Ideas to Help Acceptance of the Oral Tradition

The Ramchal in his “Essay on Fundamentals” says that G-d did not desire to write the Torah so clearly that it would not need any explanation. Quite to the contrary, He wrote in it many undefined concepts, so no man could possibly know its true meaning without being given an explanation. This explanation must come from a tradition emanating from G-d Himself, Who is the Author of the Torah.

Ramchal mentions there are three ways in which the Written Torah is modified by the Oral Tradition
– Concepts which are mentioned in a general manner, but whose details are explained in the Oral Tradition
– Concepts which are fully explained in the Written Torah, but can be interpreted in different ways
– Where the words in the written Torah have one meaning, while the Oral Tradition explains it in a very different manner

When teaching beginners Torah, it is sometimes hard to convince them about the importance of the Oral Torah’s centrality in understanding the written Torah. They need to be taught that you can’t understand individual Posukim without an explanation.

What challenges did you need to overcome to accept the Oral Tradition as the ultimate source of explanation?

How would you help others come to that understanding?

18 comments on “Ideas to Help Acceptance of the Oral Tradition

  1. In the 2009 World Series, Yankees ace Alex Rodriguez hit a blast that was on its way out of the stadium. However, the ball hit one of the TV cameras mounted on the wall and bounced back into the park. The poobahs of baseball huddled together with the rule book, consulted the commissioner himself, and finally decided that it was a home run, just as if the camera had not been there and the ball had really gone out of the ballpark.

    Here you have a situation from the world of professional sports where something not explicitly written in the rule book had to be decided. That matter was handled by the biggest experts of that sport who were entrusted by all stakeholders to be faithful to the traditions and spirit of that sport in coming up with a correct decision.

    Lehavdil alef havdalos….

  2. I think there are a couple issues worth noting that are important beyond acceptance that there is an Oral Law. I think you could convince many people of the need for an oral tradition later written down as Mishna and Gemara. To me the bigger hurdle is to show why what is written actually reflects the correct Oral Law. I am probably far the from only one occassionally troubled by the fact that seemingly important concepts required argument in the Gemara to resolve. Furthermore, even convincing someone that there is an oral law does not necessarily provide proof that it leads to correct decisions in modernity.

  3. Kav HaYashar, Chapter 39:
    All the allusions revealed by our Sages are the true essence of the Torah, while the words of the Torah are only like a garment.

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  4. Judy Resnick wrote in part:

    “. For example, most of our Pesach customs, such as the exact wording of the Haggadah, the arrangement of the Seder Plate, and the ban on Kitniyos for Ashkenazim, fall within TSBP. The Jewish way for dealing with death and burial is almost entirely from the Oral Law. The same goes for Jewish marriage, Jewish divorce, the manner in which Tefillin are made, how to properly slaughter a steer and kasher its meat, etc.”

    Actually, this statement can be parsed even more carefully. One has to distinguish between that which is of the definition of death, which may be rooted in TSBP, but explaining a Halacha of Torah origins, of purely Rabbinic origin, such as much of Hilcos Aveilus, and post Talmudic Minhagim as developed by the Rishonim -such as the wording of the Haggadah, the form of the Seder plate and the prohibition of Kitniyos for Ashkenazim.

    Many of The Halachos relating to “Jewish marriage, Jewish divorce, the manner in which Tefillin are made, how to properly slaughter a steer and kasher its meat” either of a Torah origin explicitly rooted in the Torah or are a Halacha LMoshe Sinai.

  5. Bob Miller asked:

    “Can you recommend any texts on this topic in English or English translation?”

    I would suggest downloading RHS’s shiurim on the subject from YU Torah. There is an English edition of the Maharatz Chayes “Intoduction to the Talmud”, but I think that this is an issue where the expression “kli Sheni aino Mvashel” means that there is both of good English works and that exploring some of the works that I listed, as well as others, would make an excellent addition to one’s Shabbos afternoon Seder Limud.

    For those interested, Chakirah , a wonderful English language Torah journal has an excellent article by R Chaim Eisen on Parshanut and how the view of Aggados Chazal and Midrashim were radically changed by the views and writings of Maharal.

  6. Judy,
    The problem arises when nonobservant people consider such elements of the Oral Law to be mere “traditions” that they can accept, modify, or reject based on personal views, feelings, etc.

  7. A lot of what is universally accepted as Judaism by those who are not observant is contained within the Oral Law. For example, most of our Pesach customs, such as the exact wording of the Haggadah, the arrangement of the Seder Plate, and the ban on Kitniyos for Ashkenazim, fall within TSBP. The Jewish way for dealing with death and burial is almost entirely from the Oral Law. The same goes for Jewish marriage, Jewish divorce, the manner in which Tefillin are made, how to properly slaughter a steer and kasher its meat, etc. Jews who are not observant but intellectually honest would have to agree that what is practiced nowadays as the Jewish religion is mostly the detailed explanations of the Oral Law giving meaningful substance to the abbreviated commands of the Written Law. Karaism and Samaritanism are not Judaism.

  8. It’s obvious that the Torah needs interpretation. That doesn’t need much explanation.

    The difficulties crop up when modern Westernized Jews immediately say:

    1) Why can’t I reach my own opinion?

    and:

    2) Who says this Rabbinic stuff is from Sinai?

    … which basically cut to the core conflict between a worldview based on religious/communal obligations and the immature modern emphasis on autonomy above all.

  9. The more I learn — I would explain — the more completely incomprehensible and internally inconsistent the Written Torah is. It not only needs the Oral Torah. The two are inseparable.

  10. Whoops-please add the Psicha HaKolleles of the Pri Medgadim, which sets forth all of the varius types of Mitzvos Min HaTorah and Drabbanan and the various distinctions that one encounters in TSBP re various obligations, and the personae obligated or exempted from observing any particular mitzvah.

  11. I would suggest as additions to the Ramchal- the Hakdamah of Rambam to Yad HaChazakah, the Meiri’s similar discussion in his commentary on Avos and the Kidmas HaEmek of the Netziv to each of the three volumes of the HaEmek Davar and one of the Drashos of the Beis HaLevi-all of which spell out in detail the fact that TSBP had to be given simultaneously with Torah Shebicsav

  12. The Karaites thought they could dispense with the Oral Law, but, inescapably, they still had to fill in the blanks in the Written Torah in order to establish actual practices for life. So they invented fixes of their own not traceable to Sinai.

  13. I think the importance of the oral Torah can be made clear by taking a few sugyas about topics that are non-threatening and easily recognizable (tekias shofar comes to mind, I am sure there are many others) and demonstrating the difference between what we would know and do without the oral Torah and what we actually know and do with the oral Torah. Ayin tachas ayin is another great example, although this type of topic sometimes seems foreign and not “religious” to a beginner.

    Separately, I think it is important that in emphasizing the importance of the oral Torah, one not minimize the written Torah, as it was obviously purposeful that God gave us the Torah in both written and oral form.

  14. See, for example:
    http://www.torah.org/learning/dvartorah/5764/mishpatim.html?print=1

    An excerpt:
    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch uses the analogy that the Written Torah is like the notes to a scientific lecture. Every jot and squiggle has significance. If properly understood it can awaken the actual lecture. The notes remain practically useless to someone who has not heard the lecture from a Master. Therefore in the Oral Torah is the sum of the lecture while the Written Torah is merely a shorthand record.

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