The Truth About the Oral Law – A Response to Josh Feinberg
Dr. Michael Brown takes issue with a recent Israel Today article concerning rabbinic authority
As a Jewish believer in Yeshua who has been involved in dialogue with the rabbinic community for the last 50 years, I found Josh Feinberg’s May 4 article in Israel Today, titled, “Oral Law vs Nice Culture,” both disturbing and surprising.
Feinberg wrote his article in response to a recent debate between Messianic Jew Eitan Bar and ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Shitrit, noting that the debate was called “‘historic’ by some leaders in the Israeli Messianic community,” a claim that Feinberg dismissed.
What Feinberg seems to have missed is that in many ways this debate was historic, since it was conducted in Israel, in Hebrew, between two Jews, focused totally on the Oral Law. Has this happened before in a public setting? Not to my knowledge.
But it is Feinberg’s arguments on behalf of the Oral Law that were most concerning, since they are the very same arguments I’ve heard from rabbis for decades as to why no Jew should believe in Yeshua.
Feinberg wrote: “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.”
Is Feinberg not aware that this is the identical argument we hear when it comes to Yeshua? “The Jewish leaders settled this 2,000 years ago. Jesus is not the Messiah.”
Or, as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi said to me in the early 1970s, “We have an unbroken chain of tradition going straight back to Moses. Who are you to teach me what to believe?”
That’s why this is such a major issue to us as Jews. It’s a matter of authority. It’s a matter of who is following the true interpretation of Scripture. This is hardly a trivial matter.
As an Orthodox Jewish website explains: “In many respects, the Oral Torah is more important than the Written Torah. . . . It is even more dear to God than the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the means through which we devote our lives to God and His teachings.”
Of course this is an issue to Messianic Jews who look to Yeshua and the New Covenant writings as our final authority. And it was Yeshua who rebuked some of the Jewish leaders of His day, saying, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. . . . You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:8-9)
As for the matter of the Oral Law being “settled more than two millennia ago,” that is hardly accurate, as is evident from ancient Jewish literature dating to the late Second Temple era (such as 4QMMT from Qumran), where there was heated debate between the varied Jewish sects, a debate that was not settled by the universal agreement of the Jewish community but by the destruction of the Second Temple and the eventual triumph of the Pharisees.
Not only so, but it appears clear that in the first 300-400 years of this era, the early Messianic Jews (called “Nazarenes”) continued to live as Jews (to the consternation of the increasingly Gentile church) while at the same time rejecting the emerging rabbinic traditions, along with rabbinic authority.
As for the idea that Bar’s rejection of the Oral Law based on it not being found in the Bible parallels the Sadducean rejection of the resurrection because it was not found in the Torah, this too is wrong since:
- Yeshua showed them it was found in the Torah; and
- They were guilty of rejecting the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, which clearly contain references to future resurrection.
Feinberg claims that “without Oral Law Jesus’ teaching about resurrection can neither be verified nor justified,” by which he apparently means oral traditions. But we only have those traditions today because they were put in writing, and it is the written Word of God that carries ultimate authority.
As for Feinberg’s claim that “there are Jews today only because their forefathers lived by the Oral Law,” that is a serious overstatement. Rather, there are Jews today only because God graciously chose to preserve us. Whether He used these traditions or not is really beside the point, unless you believe Jews could not have observed the Sabbath over the centuries without knowing every detail of the Talmud’s 39 divisions of labor.
Feinberg makes the mistaken claim that religious groups that only follow the Scriptures cannot exist for long. To the contrary, the Karaites are still here, more than one millennium after being marginalized by the rabbinic community, while, on the Christian side, Protestant Christians recently celebrated more than 500 years of Reformation, rejecting the traditions of the Catholic Church and holding to sola Scriptura.
Yet there’s even a caption to a photo in the article which reads, “The Oral Law, now written down as part of the Talmud, is the focus of ultra-Orthodox learning, even more so than the Bible, which irks Messianic Jews.” Well, it should irk Messianic Jews, since:
- It takes the focus away from the written Word;
- It exalts the rabbinic traditions as sacrosanct and indisputable; and
- It presents a very different picture of the Messiah.
How then does Feinberg justify his embrace of the Oral Law? He points to the common phrase, “the Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” then claiming, “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 patently false, as passages like Exod 24:1-8; Deut 17:18-20; 31:24–29; and Josh 1:8, among others, make perfectly clear. (Please take a moment to read these passages for yourself; for an in-depth study, see volume five of my series, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.)
Exodus 34:27 also makes this explicit: “And the LORD said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.”
Yet Feinberg actually quotes this verse, citing a rabbinic interpretation that turns the meaning of the text upside down, as if it supports the Oral Torah rather than the written Torah.
Indeed, the Talmudic interpretation is purely homiletical and completely unsustainable exegetically and grammatically; Feinberg even acknowledges it sounds farfetched. Why on earth cite it, then?
For Feinberg, however, the Torah cannot be observed without the Oral Law. “Without it,” he writes, “the people of Israel can’t be obedient to God. Without the Oral Law, Israel can’t be united as one distinguishable nation.”
But how is it, then, that these same rabbis, the guardians of the nation, can be trusted to tell us how God wants us to build a sukkah, allegedly passing on the exact dimensions that God gave to Moses on Sinai, yet they cannot be trusted to recognize the real Messiah? And how is it that these sages could know every detail of Sabbath observance, including that you can only use a soft brush on your hair on the Sabbath, but they could be so wrong about the Messiah, and for 2,000 years, at that?
In keeping with this, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi pointed out to me that the Oral Law is a living tradition with living rabbinic authorities. If you, as a Messianic Jew, told him you upheld the Oral Law, he would ask you, “First, who is your current, rabbinic authority, the one whose rulings you submit to? Second, you are an idolator and you need to repent.”
In other words, you don’t get to say, “I adhere to rabbinic teaching and the authority of the Oral Law, but not when it comes to the most essential areas of my faith.”
As for Messianic Jews today picking and choosing which customs they may follow, that’s what other Jews do as well, from Reform to Conservative to Modern Orthodox to Haredi. There is nothing unusual here.
Feinberg ends his article with a lengthy quote from Rabbi Ouri Amos Cherki, culminating with these words: “the essence of the covenant God made with Israel is seen through the life shaped in the Beit Midrash, a life of Oral Law.”
Unfortunately, that life is one without Yeshua, one that would spit on the New Covenant writings, one that is an enemy of the gospel (Rom 11:28).
Yet I do not disparage the rabbis of the Talmud nor do I denigrate our traditions. I simply say the obvious: there is not an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Where those traditions contradict the letter or the spirit of the Law, or where they misunderstand the person of the Messiah or the nature of redemption, we do well to ignore those traditions and follow what is written. That alone is the path of life.
Dr. Michael L. Brown is a noted Messianic Jewish apologist and the author of more than forty books. His website is AskDrBrown.org.
Israel Today reached out to Josh Feinberg and he sent the following reply to Dr. Brown’s essay:
“I am flabbergasted by the sheer audacity of this dogmatic essay, which assumes that all the wisdom of Israel’s sages combined is no match for one luminary who doesn’t even realize that it is the Oral Law that preserved the Hebrew language without which the Hebrew Bible cannot be understood, and the true meaning of the language would be lost.. But he knows the truth and they don’t. Why? Because they have rejected Jesus. Oh, that Dr. Brown would understand that the way he portrays Judaism and Jews is identical to the infamous image of the blindfold Synagoga standing humiliated before the triumphant Ecclesia. Oh, and for heaven’s sake, that Dr. Brown would learn something from Paul, who was not so proud to stand silent in the face of the mystery of Israel.”