"Our tradition is totally self-sufficient." (Starts 7:13)
“Our tradition is totally self-sufficient—our prayer books, our commentaries, our law codes, our customs. We don’t need your Jesus.”
There is much that I admire about Rabbinic Jewish traditions; however, these traditions have their weaknesses. I would like to propose several questions:
- Have the traditions become exalted beyond the Word of God itself? Note God’s instruction to Joshua: “Let not this Book of the Teaching [sefer hattorah hazzeh] cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful” (Josh. 1:8, NJV). Even if Moses received an Oral Torah, it’s nowhere mentioned here. Instead, the focus is on “the Book of the Teaching.” Nevertheless, the rabbinic traditions have largely supplanted God’s written Word. Consider the following:
- The Rabbinic interpretation of Scripture is always followed, even when it contradicts the plain meaning of the text.
- The daily life of an Orthodox Jew is governed far more by traditions than by the written Word.
- Yeshiva studies focus on Talmud and the Law Codes, while major portions of the Bible are rarely read or discussed.
- Some rabbis have claimed that study of the Talmud alone is sufficient since it explains both the Mishnah and the Written Law.
Rabbi Noson Weisz claims, “Their [traditional Jews] most sacred commandment is the one that orders them to study the Torah. In practice they have carried out this obligation by studying the Talmud” (see Parry, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud, xvii).
Even worse, note David Hazony’s remarks:
- Today, codes of Jewish law have become central to yeshiva study; most rabbinical programs focus not on study of the Bible or Talmud, which contain mostly literary material or non-decisive legal discussions, but on the perusal of codes of law such as R. Jacob ben Asher’s Arba’a Turim and R. Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Aruch, and commentaries on these codes such as Karo’s Beit Yosef and R. Yisrael Meir Kagan’s Mishna Brura—the assumption being that through these will the student learn how to render proper halakhic decisions when called upon. (Hazony, Introduction to Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism, xv)
While the Talmud regularly cites the Tanakh, these other law codes often make no reference to Scripture. Clearly, the written Word has lost its place of central importance!
- Has there been an over-exaltation of study? Study is often done as an end in and of itself. Famous rabbis in history are often praised for their meticulous study habits more than for their integrity. Note some examples:
- One 18th century rabbi allegedly studied for 22 hours a day, devoting 4 half-hour breaks to sleep.
- One 20th century rabbi refused to get a haircut, lest he have to keep his head uncovered long enough to neglect study.
- Praising a boy as an ilui (a prodigy who diligently studies the Talmud) is often seen as a supreme commendation.
- The most Orthodox yeshivas encourage students to become so devoted to study that they don’t have to work.
- Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are subsidized by the Israeli government and exempt from military service.
Concerning the last point, Ammiel Hirsch laments,
- Ultra-Orthodox temerity extends beyond childhood into adulthood. Thus they argue that since ultra-Orthodox young men are doing more for the security of Israel by studying and praying than our soldiers on the frontlines they should be exempt from army service that is compulsory for everyone else. And while the state is at it, these ultra-Orthodox men, many of whom are draft dodgers, should be paid more than combat pay to pray and study. (Hirsch and Reinman, One People, Two Worlds, 150)
The Scriptures themselves don’t exalt study as an end in and of itself. While Joshua was urged to meditate on God’s Law, he was a man on a mission: to claim the Promised Land! Ezra was praised as a “teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), but even he was actively involved as a leader among his people; he didn’t abandon all other tasks to devote himself to study. What great things could happen if today’s traditional Jews, like Joshua and Ezra, would focus not just on study, but on doing good works as well?
- Has the prophetic voice of the Scriptures been replaced by the study of legal traditions? Hazony raises a valid concern, “If the teachings of the prophets are so irrelevant to living a proper Jewish life, as may be inferred from their place in the yeshiva curriculum, why were the rabbis of the Talmud so concerned with them” (Essential Essays on Judaism, xix)?There’s a distinct difference between the prophetic spirit and the rabbinic spirit. Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of “the blast from heaven,” saying:
- To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. . . . The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven. . . .
- The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. . . . Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. (Heschel, The Prophets, 19)
Compare the prophetic books with the Talmud and you’ll find the latter to represent not the authoritative voice of God, but the fallible, conflicting opinions of men. Note the famous words of Karaite leader Salmon ben Yeruham:
- I have discovered in my heart another argument, A handsome one, and majestic enough To be placed as a crown for the Karaites, To be their ornament, pride, and glory.
- I have looked again into the six divisions of the Mishnah, And behold, they represent the words of modern men. There are no majestic signs and miracles in them, And they lack the formula: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron.”
- I therefore put them aside, and I said, There is no true Law in them, For the Law is set forth in a different manner, In a majestic display of prophets, of signs, and of miracles; Yet all this majestic beauty we do not see in the whole Mishnah.
- (www.karaite-korner.org/salmon_ben_yeruham.shtml#canto2, citing from Salmon’s Book of the Wars of the Lord, as translated by Leon Nemoy.)
In light of this, consider Moses’s prayer: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth” (Exod. 33:15–16)? Could the lack of a prophetic voice reveal a lack of God’s powerful presence in our midst?
