Validating the Oral Law

Judaism claims that it possesses an authentic understanding of the Biblical laws that goes beyond the words that are written in the Bible. According to Judaism, when God taught Moses each of the laws, He did not just recite to Moses the words that were subsequently recorded in the Bible. God presented Moses with the complete spiritual concept of each one of the Biblical laws.

When Moses taught the people, he too did not limit his teaching to the recitation of words. Moses gave over the understanding that he was granted by God pertaining to each of the commandments. When the Jewish people passed the Law on to their children, they did not limit the communication to the recital of words or to the delivery of a book. The children absorb how their parents live the Law, how their parents sense the Law and the spiritual concepts that stand behind each of the laws.

The Jewish people accept the Law of Moses together with the understanding that they received from the Jews who walked before them. Judaism recognizes that not every concept that their parents teach them originates with Moses. Many customs and practices accumulated over the generations and the Jewish people keep record of the origin of each practice and custom. But the core spiritual concept that stands behind each of the commandments goes back to Moses.

There are seven basic lines of reasoning through which we can establish the veracity of the Oral Law. (Six of these apply to the Law in general and one pertains particularly to the law prohibiting idolatry.) I present here a summary of these seven lines of reasoning.

# 1 – The first line of reasoning through which we can establish the authenticity of the Oral Law is the same line of reasoning that we use to establish the authenticity of the Jewish Scriptures. Both Jews and Christians agree that the Jewish Scriptures were provided by God to give guidance to His people. It follows therefore, that God would put in place some method of validation through which subsequent generations can be confident that these books are truly His word.

The method of validation that God utilized in order to ratify His word throughout history is the living testimony of the Jewish people. The process is briefly described in the opening phrases of Psalm 78. “That which we have heard and know and our fathers have told us. We shall not withhold from their sons, recounting unto the final generation the praises of the Lord, His might, and His wonders that He has wrought. He established a testimony in Jacob and set down a Torah in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to make known to their sons. So that the final generation may know; children yet to be born will arise and tell their own children, so that they may place their trust in God, and not forget the works of God, and they will safeguard His commandments” (Psalm 78:3-7).

The method that God used to confirm His Law to the final generation is the living testimony of His chosen witness nation. These witnesses ratify both the Written Torah and the Oral Law. If we cannot trust the witness for one, we cannot trust the same witness for the other.

# 2 – The second line of reasoning through which we can establish the veracity of the Oral Law is closely related to the first argument. This line of reasoning focuses on the testimonial observances.

The Bible clearly tells us that God designated various testimonial observances as a means to preserve His truth amongst the Jewish people. The living observances of circumcision, Passover, redemption of the firstborn, the Sabbath, and Tabernacles were all appointed by God as a means of passing various truths from one generation to the next (Genesis 17:11-13, Exodus 12:25-27, 13:8, 11-16, 31:12-17, Leviticus 23:42-43, Deuteronomy 16:3).

These observances play a vital role in the preservation of God’s truth amongst His people. The miraculous events of the exodus and Israel’s subsequent sojourn through the wilderness served as the hammer-blows through which God formed this nation for Himself (1Samuel 12:22, 2Samuel 7:24, Isaiah 43:21, 44:21, 1Chronicles 17:21). Scripture attests to the foundational nature of the exodus events by repeatedly making reference to the exodus in the most central settings (Exodus 20:2, 29:46, Leviticus 11:45, 22:33, 25:38, Deuteronomy 6:21, 8:14, 29:1-8, Joshua 24:17, Judges 2:12, 2Samuel 7:23, 2Kings 17:7, Jeremiah 2:6, Hosea 13:4, Micah 6:4, Psalm 81:11). And Scripture explicitly points to the testimonial observances as the means through which the impression of this pivotal event is to be preserved.

Circumcision and the Sabbath are the witnesses that God appointed to teach the future generations of the irrevocable nature of God’s covenant with Israel. The Sabbath was designated by God to ensure that every generation of Jews will know the sanctity that God grants Israel (Exodus 31:13). The election of Israel (1Samuel 12:22, 2Samuel 7:24, Isaiah 43:21, 44:21, 1Chronicles 17:21) and God’s sanctification of Israel (Exodus 19:6, Leviticus 11:45, 20:26, Deuteronomy 7:6, 26:19, Jeremiah 2:3, Ezekiel 37:28) are central components of the theology of Scripture. God recognized that the full impact of these critical truths cannot be preserved solely through the written word. God designed the testimonial commandments so that each generation of Jews could learn to appreciate the significance of Israel’s election and her sanctification by God.

