Q&A Understanding rabbinical Judaism (it’s not just the Bible)

This is from a conversation that developed out of discussions on Coffeehouse Torah Talk. We decided to place it online for people to learn about rabbinical Judaism.

Studying Gemara and Talmud Desktop
Image from akaiserca, Blat-a-day, Instagram

Question: What are your views on the Talmud? How authoritative is it? I’ve been increasingly moving away from rabbinical Judaism, but I would like to believe rabbinical Judaism is the right way.

The Midrash, Mishnah and Talmuds are the traditional Jewish way to to interpret and apply the Bible.  Do we have other options? Of course, but let’s look carefully at them.

One could read the Bible as a secular atheist.

Set aside the midrash, Mishnah and Talmud. Use only critical historical scholarship to study dates and editing of the text. Although many people do this, the result isn’t religious, nor is it Judaism.

One could read the Bible religiously, yet without these Jewish works.

In this case we attempt to interpret and follow the Bible with no other context. But we know what happens as a result: Religious fundamentalism (which is concerning give that the Bible appears to give the death penalty for dozens of violations of law.) Also, without some kind of oral law, everyone develops different interpretations, so they split off into hundreds of incompatible religious communities. This happens, but the result again isn’t Jewish.

One could read the Bible through the lens of the New Testament and the writings of the early Church Fathers.

Many do this, but the result isn’t Judaism, it’s Christianity.

One could read the Bible as Jews.

Recognize that the Torah developed in a certain place and time. The Bible didn’t get written and transmitted without context. It came down with a way of reading and wrestling with the text – which eventually was written down in the classical rabbinic works. When one reads the Bible through the lens of this rabbinic literature, the result is what we now call Judaism.

Question: But is it legitimate to have an “oral law” at all?

I personally find it comforting that – in broad strokes – both religious Jews and secular historians agree that the written text of the Torah by itself was never literally followed. There was never a time when an early Jewish society just read Leviticus and Numbers and followed those laws literally, like many people imagine.

Wait a moment – this should give one pause: both Karaites (an offshoot of Judaism) and evangelical Christians do assume that the written text of the Torah literally describes the practices of ancient Israelites, and rules that we should be following today.

Yet the convergence between secular historians and religious Jews says “No, that’s a misreading!” Religious or not, the Torah should not be interpreted outside of context. Consider: Torah gives the death penalty for three dozen violations of law. Could you imagine what it would be like if people actually followed it as written, without the context? Do you imagine that the Israelites followed that as an actual practice? Historians say no, and so does the Talmud (the death penalty in fact was so restricted in use that it essentially didn’t exist.)

Rabbinical Judaism is the one way of life that maintains both the Bible and the context of the people who wrote it.

Question: So do we read the Mishnah and Talmud as codes of law, based on the Bible?

Well, they are important – yet they are not written as law codes. They present information, stories, and debates – but only rarely come to specific conclusions on many topics. This is precisely why rabbinical Judaism (before the medieval era) had so much flexibility in belief and practice. For instance, there was never any one code of law accepted as authoritative for all Jewish communities.

Question: So is there a book that contains “absolute” conclusions on the Mishnah and Talmud? The Orthodox believe in that the Oral Law was given at Mt. Sinai, but if there are no conclusions reached, then that would be a lot to try to decipher today, especially for one who doesn’t read Hebrew.

I think a two-part response would be helpful.
(1) What are the assumptions behind our (obviously reasonable) need to ask this question?
(2) What is the nature of Jewish codes of law after the Talmud?

(1) Many religions believe that God needs something very specific from us. So if we don’t do precisely what God wants, then we harm our relationship with God, perhaps risk eternal damnation. Yet Jewish theology doesn’t think this way. Even in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud we understood that God isn’t anthropomorphic; God doesn’t speak with a human-like voice that can be exactly transcribed word for word. Rabbinic literature compares hearing God’s word to seeing a hammer strike a rock, creating many different flashes of light. Different people perceive revelation in different ways.

Also, God doesn’t have a precise set of things that we have to do to avoid risking our soul. So if there is diversity of interpretation, that’s not a problem. Rabbinic literature refers to this diversity of interpretation not as a bug in the system – but rather as a feature! (e.g. Seventy Faces of Torah)

Sure, there are certain basic parameters. There is much halakhah in which we make distinctions for food, days of the week, certain times of the year, what clothes we wear, how we treat workers and employees, how we treat relatives and the poor, etc. Judaism maintains these distinctions according to our interpretation set out in the Mishnah and Talmud – but there is a lot of flexibility left.

Question: So if classical rabbinic literature doesn’t have one, precise set of rules, how do we know what to follow?

After the closure of the Talmud, several important collections of Jewish law developed.

The Mishneh Torah
The Tur (Arba’ah Turim), Jacob ben Asher, Spain 1340 CE
The Shulkhan Arukh, Joseph Karo, Israel, 1563
The mappah (a commentary on the Shulkhan Arukh)
The Mishneh Berurah
Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice
and others.

Each code is important. In different communities, different codes became accepted as authoritative. That helps build unity on a local level. But Jews didn’t hold that any one particular code of would be binding on all Jews, everywhere, in all circumstances.

Note that “however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition”. – Solomon Schechter.

Question: So if they are not codes of law, is that one of the differences between the Orthodox and the other movements? They pick out the codes of law they choose?  Their interpretation as to which are laws and binding, and which are not? I’m Conservative and want to increase my knowledge and practice of Judaism.

Reply: Accepting the rules from the Talmud, and later codes of law, in broad strokes, is common to both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.  The positions noted above, in general, are from both Talmuds, the responsa literature, and the classic halakhic codes.

What’s different about their approach is historical awareness, and flexibility. In response to the massive changes wrought by the Enlightenment, and by the rise of Classical German Reform Judaism, Orthodoxy developed certain new beliefs, and made significant changes to observance (halakhah.) The mere existence of change, in of itself, is fine. But what we see as an Orthodox problem is the same problem one finds in all fundamentalist groups: Many of their leaders basically said “we made no changes, this is the way that Judaism has always been.” See Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History for startling documentation and admissions of how Orthodox authors rewrote history to make it look like their changes were the only acceptable views.

One of the reasons that I choose to affiliate with the Conservative /Masorti community is that they have high standards of academic honesty and transparency

Question: Many “fence laws” were built around the basic Torah laws. Are they continuing to be built?

The issue of fence laws, which we see in the Mishnah and Talmud, seems unnecessary by modern day standards. I’d like to – in broad strokes – defend the necessity of having some fence laws, but in a way that recognize logic, historical context, and the legitimacy of today’s rabbis being allowed to apply these laws as necessary, given a particular situation.

Why would we have fence laws at all? Two reasons.

(A) Torah laws (in some way) come from God. In this view, it is then astonishingly important to make sure that we never violate them.  Yet humans are imperfect. So to safeguard the Torah mitzvot, we make a law around them. Therefore even if we accidentally break one of the fence laws, we’re probably still Ok, we may not have broken the Torah law itself

(B) The Torah mitzvot were not the only info our people had: Some of these fence law discussions in the Talmud aren’t creating new restrictions – some are actually creating justifications for already existing practices that weren’t in the Torah text itself. These practices were known to Jews from antiquity.  Some of these rules were transmitted for centuries, through Judaism’s oral tradition, until written down in the Mishnah.

Question: Why was that changed from what the Torah said about not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? It seems pretty self-explanatory.

Traditionally, we haven’t read much of the Bible as self-explanatory.  Without context, we could misinterpret. But more to the point, traditional Judaism holds that many of these fence laws – or at least the basic legal principles – come from the time of Moses himself!

Secular historians don’t quite say that, but they also accept that beliefs and practices are transmitted from generation-to-generation for long periods of time. Either way, these fence laws are part of the Jewish people’s indigenous way of living and transmitting the Bible.

That doesn’t mean, however, there is no flexibility in how to apply them. Even within Orthodoxy there has always been some room for interpretation on that point, and more so within non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. (But a discussion of that becomes another article.)

Question: How does Conservative/Masorti Judaism view this issue?

Conservative Judaism generally follows the same practice as modern Orthodox Judaism on this issue. The difference is that modern Orthodoxy has adopted the increasingly strict Ashkenazi custom of waiting 6 hours after eating meat, before one can eat dairy.

We understand that this lengthy period of waiting isn’t as traditional, and certainly isn’t necessary. The only halakhah is to wait for a while after eating meat, and then one may eat dairy. The waiting period itself isn’t specified and it used to be less than an hour. Many Conservative Jews wait only three hours.(My family’s practice is to wait one hour after eating meat before dairy.)

Question: So if we go back to the beginning, how can we summarize this? Why not just pick up the Torah, and follow the laws as written? 

Let me ask a special question. Back in 1776, American revolutionaries declared independence from the United Kingdom. In 1787, we wrote and accepted our own Constitution. In that year, what laws did we Americans practice here in the colonies?

A person’s answer to this question will be very revealing. It lets us understand the Jewish way of reading Torah.

Question & Reply: It would seem that Americans, from that point on, followed the laws in the US Constitution.

That’s a reasonable guess, and certainly what most people think. But it’s incorrect. The Constitution only gave a very broad framework, and then gave the people the authority to elect the Congress which would then right laws, and then appoint judges to courts which would then interpret laws. Look carefully: the Constitution doesn’t actually contain laws that people can follow in a realistic way, in our cities or towns.

Here it is: The day after we wrote the Constitution, even the year after we wrote the Constitution, even 10 years later, American free citizens in the United States followed most the same British laws in towns that they were following before!

Only one law at a time did Americans change them, a slow process.

So what’s my point? If someone in the future (today!) read the Constitution from 1787, and imagines that this is how everyday Americans lived, they would come up with a very incorrect picture. That reading of the Constitution, by itself, is without the necessary historical context needed to understand the situation at that time.

Question: Again, the Torah says adding or taking away from things is wrong

It absolutely does say that – but what does it mean? Many Americans think we followed American law after we wrote the Constitution. But it really only contains the framework to set things up. Same is true for the Torah. If you went back in time you would see that the Torah is kind of like a constitution, but what about the centuries of practice in daily life that these people were living? That’s where we get Judaism’s oral law from, the inherited cultural inheritance of our people which explains how we understood and applied Torah.


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