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.