The Biblical texts that describe the testimonial observances make clear that God expected the latter generations of Jews to look at the living observances of their parents, and see in them a repository of God’s holy truth. These texts make clear that God recognized that the written word alone is not a sufficient means of preserving the full impact of His truth without being enhanced by the living observances.

# 3 – The third line of reasoning through which we can establish the veracity of the Oral Law focuses on God’s preservation of Rabbinic Judaism. The Bible makes it clear that God planned to preserve His people to the end of history. It is also clear from the Bible that God planned to preserve the Law of Moses so that every generation of Jews will be able to observe it (Deuteronomy 30:2, Malachi 3:22). Throughout the history of the Jewish people various factions of Jews have advocated different approaches to the Law of Moses. The Sadducees had their method of observing the Law, the Essenes insisted on their own discipline, the Nazarenes and the Sabbateans each presented their own variations of implementing the Law. But God did not see fit to preserve the practices of these sectarian groups. The only approach to the Law that has any claim for historical continuity is the approach of the Pharisees; those who followed the Oral Law. The one system of practicing and applying the Law of Moses that God preserved is the system that approaches the Written Torah through the understanding of the Oral Law.

This argument is underscored when we focus on the Sabbath. God declares that the observance of Sabbath stands as an eternal sign of the divine sanctification of the Jewish people (Exodus 31:12-17). Throughout the annals of Jewish history there have been various approaches to observance of the Sabbath. But the only observance that could claim historical continuity since the times of Moses is the observance of Rabbinic Judaism. It is through the rabbinic observance of the Sabbath that God’s covenantal sign is preserved.

The miracle of Judaism’s survival can only be attributed to the power of God’s promise. God told us that His spirit is amongst us (Haggai 2:5), and that it will never depart (Isaiah 59:21). God promised that He will be our sanctuary in this bitter exile (Ezekiel 11:16), and that His Sabbath will stand as an eternal testimony to the sanctification that He continuously grants His people (Exodus 31:13). It is clear that the survival of Rabbinic Judaism is an expression of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

# 4 – The fourth line of reasoning through which we can establish the veracity of the Oral Law points to the complexity of the Law. The five books of Moses present a law that is quite complicated. This Law is to be observed by a nation in unanimity. Judges, priests and arbitrators of the Law are to administrate and apply this complex law system for a diverse nation. This Law is to be observed throughout the annals of Jewish history, in whichever far-flung locale that Jewish people find themselves. There is no way that this could happen with any semblance of coordination if there is no recognized, authoritative interpretation of the Law.

If the only authority is the written word, then any individual or any group of individuals can offer their own interpretation of the Law. How could the judges prosecute a Sabbath violator on the basis of the written word alone? The accused could always offer his own interpretation of the Law which would render him or her innocent. Whose interpretation of the Law would be binding on such a large community of people?

The history of the Protestant Church serves to illustrate this point. No one accused Martin Luther of being stupid and no one accused him of not firmly believing in the principle; “sola scriptura” – “Scripture alone”. Yet today many Protestants recognize that Luther was not reading “Scripture alone” and that he was heavily influenced by his Catholic background. It did not occur to Luther to question the replacement theology that was accepted at the time, yet today many Protestants recognize that this teaching is not rooted in Scripture.

It is obvious that different people, from different cultural and religious environments will read the same book and see different messages. How then can we be confident that any given understanding of Scripture is more valid than another? The principle “sola scriptura” opens the door for an inundation of interpretations. This may be harmless in the realm of abstract study, but in a situation of a nation trying to unanimously live by the laws presented in Scripture, this is not an option.

When God presented the Law to Israel, it was immediately applied to the life of that society. That society recognized that the judges and arbitrators of the Law (over 60,000 of them – Exodus 18:21) possessed an understanding of the Law that was binding on everyone. There was a system of living arbitrators who carried in their hearts and minds an authoritative understanding of the practical application of the Law. And there is no way that the Law could be observed as a nation without a binding authoritative understanding of the Law.

