Why is the Oral Law Necessary::


The Torah has been known for centuries among the general public as the Old Testament, the Five Books of Moses and more inexactly as the "Bible" (which means scroll in Greek). I say inexactly because Christians lump the Old Testament together with what they call the New Testament and refer to that as the "Bible". As far as Jewish culture is concerned, the "Bible" refers to the Five Books of Moses, plus the writings of the Prophets, starting with the book of Joshua (13th century B.C.E.) and ending with the book of Malachi (4th century B.C.E., thus spanning a period of about one thousand years). On top of this, there is a third section to the holy writings referred to as just the "Writings". This is because after Malachi, prophecy was considered to have departed from the Jewish people, but not the holy spirit, i.e. the powers of the souls of those pure hearted men to whom Jewish life was their most critical concern. They continued to produce a stream of inspired writings which much as the writings of the prophets, energized and united the now shocked remnant of Israel. The sages of the that era knew exactly what had to be done. Judaism was about to be revitalized in a way which made it even more relevant than it had been before the exile. The new era would be more accurately described as a maturing process. As we can see now with hindsight, one that was absolutely necessary to bring the people from a passive state of dependance on the external structures of their culture, to an independant and internal affirmation of how the covenant still transformed their lives and made them a holy people. There was still the bulwark of Jewish life and observance which effected every corner of their life and did not depend on the immediate availabilility of a priestly class and sacrificial ritual which they had over relied upon to save them, no matter what their real inner spiritual state would or would not support.


  However, it is far less well known that the Jewish tradition has an Oral Torah aside from the written one. Oral means just that. It was against Jewish law to commit any of it to writing. Many of the sceptics of Jewish culture have long denigrated the oral law as a later invention of the rabbis of the post Babylonian period. It seems to them counterintuitive that the bulk of the Torah would be oral rather than written. From my years of study of Jewish texts, I have come to the conclusion that this is a serious and often cynical position used to invalidate that which does not appeal to a particular individual or group. There has been in the last 2400 years a string of such groups. Some such as the Sadducess came looking for power and influence with the (Roman) government and were not concerned with a Jewish future. Others such as the Karites separate themselves off to do things in their own way, denying the vast bulk of Jewish scholarly writings. However, their fate is always the same. They fade into irrelevantcy as those living or looking for authentic Judaism come to realize their self-serving shallowness, and the inescapeable conclusion that Judaism cannot just be remade by whim. It is impossible to conceive of a self-sustaining and unique Jewish civilization such has been created over the centuries without the enormous effort and structure of Jewish scholarship represented in the Mishnah, Talmud and tracts of legal analysis. These all became parts of oral tradition once it was written down, and were historically accepted by the majority of the Jewish people over an extended period of time. This same idea can be seen in a more subtle perspective which shows the above argument in a more profound light. It is reflected in the following historic incident related in the Talmud.


 In the era of the Greek Empire (i.e. the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great) the Philosophers of the Greek schools posed the following question to the leading sages of Israel;


 "When salt rots how do you preserve it ?" Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania answered them; "with the placenta of a mule" ! "What kind of answer is that, they responded ? There is no such thing as the placenta (afterbirth) of a mule (a sterile inbreeding between a  horse and a donkey)". To which he replyed, "does salt ever rot" ?


In the usual straight to the point style of the Talmud, alot is said here in very few words.  As I mentioned in passing in the Torah thru Modern Eyes essay, the Greek perspective on knowledge was diametrically opposed to the Torah. This is a very important subject and I intend to explore it in another essay. However, suffice it to say that the Greeks felt strongly that the Torah could not possibily be what it claims to be. Their questions to the Jewish sages were always couched in complete mockery.  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania understood the intent of the question. They were saying in effect; you rabbis claim that this salt you call Torah, has the power to preserve the Jewish people. Well look around you, Greek wisdom has created a new cultural reality. All the rest of the known world sees the benefits of it and have chosen to participate, why are you denying these benefits. It is time to upgrade your vision of the world !


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania explained to them as follows; Your argument that we need to adapt these new values may seem on the surface of things to be an attractive renewal for our native culture. It is attractive in the same way that a mule is to either a horse or donkey since it has major advantages of  both. However, it has a serious flaw, it is sterile and will not produce future generations. So while it may seem like a solution now to those insufficiently aware of the true dimensions of our own (Torah) culture, it will fail to provide our civilization with an eternal and everlasting solution to the human condition, which includes being an abode for the divine and holy element in the world. Therefore we must reject it.