- Has an emphasis on Torah obedience produced a self-righteous attitude? Do you see yourself as superior to the Gentiles, as someone who has obtained favor with God through your own efforts? What about the sentiments of Rambam, who speaks of some of “the Turks, and the nomads in the North, and the blacks and the nomads in the South” whose “level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a donkey”? Elsewhere, I deal with several rabbinic statements that are perceived as bigoted. While traditional Jews often have explanations for such statements, it doesn’t change the fact that we have a history of looking down upon the Gentiles.Contrast this approach with that of Yeshua, as seen in this parable:
- To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
- “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
- “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
- Has a personal relationship with God become legislated by man? While the Tanakh clearly emphasizes God’s expectations for his people, it mentions nothing of extrabiblical traditions that mandate every detail of Jewish life. Note Moshe M. Eisemann’s remarks:
- History decreed that around the end of the Babylonian exile, prayer, which had until then been left to the spiritual and creative resources of each individual, should be formalized. The currents and conditions which made this radical reform appropriate at just that time need not detain us here. Suffice to say, the formidable task of creating an immense system of Berachos and Tefilos, of blessings and prayers, together with the complex infrastructure of Halachah which supports and sustains it, now became necessary. The Anshei Kenesses haGedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, were called upon to put it all in place. (Eisemann, A Listening People, 145)
While the creation of the Siddur may have been motivated by national concerns, it has dramatically impacted individual Jews. Traditional Jews spend their entire lives praying legislated prayers. You would never speak to your spouse or your children this way. Why, then, would you think that praying specifically mandated prayers is key to developing a relationship with God?
Believers in Yeshua have the freedom to speak out of our hearts to God rather than reciting mandated prayers. When I was a young believer, a Conservative rabbi would ask me why my relationship to God seemed as intimate as that of the biblical prophets. Millions of Jesus’ followers have experienced this in their spiritual lives.
You might say, “You can’t judge my relationship with God!” I am not your judge, and I do not know what your relationship with God is like; however, I do know that the Bible does not instruct us to pray according to the “complex infrastructure of Halachah.” I challenge you to try praying to God in your own words for even part of a day and see what happens!
In closing, let me describe some other blessings that come from knowing Yeshua.
Perhaps you feel relieved and cleansed right after Yom Kippur, but Jesus offers total cleansing all the time (see Eph. 1:7-8). Even when you fail as a believer, God cleanses you once you ask him to forgive you.
There’s great joy in following Yeshua. As a teenager who had recently come to Jesus, I thought, “If only the others in my school understood this joy, they too would turn from sin and come to Jesus.” A friend of mine who works from home frequently gets so overcome with God’s love that he breaks down into tears and begins singing praise to God.
We can approach death without being afraid (1 Cor. 15:50-57). Because Jesus took the punishment for our sins, we don’t have to suffer for them. This doesn’t motivate us to live however we want. Paul tells us that we “died to sin” and that we’re now united with Jesus (Rom. 6:1-7). Our sin still has consequences (Gal. 6:7-8), but Yeshua’s finished work has taken the sting out of death.
Through God’s example of sending his Son for us, we find the strength to forgive others (Col. 3:13). About 50 years ago, a teenage communist killed a Korean pastor’s sons. Although the court sentenced him to death, the pastor petitioned the court to allow him to adopt him! This teenager came to Jesus through the pastor’s example of forgiveness. Another example of this kind of forgiveness is recounted in Through Gates of Splendor, which describes how five missionaries were martyred in Equador by Auca Indians in 1956. What did the widowed missionary wives do? They returned to Ecuador to tell the Indians who had murdered their husbands about God’s forgiveness!
Consider also the tremendous empowerment that Yeshua gives his followers. Many who come to him instantly conquer sinful habits. True, traditional Judaism speaks much of repentance, but have you really found the strength to repent? Yeshua gives “repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31).
Note Jesus’ testimony concerning his teaching:
- Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matt. 7:21, 24–27)
Will your house stand?
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 187-204.
"We have an unbroken chain of oral tradition going back to Moses." (Starts 8:28)
“We have an unbroken, authoritative chain of oral tradition going back to Moses. Who are you to teach us what our Bible says?“
I have no problem affirming that some of our customs and traditions can be traced back to the very beginnings of our history as a people. What I am questioning, however, is the notion of a divinely given, comprehensive, Sinaitic Oral Torah. There is plenty of evidence in the Hebrew Bible to affirm that God’s covenant with Israel was based on the Written Torah, but nowhere is there any evidence for a divinely inspired Oral Torah going back to Moses. There is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible, or even in Jewish writings for several centuries after the Bible was completed. The traditional concept of the Oral Torah given by God to Moses is a myth; it was in fact developed by rabbis from the first through the sixth centuries CE.
