The Authenticity of the Oral Torah

A visitor’s comment: I am a firmly committed Gentile Karaite. Because I reject the Oral Torah as man-made, I also disagree with much of what you are saying. As far as I am concerned, the covenant of Noah, once established by G-d after the Flood, was legitimate from that time onwards. It needed no further ratification at Mt. Sinai.

Response: You seem to have a commitment to some of the Noahide ideals. Observance of the Noahide Commandments is indeed extremely important, because it is the fundamental basis for the proper functioning of Gentile societies in general and of each Gentile in his or her own personal life.

However, the main pitfall in your approach is that you have created your own interpretation of your selected Biblical verses. From your personal interpretation you then proceed to arrive at a new religious doctrine, which you admit is new and has its foundation in your own reasoning. When you limit yourself to the meaning of your own “simple reading” of the Biblical verses, that is certainly slanted by your own individual perspective. Please direct your attention to this Guest Essay and video series by a former “Karaite Noahide” who discovered the gross errors of that approach:

Coming to a realization of the Oral Torah

Before denouncing the body of knowledge known as the Oral Torah, you should consider the hypothetical case that you could bring in a world-class expert in the Hebrew language who had no previous experience with Torah or the Jewish religion, and ask him to simply read a Torah Scroll. He could not possibly give a correct reading, because the vowels and punctuation which determine the very definitions of the words are not allowed to be written in a Torah Scroll! The correct and universally acknowledged choice for each and every vowel is only known from what has been handed down in the Oral Torah by the foremost Prophets and Sages, unchanged since the first scrolls of the Written Torah were written by Moses. The choices of the words in the English Bible you are interpreting are absolutely dependent on the vowels and punctuation that were handed down in the Oral Torah that you deny.

An example: if you write the Hebrew letters for “SPT” without vowels and without the differentiations between the corresponding “hard” or “soft” Hebrew letters, it could be vocalized as at least any of the following English words: spot, spit, spat, spite, soft, sift, shift, shaft. Switching between one or another of these words will completely change the meaning of a sentence!

As far as the consonants which are written in the Torah Scroll are concerned, consider this. Every Torah scroll can only be hand-written, by copying an earlier hand-written scroll. This preserves the unbroken chain of exact duplications back to the first Torah Scroll written by Moses as dictated by G-d. See our page titled Authenticity of the Written Torah.

There is a popular misconception that the debates between the Sages that are recorded in the Mishnah and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds mean that there were disagreements among the Sages about what the Oral Torah is. That is not true. For instance, many of the debates were over how strict or lenient each Sage felt the majority decisions should be, when they needed to exercise their obligation to make Rabbinic enactments for the purpose of establishing a protective “fence” around the Divine decrees in the Torah (its written text and oral explanations) that was received by Moses from G-d. The opinions in these brilliant debates were recorded so that when the Messianic Era arrives (speedily in our days!), and we finally again have great Sages with the authority to alter the ancient enactments, they will know the reasonings that were originally considered.

A good explanation of the Written and Oral Torah is provided by the following excerpt, which is a free translation1 based on a classic book of Chassidic teachings, “Sha’ar Hayichud” (“The Gate of Unification”) by the “Mittler Rebbe,” Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch [1773-1827 C.E]. The comments in curly brackets { } have been added by the Director of Ask Noah.

The Torah consists of two parts, the Written Law and the Oral Law. The Written Law consists of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings {collectively called the “Tanakh” in Hebrew, which according to tradition is to be grouped as 24 Books}. The {commandments in the} Five Books of Moses were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and they constitute the foundation of Judaism and Jewish Law. They {the Five Books of Moses} are in a sense the first and final word of G-d, in that they can not be contradicted by any later prophet. As is explained by Maimonides, the reason for this is that we do not believe a prophet because he performs miracles or signs, for maybe they are false; rather the only reason we believe a prophet is because we are commanded in the Torah that if a prophet fulfills the criteria laid out in the Torah, then, and only then is he to be believed. As for the Torah itself and the prophecies of Moses, these we believe in because all of the Jews were present at Mt. Sinai themselves, and there {several million} men, women and children all saw and heard the commandments from G-d Himself as well as Moses receiving the commandments. The later works of the Written Law represent selected later prophesies and historical records, which hold a timeless message to all generations, all urging the Jews and all of Mankind to follow the good straight path, heeding that which is stated in the Five Books of Moses.

