Friday, January 2, 2015

The Full Dialogue with Vanhoff as of 1/2/2015

The following is a dialogue between myself and Rob Vanhoff regarding the question of whether David Stern was correct to assert that an oral tradition has always been a "necessary adjunct" to the written Torah.  I take Stern's position; Vanhoff takes the opposing position.

Who is correct?  That's for you, Dear Reader, to decide.


In the first message, I asked Rob Vanhoff is he agreed Stern's statement about a necessary oral tradition.  Stern wrote:

"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


On the Torah Resource blog (, Vanhoff responded:

Is there a core “Oral Torah”?

[The following is a reply to the questions posted on an external site: Readers interested in this reply should first read Peter’s question and the subsequent back-and-forth with Caleb Hegg.]
Shalom Peter,
It’s a joy to be asked a question through your forum, so thank you. I hope the perspective I offer will be helpful in your readers’ studies.
I don’t know where Dr. Stern heard the opinion that “Judaism became ‘degenerate’ because of human tradition…”, perhaps he cites some examples from Christian authors in his Manifesto. I too have a few problems with the statement, but they are not necessarily along the same lines as Stern’s. First, we would need to define “Judaism.” Second, ‘degenerate’ is a value judgment (made by a judge) that implies an earlier, positive exemplar (what’s the exemplar?). Third ‘human tradition’ is so vague here that it’s not helpful either (who lives without some manner of tradition?).
When it comes to criticism of “commandments of men” (cf: Yeshua’s citation of Isaiah), this was (and is) not the core of the Gospel message. Repentance and belief in the Gospel of the Kingdom is the light that some will try to block by appeal to tradition. For them, traditions of men can function as reason or rationale for rejecting the words of Yeshua. Statements like “Israel never believed in a Messiah that would finish His mission only after dying and rising again,” or “Isaiah 53 was never about a personal Messiah,” or “keeping the halakhah has always been the means by which a Jew secures life in the world to come,” or “incarnation is a foreign idea in Judaism,” have become, through their ritual repetition, “traditional” in their own right, and serve to reinforce the walls that keep the words and names of Yeshua and His talmidim out of the rabbinic synagogues and study halls. And we’re not even talking about halakhic procedure yet…
Now I admire the refined skill-set of a good kosher shochet, but what Dr. Stern sees as “evidence” for “oral Torah” from Deuteronomy 12:21 (כאשר צויתיך) is for me simply a pointer to what Moshe states elsewhere concerning slaughter: pour out all the blood, cover it with earth, don’t consume it, etc… I’m definitely a minimalist in this regard. Let’s keep in mind that the art of midrash (be it halakhaic or aggadic) consists first of positing a textual ‘gap’ and second of filling it!
With the last statement you cite, “Nothing in the Bible suggests that God opposes accumulating knowledge and experience or creating guidelines and rules,” I fully agree. But probably contrary to Stern, I don’t think this is in any way a divine endorsement of rabbinic “Oral Torah.” I would add that I think that embedded in Spirit-guided, new-covenant hearts are the constraints that direct fruitful trajectories of such accumulations. For example, the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” was unfruitful, but the love of Messiah is not. This is torat hammashiach manifest in our lives, families, relationships, and communities. After all, His promise is that we will be pruned in order to be more fruitful; in this we partake of Messiah’s joy.
It’s at this point that I wonder whether Dr. Stern has conflated three distinct concepts: “oral tradition” (which every family or local community accumulates to some degree or another, no matter the culture), a vague notion of “oral Torah” (lower-case “o”; that is, things we supposedly have to know in order to make sense of biblical commandments), and the precise rabbinic term torah shebe‘al peh (usually translated as “Oral Torah,” capital “O”).  This last concept comes on the scene quite late, and is inseparable from the doctrine of “Two Torahs” delivered to Moshe at Sinai. The way I see it, Stern introduces a rabbinic term into a Yeshua-focused discussion, along with the suggestion that it is a necessary category for understanding Torah. You could say I’m at the door asking to see some I.D… Problems arise, for example, when we see later talmudic legend kidnapped from its own historical scene and smuggled into the 1st century as “background to the NT” under the guise of “oral Torah”; left unchecked, “oral Torah” has been used as a Trojan horse whereby “Oral Torah” comes in and turns over a family or even a community. We could inscribe a memorial here; At this site many a Messianic has rejected the Gospel, converting to orthodox Judaism.
Concerning your more recent question about a “Core Oral Torah”: Maybe there’s a manner in which this term can be useful; I could be convinced. But generally, as I’ve encountered it, the notion of “oral Torah” is primarily an ideological defense of rabbinic authority rather than a clarifying description of ancient Israelite jurisprudence.
Are we really interested in the Torah as practiced by Yeshua, or are we wanting to be inclusive for the rabbis of Mishnah and gemara? Dare we limit ourselves to “canonical” voices? Now I’m not trying to exclude anybody, but we need to read our sources responsibly. I believe that the proper and most fruitful categories for our thinking are to be found within the Scriptures themselves. Let’s face it; “Oral Torah” is foreign to the Bible, so we’ll inevitably have to shift from a scriptural stance to an ideological (and often polemically motivated) posture when wrestling over its “true” definition. Put another way: if we have trouble defining “Christian” or “Judaism,” which are used in Scripture, how much more defending the idea of “Oral Torah”? This is why I hear a rhetorical question when Caleb Hegg asks, “Which Oral Torah?” In the end, since it’s a rabbinic term, we’re really talking about rabbinic authority. Though I speak as a gentile, I’m confident that rabbinically raised and committed Jews who come to faith in Messiah Yeshua necessarily experience a shift in perspective when it comes to interpreting the writings of the sages. They’ve stepped into a new hermeneutical space, and there’s no going back. Jewish or gentile believers in Yeshua who desire to adopt a rabbinic orientation experience no such shift. For them, the rabbinic world begins in an imagination fueled by the abundance of well-marketed Judaica.
I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts. I’m not looking to get into an argument, just pointing out some of the problems that have come up for me in this arena. For those who see value in a concept of “oral Torah,” I don’t want to discourage you. I would only ask, “What’s the gain? What do we get by introducing this term that we didn’t have before, that had no currency in the 1st century? What work does the term “Oral Torah” do for us?” If we start there, perhaps some new and important avenues of inquiry will open up for us. But even then, are we prepared to accept the possibility that the term “Oral Torah” is ultimately unhelpful? Or, do we just want to use it because the rabbis do?
Personally, I like to get more mileage out of my categories (mpc… “miles per category”? : ) ). True to my minimalist tendencies, I believe the biggest payoff will always be found in categories provided by Scripture.


First, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to respond.
It seems then that you disagree with Stern’s statement: “There could never have been a time when tradition of some sort was not a necessary adjunct to the written Torah.” He believes that tradition is necessary to understanding the written Torah; You believe that tradition is not necessary to understand the written Torah–put another way, you believe that the written Torah itself explains how to operationalize every commandment in Scripture (e.g. tzitzit, mezuzot, moedim) such that no oral tradition is necessary. You would further seem to exclude the legitimacy of any traditions on vowelization.
Do I understand your position correctly? Or am I incorrect and you do in fact accept the theoretical necessity of tradition in understanding either the text of Scripture or the ambiguous commands of Scripture?
Thanks again for your time.
Blessings to the Torah Resource Staff,


Hi Peter,
Sorry for getting so long-winded. I suppose I do disagree with Stern in that statement. My hunch is that “tradition” for Stern here is an import from the rabbinic worldview rather than a description of “what unwritten knowledge was necessary for kohanim to slaughter a bull,” or the like.
In terms of a “theoretical necessity” I would affirm that to read Hebrew we need to know Hebrew, to read Greek we need to know Greek, etc…, and that the Bible does not teach us how to read Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic. So where do we get such knowledge? But I wouldn’t classify this as “oral Torah” or even “oral tradition.” Neither do I consider the scribal vocalization tradition as “oral Torah.” I do believe that in Matthew 23 Yeshua is talking about general Pharisaic orientations: calendar, resurrection, angels; and the Scribe’s charge to faithfully transmit the written Scripture, over against the Sadducees and other groups, whose teachings He does not endorse. But I also believe that Yeshua’s statement to His disciples “do not do…” prevents their complete institutional solidarity with either the Scribes or the Pharisees. It implies Messiah-centered Torah communities commanded to follow the hermeneutic of Yeshua’s love and to remain vigilant in discerning how traditions of men are not to be confused with the written commandments of God.
Stated plainly, I do not believe that God revealed an additional “unwritten” Torah to Moshe that was then passed down orally from generation to generation and is now embodied in the Talmud and commentaries. I believe that the Scriptures were given in human language.
Back to Stern’s statement: replacing “tradition” with “interpretation” we could rewrite it to say: “There could never have been a time when interpretation of some sort was not a necessary adjunct to the written Torah.” Tradition claims legitimacy by appealing to the past for its authority, and is independent of scriptural anchoring; interpretation does not look to the past for legitimacy, but rather seeks an anchoring in the text itself. One dispute among the rabbis is whether certain halakhot were actually derived exegetically or whether they were an independent revelation.
There are many things in the Torah that I do not understand. But this is not necessarily because I lack knowledge of Hebrew, of the “Oral Torah,” or of what contemporary rabbis say. It’s simply because I’m at the edge of my capacity to understand, in spite of my best efforts. And I don’t take the rabbinic solutions to be the last word.
On the other hand, there are things in the Torah that I take on faith. That Moshe wrote about Yeshua; that the “Prophet” he wrote about is Yeshua; that Yeshua is the goal of the Torah, for righteousness for all who believe; that He was in the beginning with God; that resurrection from the dead is assumed in the Torah, etc… Accepting these things does not require knowledge of Hebrew or “Oral Torah.”
As far as I’ve seen, introducing “oral [or Oral] Torah” doesn’t solve anything; it just points us back to the rabbis.