I am aware that the Talmud claims otherwise, declaring that the covenant made with Israel was from the start based on an Oral Law, however, the Talmud’s idea of the Oral Law is not right. My argument is based on the following seven principles: (1) God’s covenant with Israel was based on the written Word alone, (2) no references to the Oral Law, whether explicit or implicit, can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, (3) not only is there no evidence for an Oral Law in the Tanakh, but there were times when the Written Law itself was forgotten, (4) Moses did not receive every detail of the Oral Law on Mt. Sinai, (5) sometimes the rabbinic writings abuse or convolute the plain meaning of Scripture, which demonstrates that they cannot really be traced back to Moses, (6) the Oral Law doesn’t always understand the written Word, because many of the traditions only came into being centuries after the Scriptures were written, and (7) the fact that the rabbinic traditions had to be written down is proof that there could not have been an Oral Law passed down from Moses, which would have needed to have been preserved for 1500 years without being written down.
I know this topic is very sensitive, but I encourage you to keep reading without fear. If your position is right, there’s no reason to worry about what you’ll read; however, if you find your views being challenged by what you read, if you’re really serious about the truth, then you should see where the questions lead. Let me reassure you that you can continue to respect and honor the sages of the past, even as you question their authority. After all, it was God who gave us minds and hearts so we could think and pray and study and search, and he is pleased when we use the abilities he has given us to find out his will for our lives. Let’s see where our study leads us.
- The Scriptures indicate clearly that God’s covenant with Israel was based on the written Word and on the written Word alone.When Moses came back down from Mt. Sinai, he told the people everything he had heard from God, and, after the people had promised to live according to what Moses had told them, he wrote down everything that God had told him (Exod. 24:3-4a). Even after Moses’ second trip up and down the mountain after Israel’s sin with the golden calf, everything was written down according to God’s instructions (see Exod. 34:27). It was this Book of the Covenant that formed the basis for their life together as God’s people, and this book was to be handed down through the generations. There is no mention of an oral tradition, nor is any hint given that there is any additional, hidden information not contained in the book, necessary for the establishment of the covenant.Deuteronomy declares that future kings of Israel were to make a copy of this book of the law and study it diligently; no mention is made of an oral explanation that accompanies these written words. It is obvious that the written Word can be understood without the aid of oral interpretation (see Deut. 17:18-20). As the people were preparing to enter the Promised Land, they were told to write the words of the law on stones and to set them up on Mount Ebal (see Deut. 21:1-8). They were to keep the book of the law in the Ark of the Covenant, and it was to be taken out to be read every seven years so that all generations would hear the word and learn to fear God (see Deut. 31:9-13). No mention is made in any of the Five Books of Moses of an oral tradition to accompany this Written Law. The Written Torah was intended both to serve as a witness against God’s people and to provide the key to their success for living faithfully according to his covenant.
There are many good reasons for writing down the covenant: it preserved it for future generations, it kept regulations from becoming forgotten or confused, and it ensured its authority. If Israel could manage to forget the Written Torah from time to time, imagine what would have happened with an oral tradition. It is highly unlikely that it would have been preserved intact throughout the centuries! Why do you think the rabbinic traditions were also consigned to the written Word and not simply passed on orally?
All the necessary requirements for living faithfully as God’s people are included in the Written Torah. Laws regarding everyday life, as well as instructions for carrying out all the religious duties, are meticulously described. Where creativity or design beyond the description was needed, the Scriptures say that this was provided by the Spirit of God and the gifts of the artisan, not by an oral tradition. The laws are not merely general summaries or vague “chapter headings”, but are sufficiently detailed in themselves as not to require fleshing out by an oral tradition. Those elements that appear to need further clarification (e.g., what is meant by “a handful”) are sufficiently clear as not to warrant a precise definition.
From the time of Moses to the return of the people from exile, the Written Law was used as the standard by which to judge the faithfulness of the people and their leaders. While not one leader of Israel mentions an additional oral tradition—not Moses, not Joshua, not Josiah, not Ezra, not Nehemiah—all of the great leaders were adamant about keeping the Written Law. There is not one reference to the Oral Law in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures—every single time the law is mentioned, it refers to the Written Law. Take a look for yourself and see what you find (e.g., Josh. 8:31–32; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 23:25; Mal. 3:22; Dan. 9:11, 13; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; Neh. 8:1; 2 Chron. 23:18; 30:16; 34:14). If such an oral tradition existed at all—and I’m not saying that it did—it is clear that it wasn’t very relevant to the keeping of the covenant.
If the Oral Law really were necessary for living out the covenant, then why is it impossible to find a single explicit appeal to it anywhere in the entire Hebrew Scriptures, while there are many completely obvious references to the Written Law? Such references can’t be found, because an Oral Law which can be traced back in its entirety to Moses never existed in the first place. It’s a myth, and yet the rabbis constantly appeal to the Oral Torah. Most of the practices and studies of the rabbis are based on the Oral Torah, especially the Talmud and the medieval Law Codes, rather than on the scriptural text; no wonder they keep citing a supposedly authoritative Oral Torah! Unfortunately, such a concept goes against all the biblical evidence.
Not only is it at odds with the command to obey what is written, but sometimes the interpretation found in the Oral Law even completely contradicts what is written. How do you think Moses or Joshua would have responded if they had heard a Jewish leader explaining that “even though the Torah legislates that an unrepentant, stubborn and rebellious son is to be stoned to death so that the whole congregation would fear God (see Deut. 21:18–21), we tell you that God never intended that Written Law to be followed. Instead, he put it in the Torah so we would have the merit of figuring out that he never meant it!” At the very least, the biblical leaders would have wondered where the authority behind that statement had come from!