In other words, all those who feel they can recreate our culture by ignoring or denigrating all the substance that have made it what it is since its very beginning are basically fooling themselves and others, and the proof is that these cultural improvements ignore the critical issues which give Torah the power to regenerate and persevere in its mission to reveal the divine element in the physical world, thus they miss the point and really sabotage us rather than enhance us.


 I will try to summarize here what seems to me the strongest arguments for acknowledging that that the oral torah is indeed not only bonafide but actually the more critically important part of the Torah.


Why must the Oral Torah be oral ?


The paradox of the Oral Law (OL) has long been its pervasive influence as a primal source of so much of the Jewish heritage, while simultaneously being a source of  contention. In reality this is not as contradictory as it sounds. Its elevated status as well as its format, make it an inviting and  vulnerable place from which to attack the doctrines of  what has condescendingly become known as ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, somehow implying that had it not been meddled with, Judaism would be far superior to what it is today.  Does this mean that no one can question  the basis or concepts of the OL ? Actually there are at least two forms of opposition to the OL. First, there is opposition to the idea that the bulk of the Sinatic revelation should be oral rather than written, with its implication that much of the body of Torah knowledge should be in the hands of a select group of  its receivers to disseminate and thereby control. Then there are the interpretations and concepts themselves, which have sometimes been challenged for their own sake, without  necessarily undermining the idea that they were part of a bonafide  phenomena known as the OL. In the first sense mentioned above, I will argue that to deny the OL is in effect to deny Torah, since this seems to me to be the more basic issue.


 Historically, whether in ancient or modern times, much of  the opposition is based on ignorance, as mastery of the OL is a difficult and time consuming process, opaque to those unwilling to bear its rigors. In contrast to this, the relative simplicity of just having a written Torah  appeals  widely as the easy, uncomplicated  and intuitive method that ‘G-d must have meant’. But as Isaiah prophesied in the name of the Almighty “For my thoughts are not your thoughts” we will see that much of the Torah is counter-intuitive to the average human mind, and necessarily so. After all, it seems counter-intuitive to most people that G-d would select a small part of the human race to reveal his ways to. But upon examination a strong case can be made that it would not be possible to do it otherwise, despite the affront to intuitive perception and common logic.


 The other primary source of opposition is vested self-interest, which is not surprising given the OL’s  central role in molding Jewish life with all that is at stake for it. It takes little insight to realize that any person or group who supposes such a large claim for their doctrine will encounter strident opposition, even for its own sake. Indeed it is built into the very fabric of human interaction. We are wary and cynical towards  those who decree explanations, meanings and systems which effectively allow them to obligate the rest of  us regardless of how intelligent or pure the source is. Similarly we get defensive about rules that impact perceived rights and freedoms. In short, we viscerally resist the authority of others and prefer taking refuge by ‘democratically’ making G-d over in our own image. It takes discipline and humility to accept the prerogatives of those superior to ourselves. This is not to say that in general, the pursuit of truth is not dear to many people or that critical thinking should be shunned. Rather, that all too often, glib generalizations and self serving illusions conspire  to cloud  judgment and make us unwilling to give the traditional view a fair hearing. Today in this age of egalitarianism, we pander to the idea that all systems are equally valid and that it is mostly primitive hubris which prevents people from melting together at the lowest common denominator. It is not sufficient that people should be equal before the law, their life styles must be equally vacuous so that no one can be said to be better than his fellow man.  Attendant to this attitude is a  reluctance to think things through and certainly the case for the OL requires a thorough and patient weighing of ideas. Its very format works strongly against it, as it is easy to dismiss ‘mere words’ with their ephemeral nature, and profound ideas are opaque to many. While religion can have few if any absolute proofs, the following arguments will endeavor to suggest why it is logical to believe that the OL is indeed the proper form of the Torah.



 1)The first question we might examine is what advantage is there to trusting oral rather than written transmission with the bulk of the Torah. This is critical since the strict prohibition on writing down the least bit of the Oral Torah was respected for 1500 years until Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (leader of his generation approx. 2nd century AD) decided  that a commitment  to writing (In a very unique oral style format) was absolutely necessary for the sake of continued survival. What it is about writing which is so taboo ? After all, it appears obvious in this age that large bodies of knowledge must be transmitted in written form in order to preserve them accurately. So if accuracy is at stake, what could be so important as to compel the Rabbis to carefully guard the oral format ?


While on the surface it might seem simple that since no printing existed  and copying by hand is such a labor intensive operation unsuited to widespread dissemination, what choice is there except oral dissemination ? However as true this may be, it is more incidental than essential to the issue. In the Talmud, there exist “footnotes” as it were, to the effect that the source of a particular law or opinion is from a “migilah misuteret” or hidden scroll, whereby the recipient of this knowledge is admitting that someone wrote it down because he was afraid that he would forget it. However, since merely writing down oral law was prohibited even in a relatively innocent form such as a note to oneself, it had to be hidden. Hence oral transmission of the law was a necessity for its own sake.


