Sunday, February 1, 2015

From Sinai and Yet Not From Sinai: Understanding the Nuanced Jewish Perspective Regarding the Origin of Oral Torah [Menachem Elon]

Some people think that Jews claim the Oral Torah--with ALL of the rabbinic halachah--was given at Sinai.  But the reality is more nuanced.  Here is Menachem Elon on the subject:

"As has been noted in the preceding chapter, the Sages based the binding force of the legal sources of the law on statements in Scripture--the Written Law....
     Our previous discussion emphasized tradition--the doctrine that the Oral Law was handed down from person to person, beginning with Moses, who received it from God--as the basis of the Oral Law.  We found this characteristic of the Halakhah attributed to the entire corpus juris of the Halakhah in all of its details and provisions:  the halakhic authorities describe the totality of the Halakhah as making manifest what had already been given and declared at Sinai.
     Statements by many of the halakhic authorities nevertheless indicate that they distinguished carefully between two parts of the Oral Law:  (1) the part originating in 'tradition handed down from one person to another,' going back to Moses, who received it from God, and (2) the part that the halakhic authorities had the responsibility to create and develop.  The distinction is made in a comment of the Sages on a verse in Exodus.  According to the verse:

'When He finished speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Testimony, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.'

The Sages commented:

'But did Moses learn the entire Torah?  It is written in Scripture:  'Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.'  Did Moses really learn something so vast in just forty days?  The answer is, God taught Moses the general principles....'

     Together with the Written Law, Moses was given principles whereby the Written Law was to be interpreted and understood; and it was according to these principles that new laws were generated, so as to render explicit what had previously been only implicit in Scripture.  The thought expressed in the comment quoted above was further developed by Joseph Albo, the Spanish Jewish philosopher, at the end of the fourteenth century:
'It is impossible for the Torah of God to have covered all possible cases that may ever arise, because the new situations that constantly arise in human affairs, in law, and as a result of human enterprise are so manifold that a book cannot encompass them.  Therefore, general principles, which the Torah only briefly suggests, were revealed orally to Moses at Sinai, so that the halakhic authorities of every generation would use them to derive new laws,'" Machem Elon, Jewish Law:  History, Sources, Principles, Vol.1, pg. 241

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