However, the {commandments in the} Five Books of Moses were not all that Moses received from G-d at Mt. Sinai; he also received the {Oral Torah, which includes the Seven Noahide Commandments, and consisting of the authentic} interpretation of the Torah on all of the levels of PaRDe”S [literally “orchard”; a Hebrew acrostic for P’shat, Remez, Drush and Sod, the names of the four dimensions of Torah interpretation, respectively: the simple interpretation, the interpretation hinted (by numerical values, variant spellings of words etc.), the homiletic interpretation, and the mystical interpretation, all of which were given, in full, to Moses at Mt. Sinai]. Aside from the necessity for this Oral Tradition within the realm of kabbalah and the other non-literal dimensions of the Torah, this Oral Tradition is also absolutely essential for the understanding of the laws of the Torah on the simplest level. For example, the Torah dictates that in order for meat to be permissible to be eaten {as kosher}, it must be slaughtered and prepared “as I {G-d} have instructed you” {Deuteronomy 12:21}; however, these instructions are found nowhere within the Written Law, and likewise with many other examples.

Originally this Oral Law was just that, a strictly oral law, passed on from generation to generation, each learning it in its entirety by heart, and in addition it was not permitted to be written down, save for personal notes. Later, due to the mounting persecution, mass dispersal of Jewish communities and various political and social upheavals that took place under the Roman rule, it became increasingly difficult for large schools where many could dedicate themselves to the mastery of this law to exist. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, the leading sage of his day, took upon himself to compose an extremely condensed work that would encapsulate the whole of the Oral Law into a set of {many} short notes called the Mishnah, and to circulate copies of this work amongst the leaders of each community, so that in this way the Oral Law would not be forgotten. This work was reviewed constantly and learnt by heart by the sages of many generations and served its purpose as a reminder of the whole of the Oral Law. Then some generations later, again with mounting persecution, people were not able to spend the required amount of time and effort to learn the whole of the Oral Law, even with the help of the Mishnah. Therefore, once again the leading scholar of the generation, this time Rabbi Ashi, took upon himself to record the entirety of the Oral Law, as well as how it was derived from the brief laws of the Mishnah. This work is called the Gemarah, and together the two {the Mishnah and the Gemarah} are called the Talmud.

The inner meanings of the Written and Oral Torah are explained by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his most famous book of Chassidic discourses, Likkutei Torah, which was compiled by his grandson the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (section Deuteronomy, p. 158). [Insertions within square brackets are added by the Director of Ask Noah, for clarification.]

It is known regarding the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, that the Written Torah is on the lofty spiritual level of the Hebrew letters and their forms. As the Sages taught, the Hebrew letters of the Written Torah [in their prophetically received precise arrangement] form sacred Divine Names of the Holy One Blessed be He. And therefore all the Hebrew letters of the Written Torah are individually accounted for. Adding or subtracting even a single letter is forbidden. [In the scribal writing of a sacred scroll, such as a Torah Scroll, a Scroll of the Book of Esther, or for scrolls in mezuzahs or tefillin,] every letter must be in its established form and relative size. And if it [the sacred scroll] is lacking anything, that letter [and thus the entire scroll] is disqualified. [I.e., the scroll does not become invested with G-dliness, and it cannot be used to fulfill the Divine commandment for which it was intended.]

