israel:   'And the Lord said:  'Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men...'  God is expressing His anger with the people of Israel, because they follow commandments made by man, exactly as it is happening today with the 'Oral Law', that the rabbis invented, so they can have the power and the control over all of you.  

But the most evident proof actually comes from Ethiopia.  The Jews of Ethiopia came back to Israel after 2,000 years in exile.   These Jews did not recognize the authority or the power of the rabbis, they did not recognize the rabbinical traditions, and they have never heard of the rabbis invention of the 'Oral Law'.    Interesting right?  They, who lived in Israel over 2,000 years ago, and just now returned, do not recognize the existence of an 'Oral Law'.  Is that surprising to you?  Not to us.  This is just another proof for the fact that the 'Oral Law' was never given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but was invented by the Sages, so that Judaism can continue to exist without the Temple and without the Messiah that they rejected."


Why's that hateful?  Because it paints the rabbis as conniving and manipulative and power hungry.  Because it states that all man-made tradition is wrong and that G-d only has negative things to say about Jewish Traditions in the Tanak.  Let's be honest:  this is an all-out, hateful assault on Jewish Tradition.


  1. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 10, 2015 at 8:31 PM

    Peter, please,
    You keep making the case that the authority of the rabbis is just advisory and not mandatory, and their decisions must be set aside when the contradict Scripture. I would, however, like very much for you to list concrete examples of this. Also, I'd question you whether you don't think that a differentiation should be made, so that you could just say that their authority is mandatory when not contradicting Scripture - although I do see that this may mean exactly what you want to say when you say advisory.

  2. Hovav,

    The reason why they can't have deontic (i.e. mandatory) authority is because they command people to reject Yeshua as the Messiah.

    An example of rabbinic traditions that overturn Scriptural commands is ritual handwashing (Matt 15 and Mark 7). In this example, we see that Yeshua criticized the ritual handwashing because it was based on a rabbinic purity model that directly contradicted the Biblical purity model. For more see Yair Furstenberg, Defilement Penetrating the Body []

    Are there other such instances? Yes. In fact Yeshua says in Matthew 15:13:

    "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

    So there are many rabbinic traditions that contradict Scripture.

    On the other hand, Yeshua kept many traditions. So we have to assume that there are plenty of Jewish traditions that are necessary and good.

    As a movement we'll have to identify which traditions are necessary for operationalizing the mitzvot. I expect we'll have this halacha within the next 10 years. That's my hope anyway.

    Have I answered your question?

  3. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 11, 2015 at 5:52 AM

    Yes you did. Thank you. However I don't see it the same way. When it comes to the belief in the Messiah it has nothing to do with Halacha per se - but I do see what you mean and agree on this.

    However, I really don't think Yeshua was against handwashing, and I really don't see how this could be against Torah. I do think the problem was making a rabbinc enactment (actually the judaitic idea of purity for everyday life) as important as and as overriding the commandment.

    Maybe one day I could explain better how I see this issues, but I think that the tradition x Torah is NOT a halachic matter but a living matter, a priority matter. A priori it is possible to be a complete observant orthodox jew and be a disciple of Mashiach, the problem is much more about attitude than halacha.

  4. Peter,

    I have to say that I find the transcript of the video encouraging. Yes, maybe they come down exceedingly hard on the rabbis, but we see the same over-exuberance on the part of many non-Jew Messianics and their attitudes toward Christendom and its theology.

    In truth, Judaism NEEDS to closely evaluate its traditions in the exact same way Christendom NEEDS to re-evaluate everything!

    In the 'Hebrew roots'/non-Jewish Messianic community there are extreme voices and it is part of the course adjustment. We should not be surprised or alarmed at similar extreme voices in the Judaic camp. Particularly since these are their own voices. I see this as the natural outworking of a public discussion, much like the Messianic blogosphere.

    Do I believe that there is some need for clarity/understanding on some commandments that are not spelled out? Sure, but, I also believe that the 'wiggle room' in understanding that our Father leaves is intentional such that we do have some freedom to interpret and adjust from generation to generation and place to place.

    A question I have, re: Ps. 119:44-45, is: Does the Talmud bring liberty, or does it bind?

    Just my 2¢.

  5. James,

    Keep in mind where it says:

    "5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

    If the Pharisees believed that some of the disciples performed netilat yadayim then they would've had to say "Why is that only some of your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders...?"

    But instead, having every indication that all the disciples rejected netilat yadayim, they said "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition...?"

    By itself, the fact that the Pharisees saw some of the disciples eating with "defiled" hands merely indicates that some of the disciples were eating at that time.

    However, even if some disciples did perform netilat yadayim up until that day, Yeshua instructed them going forward that netilat yadayim was based on a competing system of purity that actually overturned the Biblical system. If you ritually wash your hands prior to eating you are communicating that you believe that this is the way to avoid transferring impurity from your hands to your food to your body. Yeshua rejected that type of thinking by saying, "Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them." Do you see that the rabbis said the opposite? They said that eating with "defiled" hands brought defilement upon the body.

    Given that Yeshua rejected the rabbinic model of purity--and rejected it so vehemently--it's unlikely that He would've permitted His disciples to perform netilat yadayim.

  6. Hovav Ben Avraham AvinuJanuary 11, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    I think the problem is that you equate what Yeshua was against with the rabbinic model of purity.

    There was no rabbinical model of purity - there were models. Maybe he was objecting to one of them that was expressed in the washing of hands there.
    We know this system is no longer in force in what became rabbincal judaism (but is known to be adopted by what the rabbis later called Haverim).
    The practice is still there, yes sure, but maybe the idea has changed.

  7. Maybe one day I could explain better how I see this issues, but I think that the tradition x Torah is NOT a halachic matter but a living matter, a priority matter. A priori it is possible to be a complete observant orthodox jew and be a disciple of Mashiach, the problem is much more about attitude than halacha.

    It can't be a matter of attitude, as some of the traditions are considered to be neglecting the commandments of God, however it could be a matter of priority, meaning don't let the traditions, have a higher priority than God's commandments.