The Torah is, for all practical purposes, the Jewish Bible. Most people are familiar in some way with the written component of the Torah. Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Jews the Oral Torah as well. The Oral Torah contains details about performing commandments, information that is not found in the actual text.

One point should be addressed before proceeding. Many people find it difficult or non-intuitive to believe that the Oral Torah was indeed given by God. While they may believe that God gave the Written Torah, or at least accept it as fairly reasonable without accepting it themselves, they tend to be much more skeptical about the Divine origin of the Oral Torah. Many people straight out reject the idea altogether.

There is, I may say, a reasonably legitimate reason for this partially spontaneous reaction. That reason is that people tend to more easily believe in things that they can see. Related to this, people may be cautious about what they consider to be human and rabbinic interjection and interpretation into the Oral Torah and passing it off as God's Word. I will therefore attempt to demonstrate the veracity of the Oral Torah in light of these objections and sources of skepticism.

Two Torahs - One Written, One Oral

The first point to consider is that the Oral Torah is a hybrid of several different sources of information. What this means is that Orthodox Jews regard the variant elements in the Oral Torah according to their designated levels of authority. We should know what Orthodox Jews mean when they say that "God gave us the Oral Torah."

One category of information in the Oral Torah is rabbinic ordinances or legislation introduced by rabbis. The purpose of these ordinances is to protect against transgressions that are likely to occur, or are damaging in some way, even though the Torah does not prohibit them. For example, one such ordinance prohibits Jewish men and women to be in private quarters with adult members of the opposite sex that they are not married or related to. This ordinance is related to the sexual desires that may (or are likely to) arise among people of the opposite sex, and which can potentially can lead to a pursuit of those feelings. These ordinances fall into a category called "D'rabbanan," which means "from the rabbis" in Aramaic. Transgressing such ordinances is prohibited, but they do not carry the weight of Biblical commandments (known as D'oraisa, meaning "instruction" in Aramaic). The Torah itself bestows the rabbinical leadership with the authority to make such decisions. See Deuteronomy 17:8-11.

Another category is something called "Halacha Moshe MiSinai," which means "laws that Moses transmitted from (Mount) Sinai." This is an interesting category because it refers to details about commandments that God did not refer to in any way, shape, or form in the Written Torah. The details in this category make up a minority of the details contained in Jewish Law, and the Rambam (Maimonides) lists 31.

The category that I sought to describe as the cornerstone of the Oral Torah is that which 
makes up the largest body of details, i.e., the majority. This category is arguably the most important because it provides necessary details about commandments that are referred to in the Written Torah. This category is of great importance because it provides would-be observers with the basic information required to perform the overwhelming majority of the commandments. People often take for granted that the Torah omits almost all of the information required to be an observant Jew. You can test this theory by yourself by reading through the Torah and attempting to understand how to perform the commandments without being taught how. I say with no hesitation that the Torah reads as a rather strange, mysterious, and even bizarre text without some form of external understanding. This describes the unforgettable experience that I had trying to read the Torah more than twenty years ago as an unobservant Jew in college. The Torah made absolutely no sense, but I digress.

Another category that is tangentially related to the direct observance of commandments is Midrash, which is subject matter related to the narrative portions of the Torah.

For example, it is easy to overlook and take for granted something as simple as the commandment of kashrus, or kosher slaughter. This commandment is often used to make this point perhaps because of peoples' general understanding that Jews keep kosher. People may be surprised to discover, in contrast to their assumptions, that the Written Torah does not provide any details about how to slaughter an animal according to the laws of kashrus. I assume that most people assume the Torah to describe this process in detail, which it does not. All of the details about what renders a kosher animal fit for consumption by Jews are covered in the Oral Torah. The Written Torah simply makes the brief mention that "If the place the Lord, your God, chooses to put His Name there, will be distant from you, you may slaughter of your cattle and of your sheep, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities, according to every desire of your soul." (Deuteronomy 12:21)

Vey! What a Rude Goat!

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Torah's omission of basic, relevant details of commandments is that the same Torah prescribes penalties for failure to perform them correctly. If you don't mind me saying, this make it seem like God is playing a game.

Another, less extreme, alternative made by many is that the Torah is simply some strange, indecipherable ancient text that may have been understood by the people they assume to have written it, but whose understanding has been since lost. What's strange about this theory is that many of the people who accept it believe in God.

The theory above leads to the third one, which is that the rabbis took it upon themselves to creatively interpret the meaning of the text. However, the major and relatively clear issue with this theory is why and how the rabbis would do this if they believed in God? What we get with this is some enigmatic circular feedback loop whereby the rabbis made up the laws that they believe God to have delivered to them. In addition, if this process was gradual or late-coming, how were the Jews observing the commandments up to that point in history?

The above points seem to make it relatively clear that the details of the commandments were given by God as the central focus of the Jewish religion and observance, and that contrary to public opinion, the Written Torah itself was provided as the supplement.

To end, here is an excellent and very thorough article from SimpletoRemember about the necessity of the Oral Law.

Comment below.

No comments: