[b-hebrew] oral Torah

Harold Holmyard hholmyard at ont.com
Fri Jun 23 10:50:33 EDT 2006

Dear Yigal,

>Your perfectly valid comments below are all besides the point, and basically 
>are the same points raised by the Sadducees, Karites and other groups within 
>Judaism, that eventually ended up in the margins. However, unlike Shoshanna, 
>instead of simply making assertations of faith, I'm trying to give us some 
>historical perspective.

HH: Thanks.

>Rabbinic Judaism was basically the great "democritizer" of Judaism. The 
>Priests claimed that their authority was hereditory, based on their descent 
>from Aaron. As long as the Temple was at the center of Jewish life, they had 
>an unassailable position of power. However, with the emergence of the 
>synagogue, which became Judaism's lifeline in the post-Temple era, the 
>Priests had no special claim to authority. After all, they had been 
>preaching since Deuteronomy that the Jerusalem Temple was the only place in 
>which the sacrificial cult was valid. Well, since there was no more Temple, 
>it was now someone else's turn.

HH: Well, from my perspective the new covenant had come, and things were 
supposed to be different. But from an OT perspective, the destruction of 
the temple did not do away with the priesthood, but only with the 
temple. The priesthood continued after the destruction of the first 
temple. Why shouldn't it continue after the destruction of the second 
temple? God's word remains God's word, and his word says nothing about 
the abrogation of the priesthood, does it?

>In principle, anyone can become a prophet, but as scripture became 
>cannonized, the list of "true prophets" closed. Tradition considers Malachi, 
>a.k.a. Ezra (and yes, I know that there's no scriptual basis for that 
>identification!) be have been the last prophet. Malachi, of course, 
>predicted the return of Elijah, but until that happens, prophecy is closed. 
>Of course, there are still individuals who are "inspired", but that's not 
>the same.

HH: Yes, there were no more writing prophets after Malachi for the 
Tanakh, but that does not mean there could not be a prophet at all. 
There were many OT prophets who never wrote Scripture. They gave 
messages from God for particular occasions. Of course, from my 
perspective John the Baptist was a prophet, and there were new covenant 
prophets, but that is going beyond the Tanakh.

>Which leaves the rabbis/scribes/elders. Anybody can become a rabbi, but he 
>has to study and pass his exams. Moses "ordained" the first group of 70, led 
>by Joshua. This "ordination" is called "smikhah", which means "laening [the 
>hands]", which is what Moses did to Joshua. The rabbis' tradition is that 
>all future rabbis can trace their "smikhah" back to Moses.

HH: That's interesting. However, I am not sure that the particular 
offices that Moses instituted for the theocratic rule of the nation 
Israel correspond exactly to the rabbis in synagues. It seems to be a 
somewhat different position. However, I can see the analogy.

>You ask, where is all this in scripture? Well, it's not spelled out, hence 
>"oral". But there are hints. For example, Deut. 13. Please note: in the 
>English, this chapter begins by warning us that if there should arise a 
>prophet who tells us to change the Law, he is not to be believed, because 
>the Law is immutable. The MT, however, begins one verse before (12:32 in the 
>English) - "Whatever I tell you to do, don't add and don't detract". In the 
>Hebrew, this is not the ending of chapter 12, but the begining of chapter 

HH: Right, but this is clearly speaking about revealed revelation, the 
material that prophets give. That's what "my word" always implies in the 
OT, unless it refers to God speaking to somebody directly.

>Or go to Deut. 16:18, which is the begining of the Sedrah Shophtim. "Judges 
>and officers you shall make in all your gates" - none of which have to be 
>priests! So the actuall keeping of the Law is not given to the Priests! And 
>then there's 17:8 ff. - if you have a question, come to the Priests, the 
>Levites AND the judges...

HH: Right, the judges interpret the law. But there were local judges "in 
all your gates," and national judges, where the Levitical priests are 
most prominently named (Lev 17:8-9). And since this judgment was to 
occur at the tabernacle or temple ("the place the Lord your God 
chooses": Deut 17:8), it is assumed that in these difficult cases that 
the Lord Himself would help (cf. Exod 18:20-22). That's why the judges 
could be called by the name "Elohim" (Exod 21:6; 22:8-9; Ps 82:6). 
Instruction in the law is especially given to the priests. Moses says 
about Levi:

Deut 33:10: They will teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your 
instruction to Israel

HH: God said the same thing directly to Aaron:

Lev. 10:8 Then the LORD said to Aaron,
Lev. 10:9 “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented 
drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is 
a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.
Lev. 10:10 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between 
the unclean and the clean,
Lev. 10:11 and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD 
has given them through Moses.”

>The point of all of which is that the scribes/rabbis/elders, also the 
>Pharisees, considered their authority, based on knowledge and learning, to 
>be greater than that of the Priests.

HH: Well, claiming to be greater in authority than the priests in the 
area of knowledge is not according to the OT model. In other words, it 
is not what God intended and indicated by His word. He gave a certain 
role to the Levites.

> They traced their authority back to 
>Moshe rabbeinu, "Moses our Rabbi" - the first and greatest of them all. From 
>a historical point of view, the won - and shaped Judaism in their image.

HH: But even Moses was a Levite. It is not a question of winning really, 
but of what God says. There were times in Israel's history when the 
wrong ideas "won," but they remained wrong ideas. Wrong ideas "won" the 
whole duration of the northern kingdom, but they were still wrong. Wrong 
ideas won during the time of Ahaz, Amon, and Manasseh in the south, and 
at other times, but they were still wrong. I am not saying that that 
community authority is wrong, because it is obviously scriptural. if 
"rabbis" represent the position of wise men and elders in the community, 
obviously they have their place.

Harold Holmyard


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