The Oral Law and Our Own Opinions

In my article, The Indispensable Oral Law, I demonstrate that the Oral Torah existed when the Written Torah was given to us. Otherwise, it would be impossible to understand the Torah with any clarity at all.

I wish to discuss this some more, to clarify some confusion on the matter.

A woman wrote me that in her opinion: «Oral Law is man’s interpretation. Oral Law is just another opinion and interpretation of the Torah Scriptures. Each person must undertake to understand the Torah in his or her own way.»

In her opinion, any and every interpretation of the Torah created by any human would be acceptable, and we need not follow established precedence, nor do we need to obey anyone’s interpretation of the Torah.

Is this true? What does the Torah teach about this? Let’s take a look.

But before we discuss this, I want to make it clear that there is a place for personal expression and inspiration in the study and observance of Torah. However, it may not step beyond the clear lines that the Torah has drawn, as we shall see.

Now, how do we know there are guidelines to the way we may interpret the Torah?

In Exodus (24:12-18), Hashem tells Moses to climb up Mount Sinai, where He will give him the Two Tablets, the Torah, and the Commandments. Moses was there for forty days and forty nights, studying the Torah.

Moses came down from the mountain, and began teaching the Torah to the Children of Israel. And whenever the Children of Israel came to ask a question, Moses was able to supply the answer.

Yet we find that despite having studied the Torah directly from Hashem, there were at least three points of information that Moses did not know.

When someone publicly cursed the Name of Hashem, Moses did not know what was to be done to him (Leviticus 24:10-16).

When a man was found publicly gathering wood during the Sabbath, which is one of the 39 activities forbidden on the Sabbath, everyone knew that he was supposed to be killed. However, no one, not even Moses, knew what method of capital punishment the transgressor was supposed to receive (Numbers 15:34).

And again, when the five daughters of Tzelofchod came to ask their question about inheritance, Moses found that he did not know the answer (Numbers Chapter 27).

So how did Moses find out what should be done in each of these cases? Did they simply decide according to what made sense to them? No, Moses asked Hashem.

In each of those three cases, the Torah makes it clear that they asked Hashem, and that Hashem very clearly told them the Law.

For example, concerning the daughters of Tzelofchod, the Torah says: «And Moses brought their case for judgment to Hashem. Hashem said to Moses, ‘The daughters of Tzelofchod are correct in what they have said’» (Numbers 27:5-6).

Let me digress for a moment, and discuss something that may be on your mind as you read this. Why is it that Moses did not know the Law in these three cases? Here is one answer.

Though Hashem taught all of the Torah to Moses, there is also a general rule: Hashem makes good things happen through good people, and bad things through bad people (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 32a). Therefore, Hashem let the Laws of transgressing the Sabbath and cursing Hashem be taught through those who had broken those Laws.

On the other hand, the five daughters of Tzelofchod were very righteous women, and therefore Hashem wanted that particular Law to be taught to Israel through them.

Yet at no time were the people left to their own devices to figure out the Law for themselves. Each and every Law of the Torah — and their proper interpretations — came from Hashem.

Now, this does not mean that all Laws can be determined only through prophecy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Only in the time of Moses was that possible, since the Children of Israel were still learning the Torah
for the first time, and as we see, even Moses needed to ask, on occasion. Subsequent to the passing of Moses, the Law was not learned or taught through prophecy. In fact, the Talmud has a Law against deciding on legal cases by means of prophecy.

So what are we supposed to do today, when there is a doubt or question about Jewish Law? The Torah tells us what to do in such cases also.

If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, damages, or any other case where there is a dispute in your local courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that Hashem your G-d shall choose.

You must approach the Levites and Priests and the Supreme Court that exists at that time. You must make an inquiry, and they will declare to you a legal decision.

You must do as the court that Hashem has chosen tells you, carefully following their every decision. You must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the Laws that they legislate for you.

Do not stray to the right or left from the word that they declare to you.

If any person rebels and refuses to listen to the priest or other judge who is in charge of serving Hashem your G-d there, then that person must be put to death, thus ridding yourselves of evil in Israel.

— Deuteronomy 17:8-13

The Torah here is explaining the hierarchical court system. When there is a question, we must go to our local Rabbi, or our local Bais Din. If they are unable to answer, we must go to a higher Jewish Court. If they cannot answer the question, they must go to yet a higher court. And so on, all the way until the top court, the Sanhedrin. Unfortunately, the full system is not in effect today, because we are in exile. But we still have local Rabbis, who also have Rabbis with whom to consult, and we also have local Jewish courts (Battai Din).

So the Torah does not simply allow each person to create his own
interpretation of the Law. Quite the opposite. The Torah repeatedly says, «One Torah shall there be for all of you: for the born-Jew and the convert.» All Jews must follow that same Torah.

The Torah has definite lines of the permitted and the forbidden, and there are definite lines of Tradition and heresy. And within those very broad lines, there is an unlimited — and I mean literally unlimited — area for inspiration and the development of new concepts. We call those chiddushim, and the Torah strongly encourages each and every one of us to develop chiddushim within the permissible guidelines.

In other words, we can build infinitely upon the existing structure of Torah, but we may not remove even one block from that structure.

We may conceive of and suggest novel approaches to understanding the Torah, but we may not contradict the Torah — neither the Oral Torah nor the Written Torah.

Hashem wants you to think, and to grow in thoughts of Torah, and to expand upon our understanding of what the Torah teaches. And Hashem gave us guidelines to follow in our growth, so that we grow in the direction the Torah wants us to grow, and not twist and distort the true meaning of the Torah.

P>Judaism is quite expansive. The breadth of Judaism is such that there is a great deal of leeway within the boundaries of Jewish Law for the expression of personal tendencies and preferences. Look at the many branches of Orthodox Judaism: Hassidim, Misnagdim, Sefardim, etc., and with so many types of each of those, each of which appeals to another type of Orthodox Jew.

True, many personal preferences are outside of permissible bounds, such movements as the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative. But the bounds of proper Jewish Law are not limiting, because they encompass quite a vast area.

The Torah is an unparalleled opportunity for expression. You can think of it as similar to a sonnet. There are specific laws of meter and rhyme, but the content within those bounds is still the choice of the poet.

The Torah itself gives us voice for self-expression, as any truly spiritual Orthodox Jew can tell you.

The Torah commands us to keep within the parameters of Halachah, for our own benefit. By doing so, we become even more holy. By stepping off that path we harm ourselves.

As I have written elsewhere, Hashem created the Torah, both the Written and Oral Torah, the complete package, two thousand years before He created this universe. Hashem kept the Torah until the right time, and then gave this cherished treasure to us.

When the time came, Hashem taught the Law to Moses, who taught it to the children of Israel, who taught it to the next generation of Israel, who taught it to the next generation, and so on, through the generations until today.

And the Torah contains a method by which we can restore lost or forgotten Laws, but these are very strictly regulated to prevent abuse.

Not everyone can learn at the same level as everyone else, which is why there have always been, and there must always be, Rabbis and leaders who know more, and whom we must ask when we have a question or doubt.

And of course the Rabbis and the judges of all courts are subject to the same Laws, and to special Laws and restrictions just for judges. When there is a doubt in a Law, there are specific ways to resolve it.

More about that, Hashem willing, in another article.

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