[In spiritual terms], the letters are on the level of the intellectual power which is referred to as “Binah” [understanding, revealed through detailed analysis] … We see tangibly that when an intellectual concept comes into the level of one’s grasping and understanding, the letters of thought are revealed in it. But in the higher intellectual level of “Hokhmah” [wisdom contained within the flash of intuition], which is above the level of the understandable intellect, there is not yet a revealed level of letters of thought. Thus the meaning of the [precisely defined Hebrew] letters of the Written Torah is that it is on the level of “Binah” (Understanding) … From this a question arises: why do we say that the Written Torah emanates from the Divine attribute of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom)? With respect to the Originator of the Torah [i.e. G-d], it is on the level of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom), but with respect to the creations which receive it [i.e., souls, angels and physical humans], it is on the level of “Binah” (Understanding).

However, the Oral Torah is on the order of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom). Its main aspect is not the individual letters themselves, but rather the intellectual concepts. That is the main thing that is revealed in the letters of the Oral Torah. It is not the letters but rather the concept that is the main thing [that must be revealed]. So we are not so particular about the exact letters used in the Oral Torah. This is because in the Oral Torah the main thing is the idea and the intellectual point that is being taught. Thus in many places in the Talmud we find statements like “What is the reason for the teaching of Rabbi Meir?” The level of reason is the level of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom), as it is known.

To further address your issues, I consulted with our “Expert on Call,” a devout Noahide who is an accomplished scholar of modern and ancient religions. (His studies began with a graduate degree in Theological Studies from Harvard School of Divinity.) Here is his reply, slightly edited for this format:

With all the religious turmoil and confusion in the world, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone started a Karaite “Noahide movement.” Compared to [some other newly invented flavors of Biblical religion], it seems downright prosaic for a Noahide somewhere to latch onto the heresy of the Karaites.

I of course reject the Karaite religion, and it has never held an attraction for me. Part of the reason is that before becoming a practicing Noahide, I spent six years in the Catholic Church and then investigated the Eastern Churches. Even as a Catholic, I had long since rejected the idea out of hand that the Bible alone, without an authoritative interpretive tradition, could be correctly understood. Your correspondent obviously comes from a religious background from which he is predisposed to believe in what is called a “sola scriptura” worldview.

One important point to could make is that even in Catholicism “sola scriptura” is a heresy, and that Protestantism is a more recent invention. But if he replies with “but that is where the ancient Church went wrong” (i.e., in rejecting “sola scriptura”), I don’t know how to reply to him. In that case he may still be hung up on the old Catholic-Protestant debate, which has no place in the Noahide world. While it is good that he has rejected false “gods,” he also needs to reject the entire context in which the Protestant-Catholic debate takes place. Of course, the problem here is that this same debate existed within Judaism centuries earlier between the Karaites and the Rabbis. It just seems to me that if he had thoroughly investigated all the forms of the Church prior to coming to Noahism he would have already have rejected “sola scriptura,” and the Karaite position would not have appealed to him.

If he is so dedicated to the genuine Karaite tradition, I can give no new arguments that are not available elsewhere from Great Sages. I can only repeat them, perhaps in simplified language. The ultimate form of G-d’s Word is the Torah Scroll. This is not a machine-typed document such as most modern people are familiar with. (The fact that Protestantism began only after the invention of the printing press explains in part their seeming belief in a self-interpreting Bible, since they have no historical memory of when books had to be copied by hand). Rather, it is a hand-copied scroll that is written according to the strictest of all known rules. These ancient rules for copying Torah Scrolls are not written in the Torah Scroll! What greater refutation of the Karaite position could exist? For if there is no certain Divine Tradition outside what is written explicitly in the Torah, Prophets and Hagiographa, these rules do not exist (G-d forbid!). Then anyone could write or produce a “Torah” of any kind, and it would be considered valid. Ironically, the Karaites’ reliance on the text alone, since it does not include the rules for writing the Torah, would have destroyed the unchanging, uniform text and appearance of the Torah. It is the orally transmitted rules that assure that every “kosher” Torah Scroll is an exact duplicate of the first Torah Scroll written by Moses, which was itself an earthly duplicate of the Great Heavenly Torah Scroll written by Blessed G-d in letters of “black fire upon a scroll of white fire 974 generations before the Creation.” If there were no authentic Laws of G-d that were passed down orally, then there would be no blueprint for reproducing the Heavenly Scroll on earth. Then all we would have today at best would be the words alone without the crowns, spaces, sizes, shapes, etc. which define the “kosher” scribal letters and the words in the Torah Scroll.

