What makes Judaism Jewish?

What makes Judaism, well, Jewish?

Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible read through the lens of our oral law.

Koren Mishnah closeup of page

While originally transmitted orally, the oral law was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the classical Midrash compilations, and later extrapolated on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

Why do we need an oral law? The Torah wasn’t written in a vacuum; it existed within a culture, so cultural/historical context is necessary to understand it.  Reading a book through the lens of a culture’s context, their oral law, in broad strokes is agreed upon as necessary even by secular historians. All the more so, then, for Jewish people who want to live by Torah.

Separate question: How much of the oral law came from the time of the Torah itself is debatable, but whenever the Torah was redacted into its current form, it absolutely had a context.

Joseph Telushkin writes:

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (Deut 6:4).
…Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

There are other benefits from realizing the existence of context: The oral law rescues us from biblical fundamentalism. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18–21 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son… and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town…Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.”

Only fundamentalists imagine that one should do this. In contrast, rabbinical Judaism teaches that this text was never meant literally: It was a divine rhetorical device, explaining the seriousness of such a transgression. In practice, if there was a rebellious child, one would follow the oral law, written down in

* Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה
* Tosefta תוספתא
* classical Midrash מדרש compilations
* Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud)
* Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud)

The Mishnah, Makkot 1:10 says that capital punishment should almost never happen. Jeremy Kalmanofsky translates:

סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע נקראת חובלנית. רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה.
רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין לא נהרג אדם מעולם. רבן שמעון בן
גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל.
A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called bloodthirsty. R. Elazar b.
Azariah said: even once in 70 years. R. Akiba and R. Tarfon said: had we been in
the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Shimon ben
Gamaliel said: then these sages would have created more murderers in Israel.

Investigation must following certain rules of evidence, and if certain standards are not met then the death penalty may not be given.

Even if one witnessed an armed man chase another into an enclosed space, then later saw him, bloody sword in hand, standing above the corpse of the other man, dead of stab wounds, this would constitute inadmissible conjecture, not hard enough evidence for conviction [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b; Midrash Mekhilta d’Kaspa #20].

Excerpted from Participating in the American Death Penalty,  by Jeremy Kalmanofsky.

This isn’t a modern day reform – according to Judaism, these evidentiary laws were part of the Torah’s system by design. That’s why we can’t “just read the Torah.” People advocate this have never actually read the Bible, for if they did they would find hosts of laws that they personally would find unfulfillable or objectionable – and almost all of the prayers, songs, ceremonies and rituals that they do enjoy, would not even be found there.


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