# 5 – The fifth line of reasoning through which we can verify the authenticity of the Oral Law focuses on the concept of a target audience.

The purpose of communication is to transport the thoughts of the communicator over to his or her intended audience. A wise communicator will determine the means of communication that he or she will use according to the abilities and the mind-set of the audience he or she is trying to influence. The choice of words exercised by the communicator will be calibrated according to the particular understanding of the target audience. In order to properly understand a given communication one must first determine to whom it is that the communicator is directing his or her words.

The communication we are discussing here is the Jewish Bible. Who is God’s target audience? To whom is God addressing these words?

In order to begin to comprehend scripture, one must have a working knowledge of the language of scripture. We must appreciate that language is more than a collection of words. Language in general, and the language of scripture in particular, will take an abstract and intangible concept and express it in a single word. A necessary prerequisite to comprehension of scripture is the understanding of concepts such as: God, Israel, holiness, prayer, commandment, Temple, law, prophecy, and much more. We all acquire our perception of these concepts through interaction with fellow man. The man or woman, who will read scripture without previously possessing an understanding of these concepts, has yet to be born.

Each individual society has its own perspective, and its distinct understanding of God, holiness, law and prophecy. These words have one meaning for the Jew, another meaning for the Christian, and yet a different connotation for the Moslem. Each society will read scripture using their own particular dictionary.

So the question remains; who is God’s target audience?

There are three different methods that can be utilized to determine the intended audience of a written communication. The document may explicitly specify the intended recipient by name. Alternatively the document may implicitly identify the one to whom the writer directs his words. And finally, the agent that the writer entrusted with the delivery of his message may tell us to whom it is that he was appointed to deliver the message.

In the case of the Jewish scriptures we can employ all three possible methods in order to discover the intended audience of Jewish scripture. Psalm 147:19,20 explicitly tell us that God imparted His words to Israel, to the exclusion of every other national entity. The scriptures implicitly identify Israel as the object of her words. The word “you” as it is used in the Jewish scriptures almost always refers to the nation of Israel. The agent designated by God to deliver this book is none other then the people of Israel. They affirm the basic truth, that the book of the Jewish scriptures is intended for the national entity of Israel.

God presented the Jewish scriptures to the Jewish society. In these books God directly addresses the Jewish nation. All others who read this holy book must bear this simple fact in mind. Any non-Jew reading the Jewish scriptures is reading a record of God’s directives to the Jewish nation. The only dictionary to be used when reading this book is that of the society to whom the book is addressed – the Jewish people. The true language of scripture, is the language of the Jewish people. When scripture says the word “God”, it is referring to the Jewish concept of God. When scripture makes reference to concepts such as holiness, Temple, prayer, or Sabbath, these abstract ideas must be understood in a Jewish context. The scriptures are directed at the Jewish people, it was obviously written in their language.

The Oral Law preserves the only true context of Scripture. According to those who reject the Oral Law, the Jew and the Gentile are equally authorized to apply their interpretations of the Law. In light of God’s declaration in Deuteronomy 33:4 this cannot be.

# 6 – The sixth line of reasoning through which we can establish the veracity of the Oral Law is through some basic historical research.

The Scriptures testify that the Jewish people had a coherent and unified spiritual leadership in the early years of the Second Temple. Ezra, who was a recognized leader of the Babylonian Jewish community, was granted the power to enforce and to promulgate the teachings of Judaism under the rule of the Persian kings (Ezra 7:25,26). Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah and Nehemiah worked together to establish the spiritual roots of the community in the Land of Israel (Ezra 5:1, Nehemiah 10:30). It is only under a unified leadership commanding widespread respect that the establishment of a new holiday could take root amongst the Jewish community that was scattered throughout the Persian empire (Esther 9:27,28 – compare 2Chronicles 30:10).

Anyone who accepts the validity of the Jewish Scriptures, must accept that the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people in the beginning of the Second Temple era possessed the authentic understanding of the Law of Moses. The only question that can be asked is; which of the later Second Temple communities are the true heirs of Ezra and Nehemiah? Was it the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Essenes? Only one of these groups could be the true inheritor of Ezra and Nehemiah while the other two must be schismatics, who broke off from the main body of the nation.