But I am interested to hear the specifics concerning your idea of a “Core Oral Torah”: is this something that can be quantified, or listed for others to read? It seems vague to me, so I wonder if you could be more concrete with your description. Is there a chart you have in mind, where one column has “Core” and the other has “Peripheral”? For example, perhaps you could give the written commandment, how it’s ambiguous, and what the core oral Torah is vs. the peripheral. This might help us move from a theoretical mode to the practical.


Yes, I can give examples of what I mean by “core” oral tradition (oral Torah). Keep in mind that by “core” I mean necessary to understand written Torah. Take Shabbat for example:
What is melachah (work)? (the prohibition of work in Ex. 20:10)
What is makom (place)? (the prohibition of going out of your “place” in Ex. 16:29)
What is a massa (burden)? (the prohibition of bearing a burden Jer. 17:21)
Telling you not to work on Shabbat but not defining precisely what work is would be like telling you not to speed on the roadway but not telling you what the speed limit is.
If a lawgiver says “do not speed” and fails to provide a speed limit then that lawgiver is imperfect because he gave an ambiguous law containing no objective standard.


Thanks Peter,
I guess there’s no way to be brief! : ) Giving it my best…
1. “Work” and “Burden”
As for “work” מלאכה and “burden” משׂא, the passages below really help flesh it out for me. I understand it to mean things pertaining to the preparation, buying, and selling of merchandise. In other words, what we would call “business” or “setting up shop.”
Jer. 17:24
“But it will come about, if you listen attentively to Me,” declares the LORD, “to bring no load (לבלתי הביא משׂא) in through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but to keep the sabbath day holy by doing no work on it (לבלתי עשׂות בה כל מלאכה)…
Jer. 17:27 “But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load (ולבלתי שׂאת משׂא) and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.”’”
Neh. 13:15   In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing (ומביאים) in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads (וכל משׂא), band they brought (ומביאים) them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food.
Neh. 13:18 “Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath (לחלל את השבת).”
Perhaps Mark 11:16 can be read in this light: “…and [Yeshua] would not permit anyone to carry merchandise [or, a vessel] through the temple.”
2. “Place”
The meaning of “place” מקום in Ex. 16:29 is summed nicely by Ibn Ezra: ופירש אל יצא איש ממקומו ללקוט המן כאשר עשו אנשים שיצאו ללקוט – “And the meaning of “a man shall not go out from his maqom” is to gather manna, just men had done that went out to gather.”
I’m sure we can find words that are ambiguous in the Tanakh. But words mean what they mean because of context, not because of what they mean on their own. Like Tim Hegg says, “Words don’t have meaning; meaning has words.”


As you say, context is important. So without referring to external texts and traditions (e.g. Ibn Ezra), show me in the written Torah where it defines makom for the purposes of Shabbat? Is makom a house? If so, why did Torah not just say “do not go outside your house”? Is makom a neighborhood, a city?
You defined melachah as “business” or “setting up shop”. But melachah is not necessarily commerce in the Bible. When G-d “rested” on the seventh day, does this mean He refrained from preparing for or engaging in commerce? Melachah thus does not appear to be what we think of as work or commerce in the modern day but can include things unassociated with commerce such as kindling a fire. So where in the written Torah is the complete picture–a complete list of detailed objective standards defining permissible forms of work and prohibited forms of melachah?

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