Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Rabbinic Judaism

Q: The more deeply I study Jewish history and Tanach, the more I become convinced that we have been in a period of "hester panim" since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the construction of the Second Temple, when the Shechina did not return to Bnei Yisrael. As a believer in the Blessings and Curses and being impressed by the ready mapping of the Tochaicha from the 4th century B.C.E through the Holocaust, I am drawn to the conclusion that the cause of our distress as "The People of the Book" has been a basic violation of the Torah in the emergence and domination of Rabbinic Judaism (over Levitical Judaism), notwithstanding the supposed intent of Rabbinic Judaism in its infancy to preserve the Torah. As the agrarian lifestyle of Bnei Yisrael during the First Temple period (with its concommitant need for Levites supported by the surrounding community and dedicated to teaching the Law and enforcing it as judges) gave way to the advent of urban life after the return to Israel of the exiled, the free time of urban life permitted study of the Torah and a growing distaste for the Kohanim and their Levitical brethren, finally resulting in a "French Revolution," but really culminating in a new religion devoid of God's earmarking of the tribe of Levi as his ministers and the teachers of His Laws to Yisrael...Could this be so? Have we lost God's active presence in Am Yisrael's fate (aside from HIS always maintaining a remnant) so that we will continue to be under the gun, so to speak, with the absence of peace and the other Blessings until we as a people RETURN to God's Levitical Teaching (the Torah), and not the constructed one of rabbinic making? Thank you in advance for your response....Yerachmiel

A: Dear Yerachmiel,

I agree with your observation that we live in a period of time during which God's providential influence is not apparent to us. However, your explanation of the reason for this phenomenon seems to be based upon several ideas that don't stand up to serious scrutiny. First of all, you state that the Bible indicates that only the Levites and Priests are entitled to serve as the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Without a doubt, the Bible reflects an expectation that the Levites will be especially devoted to the study of Torah and will dedicate themselves to teaching its commandments to the masses. However, the fact remains that the majority of the prophets in Jewish history, from Joshua on, were not Levites. It is evident that the most gifted prophet in a given generation was acknowledged as the religious leader of that period and was deferred to by layperson and priest alike. When the Second Temple was rebuilt, we find prophets educating the Priests about the performance of the Temple Service and the laws of ritual purity. Furthermore, we see that the prophets never hesitated to criticize the Priests, quite harshly at times. Their moral authority - based, as it was, upon their knowledge of God's Torah - empowered them to supervise, instruct and even castigate the Levites. Thus, the prophets, by virtue of their knowledge and moral perfection, were consistently regarded as the ultimate religious authorities of the Nation of Israel. The Torah itself alludes to this when it states, "And you shall come to the the Priests, the Levites, AND the the Judge who will preside in those days," implying that the Judge may not be a Levite or a Priest!

You also seem to suggest that the Talmudic Rabbis invented a new brand of Judaism that did not exist before the destruction of the Second Temple. The first difficulty with this belief is that it involves a serious misconception about the nature of the Oral Tradition in Jewish thought. To speak of Rabbinic Judaism as "constructed" is to imply that it is a creation of the rabbis that exists independently of the Written Torah. In reality, the relationship of the Oral and Written Torahs is comparable to the relationship that obtains between theoretical paradigm and empirical observation in science. In the scientific realm, abstract constructs and principles that exist in the mind of the scientist provide a framework through which he or she interprets data, makes predictions, etc. In a similar vein, the Oral Torah is a conceptual prism that resides in the Torah scholar's intellect and through which he interprets, analyzes and draws conclusions from the written text. Scientific formulae do not add anything tangible to the empirical data; rather, they serve to further integrate and develop our understanding of the data. Similarly, the formulations of the Oral Torah don't add content to the Torah; they simply provide a conceptual framework for reading and comprehending it. I would encourage you to listen to a lecture I delivered on this topic a couple of months ago, at http://magen-david.net/TXXO.wav.