We have learned from the scriptures that in the early days of the Second Temple, the Jewish people possessed a unified spiritual leadership. This leadership was respected throughout the far reaches of the diaspora. This is only possible if these scattered communities shared a common understanding of the Law. They must have possessed a strong network of coordinated leadership that held sway throughout the provinces of the Persian Empire and beyond.

The historical records of the later Second Temple era reveal that the Sadducee and the Essene communities were limited to the Land of Israel. There is no record of any Sadducee or Essene presence in Babylon or Rome, both of which possessed large Jewish communities. There is nothing to indicate that the Sadducees or Essenes possessed anything that resembled a network of leadership with international influence. The Pharisees on the other hand possessed a highly coordinated network of leadership that was respected throughout the entire Roman Empire and beyond.

The Pharisees relied on this network of leadership to apply their calendric decisions. The calendar of the Pharisees was based on monthly and yearly decisions of the central body of leadership. The respect that this body of leadership commanded enabled the international Jewish communities to celebrate the biblical holidays in unison. The respect commanded by the central Pharisaic body of leadership was not limited to the Jewish community. A large number of Pre-Nicean Christians also followed the calendric decisions of the spiritual leadership of the Pharisees. This phenomenon was so widespread in the Christian world that the Nicean council found it necessary to prohibit this practice.

There can be no question that the Pharisees were the true heirs of Ezra. The far-reaching extent of Pharisee influence can only be understood if we accept that the common root of all the scattered Jewish communities was Pharisaic. The Sadducees and the Essenes were obviously newcomers to the scene who only impacted the immediate area in which they originated.

# 7 – The seventh line of reasoning relates to the prohibition against idolatry.

As a general rule, the argument about the authenticity of the traditions of Judaism is not very relevant to the debate between Judaism and Christianity. It is not necessary to believe in the traditions in order to reject the doctrines of the Church. The Bible itself provides more than enough evidence to refute the claims of Christianity. Historically, Jews who rejected the traditions of their fathers, (known as Karaites), were amongst the strongest opponents to Christianity. Conversely, there are Christians who accept the authenticity of many of the traditions and still believe in Jesus. It is clear that the traditions are not a central factor in the debate between Judaism and Christianity.

There is however one exception to this rule and that is the tradition that defines the prohibition against idolatry. This tradition has been the central focus in the debate between Judaism and Christianity for the past 2000 years. When Jews chose death over Christianity, and tens of thousands made this choice, it was because they believed in the Jewish definition of the prohibition against idolatry. This is the one area where the Bible explicitly refers to extra-scriptural revelation as an authoritative source from where the Jewish people can find the truth. In the book of Deuteronomy (4:32-35) Moses reminds us about the miracles of the exodus and about the Sinai revelation. Moses tells us that these served as a lesson, unparalleled in the history of mankind, teaching us about the absolute sovereignty of God. Earlier on in that same chapter Moses tells us how this lesson will be preserved for the future generations. He tells us that we will teach it to our children and children’s children (4:9). He speaks of a chain of living teachers, not of the handing over of a book. When it comes to the issue of idolatry, the Bible explicitly points us towards our national heritage. And it is precisely in this area that all Trinitarian Christians reject the national traditions of the Jewish people.

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

This entry was posted in Faith Structure, Oral Law. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Validating the Oral Law

  1. stan says:

    This article was wonderful. A great insite with logic and common sense..

  2. bography says:

    How can the Oral Law (living testimony) be used to ratify the Oral Law (living testimony?

  3. Pingback: The Oral Law, Revelation and Reveilation « OneDaringJew

  4. Bography
    The uniqueness of our claim (Deuteronomy4:30-35) establishes our credibility as bearers of the message – in much the same way that a miracle establishes the crdibility of an inidividual bearer of a message.

  5. louisk says:

    hi rabbi- isn’t that the same claim made by any religious group- that their miracles prove their theological claims? Or is this simply because Christianity already accepts Judaism’s basic theological & scriptural claims, and thus they are ‘forced’ to accept this also?

  6. bography says:

    With ref to my comment, aren’t you saying that your sacred tradition validates your sacred tradition?

  7. Thomas says:

    Bography, the Written scripture is one important component which validates the tradition, as Ps 78 so vividly describes. The testimony of Israel, as passed through the generations, is how G-d transmits His message.

