Oral Law vs Nice Culture
Response to a recent “historic” debate between an Israeli Messianic Jewish apologist and a local Orthodox Rabbi
The recent debate between Messianic Jew Eitan Bar and Rabbi Chaim Shitrit is viewed as “historic” by some leaders in the Israeli Messianic community. The impression one gets from the Messianic comments on this debate is that Bar won it. The following, however, is not an attempt to grade the debaters. Personally, I found both unconvincing. I also wonder why this is seen as historic when in fact these kinds of religious debates go back to the Middle Ages and are well known to almost every Jew.
But the real wonder is why Messianic Jews are still so preoccupied with an issue settled more than two millennia ago. Jews as a whole long ago rejected the Sadducees’ literal interpretation of the Torah, which among other things lead them to deny resurrection from the dead because, to follow Eitan Bar’s argument, it is not once mentioned in the text.
It seems not to occur to Messianics that without Oral Law Jesus’ teaching about resurrection can neither be verified nor justified.
And it seems not to occur to Messianics that there are Jews today only because their forefathers lived by the Oral Law.
And it seems not to occur to Messianics that Jews were not willing to die, ever, for the sake of nice culture. But they were willing to die, and indeed they have died, out of fidelity to the covenant lived according to the Oral Law.
And it seems not to occur to Messianics that there are no Sadducees today because Jews who chose to live solely “according to the Scriptures” have disappeared from the face of the earth.
And it seems not to occur to Messianics that since Jesus never wrote down a word of what he said, his teachings were transmitted as oral law. Decades later, only the essence of those teachings was committed to writing. At least that’s what John indicates: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
It is also quite astonishing that Messianics adhere to the Sadducean way that was rejected by Jesus, who did not see them as sharing “Moses’ seat” along with the Pharisees. And it is also a wonder that Messianics don’t pay any attention to Paul, who insisted that even as a “Messianic Jew” he had “done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” (Acts 28:17).
But let us leave all these wonders aside and consider the Oral Law, first by looking at the common phrase “the Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites.” The meaning of this phrase is simply undeniable. Moses spoke first and wrote later. Since we know that the Torah was written down by Moses 40 years after the Sinai Covenant was made, it means that the Torah was delivered orally for 40 years. This means that the covenant between God and Israel, that was made soon after the crossing of the Red Sea, was based entirely on the Torah that Moses spoke to Israel.
This is the conclusion we find in a Talmudic discussion on the meaning of “write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27). The Hebrew for “in accordance” is al pi, and pi means mouth. The exact same al pi appears in Genesis 45:21, but this time the translations render it correctly as “Pharaoh had commanded,” or spoken.
With this in mind, Jews understand this verse to mean, “write down these words, but the covenant I have made with you and with Israel was according to the spoken words.” The conclusion to this, which is one of Judaism’s cornerstones, states: “God made a covenant with Israel only for the sake of that which was transmitted orally” (Gittin 60b).
What may sound farfetched, that the Covenant is based on the Oral Law, makes perfect sense if one understands that none of the commandments can be properly performed without the specific instructions on how to do so. In other words, the written Law, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, is insufficient for the keeping of the Covenant, which assumes keeping the commandments in a specific way.
Let’s see how this works out with just one commandment: ”Speak to the Israelites and say to them … you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel” (Numbers 15:38). Though we now read this commandment, it was first spoken by Moses. The commandment committed to writing many years later omits the instructions how to make these tassels, without which the commandment can’t be fulfilled. The instructions were given orally by Moses, who made sure everybody was wearing the same kind of tassels. From then on, these instructions were transmitted orally from generation-to-generation, until finally, out of necessity, they were written down in the Talmud.
The Oral Law, therefore, is existential for Israel. Without it the people of Israel can’t be obedient to God. Without the Oral Law, Israel can’t be united as one distinguishable nation. It is the Oral Law that allows Israel to live together according to the same laws and customs passed on from generation-to-generation.
Regarding the Oral Law as Eitan Bar sees it – merely a nice culture – this can mean only one thing, and that is turning Jews into a disparate group of people loosely connected by thin threads of “nice” things, ever changing at the slightest whim, until finally ripped apart by anarchy and leading us back to “everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25).
Hence it is fitting to conclude this short, insufficient explanation on the Oral Law with a quote from Rabbi Ouri Amos Cherki:
“What is the Oral Law? It is a nation’s tradition passing on from generation-to-generation. This tradition is a very old tradition, preceding the writing of the Torah … generally speaking the nation of Israel was living according to its customs since the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some of these customs were written in the form of written Torah, some were abandoned, some were changed, some were forgotten. Therefore, the fact that the people of Israel living in history were carrying within them a factual tradition is far more important for Jews than the texts produced by the prophets. One can say that the written Torah is for the sake of the nations, for the sake of humanity. The Oral Law is unique in that it makes possible the Jewish life, it enables the Torah to be lived out within Israel … the essence of the covenant God made with Israel is seen through the life shaped in the Beit Midrash, a life of Oral Law.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Israel Today reached out to Eitan Bar, who has written a book entitled Debunking the Myth of Rabbinic Oral Law, to understand why he and other Messianic Jews in Israel want to prove that the idea of an “oral law” is not supported in Scripture. We have yet to receive a response.