The burden of proof lies with those who claim that an ancient Oral Law exists. It is not enough to say that the reason the Oral Law is not mentioned in the Tanakh is because it is oral, not written. Since when has lack of evidence been an acceptable argument for accepting a statement?
In sum, all the explicit biblical evidence is against the existence of a binding Oral Law that was passed to Moses at Sinai; none of the explicit evidence is for it.
- There are no explicit or implicit references to the Oral Torah within the Written Torah.In the first section, I tried to make it absolutely clear that there is no explicit mention of the Oral Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this section, I want to consider whether the evidence in Scripture for the existence of an oral tradition might take a more subtle form. I’ll consider some of the passages in Scripture that are often considered as hints of an Oral Torah and see how they hold up to scrutiny.One of the texts that is said to lend support to the existence of an Oral Law is Exodus 34:7 (mentioned in the section above), in which Moses goes up Mt. Sinai for the second time and God says to him: “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Though most impartial translators would automatically assume the accuracy of “in accordance with,” the Talmudic rabbis prefer to read this as “on the mouth of.” Following the Talmud (b. Git. 60b), Rashi explains this to mean: “But you are not permitted to write down the Oral Torah.” Given that everything in the passage in question is emphasizing the written nature of the covenant and given that Moses was told to write everything down, it is difficult to see how such a contradictory interpretation could have gained so much prominence in the traditional Jewish view, but it has!
Exodus 24:12 is another passage held up as evidence of Moses receiving both a Written and an Oral Law on Sinai. Rashi interprets the “teachings and commandments” written on the tablets to mean that all of the 613 commandments [mizvot] are there, embraced within the Ten Commandments. His explanation, which indicates that God had communicated with his people in such a way that all they needed to know about living out the covenant was there in writing, is a viable interpretation. A similar interpretation is also found in Targum Pseudo Jonathan.
However, sixteenth-century biblical commentator Obadiah Sforno maintains that it was because of the idolatry of the Israelites that God did not write out the whole Torah with his own hand, as he had written the Ten Commandments, but had also presented Israel with an Oral Torah. This interpretation is highly speculative.
In b. Baruch 5a, the Talmud interprets Exodus 24:12, in which God states that he would give Moses the law on stone tablets, as referring to the Mishnah and the Talmud, the whole Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings (e.g., Schottenstein Talmud, 5a, n. 15). In other words, on Mt. Sinai, Moses received the entire Hebrew Bible and all of the Oral Law. Granted, these rabbis understood that they were not setting forth the plain meaning of Scripture, otherwise they would have declared their interpretation as final and authoritative; however, this interpretation moves beyond even the creative use of a text, to the abuse of a text.
This last interpretation is an inadequate interpretation of Exodus 24:12 for the following reasons:
- The Talmud doesn’t explicitly say that it is offering anything other than the plain meaning of the text; throughout the centuries, however, it has been quoted as if it were explaining the literal meaning of the passage. This text from the Talmud has been abused by subsequent generations, who have taken it as authoritative. Maimonides opens his Mishneh Torah with an explicit reference to the Talmudic interpretation of this verse, declaring that God gave Moses both the Written and the Oral Torah on Mt. Sinai.
- This interpretation cannot be taken seriously, since the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t reach their completion until about one thousand years after Moses, and the Talmud wasn’t finalized until two thousand years after Moses. This alleged revelation of the entire Bible on Mt. Sinai is just absurd.
- Nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures does it state that God himself wrote the Prophets and the Writings. While it is appropriate to say that God inspired texts like the Psalms or Job or Ecclesiastes, it would be theologically problematic to say that God wrote prayers to himself, wrote arguments about himself, and wrote meditations on the meaning of life and death!
There are two options for those who want to hold on to the traditional interpretation of Exodus 24:12: 1) They could enter into the hopeless task of arguing that the Talmud does have the true interpretation of the text, which would force them to admit that the Scriptures have no intrinsic meaning but can be made to say whatever one wants them to mean; or, 2) They could acknowledge that even though the text is not actually referring to later tradition, nevertheless, a highly creative use of the text is still justified because the commentators knew that their traditions could indeed be traced to Moses. Either way, it proves my point that the text cannot be used to demonstrate the existence of an Oral Law given to Moses. In the first case, they would have to recognize the arbitrariness of Scripture, which can be twisted at the will of the rabbis. In the second case, they would have to employ a contradictory, self-defeating, circular argument since they justify this particular Talmudic interpretation of the text because they believe that this interpretation is true, not because the Scripture verse actually indicates their position is true.
The rabbis are aware that there are no explicit references to the Oral Torah in the Scriptures, but they maintain that the Written Law cannot be understood without the aid of the Oral Torah, and they affirm that there are clues in the Scriptures regarding the existence of an Oral Torah. In support of this point, one Orthodox Jew, Chaim Schimmel, commends this ambiguity regarding the Oral Law in the Torah for its ability to cultivate true faith in Jews, rather than fostering their reliance on science.
