iBelieve – Talmud

Conservative and Orthodox Judaism both make claims that there is an “Oral Torah” or “Oral Law” that was given to Moses on Sinai. This Oral Torah was given as a type of addendum to the Written Torah. It is explained that there must have been an Oral Torah given to explain what was given in the Written Torah. However there is no real evidence for an Oral Torah being given at Sinai.

We can plainly see in the Tanakh that if there were questions about the Written Torah the people were to take their concerns to Moses or the Elders. In time, after the conquest of the Land of Israel, if the people had a question about halakhah they would go to the elders of the city and if they could not decide the answer then the question would be taken to the sitting judges (Sanhedrin) and if they could not decide the answer the question would be taken to the priests. The priests would take the question to God and the answer would be given to the people. These rulings (at all levels) would have been spread across the land by oral teachings.

So, what do I believe? I believe that the Talmud is a written document that is based upon some type of oral rulings that became written down over time. I do not believe that an “Oral Torah” was given to Moses but instead the oral rulings of later elders, judges, and priests – and eventually rabbis – were written down in a format that became known as the Talmud. I believe that the Talmud is invaluable in learning about Jewish history and philosophy but I do not believe that it is in any way binding. While the rulings of the Elders, Judges, and Priests are binding upon all of Israel what we have today in the Mishnah may or may not be those rulings. Since we cannot be sure whether the Mishnah are the actual rulings from the Elders, Judges, and Priests I do not consider them binding. The rulings of the rabbis (Gemara) are also not binding since the rabbis never “sat in Moses’ seat” and therefore their rulings are not binding. The only binding mitzvot is that which is in the Torah – laws given directly from God to Moses.

I believe that the rulings of the Talmud are a starting place for modern-day Jews but they are not the ending of the rulings. Modern rabbis can, and must, interpret halakhah according to Torah and according to our current understanding of psychology, science, etc. This is no different than the rabbis of the Talmud who added their own rulings and interpretations to the Mishnah and turned it into the Talmud. We as modern-day Jews must continue this tradition of interpreting the mitzvot of the Torah and offering modern-day examples of how we are to follow the mitzvot of Torah.

The Talmud is invaluable in learning about our past and learning about tradition. However, the Talmud is not the source of God’s law – that is the exclusive purview of Torah. The Talmud is a text that should be studied by each Jew but it cannot be taken as the source of halakhah and cannot be taken as holy writ.

My Faith Journey

Brief Biography (You can read a more in-depth biography on my About page.)

I was raised in a Christian Evangelical household from about the age of four. I was ushered into the typical general warning to never ask questions. I was taught to believe what the preacher said and not to question his authority. At the age of ten I decided for my parents’ sake that I would undergo baptism.  Over the summer many of us preteens and teens became young missionaries. By the end of the summer I was thinking that maybe I wanted to be a missionary and I wanted to “save people from hell.”

Around age thirteen my parents and I started attending another church which started out as an Evangelical church but actually became a non-denominational church. I was learning about Judaism from a Christian viewpoint. I knew that I no longer wanted to be a missionary and I started to really question the doctrines of the church. As my world became bigger and I began to have more experience with people outside my own culture and religion, I began questioning if what I was being taught was right. By eighteen my parents stopped fighting with me and I left the church behind. If asked, I continued to call myself a Christian but I was non-practicing.

In my mid-twenties I became even more antagonistic toward organized religion and would have classified myself as an agnostic. I eventually became so angry at God and the world that I became an atheist. By my late-twenties, after doing some soul-searching I decided to look into various faith practices (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Bah’ai, Islam, Judaism).

I contacted the local (Reform) synagogue and requested a meeting with the rabbi. They didn’t have a rabbi but they did have student rabbis during the summer. I was fortunate enough to get in to see the student rabbi. After about a year-and-a-half I moved back to the other side of the country and continued my studies there. At 32 I went before a (Conservative) beit din –a rabbinic court – and I immersed in the mikveh. I became Rachel-Esther bat Avraham v’Sarah – a Jew.

My Journey

My philosophy had steadily changed over the years. I continued to associate with the Conservative movement for many reasons (even though I did not stand behind some of the decisions of the movement). I called myself Masorti – traditional. After 12 years of being a Conservative Jew I became a Tanakh-only/Karaite Jew and this is where I have been for the last two years.

I now believe that in order to be a “Light unto the Nations” I as a Jew must teach the truth of Torah to all who are open to it. I believe that mitzvot (Torah commands) are binding upon all Jews but the interpretation of the mitzvot is not stagnant – it must continue to evolve with each person’s understanding of the Hebrew text and the history/archaeology of Israel and the ancient nation-states. I believe that using Karaite texts and Rabbinic texts as commentaries can help one to perform these mitzvot.

I am a follower of Torah and the mitzvot of God. I do not believe that halakhah (Talmudic law) is binding upon any Jew since it does not come from God or from the Elders, Judges, Priests, or Sanhedrin. I believe that we are commanded to search the Torah and follow the mitzvot while following the legitimate traditions of our forefathers. No one sect or denomination has all the answers. Only Torah has all the answers and we are commanded to seek them out. I choose to align myself with Post-Denominational Judaism which I believe offers the greatest degree of flexibility in one’s own Torah observance while also accepting the rejection of the binding nature of halakhah.