Furthermore, the written text dictated to Moses by G-d was consonants only and had no written vowels. The vowels, which are 100% necessary for words to exist, are part of the Oral Tradition and not the Written Torah. It is true that the machine-printed Bibles we buy today have the vowels (as well as the other pronunciation marks), but this is no different from the Rabbinic commentaries the same books have: they are not part of the dictated text but the Authoritative Oral Tradition without which the written text would be useless to us, G-d forbid.

On top of this, there is the fact that by their very nature the Karaites themselves (like their counterparts in other heretical religions) are inconsistent. It is not possible to interpret 100% of the Bible in a 100% obvious sense. Someone is going to make an authoritative interpretation, even if he insists he is merely reading “the plain text.” The Karaites have in fact their own “unwritten tradition” which they follow.

The Karaites are not the first rejecters of the Oral Tradition, of course. The Saduces used the “plain text” argument as an excuse to reject all manner of spiritual and supernatural concepts, to a degree which would probably horrify your correspondent. I once met a young man who was “Torah only” (he didn’t even accept the Prophets and Hagiographa), and he rejected the Afterlife.

Without the Oral Torah all is chaos. I do not deny for a moment that the Oral Tradition can indeed be mysterious, opaque, confusing at times, seemingly self-contradictory, and that sometimes mountains seem to be suspended by threads, or even to float in the air. However, this merely means we should humble ourselves in the face of our lack of understanding. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that this was the only reason the Sages seemed to disagree with each other — to teach us humility. In the end, where else is there to turn? Where else do we go for Truth? “Sola scriptura” is impossible, and all the other competing oral traditions are false and impostures. There is only Torah, Written and Oral, handed down to us by the unbroken chain of Sages, or there is nothing. Without this Oral Tradition which your correspondent condemns as false, the Written Torah would not even have been preserved intact and correctly into the second generation after Sinai. What more is there to say?

Finally, I have looked more deeply into the arguments of you correspondent, and it seems since he rejects the Talmud, he doesn’t even accept one of the defining principles of Noahism, that there are Seven Noahide Commandments!”

The Director of Ask Noah continues: This very brief explanation of the unique nature of the Oral Torah brings to mind a talk which the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, gave in February, ’87. The subject was the debate among the Sages in the Mishnah about what Elijah the Prophet will come to accomplish in his task of announcing the revelation of Mashiach (the Messiah). Here is a translation of a few paragraphs from his talk which are relevant to our discussion:

“These difficulties [the seeming differences of opinion] can be resolved within the context of the resolution of a problem of larger scope. According to Talmudic tradition, there cannot be a difference of opinion among the Sages over a point of fact, be it past or future.

To explain: Whenever there is a difference of opinion among the Sages, we say, “Both these and these are the words of the living G-d.” It is not that one opinion is right and the other wrong. Both opinions result from the application of sets of principles that are acceptable within Torah law. In practice, only one opinion is followed, but both positions are meaningful in the realm of divine service.

When is this explanation tenable? – In regard to a difference of opinion over a particular law or practice. In regard to an event that happened in the past or which will happen in the future, there cannot be two opinions. The event transpired – or will transpire – as it actually did or will. This is a fact concerning which there can only be one correct opinion.

[The Rebbe then proceeds to show how the different opinions of several Sages about these activities of Elijah do not conflict with this rule:]

Based on the above, we can appreciate the nature of the difference of opinion in the Mishnah… The Sages all [!] agree that the Prophet Elijah will carry out all [!] the activities mentioned in the Mishnah. The question is: What will he come to do? I.e., what is the purpose of his coming? What kinds of wrongdoing or confusion must be eliminated so that the world will be prepared for the Redemption?