  8. Louisk & Bography
    The faith structure of Judaism as described in the Bible is that God chose a witness nation for Himself – He verified that choice through unparalleled miracles (see )
    This is similar to the concept of miracles verifying the validity of a prophetic messenger. So it is not a circular system of the witnesses verifying themselves – but rather – the uniqueness of the claim validates the messenger – who then validates the message. The basis is the fact that the CLAIM for the miracles of the exodus and the Sinai revelation remains unparalleled – this is teh lesson of Deuteronomy 4:30-35. It would help to see the articles under teh category “Faith Structure”

    • louisk says:

      hi rabbi,

      True, I am not personally familiar with claims similar to Judaism’s claims, but you’re not making a historical argument per se, but rather that Christianity is bound to Deuteronomy’s claim that the exodus/revelation was unique, and thus, that the witness nation borne out of that carries God’s true testimony?

  9. louisk says:

    let me clarify: i think I understand. Because Christianity accepts Judaism’s basic claims re: sinai, etc., part of that claim says the Jews are the bearers of God’s testimony. And the 2nd step of that would be to suggest that one who denies the Jews’ testimony cannot logically accept their tradition about the entire Sinai event. Is that correct?

  10. louisk says:

    I guess just to clarify again (sorry)- but your argument would have to assume (as I suppose it should) that Christianity already accepts the Jewish historical tradition about sinai. Otherwise, to me, anyway, a claim on its own doesn’t matter much, unless the claim is credible. Anyone can make a claim, but I see your argument as more forceful if it is aimed exlcusively at Christians who already accept the Jewish written tradition (ie. not at atheists, who reject everything)

  11. Louisk
    The argument that I presented is certainly a stronger argument against a Christian than against an atheist, after all the Christian must accept the faith structure that supports the Jewish Bible (though few of them think about it in those terms) – but this argument is also something for an atheist to consider. If the Jewish claim is just an accident of history – then it should be duplicated – accidents don’t happen only once. This argument – while I can’t say it is absolute scientific proof – is still something serious to consider – it should get you thinking in the right direction.

  12. Daniel Freedman says:

    “bography says: How can the Oral Law (living testimony) be used to ratify the Oral Law (living testimony?”
    In other words its circular reasoning: How can the Oral testimony (which is in dispute as being reliable), ratify itself to show that it is reliable….?

    The answer is simple. By analogy, how can a computer program which is producing incorrect results, be used to show that the results are not incorrect, but accurate? By introducing a mechanism that tests the accuracy of the data!

    In other words, the Oral Testimony is not claiming 100% accuracy, but rather, it is claiming accuracy that is necessary to be reliable – as an example 95% accuracy. This is self-evident from the fact that the Oral Testimony as represented by the Talmuds, Medrash etc…have within its make up a means of testing accuracy. Person A makes a statement: Y. If Y is indeed accurate, it is not only stated, but everyone knows about it. If it is not known, it is tested against the rules of interpretation and exegesis. It is only logical that if G-d expects His Torah to be followed and understood, he gave a means of interpreting the text fully. Lets say Y does not fall under this category. It is rejected on the grounds that it is made-up. If Y passes the test – it has its source in the Torah, then it is weighted against all logical possible outcomes – Y1. If Y1 does not fit the rules, or was not heard, Y1 is addressed, discussed and debated. If no conclusion is drawn, Y is summarily re-assessed. If it is found to be problematic, it is amended or rejected entirely. If Person B makes a statement X, and it is not known about it, it is critiqued and addressed why exactly it was not known. If ultimately there is a reason for its being not-known, it is also rejected. Thus, each statement of the Oral Tradition has gone through this rigorous analysis.

    In addition, the outcome proves the rule. We see that many oral traditions can produce wide ranging results – it is expected, that a wide degree of variance is achieved on a tradition that has been passed down mistakenly. However, on information that is accurate, this information usually has little variance, if any. We see that in the Jewish Oral Tradition, there is little variance, and there are really differences of minutae, rather than radical differences in philosophy, thought, and practice.

    The assumption that Oral traditions themselves are inaccurate has been thought based on work presented by anthropologists and archaeologists in the 1900s. However, it is well known that Historians often use oral testimony as a reliable means of recapturing lost information, with great accuracy. Today (in 2011), there has been a wide change in the literature and the current view among historians (especially those in the Orient, and Non-western countries), have shown that Oral testimonies often present accurate, reliable historical data and information.

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