Thus Saith the Lord: Is the Oral Law Sacred?
Like Douglas Rushkoff, we Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah deem it acceptable to question things, even those things within Judaism that many hold to be sacred. One example of this is the Talmud.
In traditional Judaism, the portion of Scripture known as the New Testament is often condemned because it claims to be as authoritative as the Torah. Yet the rabbis also have a series of documents that were written many years after the Torah, most notably the Talmud, that are considered authoritative. Why is this?
According to traditional Orthodox Judaism, Moses was given two sets of laws on Mount Sinai. The written Torah consists of the five books of Moses. An accompanying oral law,” it is claimed, was also given to be handed down to the leaders of Israel. This oral law is a series of arguments, opinions and commentaries that enabled each succeeding generation to interpret the law according to the needs of the current time. This way, say the rabbis, the law does not remain static and irrelevant.
The main need for an accompanying law is usually expressed like this: “God told us not to work on the Sabbath. But what exactly constitutes work? God certainly would not tell us to do something without explaining to us how to do it properly, would he? Therefore, an oral law is absolutely necessary.” Because of this argument, the rabbis have a seemingly endless number of volumes explaining every aspect of daily life.
One of the most remarkable things about the oral law is that it makes the rabbis not only the messengers of these new laws—but the creators of these laws as well. Orthodox Jews would say that this transference of power is all within God’s plan, as if God ordained this decision making process. One Orthodox rabbi explains:
In a sense, God has limited his right to intervene in the halachic process. He prefers orderly legal procedures to miracles and heavenly voices. Were supernatural phenomena allowed to influence the decision of halacha, the entire structure of torah study—the pillar upon which all of Judaism rests—would collapse. Remove the sages’ ability to interpret the law and you render the debates and dialogues of the Talmud meaningless. The sages’ right to determine the halacha must be independent of divine negation if Judaism is to be an ever-fresh and dynamic way of life. (Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo, The Written and Oral Torah, Jerusalem, 1989, Jason Aronson Inc., p. 76)
The question then, is similar to one raised in the main article: How do we get to be the ones to determine God’s involvement or lack thereof?
The first time the oral law appears in writing is in the Mishnah (which is the first part of the Talmud, written down around 200 C.E.). The Mishnah contains information which was previously available—perhaps for one or two hundred years. But is there any proof that these “laws” originated at Sinai? This claim is allimportant. If the rabbis’ ability to comment and make rulings was not handed down at Sinai, then their authority is not God-given.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews should realize that their faith tradition is built upon a man-made system. It is this system that is often most adamantly and consistently against belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Many point to portions in the Talmud that speak against Jesus as evidence that Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be. But are these portions in the Talmud merely reactions by the rabbis of Jesus’ day, who summarily decided that Jesus threatened their authority?
For thousands of years, those thought to have had the most understanding of Judaism have looked to these extrabiblical writings for support. But questions remain regarding the authenticity (Sinai origin) of the oral law.
1. How accurately was the oral law handed down?
Between the time Moses went up to Mount Sinai and the writing of the Mishnah there was a period of well over 1,000 years. During that time the Jewish people had quite a turbulent time of being in the land, being exiled from the land, facing assimilation, and frequently forgetting God’s law. And if the written law was so easily forgotten, how feasible is it that there was an oral tradition passed down without complications?
2. Who told the rabbis to write down the oral law?
The rabbis give many reasons for the importance of the oral law remaining oral. For example, it should not fall into the wrong hands. But, if this was so important, what was the purpose of writing it down at all? The rabbis usually point to the conditions of the time, and most notably the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Some feared that Judaism would not survive without these laws being written down. But this time in history was not unique. The Temple had already been destroyed once before, and the Jewish people had faced even more harsh opponents than the Romans. So, what was the difference? If the oral law had truly survived the previous hardships—would not God continue to preserve it?
3. Does the written Torah give any hint of an oral Torah?
The rabbis point to passages which suggest that God gave the children of Israel rules which were not mentioned in the written Torah (see Deuteronomy 12:21). But, at best, these passages make the argument that God communicated to them apart from the written law. These verses do not suggest that these laws came from Sinai, nor that traditions that would affect later questions in Judaism were being handed down at that time.
While the canonized Hebrew Scriptures say little or nothing about an oral law, they do talk about a New Covenant that was to come. Jeremiah 31:31-33 says,
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
And the Scriptures also say quite a bit about the One who would come and have the God-given authority to explain this New Covenant—the promised Messiah. The Messiah’s birth, life and death are all predicted in the Torah, Prophets and Writings, which have remained intact for millennia and have not been adjusted at the whims of scholars.
It’s not that the Talmud doesn’t have valuable teachings. But when the rabbis look to the writings of previous rabbis rather than Scripture to validate their own authority and negate the claims of Jesus, the oral law itself must be called into question. Our challenge to our readers is to examine the Scriptures themselves for answers about who the Messiah is. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to inspect the New Testament record, which has also been unchanged for thousands of years, to see if Jesus was the One whom the prophets wrote about and what this New Covenant is all about.