Deuteronomy 12:21 contains another one of these so-called “hints” of the Oral Law. According to the Talmudic interpretation, this passage, which has to do with the slaughter of animals, refers to certain instructions regarding the procedure which God was supposed to have given Israel; however, since these particular instructions cannot be found in the Written Law, it is argued that they must be part of the Oral Law given to Moses (Rashi, following Sifrei and b. Chullin 28a).
The passage in Deuteronomy is part of a larger discussion regarding centralized worship and sacrifice, but also includes instructions for slaughtering animals for normal consumption. It is actually very clear, when read as part of the whole chapter, that the “instructions” mentioned in verse 21 refer back to those instructions found earlier in the chapter (v. 15), not to some additional Oral Law. The fact that very particular phrases or words (bekol-awwat napsheka “as much as you desire” or “whenever you desire”; ‘-k-l basar “eating meat”; z-b-h “slaughter”) are used several times in the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy demonstrates the very close connection between these instructions. The case is made even stronger when you consider the fact that the phrase “as I/he commanded” ka’asher+ts-w-h occurs seventy times in the Pentateuch, and in every single case, without exception, it refers back to something previously stated by God, Moses, or another authority, in the written Word.
This phenomenon also applies to the reference to the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. When Moses recounts the Lord’s words some forty years after receiving the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17), he uses the phrase “as the Lord your God commanded you” in connection with two of the Ten Commandments (Sabbath, honoring parents), acknowledging that those particular instructions had already been given in the Written Torah. This phrase is not used in Exodus—since those commands were only just being received—but in Deuteronomy, Moses can refer back to the instructions that have already given. The same thing is happening when Deuteronomy 12:21 refers back to Deuteronomy 12:15.
Traditional Jews attempt to refute this line of reasoning by claiming that 12:21 can’t refer back to 12:15 because it doesn’t give a command, but rather grants permission. This is not true for several reasons. First of all, the topic of commands can be found in 12:11, 12:14, and 12:21. Secondly, although the Hebrew imperfect verbs in these places are sometimes translated into English as “may,” in Hebrew they are normally understood as imperatives, i.e. commandments. In other words, the distinction made between “permit” and “command” is somewhat artificial in the Hebrew.
Other traditional Jews assume that this passage must be referring to particular rituals regarding slaughter God verbally gave to Moses that do not appear in the Written Law. Verse 21 is concerned with non-ritual slaughter (the chosen verb here is z-b-h, rather than sh-ch-t, which is the verb for ritual slaughter in Rabbinic Judaism, but appears nowhere in Deuteronomy!). But even if the verb does refer to ritual slaughter, it can still point back to previous written instructions that should be followed even when slaughtering animals for consumption at home. No additional oral tradition is necessary to make sense out of the passage as it stands.
Where did the Israelites learn the detailed instructions of shechitah if they didn’t have an Oral Law? They didn’t! They had the Written Torah, which gave certain instructions regarding slaughter, particularly the command to “slit the throat,” which is the most fundamental meaning of the root sh-ch-t. As more details and traditions were developed throughout the centuries, their origins were gradually forgotten, and the rabbis began claiming that they could be traced back to Moses himself, with passages like Deuteronomy 12:21 supposedly providing hints to this Oral Law!
Another alleged hint can be found in Numbers 31:21, which refers to “requirements of the law” (huqqat hattorah) given by Moses to Eleazar the priest regarding soldiers returning from battle. The reason why this verse is considered to be a hint of the Oral Law is because it refers to detailed purification rituals which are not found in the Written Law, but Eleazar refers to them as “requirements of the law.” While on the surface, this appears to uphold the concept of the Oral Law, upon closer analysis, we see that it is not a strong argument.
Significantly, the phrase “requirements of the law” (huqqat hattorah) can only be found in one other place in the entire Bible—also in Numbers (19:2)—and it, too, is connected with Eleazar the priest. Again, it has to do with soldiers and with the ritual requirements for those who had come into contact with a dead body, including those killed on the battlefield. It is not too difficult to see that there is a genuine connection between the two texts and that the latter instruction points back to the earlier ritual of purification. If there had been additional information given in Numbers 31:21, and if these stipulations had been understood to be requirements of the law (which is unlikely), the only reason we would know that they were given by God to Moses is because it is referred to in writing. The more likely explanation is that the actual commandment was stated in Numbers 19:2, and that in Numbers 31, Eleazar was giving the people practical instructions on how to carry it out. In other words, what can be observed here is merely a demonstration that the practical application of the Written Law has to be worked out in every generation.
God did not just communicate with Moses on Mt. Sinai, but gave different laws at different times during their stay in the wilderness. Perhaps God continued to give new instructions through Moses when Eleazar was facing the questions regarding the purification of returning soldiers and their spoils of war; however, the only reason we know that Eleazar received these laws from Moses is because they were put in writing. It is the written Word that is the foundation for God’s covenant with Israel.
Don’t you find it curious that all the foundational documents of the Oral Torah—the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Midrashim—were ultimately written down in books, and all the foundational documents of the Oral Torah that followed—most notably the Responsa literature and the Law Codes—were written down in book form from the very outset? They were written down, because if they had not, they could not have been accurately preserved. How could a body of laws that was given to Moses—but was never written down—have survived intact through all the turmoil and neglect of the centuries up to the time of the rabbis?
