Judaism is the way of life that Hashem gave us at Mount Sinai, and taught to us in the Sinai Desert.
It includes a Written Torah and an Oral Torah.
It has always included an Oral Torah, and in fact, some of the Commandments were first taught to us orally before we had them in writing. But by and the large, we were taught both at the same time. Hashem would recite a paragraph of the Written Torah to Moses, telling him what to write, letter by letter. Hashem would then teach Moses the details of that Law, along with the deeper meanings, the applications of that Law, and all concepts related to it.
It is impossible to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah without the Oral Torah, because we need to know those details.
On the other hand, if we had only the Oral Torah, it would be possible to fulfill the
Commandments. The Written Torah’s function is primarily to prevent the Oral Torah from being forgotten.
The Written Torah is similar to a series of very brief notes a student writes at a lecture. I attended a class once in which I wrote in my notebook: «DY = 2; SY = 1.» Do you have any idea what that means? How could you? It means: «A double yellow line in the middle of the road means it is a two-way road, a single yellow line means it is a one-way road.» When you know what was said in the class, the notes make perfect sense to you. If you do not know
what was said at the lecture, you cannot understand the notes.
Hashem created the Torah two thousand years before He created the universe. That refers to both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is the extended «lecture.» The Written Torah contains the brief notes that make certain that we do not forget the «lecture.» Thus, in a sense, the Oral Torah gives us the context of the Written Torah.
I sometimes get questions from people who insist that I prove something from «Scriptural sources.» Christians, and those who follow their example, will accept only what is written in the Written Torah. (Which is surprising, considering the fact that they don’t obey the Scriptures anyway.)
Well, sorry, but quoting Scripture is not necessary. Judaism includes both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah, and it has always included both. If it is in the Oral Torah, it is Torah, and that’s a good enough source. If neither the Written nor the Oral Torah mention something, then it is not Torah. But if the Talmud teaches something, it is Torah, and therefore it is Judaism.
Which explains the title of this article: «Scripture Only, Please,» based on the request that I sometimes get. And my answer always is: I don’t have to quote Scripture when explaining Judaism. It is sufficient to quote Talmud and other Rabbinic Writings.
I teach Judaism, not Christianity. Christendom in general (yes, I know there are some exceptions) is ignorant of the origin and purpose of the Oral Torah. The truth is that the Christians got their opposition to the Oral Torah from a movement even earlier than Christianity. It came from the Sadducees, who rejected the Oral Torah because it prevented them from imitating the Greek lifestyle.
Demanding that I quote Scripture, and not accepting the Rabbis’ teachings, is contrary to Judaism. Still, whenever possible, I like to quote Jewish Scripture (which we refer to as Tanach) as well as the Talmud and Rabbis, because, after all, it is part of the Torah.
Now, I’m not saying that questions are forbidden. Quite the contrary! Judaism encourages questions. But if you approach a Rabbi with the argument that, «You are wrong, everything you say is wrong, and all of Judaism is wrong, because I don’t see it in the Scriptures,» you are probably not going to get much of an answer. In fact, you have probably already rejected the answer before you have even heard it!
The key is in being polite, sensitive, and open to learning.
But it is certainly acceptable to ask a Rabbi to explain a certain position, saying, for example, «I know that Orthodox Judaism believes in concept A. But doesn’t the Torah say such and such that implies the opposite?» Or «Why does the Torah seem to contradict itself in these two places?» There is always an answer to that sort of question!
It doesn’t mean that every Rabbi has the answer to every question, of course. Learning the answer to every question would take a long time to achieve. But the answer is always there, and it is all in the Oral Torah.
Which brings us to the most important point: When we seek answers in depth, it is to the Oral Torah that we turn, supported as it is by the Written Torah, and which in turn supports the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is pivotal and vital to Judaism. So to ask us to ignore the Oral Torah is completely unacceptable. It would be like trying to use a computer without a monitor.
And if you’ve ever tried to do that, you know just what a waste of time that can be.
To read more about the Oral Law, read my next article in this series, The Indispensable Oral