“Why is the notion of Oral Torah so repugnant to Messianic Jews? Some of the suspicion derives from proper concern for the primacy and unique authority of the Written Torah. Thus, some argue that the Written Torah is sufficient, and neither requires nor permits any supplement. It is further argued that the rabbinic doctrine of the Oral Torah was invented not just to supplement the Written Torah but to supplant it. Some of the suspicion derives from the Apostolic Writings (New Testament) and their treatment of the Pharisees… Yeshua’s apparent reservations about the Pharisaic ‘tradition of the elders’ are read as a direct rejection of any notion of Oral Torah. Yeshua’s bestowal of halakhic authority on his shelichim (apostles) likewise seems to preclude Pharisaic-rabbinic claims to such authority. Finally, Messianic Jewish suspicion regarding the Oral Torah derives also from the Pharisaic-rabbinic rejection of the messianic claims for Yeshua made by his followers, and from their subsequent treatment of those followers. In order to uphold any notion of Oral Torah for Messianic Jews, these objections must be addressed,” Mark Kinzer, Israel’s Messiah and the People of God, pg. 31
Is there an on-going Mosaic office in Judaism (i.e. Oral Torah) that Messianic Believers are obliged to follow? Kinzer address this question in an essay contained in his book “Israel’s Messiah and the People of God.” Before addressing the question, however, Kinzer takes the time to dispel what he feels are several common misconceptions about the “Oral Torah.”
Misconception 1: The Written Torah is Sufficient for Life Instructions
While he certainly acknowledges that the Written Torah is foundational and indispensable, he says that it is insufficient when it comes to providing a complete set of clear instructions to live by. He cites to gaps and ambiguities in the Written Torah such as the ambiguity of how to define “melachah” for the purposes of Shabbat, the lack of criteria for distinguishing between clean and unclean birds, etc. These types of ambiguities indicate that the Written Torah always intended for us to have an on-going Mosaic office of interpretation. But where do we find the grant of authority for such an office?
The source of authority is to be found in Deuteronomy 17 where G-d authorizes a “central judiciary”. The decisions of this court were to be regarded as Torah. The court itself not only draws its authority from the Written Torah but, Kinzer argues, the authority simultaneously arises from the People of Israel. Since “the seventy elders of Numbers 11 prefigure the central court of Deuteronomy 17…” and since these elders were representatives of the people, the authority to make law was “…vested in the people of Israel as a whole.” Kinzer thus concludes that the authority to make law is vested in the people of Israel as a whole via their representatives and that this authority should be termed “Oral Torah”:
“We thus may conclude that (1) because of its lack of legal detail and its abundance of apparent legal inconsistency, the Torah requires supplemental legal instruction; (2) the Torah itself recognizes this fact, and envisions a Mosaic teaching office whose role is to interpret and apply the Torah’s regulations to new circumstances; and (3) this Mosaic teaching office, while having its ultimate authority from God, receives its immediate sanction from the affirmation of the Jewish people as a whole. While the Torah itself nowhere uses the term, there is no reason why the tradition of supplemental instruction in the Mosaic succession should not be called ‘Oral Torah,'” pg. 40.
Misconception 2: The Rabbis Believe all Oral Laws Derive From Sinai
First, Kinzer explains that in reality the Rabbis do not consider Written Torah to be equal with Oral Torah, that they in fact make a legal distinction between d’oraita (Written Torah) and d’rabbanan (oral rabbinic law) that gives greater weight to the Written Torah. This would of course not be the case if they believed both were given at Sinai. Secondly, and most to the point, the Rabbis are well aware that many laws such as the laws of Chanukkah were created after the close of the Written Torah and yet they have formulated blessings such as “Who sanctified us by His mitzvot and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukkah” How can they say that this is a Divine mitzvah when it was clearly post-Biblical? The answer is to be found in B. Shabbat 23a where the Rabbis, addressing this particular law, ground their authority in Deuteronomy 17:11. In other words, Kinzer says the Rabbis saw themselves as belonging to the on-going Mosaic office of interpretation and application of Torah.