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Rambam (Part 1)

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that one of the components of the “Oral Law” is the laws given to Moshe at Sinai. Rambam argues that the Yisraelites heard these instructions from Moshe and they in turn passed these instructions onto their children.1

Rambam gives us a list of thirty “Oral Laws” that were given to Moshe ha-navi at Har Sinai.2

Measurement of oil
1. Measurement of oil for the thanksgiving offering

Now this is the Instruction for the slaughter-offering of shalom that is brought near for the Eternal One : if (it is) on account of thanksgiving that he brings it near, he is to bring near along with the slaughter-offering of thanksgiving: matza cakes, mixed with oil, matza wafers smeared with oil, and flour well-stirred into cakes mixed with oil. (Vayikra 7:12)3

We see from this verse that the thanksgiving offering should be “mixed” with oil and “smeared” with oil. There is no indication that there must be an exact measurement of oil that is “mixed” or “smeared” in/on the unleavened bread.

2. Measurement of oil for the offering given at the end of the term of a Nazirite;

Now this is the Ritual Instruction for the Consecrated-One: On the day that one’s days of being consecrated are fulfilled, one is to be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment…a basket of matzot of flour, round-loaves mixed with oil, wafers of matzot spread with oil, (as well as) their grain-gift and their poured-offerings. (Bamidbar 6:13, 15)3

We see from this verse that the Nazirite offering should be “mixed” with oil and “spread” with oil. There is no indication that there must be an exact measurement of oil that is “mixed” or “spread” in/on the unleavened bread.

Nidah
3. A woman is tahor during the eleven days between the two nidah periods;

A woman – when she is one-with-a-flow, her flow being of blood from her “flesh,” seven days shall she remain in her (state of) being-apart. Anyone who touches her is to remain tamei until sunset. … Now when she is purified from her flow, she is to number seven days, and afterward, she becomes pure. An on the eighth days she is to take herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and is to bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment. The priest is to sacrifice the one as a hattat-offering and the other as an offering-up, the priest is to effect-purgation for her before the presence of the Eternal One , from her tamei flow. (Vayikra 15: 19, 28-30)3

As can be plainly seen from the Torah a woman is unclean for seven days and on the eighth day if she sees no further issuance of blood then she is clean. There is no indication in the Torah that there are eleven days where a woman is tahor.

Architecture
4. Length of a wall when conforming to certain standards;
5. Space less than three t’fahim wide in a solid surface;
6. A ceiling being a bent continuation of the wall;

Simply put, where is there anywhere in the Tanakh that certain standards for walls, solid surfaces, and ceilings mentioned outside of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash (and their accompanying items)? In the case of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash there are specific measurements that would have been understood by the Yisraelites without any “Oral Law.”

Blessing over food
7. Minimum amount of food needed for a baracah;

…when you eat, and you are satisfied, you are to bless the Eternal One your God for the good land that he has given you. (Devarim 8:10)3

We are told quite simply in the Tanakh that we are to bless God for the good of the land after we eat and are satisfied. It is really quite simple. There is no minimum amount needed as long as the person is satisfied.

Mikveh
8. Minimum dimension that constitutes a separation of the body and the mikveh water;

Now when the one-with-a-flow is purified from his flow, he is to number himself seven days of being pure; when he scrubs his garments and washes his flesh in living water, then he is pure. (Vayikra 15:13)3

Simply put, a man (and women in some circumstances) is to immerse in living water. It states that he is to bathe his flesh which means that he shall not have anything separating his body from the living water. There is no need for an “Oral Law” to understand a very simple process of ritual purification.

Construction
9. Minimum dimensions of a wall;

Simply put, where is there anywhere in the Tanakh that certain standards for walls mentioned outside of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash (and their accompanying items)? In the case of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash there are specific measurements that would have been understood by the Yisraelites without any “Oral Law”.

———————-

1Naftali Silberberg. “What is the ‘Oral Torah?’” chabad.org. Chabad, n.d., accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812102/jewish/What-is-the-Oral-Torah.htm]
2Zvi Lampel, trans. Maimonides’ Introduction to the Talmud. New York: The Judaica Press, Inc., 1998.
3Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
4Melech ben Ya’aqov. “What is the Sabbath?” karaiteinsights.com. Karaite Insights, n.d., accessed 15 April 2012. [http://www.karaiteinsights.com/article/shabbat.html]

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Sukkah and Punishment

Sukkah
…you are to celebrate it as pilgrimage, a pilgrimage-festival to the Eternal One , for seven days a year – a law for the ages, throughout your generations: in the seventh New-Moon you are to celebrate it as pilgrimage – in huts you are to stay for seven days, every native in Yisrael is to stay in huts – in order that you generations may know that in huts I had B’nei Yisrael stay when I brought them out of Mitzrayim, I am the Eternal One your God! (Vayikra 23:41-43)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know how to properly build a sukkah as required in the Torah. However, since there is no actual description of the sukkah in the text of the Torah there must be reliance upon the fact that the Yisraelites were already living in sukkot during the time the Torah was given. Therefore, what a sukkah was and how it was to be built was already known to the Yisraelites during the exodus from Egypt. We see further evidence from the Tanakh as to how the sukkah is to be built.