The final primary text used to give support to hints of the Oral Torah in the Written Torah is Deuteronomy 30:11-14. This passage is intended to stop us from looking for a further divine revelation on matters relating to Torah observance, since the Torah is no longer in heaven, but is now in our “mouths and hearts.” In the views of the rabbis, this means that the Torah is passed on orally. Is this what Moses meant here?
The text is actually quite straightforward: The people had already been given the Written Torah along with the tablets of the Ten Commandments; they had heard and understood what God required of them. There was no need to go searching for the will of God since it was in their hearts and on their lips. The very next chapter of Deuteronomy emphasizes that God’s commandments were to be passed on in written form and that the Written Torah was to be read and followed. There is no good reason for thinking that this passage hints at an Oral Law, which is supposed to accompany the Written Law.
Don’t you find it a bit odd that the only time Rabbinic Judaism can speak of a totally oral tradition is when there is no evidence to support it?
There are a couple of other things I want to discuss in relation to the Oral Law such as whether the term torot suggests two different forms of the Torah (Written and Oral), and whether the Written Torah can be understood without the help of an Oral Torah. I’ll cover those topics in sections 6.2 and 6.3. I close this discussion by reiterating my opening claim: There are no explicit or implicit references to the Oral Torah in the Written Torah.
- Throughout biblical history, not only was there no evidence of an authoritative Oral Torah, but at times there was gross ignorance of the Written Torah.If you’re familiar with traditional Judaism, you’ll know that the rabbinic portrait of biblical Jewish history is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Rabbis acknowledge that the people of Israel were not without their sins and blemishes. On the other hand, the rabbis recast many of the biblical characters as Talmudic scholars and faithful adherents of the rabbinic traditions, which is a very different picture from what is actually presented in the Tanakh. I want to consider this discrepancy here since it poses a challenge not only to the rabbinic belief that the people were sufficiently capable of handing down intact through the generations an unwritten body of law, but also to the assertion that such a body of law existed in the first place.A perusal of the Hebrew Scriptures offers a number of texts which describe, often in agonizing detail, the failure of our ancestors to keep the Written Torah. They struggled to remain faithful even while under the leadership of Moses and, as forewarned by God, things only got worse after Moses’s death. Although Moses passed on this warning to the people (see Deut. 31:16-18, 27-29), they paid little attention to it.
The rabbis do comment on the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness, recognizing their failure to keep certain commandments, including the celebration of Passover and the practice of circumcision; however, in reference to Joshua 5:2, Rashi creatively ascribes the failure of Israel to practice circumcision for forty years to a constant lack of wind from the north, and cites other traditions that speak in terms of a second circumcision which went beyond what Abraham had commanded. In other words, the Israelites had been faithful as far as Abraham’s command was concerned, but just hadn’t completed the second stage until after arriving in the Promised Land.
Not only do these interpretations contradict the biblical text itself, but in their attempts to soften the accusation of disobedience against the Israelites, the rabbis raise the issue of Abraham’s faithfulness and his relationship to the Oral Law. How can you hold that Abraham was lacking certain necessary details about circumcision, but still claim that he kept the Oral Law in its entirety, which is the standard interpretation of Genesis 26:5? In addition to this, despite the fact that the Torah accounts for around 42,000 deaths during the wilderness wanderings as a result of God’s judgment on Israel’s disobedience, there are Rabbinic traditions that portray that rebellious generation as devoted Torah scholars (and even to some degree, devoted Talmud scholars). How is this justified?
Of course there were always some people who were faithful (a righteous remnant), but during the time of the judges, the people “did as they saw fit,” and idolatry and other forms of disobedience were rampant in the land. In fact, Eli the priest allowed his sons to do things which the law forbade. God was continually sending judgments upon the people. As a result of the people’s disobedience, the Ark of the Covenant was taken away by the conquering Philistines. If this is how the Scriptures describe not only the people, but also the leadership, during the time of the judges, how can the rabbinic tradition portray some of them as devoted scholars, and Eli, who couldn’t even keep his own sons in line, as the head of the Sanhedrin (see Yalkut HaMechiri, Tehillim [Psalms] 75:4; b. Tem. 16a)?
As communicated to Samuel, God interprets Israel’s demand for a king as a personal rejection and as yet another example of the disobedience that had been ongoing since leaving Egypt (1 Sam. 8:7-8). In what is described as Israel’s “golden days,” during the reigns of David and Solomon, things were not much better: even those two kings were guilty of blatant disobedience, succumbing to adultery and idolatry. It was in the reign of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, that Israel broke away from Judah. For more than two hundred years the people of the northern kingdom, led by their kings, persisted in their idolatry. Torah observance was so far down on the agenda, and idolatry so popular, that most of God’s true prophets had found it necessary to go underground because of persecution. God himself said that in the land there were only seven thousand faithful to be found during the days of Elijah, who courageously contested eight-hundred-and-fifty false prophets of Baal. It took a destructive fire from heaven to convince the people that it was God, not Baal, who deserved their worship and obedience!