So besides reasons of practicality and lack of technology, are there still substantial reasons why oral might be superior to written for the transmission of knowledge ? Perhaps the oral mode of transmission has an effect upon its listeners considerably different than the written word has on its readers. Furthermore, it maybe the nature of this knowledge lends itself better to oral rather than written mode.


While this subject could undoubtedly fill volumes, in the interest of brevity, I feel confident that this last statement goes a long way towards explaining why the oral law must be oral irregardless of how often people gloss over this fact as if it has little or no bearing on the matter. Human experience  after all, varies dramatically from mode to mode, much as learning in a non phonetic alphabet would be quite a different undertaking then learning in our phonetic alphabet. All peoples are hypnotized by their cultural and sensory experience, both consciously and subliminally, usually assuming their experience as ‘normal’ or superior to some other culture. It doesn’t take much insight to realize how different for example, primarily oral eastern cultures are from the  west. Clearly pre-printing press societies and non alphabetic societies have quite a different learning experience than our modern society where until recently we have been far more  beholden to the conventions of the written word and barely aware of its distinctive form, as it  relentlessly imposes its visually orientated  assumptions upon us. Again, the distinctiveness of oral communication is not merely because  it was far more expensive, unwieldly and time consuming to write than it is today.  It should also be noted that for centuries reading the written word meant reading out loud in an oral format and not merely as quiet private study. Let us elaborate on this somewhat more;


 2)The nature of law itself and the subject matter it tries to encompass does not lend itself to being complete and neatly contained inside a one time written edition. To attempt that would be to put an arbitrary limitation on it, as well as give comfort to those who could argue that anything outside of that book would be foreign or superfluous. It would no longer be a living law, but frozen into an assumed absolute form. The oral mode on the other hand implies that there is  no such limitation. Just as one can go on speaking about a subject without arbitrary limitations as the subject yields to logic, reason and a multi faceted reality, so the oral medium implies that the subject is unbounded and unlimited just as its giver. It necessitates face to face communication which ensures that the true intentions of the disseminator of the knowledge are effectively received by the recipient, thus more faithfully preserving the original and true meaning. There is feedback, interaction and feeling packed into the teachings. This also effects a smooth and reliable transition from generation to generation, and it is far more likely to keep it out of the hands of those who would misuse it. It insures that the teachings themselves are more fully absorbed and internalized, as no external prompt exists to depend on. It ties people together and fosters interdependent and interactive feedback in a mutually expansive perspective, as opposed to book learning which is more private, restrictive and subjective.  The oral mode highlights and nourishes the methodologies and logic used in the derivation of practice from principle. There is less inhibition as all are likely to feel a collective interest in augmenting the flow of  the discussion being that it does not have the subliminal force of absolutation. While it might appear that it would be easier to distort or falsify a concept, this is not necessarily so at all. One of  the hallmarks of truth is consistency. The stock methodology of the Talmud is to find support or the lack thereof for a law or principle from other sources and to rigorously compare the similarities or differences. It is not possible to do this without a profound command of the context of both the breadth of Torah law and knowledge of how it is applied or not applied to an entire range of situations. In addition to this, the written Torah itself guides us with its principle “Hear O’ Israel”. Learning is primarily mouth to ear, father to son in an unbroken chain.


 3)There seems to be certain intuitive assumptions about the way G-d would do things. To many, it seems more compatible with divine dignity to write everything down, as this appears more complete and closer to perfection, that is, less left to chance and more focused. We are insulted by the idea that his work would be incomplete. The corollary to this is that true Torah can only come from G-d himself and that it would never depend on human intervention as one of its pillars. Perhaps this is at the heart of what really bothers many people about the OL, and it leads as well to the very core of the matter, for the OL is the ultimate contract between G-d and man. It is tunnel vision on our part to assume that the only aspect of our relationship to the eternal law giver is that of submissive and passive servant. It is a multi-dimensional relationship with  each facet thereof engendering a unique perspective. He is our creator, parent and king. We are his loyal servants, but we are sons,  and the son of a king is a prince. Thus our relationship has a supranatural form of dignity. But what of creator ?  We bear his spirit and partake of his image  which  implies equality and hence demands an elevation of the human condition. That elevation can be summarized in one word; Partnership. This term goes a long way towards  describing the essence of what the Jewish religion stands for and wants from us. Partnership, with its implication of equality can only take place if  both sides not only have a shared interest, but shared participation as well. It can be said without the slightest hesitation or doubt that the oral Torah embodies the very principle that the final form of the law is often determined (especially in cases of it being in doubt or forgotten) by men and not by G-d and that this is completely in accordance with the divine will. The Talmud promotes this idea with the phrase “The Torah is not in heaven” . i.e. what was given at Sinai, is no longer under the jurisdiction of heaven, but rather the jurisdiction of man on earth. The importance of this concept cannot be underestimated. It defines the human-divine relationship and properly emphasizes what our perspective should be.  That is, in a word, partnership !  To insist that only the plain meaning of the written words is the primary determinant of Jewish law is as false as it is absurd. Which leads to the next point.