You are to take yourselves, on the first day, the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palms, and boughs of thick tree-foliage, and willows of the brook. And you are to rejoice before the presence of the Eternal One your God for seven days… (Vayikra 23:40)1

We see from this verse that the Yisraelites are told to take the fruit of beautiful trees, palm-tree branches, boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook on the first day of the holiday. However it does not say what to do with these four species but that is answered in Nechemiah.

They found written in the Torah that the Eternal One had commanded through the hand of Moshe that B’nei Yisrael should dwell in succos during the festival [that is] in the seventh month. [They commanded] that they should announce it and make a proclamation in all their cities and in Yerushalayim, saying, “Go out to the mountain and get [branches with] olive leaves, pine needles, myrtle leaves, palm leaves and leaves of the braided tree, to make succos, as written [in the Torah].” So the people went out and brought [these items] and made themselves succos, each man on his roof, and in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the Beit HaMikdash of God, in the plaza of the Water Gate and in the plaza of the Gate of Ephraim. (Nechemiah 8:14-16)2

We see very clearly that these four species were to be used not as a lulav and etrog but simply to make the actual sukkah.

Punishment
But if harm should occur, then you are to give life in place of life – eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand in place of hand, foot in place of foot, burnt-scar in place of burnt-scar, wound in place of wound, bruise in place of bruise. (Shemot 21:23-25)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that if there was no “Oral Law” then this passage must be taken literally. However, there is only one act that calls for a “life in place of life” that is to be taken literally.

Now a man – when he strikes down any human life, he is to be put to death, yes, death! (Vayikra 24:17)1

In all other instances, the idea of a life for a life tooth for a tooth, etc. is taken as a metaphorical statement regarding payment for certain actions. We clearly see this in the verse next verse.

One who strikes the life of an animal is to pay for it, life in place of life. (Vayikra 24:18)1

We are clearly told that a murderer is not to be ransomed for money in place of the death penalty.

You are not to accept a ransom [כֹּפֶר] for the life of a murderer, since he is culpable, (deserving) the death-penalty, indeed, he is to be put to death, put to death! (Bamidbar 35:31)1

Since murder is the only instance where a ransom is not permitted, it indicates that under other circumstances a ransom – monetary payment – is in fact permitted. We can see this in the relation of a master and slave.

When a man strikes the eye of his serf or the eye of his handmaid, and ruins it, he is to send him free at liberty for (the sake of) his eye; if the tooth of his serf or the tooth of his handmaid he breaks off, he is to send him free at liberty for (the sake of) his tooth. (Shemot 21:26-27)1

One final passage will completely clarify and prove that this passage is to be taken metaphorically and not in the literal sense.

When an ox gores a man or a woman, so that one dies, the ox is to be stoned, yes, stoned, and its flesh is not to be eaten, and the owner of the ox is to be clear. But if the ox was (known as) a gorer from yesterday and the day-before, and it was so designated to its owner, and he did not guard it, and it causes the death of a man or of a woman, the ox is to be stoned, and its owner as well is to be put to death. If a ransom [כֹּפֶר] is established for him, he is to give it as a redemption for his life, all that is imposed for him. (Shemot 21:28-30)1

It is quite clear from the Tanakh that this passage is to be taken metaphorically (with the exception of murder) and not literally. Therefore, there is no need for an “Oral Law” to explain this particular passage.

———————-

1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Nosson Scherman, ed. The Stone Edition Tanakh. New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2007.

What is Judaism?

What is Judaism?

Sources:

1Alieza Salzberg. “Judaism after the Temple: Coping with destruction and building for the future.” MyJewishLearning, n.d. [http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Ancient_and_Medieval_History/539_BCE-632_CE/Palestine_Under_Roman_Rule/Judaism_after_the_Temple.shtml]
2I. Epstein. “Tractate Gittin.” [http://halakhah.com/pdf/nashim/Gittin.pdf]
3American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. “Tradition.” Jewish Virtual Library, 2008. [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0020_0_19989.html]
4I. Epstein. “Tractate Berachot.” [http://halakhah.com/pdf/zeraim/Berachoth.pdf]
5I. Epstein. “Tractate Megilah.” [http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Megilah.pdf]
6Jacob Neusner. “Rabbinic Judaism: The Theological System.” 2003 [http://www.brill.com/rabbinic-judaism-0]
7Nehemia Gordon. “History of Karaism.” karaite-korner.org. World Karaite Movement, 3 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2012. [http://karaite-korner.org/history.shtml]
8David Stein (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
9William Whiston (trans.). “The Works of Flavius Josephus.” (1737) 13:5:9. [http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/index.htm#aoj]

A Jew just trying to live the life of Torah