Judah, the southern kingdom, didn’t fare much better. Asa (for the most part), Hezekiah and Josiah stand out from the rest of the kings of Judah because of their faithfulness. Tragically, a purified, functioning Temple proved to be the exception to the rule. Manasseh had desecrated the Temple and introduced idol worship into the house of God. Furthermore, for great periods of time the Written Law was nowhere to be found, partly because (according to Radak) Manasseh had been so thorough in his attempt to destroy Torah scrolls. Rabbinic tradition does not even try to find excuses for the state of affairs before Josiah’s reforms. The footnote in the Stone edition to 2 Kings 22:8 follows Radak and explains:
- Manasseh had systematically destroyed all the Torah Scrolls and alienated the nation so thoroughly from the Torah that the people were completely unfamiliar with its contents. Sixty-seven years had elapsed since the beginning of Manasseh’s reign, so that [the] discovery [of the Torah] was a surprising revelation to everyone.
During Josiah’s purification of the Temple, one of the Torah scrolls was discovered. Based on the reactions of Josiah and the people when they heard it read, it was clear that the Torah had been abandoned for a very long time. The neglect of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Sabbath all needed to be addressed and reformed (see 2 Chron. 30, 36:21 and Neh. 8).
Unfortunately, after the death of Josiah, things fell apart again and corruption trickled down from the top. The people’s disobedience to God’s Law resulted in the destruction of both Israel and Judah and led the to the people’s exile. During the initial period after the return from exile, the people, including the priests, were guilty of intermarriage, usury, and working on the Sabbath (see Ezra 9, 13:15-22; Neh. 5:1-13, 13:23-30). A hundred years later, Malachi had to address the corruption of the Levites and priests (see also Ezek. 44:10).
The ninth chapter of Nehemiah presents a national confession of sin in which the history of the constant rebelliousness and deep sinfulness of the people of Israel is recounted:
- Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways (Neh. 9:34–35).
Ezra’s confession (9:6-7) completely confirms this picture. Both confessions simply repeat the same story that is told time and time again throughout the Tanakh. The punishments meted out by God, who is rich with compassion and incredibly long-suffering, also support the truthfulness of the confessions. Even the people acknowledged that God never gave them what they really deserved (Neh. 9:31, 33, 36-37; Ezra 9:13).
Unfortunately, this pattern continued. Within a decade after those heartfelt confessions and the written agreement, bound with a curse and an oath, to follow the Law of God (Neh. 10:29), the people were intermarrying again with the other nations, neglecting the Sabbath, and refusing to tithe (see Neh. 13:10-11, 15-18, 23-27). It appears that it was the national norm to neglect the Written Torah of the Lord.
As I come to the end of my rehearsal of Scripture’s long, sad story about our people’s constant rebellion against God and their refusal to keep his laws, I want to raise the question with which I started this section: How can you read the many accusatory biblical accounts of our nation’s history and still argue the possibility for a highly complex collection of laws, traditions and customs to have been successfully handed down orally by this same people through the generations? How could they have managed to preserve an Oral Torah, when it is clear that they couldn’t even manage to remember and honor the Written Torah during much of that time?
Perhaps it is easier to accept the possibility and preservation of an Oral Torah when the tradition paints a different picture of this same history, as often seems to happen. Consider the following description, which can be found on the Being Jewish website:
- After Moses passed away the Children of Israel continued to study Torah. In the Land of Israel they built yeshivos, and Teachers taught Torah to thousands upon thousands of students constantly. Some yeshivos were smaller, of course. We find, for example, that the Prophet Elisha had at least one hundred students (2 Kings 4:38–44). Students generally searched until they found the best Teacher for them, since people aren’t all able to learn at the same level. (www.beingjewish.com/unchanged/true_mesorah.html)
I find it difficult to see how this can be squared with the survey of the Tanakh I’ve just recounted. It seems clear to me that the history of Israel and Judah was marked by apostasy more than fidelity and by ignorance of the Written Torah more than obedience to it. The terrible divine judgments suffered by Israel and Judah emphasize this verdict. Clearly then, the idea that an unbroken chain of oral tradition was preserved during the biblical period is completely untenable, especially since, according to rabbinic belief, this oral tradition was not secretly preserved by a few choice disciples from Moses until Ezra but was often the heritage of a larger portion of the populace.
- Contrary to many rabbinic traditions, Moses did not receive every detail of the Oral Law on Mt. Sinai.Even though there are passages in the Torah that clearly refer to the giving of laws both before and after the revelation on Mt. Sinai, and even though there are only four passages in which Moses clearly admits that he does not yet know what should be done in a particular situation, nevertheless, traditional Jews claim that Moses received the Oral Law in its entirety on Mount Sinai (or, at least, was given all basic principles that would ever be needed to interpret the Written Torah).It is these four passages (Lev. 24:10-23; Num. 9:1-14; Num. 15:32-36; Num. 27:1-11) in which Moses expresses uncertainty that I want to consider in this section to determine how the Talmud deals with these situations.
It seems that in Leviticus 24:10-23, Moses is presented with a new situation—a young man with an Israelite mother and Egyptian father curses God’s Name during a fight with an Israelite—and wonders how it should be handled. So he waits for God to reveal his will. Eventually, Moses is told that any blasphemer, regardless of nationality, should be stoned to death. This is fairly straightforward, unless you have to explain why Moses didn’t already know what to do, even though he’d already received the entire Oral Law.
