Saturday, October 6, 2007

Why We Should Listen to the Rabbis?

At first glance, classical Rabbinic Judaism seems foolish. The Torah tells us "don't cook a kid in its mother's milk" and they and buy 2 sets of dishes, 2 sinks and won't eat cheeseburgers. Or how about Shabbat where the Torah tells us to rest and the Jews trudge to Synagogues without the aid or cars and elevators. while many Jews feel they understand and accept the 5 books of moses, the Talmudic tradition is a different story entirely. the didactics and intricate details of the laws, the odd and often difficult restrictions and traditions makes many decide to leave all but biblical Judaism.

before accepting such an approach it is important to determine whether this is at all logical. if we take the divine origin of the written word as a given (something which requires its own discussion) where does that leave us regarding the oral law?

In examining this question we must first understand the categories of the oral law. Maimonides in his introduction to his interpretation of the Mishnah (the earliest written rabbinic law) defines four categories of oral and rabbinic law. the Talmud refers to the most oral law as פירושים המקובלים or explanations of the law which were received along with the written word at mount Sinai. first, does the text of the bible require interpretation? second, if interpretation is required in the Talmud and the works based on it the correct source of this interpretation.

Several arguments regarding the Bible point to the idea that an unwritten explanation of the law had been received at Sinai along with the Torah.

A. The verse in Deuteronomy (12:21) regarding ritual slaughter writes:

....and you shall slaughter from your cattle and your sheep which G-d has given you as I commanded you and you shall eat in your gates to your hearts content".

The requirement to slaughter 'as I have commanded you' is problematic, since is the only section of the Torah which deals with these laws. We find no instructions regarding shechita in the text of the written Torah. Rashi- one of the greatest medieval commentators explains:

"as I have commanded you"- this teaches us there are instructions on how to slaughter and they are the laws of ritual slaughter received at Sinai. Here we find a clear indication that the written law was accompanied by an oral explanation.

B. Several other Biblical laws imply the existence of an oral code simply because of their vague presentation in the Torah. Phylacteries is referred to in the Torah with the word 'teffilin' and 'totafot'. It is impossible to determine what these words refer to without some explanation. Similarly the Torah requires us to place 'mezuzot' on our doors. With regards to Shabbat, the Torah prescribes the death penalty for anyone who works on Shabbat but fails to provide any parameters for what this work is. It would be difficult to implement such ruling if the law were left up to the individual to decide. This vague presentation of many laws is a clear indication of the existence of some oral explanation.

C. A more practical argument for the necessity of a single explanation of the biblical text is the need to create a unified Jewish nation. Were the biblical text meant to be taken as is and interpreted by each individual and community as they see fit, the Jewish nation as a whole would quickly disappear into a multiplicity of unrelated groups practicing radically different religions. The Sefer Hachinuch points this out when discussing the requirement to follow the majority ruling of the central court. He writes:

The root of this commandment is to strengthen the existence of our religion, for were we commanded to fulfill the Torah as we best understand the truth of its intent then each member of the Jewish nation would say "my understanding of this idea is thus..." and even if the entire world believes the reverse the individual would be required to follow the truth as he sees it. This situation will lead to destruction for it will make the Torah like many Torahs for each person will decide based on the truth of his own understanding. But now that the Torah commands us to follow the majority of the Rabbis there is unity in the Torah and this is our great sustenance, and we must not move from their opinion, and through this we will fulfill a commandment of G-d.
(Chinuch 78)

Rabbinic Interpretation- The requirement for unity not only requires a single interpretation of the law but also a central court which applies the Biblical laws to new issues which arise. The Torah itself actually commands such a court. It writes:

A question arises regarding judgement between one type of blood and another or between one law and another and between one disease and another matters of dispute in your gates, and you shall arise and go up to the place which hashem your G-d has chosen. And you shall come to the Levite priests and to the judge that will be in that time and you shall inquire and he shall tell you the word of judgement. And you shall do as they told you from that place which hashem had chosen and you shall be careful to do as all they have commanded you. According to the Torah which they show you and the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do, do not turn left or right. (Deuteronomy 17:8)

Here we find a clear reference to Rabbinic authority in the text of the Bible itself. The Sefer hachinuch extends this command to include the Rabbinic authority of each generation , and not only to the central court in Jerusalem.

And included in this command is also to listen and do in all times as the judge commands, meaning the greatest authority among us in our time. This is referred to in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 25b) ""to the judge that will be in those times""-Why must the verse say 'in his time, can a person go to a judge not in his time? rather Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his generation", meaning one must obey Yiftach in his time as Samuel in his time (each generation's judge is included in this command regardless of his stature in comparison to other generations). (Sefer Ha-chinuch 495)

Difficulties in Rabbinic Judaism

Disputes in the Talmud-clearly a single interpretation of Biblical system of laws is necessary to the stability of the Jewish people. This being the case we find a serious difficulty with the Talmud. Here we find a book filled with dissenting views and arguments. Rarely a page can be turned in the Talmud without encountering numerous disputes between the early sages. How can we reconcile the diversity with the idea of a divinely provided oral tradition received at Sinai? Also how can this tradition provide the unity needed for a stable Jewish nation?

Divine Diversity

When G-d gave the Torah, Moses asked "so how then should we practice? G-d answered "follow the majority". This is in order to allow 49 approaches to prohibit and 49 permit each case. (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin)

The need for multiple approaches to Torah is based on the fact that the Torah is a complex system, with many nuances. (Rashi, Ketubot)

To require a single approach to Torah would minimize and ignore many factors and ideas that are true to an extent. By way of example, if someone asks you whether they should come to YU, you can tell them yes or no, but the true answer is that there are many factors pushing in both directions and he must decide based on which factors he feels are most important. The same is true of Torah. May factors and approaches exist within each law. The truth is that they are all somewhat true. The different opinions of the Rabbis in the Talmud reflect each Rabbi's final view of an issue. The actual rule of what to do is determined by a system which followed the majority of Rabbis at the time. Nowadays, the rules are decided based on a more complicated system, considering the views of many great Rabbis of the past.