…The final opinion cited by the Mishnah, that of the [majority of the] Sages, agrees that Elijah will deal with [all the activities mentioned], but does not consider this to be the purpose of his coming. Why, then, will Elijah come? – “To bring about peace in the world.” … [The other activities mentioned] are part of his individual achievements and do not reflect his [specific] mission in preparing the world for Mashiach’s coming.”

Addendum and Footnotes:

Many people are not familiar with the chain of transmission of the Oral Torah. There was a great spiritual leader in each generation after Mt. Sinai, who led a court of outstanding prophets and sages to whom he taught the Oral Torah. In addition, all of them and their thousands of disciples taught the Oral Torah to the Jewish people of all ages in each generation, so there was complete and widespread overlap of this knowledge from the people of one generation to the next overlapping generations. Although all Jews participated in learning the Oral Torah, it was the generation’s spiritual leaders who held the responsibility for raising up great leaders for the next generation who would learn and teach the entire Oral Torah. These leaders who ensured the accurate and complete transmission of the Oral Torah were:

From the L-RD G-d to:
(1) Moses, the greatest of all the Prophets
(2) Joshua, along with Elazar (son of Aaron) and Pinehas (son of Elazar)
(3) Pinehas (High Priest and son of Elazar)
(4) Eli the Judge and High Priest [2]
(5) Samuel the Prophet
(6) King David
(7) Ahiyah the Prophet
(8) Elijah the Prophet
(9) Elisha the Prophet
(10) Yehoyada the High Priest
(11) Zechariah the Prophet
(12) Hosea the Prophet
(13) Amos the Prophet
(14) Isaiah the Prophet
(15) Micah the Prophet
(16) Joel the Prophet
(17) Nahum the Prophet
(18) Habakkuk the Prophet
(19) Zephaniah the Prophet
(20) Jeremiah the Prophet
(21) Baruch the Prophet
(22) Ezra the Scribe, whose court included the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Daniel, as well as Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Nehemia, Mordechai, Zerubavel and Shimon the Righteous
(23) Shimon the Righteous, High Priest and Sage

(24-34) The main receivers of the Oral Torah in the following eleven generations are listed, for example, by Maimonides in his “Introduction to the Mishneh Torah.”

(35) In generation 35, the sage Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, a direct patrilineal descendant of King David, wrote down the Oral Torah in a brilliant abbreviated form, called the Books of the Mishnah, for widespread public use. Before this time, the Prophets and Sages who received the Oral Torah in each generation kept private notes on what they learned as oral lessons from their teachers. In the words of Maimonides, “He [Rabbi Yehudah the Prince] gathered together all the traditions, all the enactments, and all the explanations and interpretations that had been heard from Moses or that had been deduced by the courts [of Prophets and Sages] of all the generations in all matters of the Torah; and he wrote the Book of the Mishnah from all of them. And he taught it in public, and it became known to all Israel; everyone wrote it down and taught it everywhere, so that the Oral Law would not be forgotten from Israel. Why did [he] do so, and did not leave things as they were? Because he saw that the number of students was continuing to go down, calamities were continually happening, wicked government [under the Romans] was extending its domain and increasing in power, and the Israelites were wandering and emigrating to remote places. He thus wrote a work to serve as a handbook for all, so that it could be rapidly studied and would not be forgotten; throughout his life, he and his court continued giving public instruction in the Mishnah.”

(36-39) In the 36th generation, Rabbi Yohanan wrote down the Jerusalem Talmud in the Land of Israel about three hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple. In the 39th generation, the sage Rav Ashe wrote down the Babylonian Talmud.

Footnotes:

1. “The Key to Chassidus,” by Bezalel Malamud.

2. There were several righteous individuals in Biblical times who miraculously lived exceptionally long lives. One of these was Pinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron. He transmitted the Oral Torah to Eli, who was descended from Itamar son of Aaron.

Share