Misconception 3: Yeshua Viewed Pharisaic Laws as Illegitimate
Kinzer’s provides several evidences that Yeshua acknowledged the legitimacy of Pharisaic paradosis (i.e. oral Pharisaical tradition). One piece of evidence is that Yeshua Himself says “these you ought to have done” in Matthew 23 referring to laws (e.g. tithing of herbs) only found in oral Pharisaic tradition. Another is that Yeshua embraced undisputed post-Biblical traditions such as attending synagogue for the Shabbat service. Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence comes from Matthew 23 where Yeshua says that everyone should “carefully observe (poiesate kai tereite) all that they [i.e. the Scribes and Pharisees] say to you (panta hosa ean eiposin humin)” which is a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 17:10 “carefully observe all that they instruct you to do” (ve-shamarta la’asot ke-chol asher yorucha). Kinzer concludes from these types of evidences that Yeshua does not have a problem with the traditions of the elders per se but rather “[He] rejected a particular way in which [the Pharisee’s] tradition was being interpreted and applied.” Specifically, Yeshua was against any application of Pharisaic tradition that failed to give proper weight to the Written Torah: —“Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).
The Question at Hand: Is there an on-going Mosaic office in Judaism (i.e. Oral Torah) that Messianic Believers are obliged to follow?
While Kinzer is careful to say that some Rabbinic laws should be rejected such as “halakhic prohibitions of acts of faith in Yeshua”, he nevertheless argues that Rabbinic tradition carries a mandatory authority derived from Written Torah, the People of Israel, and the judges in charge of the People of Israel. He concludes that, based on the Rabbis having divinely sanctioned authority, “…Messianic Jews…should [therefore] not hesitate to say, ‘Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to…’ before lighting Shabbat and Chanukkah candles, chanting Hallel, waving the lulav (palm branch), or laying tefillin (phylacteries).”
There’s a few theoretical issues with Kinzer’s assertion that the Rabbis are to be equated with the level of authority granted to the judicial institution of Deuteronomy 17:11. One issue is that the authority of the Deuteronomic institution is mandatory as it says, “do not turn aside from what they tell you” and yet the Rabbis of the Talmud often gave opinions that no one felt obliged to follow. Opinions were given, some were ignored and some were followed. This is not exactly a Sanhedrinic type of authority. Moreover, the Rabbis (i.e. the Sages of the Talmud) are not themselves in charge in our modern era:
“As authoritative as the Sages are, however, it would be hard to apply our verse to them, they are simply no longer ‘in charge at the time.’ Rather, their authority is derivative and contingent: it is derivative because the Sages’ interpretations are not directly authoritative for the average Jew but are mediated through the authority of the contemporary rabbi, scholar, or even legal code, who are authorized by the verse [Deut. 17] as the contemporary judge(s)…” Michael Berger, Rabbinic Authority, pg. 38
Despite these and other theoretical defects, I think it might be possible to reach some common ground with Kinzer. It may be possible for Messianic Believers to say “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to…” But to get there would require a 2-step process.
Step 1: Trust the Sages
Most Messianics will probably stop reading at this point and scream something to the effect of “Is he serious?!!! Why trust the Sages?!!!” Well, I’ll tell you why. If you can trust them to have faithfully transmitted written tradition (i.e. the Bible), it is not unthinkable that you can also trust them to have faithfully transmitted oral tradition.
Let’s also remember that Paul, an apostle of Yeshua, commanded us to follow him as an example. And here’s several points to keep in mind about Paul:
Paul was a Pharisee and proud of it:
“I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee…!” (Acts 23:6
Pharisaism was characterized mainly by 2 things:
1. Paradosis: a tradition of the elders was faithfully passed on from one generation to the next.
“[T]he Pharisees passed on [paradosan] to the people certain ordinances [nomima] from a succession of fathers [ex pateron disdoches], which are not written down [anagegraphtai] in the laws [nomois] of Moses. For this reason the party of the Sadducees dismisses these ordinances, averring that one need only recognize the written ordinances [nomima ta gegrammena] whereas those from the tradition of the fathers [paradoseos ton pateron] need not be observed,” Josephus, Ant. 13:297-298.