In the lecture, I discuss how the notion that the text of the Torah could possibly be interpreted or applied without some preexistent intellectual 'context' is ultimately untenable. A couple of brief examples will clarify my argument (listen to the audio class for more). The Torah commands us not to engage in "melacha" (frequently mistranslated as "work", probably better rendered as "craft" or "creative activity") on the Sabbath. What is the precise definition of the term "melacha"? If we expect to derive such information from the text alone, we find ourselves in a serious predicament. Every Jew will interpret the word for him or herself, and what is included under the heading of "melacha" in the eyes of one reader may be excluded by another. Indeed, the Torah's definition of melacha does not seem to correspond to our "common sense" perspective - the Sabbath violator mentioned in Leviticus was executed for gathering sticks, an activity that sounds inocuous to most. We must ask ourselves - would it be fair for a judge to distinguish between a Sabbath observer and a Sabbath violator based upon his own subjective sense of the Torah's meaning? Would the judge feel sufficient conviction in his personal intuition to impose the death penalty for Sabbath violation in light of it? Clearly, God must have had a very specific concept of "melacha" in mind when He commanded us to abstain from it. The definition of this term and its abstract formulation is found exclusively in the Oral Torah as transmitted from Moses down to the Talmudic Rabbis. Again, the traditional Torah scholar's ideas don't add new information to the Torah any more than the scientist's theoretical understanding adds new information to the physical world. The rabbinic Jew simply reads the words of the text on a deeper, more sophisticated level in light of the framework provided by the Oral Torah.

Allow me to cite one more example - there are many! The Torah tells us in Deuteronomy that if a defendant is found guilty and is worthy of lashes, the judges should administer them. However, nowhere in the Written Torah does it describe who is "worthy of lashes". Are the justices expected to make the criteria up as they go along? Clearly, the definition of this category must have been transmitted orally - it is a part of the conceptual framework that forms the basis of our reading and interpretation of the Biblical text.

It is important to note that the Torah is not unique in its dependence upon an oral tradition for proper rendition. Countless other works of law, science and literature can be completely misunderstood if the reader lacks the proper background knowledge, including an accurate definitions of technical terms, a sense of historical setting and context, etc. Groups who have rejected rabbinical tradition and attempt to observe Judaism based on the text alone have generated an unlimited range of interpretations of Torah yet possess no reliable criteria for choosing between them. Are we to maintain that God bequeathed to us a text whose language is deliberately ambiguous and whose true sense is inaccessible to us? Is it reasonable to believe that God would present us with a written document that is subject to multiple interpretations without providing us with the tools to grasp its intended meaning? We must assume that the prophets and judges of Israel possessed an orally transmitted set of principles that allowed them to interpret the Torah's ideas and commandments accurately. This body of knowledge was ultimately vouchsafed to the rabbis.

Incidentally, the most beautiful illustration of the integration of Written and Oral Torah is the comprehensive and majestic Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the study of which I would highly recommend to you.

The second problem with this critique of rabbinic Judaism is a theological problem. The prophets have promised us that, despite the trials and tribulations the Nation of Israel faced and will face, authentic Torah Judaism will never be forgotten from their midst. If we admit that the Torah was never 'lost' at any point in history, then there must have been an unbroken chain of individuals who mantained proper Torah teaching and observance throughout the generations. An analysis of Jewish history reveals that the only group of people who have observed the Torah in a consistent manner since the destruction of the Second Temple are the rabbinic Jews, who must perforce have inherited their perspective and understanding from the prophets before them. There is no doubt that alternative sects of Judaism have made appearances on the world stage from time to time. However, not one of these groups can boast of an uninterrupted chain of religious observance linking them all the way back to Moses at Sinai. Thus, assuming that the promise of the prophets was fulfilled, we must conclude that the genuine inheritors of the Torah tradition are the Rabbis and their students.

I fully agree with your assessment that the Jewish people have strayed quite far from the proper study and observance of the Torah. As long as our infatuation with the hedonistic and materialistic values of modern culture persists, this tragic reality will remain unchanged. The key, however, is not to reject the instruction of the rabbis, but to return to it. With their guidance, we can find in the Torah all of the wisdom we need to pursue a meaningful and truly satisfying life.

Rabbi Maroof


Anonymous said...

Discuss the meaning and nature of Rabbinic Judaism.

How does Rabbinic Judaism compare to reform Judaism?

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