Oral law and communication with God

God had a problem. How does an infinite divine being communicate His thoughts to a group of finite, primitive, naked apes? In other words, how is it possible that God creates a relationship with man?

There were two options. God can remain silent, and when we cry out to Him, He can say, “Hey, I’d love to answer, but I’m paralyzed by your inability to understand me!” Or God can compromise and translate your thoughts into words, terms, and ideas that people can understand.

In giving the Torah to the Israelites, God had to restrain Himself, expressing Himself not only in human language, but in the specific human language of Hebrew, and not only in Hebrew, but in a Hebrew that ancient slaves who could understand. they were around. the mountain.

That means that God needed to speak in primitive, patriarchal, agrarian Hebrew. Let me unpack that for a moment. When we speak of language, we should not only be concerned with the words themselves, but with how they are understood at the specific moment in which they are used. If I told someone that they look “cool”, we would all know what I mean. But a thousand years from now, without a cultural context, one might misinterpret what I am saying and think I was commenting on its ability to maintain a cool body temperature in the face of the ravages of global warming.

It’s not just words, but a lot of cultural baggage that comes with those words. If you had asked me to make you “Friend” 20 years ago, I would have thought you were a lonely person; And if you had asked me to “follow” you, I would think that you suffer from illusions of greatness. Asking for a date for a “cup of coffee” at the end of the night is not an offer for a hot caffeinated drink. But you need to be part of the cultural milieu to understand that.

Illustration of Shavuot by Pepe Fainberg (credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

BY GOD by introducing His infinite mind into ancient Israelite Hebrew, God risked “freezing” His thoughts in a specific time and place, and risked making them irrelevant to later generations and thus eventually turning the Torah into a fossil.

Let’s not forget that if there were only one generation in Jewish history in which the Torah was not valuable and relevant, we would not be here today.

What God did to avoid that was to introduce along with the written Torah, an oral Torah that was much more fluid and dynamic than the written one. The oral law that would become the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism was and still is the true center of authority in Jewish life, sometimes even “over-governing” written law.

I often explain this idea to my students in language they can understand. I compare the written law with the iPhone. Once it leaves the factory, the physical shape of the phone does not change. It stays the same size, shape, screen, camera, and battery. But Apple sends regular system updates from the cloud to update my phone and what I can do with it. So while my phone may be old, it is running a new, dynamic operating system.
Rabbinic Judaism is the “system upgrades” of Torah hardware. It allows the words to remain exactly the same, but gives them a renewed meaning in each and every generation.

The current problem is that due to the challenges of Reform and Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism came to a standstill. Unprepared for the questions posed by modernity, traditional Judaism was like a deer in headlights, frozen in place and unable to move. Orthodox Judaism initially gave a knee-jerk reaction to the questions of change by answering that “we don’t change things.” Which is not only too simplistic, but obviously untrue.

Halacha changes and has changed throughout the generations. Today, we lack a rabbinical leadership that has the guts to influence the changes we need.

The 20th century presented two real challenges to Halacha. The first was modernity and the second was sovereignty.
By modernity, for example, I mean the challenges posed by electricity, medical science, space travel, etc., all questions for which the Halacha was not prepared; And by sovereignty I mean the problems of running a democratic Jewish state, a situation that the Halacha never even dreamed of.

One example that came up in an article I recently saw was whether or not Prime Minister Naftali Bennett should go to synagogue on Shabbat. Going to the synagogue is a wonderful and important part of Judaism, but it is not an obligation. The prime minister’s movement from one place to another requires the “violation” of many Shabbat restrictions. The interviewed rabbis, all tremendously learned and Zionist sympathizers, seem to think that Bennett is better off staying home, but you can see from their responses that they, too, are puzzled by their own response.

And while we can all agree that a security threat allows the prime minister to “violate” Shabbat (in quotation marks because then it would not be a violation), what about a bus drivers’ strike that begins Friday night? evening? On the one hand “it is just a labor dispute” but on the other, if the drivers are still on strike on Sunday morning, men and women cannot get to work, children cannot go to school, soldiers cannot. they can reach their bases. The economy is threatened along with the security of the state. And let’s take the soldiers out of the equation. Can we recognize that only economic damage to the state will weaken it enough to call it pikuach nefesh?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the learning or broad shoulders to answer those questions, but I know enough to ask them. Because from what I see, it seems that we have now fossilized even oral law, thus making God’s original problem our problem. ■

The writer has a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.


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