 4)It is simply not possible to use the written Torah as a comprehensive guide for Jewish law and custom. This is so obvious that it should be beyond dispute. The majority of the mitzvoth prescribed in the Torah are given with virtually no specific written instructions to clarify their often copious details. The terseness of the text is one of its main characteristics. Yet the clear majority of these mitzvot have meant the same and have been practiced in a consistent manner, despite frequent disagreements concerning some details of their performance often due to the tremendous disruptions in Jewish history. The actual relationship of the two parts of the law can be described by the following analogy; The written law is like the framework of a building, i.e. its form and support, while the oral law is everything else which makes the building habitable by people (i.e. walls, floors, furniture etc.).  It would unthinkable and totally impractical to expect people to exist in the framework alone. But each part absolutely needs the other.


 5)Yet the so called “modern scholars” who start with the assumption that the Torah could not possibly be divine in origin have set themselves the task of finding the original meaning of the words in the written Torah as they imagine them to be in a fixed one dimensional perspective, in order to convince us that this is all there is to it. They reject any notion that the true meaning was passed down by tradition and its multidimensional view which treats  the text as a unified body. The result is a patch work of unrelated ideas and events written by various anonymous editors who magically had the authority to amend the text as they saw fit, under the assumption that all would thereafter accept their decrees without protest or question.  They see trees but no forest. Therefore they must shred the underlying fabric and claim  there is no unity, only vaguely connected pieces which can only be understood by often resorting to very forced unrelated ideas that ignore or downplay the flow and context of the verses as a continuum of the overall message. The words of the ‘ancient commentators’ (the term so-called bible scholars give to the rabbis of the mishnah and talmud), is derided as totally divorced from the reality of the true Torah as they see it. This vapid and quite disrespectful term shows amazing arrogance given that such people have little problem awarding the title of rabbi to members of the modern reform movement where the profundities of traditional learning are cavalierly disregarded and routinely denigrated, but cannot bring themselves to call men whose entire lives were devoted to living and understanding the vast corpus of traditional Torah, rabbis !  This two dimensional subjective position runs completely counter to the quite logical and observable notion that the Torah is a unified doctrine based on often subtly stated  but profound insights into the human condition  yielding a stable and sustainable society that has endured for thousands of years under incredible adversity and most recently culminating in the resurrection of the state of Israel, and the current return of many Jews to their roots. If all this is not an accident then it is not  unreasonable to assume that the syntax , choice of words, spelling and phrasing are carefully chosen to open vistas of thought, meaning and possibility within the text. The very text is itself a code that many times cries out that it is pointing to more profound understandings inside the words. Great pains were taken throughout history to resolve the occasional minor (but nevertheless critical) deviations in the written text that arose from persecutions, exiles or just plain human error. The free for all rendering attributed to the scribes by modern interpreters is a myth they must promulgate to defend their theories.


 6) Bear in mind as well that today we consider primarily what is explicit as the proper form of learning and the hallmark of wisdom. But the further back in history one goes, the more one sees that a reader of written words was expected to exert himself to understand the true depth and meaning of the words, which were usually given over in poetic or symbolic terms, this being considered closer to the form true wisdom should take. Basically the bulk of the prophetic writings assume this style. Yet today unless one is studying for a course in literature, modern audiences have little or no patience to deal with any writing which is not explicit in nature, rather than fostering literary appreciation through ornate and artistic styles of writing.


 7)How could you have a separate holy people if the entire content of the Torah were in written form?. Everyone else would adapt it and claim to be the ‘chosen people’ as indeed has long been the case. Only the OL really maintains the distinction between chosen and non-chosen. The corollary to this is that the Torah itself should show signs of its origins. In other words, even to those fair minded and intelligent people who have doubts about the OL, there should be possible to discern a higher and more profound intelligence at work.