“I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day,” Acts 22:3 (King James Version)
Speaking in Gal 1:13-14 of how he [Paul] outstripped many Jews of his own age group in his observance of ‘Judaism,’ Paul the form Pharisee stresses that he was ‘extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions [or: the traditions that stem from my forefathers, ton patrikon mou paradoseon],’” John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, pg. 316
2. Akribeia: legal perfection.
The most accurate way to translate Acts 22:3 is with Paul saying that he was educated in Pharisaism according to “the most perfect/legitimate/well-founded/accurate school of thought of our religion.” He literally says that Pharisaism not only describes his belief system (Acts 22:3) but he claims that Pharisaism is the most perfect/legitimate/well-founded/accurate (i.e. akribeia) school of thought in Judaism.
In conclusion, if Paul could trust that the Pharisees were transmitters of “traditions of the fathers” then we can trust that the Talmud, a compilation of Pharisaical tradition, contains “traditions of the fathers.”
For more on akribeia see below:
“For Luke, see akribeia in Acts 22:3; akribes in Acts 26:5 (where the Lucan Paul calls Pharisaism ‘the most exact school of thought of our religion,’ (ten akribestaten hairesin tes hemeteras threskeias); for Josephus, see, e.g. J.W. 1.5.2 section 110 (the Pharisees form the group that has the reputation [dokoun] of expounding the laws very precisely [akribesteron]; similarly, J.W.2.8.14 section 162 (met’ akribeias); Ant. 17.2.2 section 41 (ep’ exakribosei)…” John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew
“Josephus uses the word akribeia (and other words derived from the same root) to refer to the excellence and/or accuracy of different things. Thus, the writings of others on the Jewish Wars are not accurate, while his own account will be… Kingly duties…masonry…or farming…can all be performed excellently or accurately. Laws can be observed scrupulously…One Jewish group–the Pharisees–is regularly described as the party of akribeia. From his earliest to his latest writings, Josephus uses this word…to describe the Pharisees…To summarize the argument thus far, akribeia refers to the scrupulous exactness, accuracy in detail, and specificity of Pharisaic teaching. The term was applied to the Pharisees by Josephus, Acts, and Nicolaus because these authors were repeating a Pharisaic claim that their party was the party of akribeia,” Baumgarten, Name of the Pharisees
“We can begin by noticing the connection between akribeia and truthfulness. There is not an English translation of akribeia that does it justice in all contexts. Usually it is translated as ‘precision’ or ‘exactitude’, though in NE VI.7 Ross translates the adjective as ‘finished.’ The word does have both the sense of perfection and of precision. Something is akribes when it is rendered to absolute perfection, with neither too much nor too little. And ‘in general, being akribes seems to amount (vaguely enough) to being of good epistemic quality.’ …Aristotle says that of all the good states of theoretical reason, philosophical wisdom (sophia) turns out to be its proper virtue because it is akribestate (most akribes) (1141a16). This suggests, then, that akribeia is a mark of truthfulness. It is a sign that the truth has been perfectly grasped….There is evidence in NE VI.7 that Aristotle is thinking of akribeia as a matter of grasping form. The master craftsmen at the beginning of the chapter are most akribeis in their fields because they most of all are able to realize the form of a statue in marble. ….Akribeia…is surely a mark of intellectual accomplishment,” Gabriel Richardson Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’
“One respect in which this process of litigation had intensified over the years, independent of the emergencies of 406, was in the competitive role of expertise, or akribeia. Legal akribeia had contributed much to Antiphon’s reputation as an effective litigant. Historical akribeia had been influential in the expulsion of Alcibiades. Constitutional akribeia, combining history and law, had been the point of departure for the oligarchic reforms of the Four Hundred. However misguided their program seemed, in retrospect, the importance of constitutional akribeia lived on in the work of codifying traditional law being carried on by the commission of nomothetai…In every case, the foundation of akribeia was access to written texts, whether they were literary works or archival documents. So the nomothetai, by the nature of their task, were presiding over the formation of the first central state archive at Athens,” Mark Munn, The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates
Step 2: Ratify Rabbinic Opinions That Do Not Conflict with the Written Torah
Finally, the Messianic community can ratify those traditions that do not conflict with the Written Torah. And once we have ratified them as being products of the on-going Mosaic office in Judaism, we could legitimately say “who has…commanded us…”
So enough of my opinions. Does anyone else have any thoughts on Kinzer’s assertions? Do you agree/disagree that we can say “who has…commanded us…” in regard to purely oral traditions?
Source: Orthodox Messianic Judaism (http://goo.gl/tTgTQM)