 8)As mentioned above there is a vested interest and resistance to allowing others the privilege of defining the rules by which all must live. But ask yourself honestly, what is religion if not an objective standard beyond ones ego and private desire to which an entire society can coordinate its vision. Is it feasible that G-d the creator and lawgiver would design a system in which all arbitrarily decide what constitutes the divine will ? The authority must be given to those best able to handle it to maintain the system, least it quickly devolve into chaos as it did to some extent during the times of the Judges (i.e. the period after the death of Joshua, until the first king reigned in ancient Israel). This is balanced by a limitation on political or absolute power. In other words, as important and as authoritative as their legal decisions are, the rabbis and sages who must act in unison throught the aegis of the Jewish supreme court (i.e. the Sanhedrin), can never claim the type of absolute power which might lead to political abuses and subsequent oppression. Furthermore true equality before the law is enshrined in the Torah as all strata of society without exception are subject to the same laws and standards of behavior. The alternative would have been to give Kings absolute power (the usual solution in the ancient world) which came about to a large extent due to disunity among the tribes. Remember however, that the remnants of the Jewish nation pulled themselves together and were able to regenerate their national culture after the Babylonian exile. A feat not matched by any other nation. In today's assimilationist mindset, by abrogating Jewish law and traditional concepts, there is no standard that all can feel represents the will of G-d and a unified culture. Certainly men will not long feel compelled  to  follow standards set by other men, even if it be themselves. Yet everyone today lacking even a smattering of knowledge of Jewish tradition feels qualified to be judge if for no other reason than it is convenient. It would seem that our “democratically” ingrained habits of license masquerading as freedom, extend to all phenomena, as we are incapable of untangling historical tradition from private desire. It is therefore logical as well as  practical to disseminate the corpus of Torah law by a rigorous oral discipline which eliminate or at least diminishes the possibility that it should be administered by unworthy individuals.


 9)Given the preciousness of G-d’s word, a great effort is needed to preserve it in oral format. Schools must be founded and students rigorously trained in proper doctrine and discipline. No one wants to be responsible for the breaking of this critical link which binds generation to generation and man to G-d. This engenders pride and dedication. People dependent on the written word for their thinking are much less likely to be sufficiently motivated to bear these rigors as they will always depend on a source outside of themselves to contain the answers. If it is written, why bother to absorb it into memory so that it may more easily become part of oneself ?


 10)Many think that since the oral law is hardly discernible in the prophetic writings, it had no role until it was ‘invented’ after the Babylonian exile. This is completely untrue as a thorough knowledge of the oral law is necessary to understand much of the material in the written text. For example the giving of a  bill of divorce to their wives by soldiers in the days of King David *. Regardless, it is clear that whether one discerns the effect of the OL in early Jewish history or not, over time, circumstances and conditions have evolved leading to a slow but discernible level of social, and cultural changes which in turn laid the groundwork for Judaism and Torah to  adapt the  format of Torah observance. The Judaism of the first Temple era where the emphasis was on national observance through the Temple service and guidance by the prophets was clearly different than the period of Greek dominance, when prophets no longer existed. The challenge of Greek philosophy spurred the growth of Jewish Academies to meet the challenge, but this is a very different thing then saying there was no OL until the time of the Greeks. There was a significant movement towards individual consciousness and observance of Jewish law in personal conduct. Many in the generation of  the Babylonian exiles thought that Judaism was defunct when Jerusalem was destroyed. The men of the Great Assembly which included the last generation of Prophets understood this and adjusted the emphasis of Jewish life and learning accordingly. But in truth it is not too difficult to discern the roots of the OL within the written law. The thirteen principles which form a logic framework to extract appropriate legal decisions within Torah law are ofttimes clearly but subtly visible within the written law. The thirty-nine categories of forbidden labor on the Sabbath, not specified in the written Torah were always part of Judaism, just as were the specifics of family purity laws and most of the ceremonial law. Of course various decrees, additions and adjustments did enter the system over time, but these are normal growing pains of a people meeting new challenges and situations. As mentioned above, this is part of reason the bulk of the Torah is oral to begin with.  


While it is difficult to do justice to this subject  in anything less than a scholarly tome and a deeper look at the details, I have tried to at least summarize what I believe to be the most critical points. I think it is fair to say that the majority of people who make the most strenuous protests, are often the ones who know least about the subject. For more of a backround as to the basis for my working assumptions, see the Introduction to Torah.


* This was done so that a woman whose husband was missing, would not be prohibitied from remarrying if her husband's fate was not clearified within a reasonable amount of time. The laws governing this situation were clearly a part of the oral law and here as in many other places we can perceive a deeper insight into various episodes in the Bible because of our knowledge of the oral law.