Numbers 15:32-36 presents a similar case to that of Leviticus 24 (in fact, it is so similar that Rashi explains them both together). This time, the new situation has to do with a man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. The passage explains that Moses and Aaron put him in custody because “it was not clear what should be done to him.” At some point, God reveals to Moses that the man must be stoned to death outside the camp.
In his commentary on Leviticus 24 (in which he also comments on Num. 15), Rashi maintains that Moses knew full well that the penalty for blasphemy (and for desecrating the Sabbath) was death; what he didn’t know was by what means the sentence should be carried out. Rashi seems to be admitting that Moses didn’t know the Law in its entirety, which certainly contradicts other rabbinic statements that claim Moses received a complete revelation of Torah and Mishnah and Talmud and Haggadic lore on Sinai, even to the point of knowing everything that any student would ever learn in the future (see y. Meg. 28). Rashi’s explanation also challenges the idea that even if he did not receive the whole Oral Law, Moses was still given all the necessary principles for interpretation (see Exod. Rabbah 41:6).
Things get even more complicated when it comes to explanations for Numbers 9:1-14, which addresses the issue of whether those who had become unclean by touching a dead body could still fully celebrate Passover. Moses tells them to “wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.” This statement seems clear enough: Moses doesn’t know exactly what to do and needs further information. Rashi sidesteps Moses’ uncertainty, however, by emphasizing his humility. According to Rashi, Moses wanted those who had posed the question to have their piety honored by allowing the answer to be brought to the people through them (Sifrei Beha’alotecha 1:22). Rashi doesn’t quite address Moses’ lack of knowledge on this point, and he wholly disregards the text when he claims that the instruction was allowed to be spoken through those who had brought the question, even though Moses clearly delivers this Torah law himself.
Similarly, in Numbers 27:1-11 Moses is presented with the question of whether surviving daughters could inherit their father’s property if he had no sons. What does Moses do? He waits for an answer from the Lord who reveals new laws on the matter, and after Moses tells them to the people, they become part of the Written Law. Rashi, repeating older rabbinic traditions, has two explanations for this situation. One is similar to the case above: the merit of the daughters earns them the privilege of having the law “written through them” (B. Batra 119a; Sanh. 8a). The other indicates that “the law eluded [Moses]” as a punishment for assuming authority he should not have claimed (Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8).
Once the simple, clear interpretation of these four texts is rejected, explanations start to become forced and grow ever more complicated, which forces subsequent interpreters to account for their difficulties. Texts like the four above generate discussion on what exactly Moses received on Sinai. Some rabbinic traditions suggest that Moses simply couldn’t remember everything he did receive, while others cannot allow for Moses to forget anything. Some traditions maintain that many, perhaps even thousands of laws were forgotten after the death of Moses, which has led to the need for study and deduction (and helps explain the later disputes between the sages) to fill in the gaps of the missing details.
Rather than maintaining that all of these forced interpretations are correct, wouldn’t it just be simpler to acknowledge that Moses never received an Oral Law in addition to the Written Torah on Mount Sinai? Which explanation makes more sense to you?
- The rabbinic writings at times completely violate or twist the plain meaning of the Scriptures, making clear that they cannot represent a valid tradition dating back to Moses.Within the Tanakh there are examples of the interpretation and application of laws from the Torah. These applications always show that it is the plain, natural meaning of the law that is intended, not some convoluted or contrived meaning. God seems to speak in a clear, straightforward manner, which means that the people’s obedience or disobedience cannot be blamed on an inability to understand what is being put before them. In other words, when God and Moses speak, they mean exactly what they say.Granted, additional layers of interpretation of a text are certainly possible, but they should not violate the plain sense, and they carry no authority. If an interpretation contradicts or violates a text, it should not be considered either Mosaic or divine. Unfortunately, this is precisely what rabbinic interpretations do much of the time. I’ve chosen a couple of representative examples of rabbinic interpretations of passages from the Tanakh that claim to carry legal authority, or which claim to have the correct, original meaning.
The first example comes from Deuteronomy 21:18-21, in which a stubborn, rebellious son is brought by his parents before the elders to see what shall be done. The fact that the commanded punishment of stoning is meant literally can be concluded from the fear response expected of the people of Israel when they hear about it. The death penalty is also commanded in a number of other situations (see Deut. 13:5, 17:7; 17:12, 19:19, 22:21-22, 24 and 24:7). All of these cases point to behaviors that would undermine society if they were not punishable by death.
How did the Talmudic rabbis deal with texts like this in which a rebellious son is given the death penalty? Their desperate attempts to avoid the harshness of the punishment result in some very convoluted, complicated interpretations. Some try to argue that such a situation in which parents would bring their son to be judged by the elders could never have arisen in the first place (i.e. R. Shimon, R. Yehuda), and, therefore, never will be encountered in “real life.” Some claim that the passage about the rebellious boy should not be taken literally because it was meant either to strengthen parental authority or children’s obedience, or to encourage parents to raise their children with the proper values. Some add so many additional stipulations that the law could never possibly be put into effect (see Mish. Sanh. 8:1-4; Sanh. 71a; Maimonides, Hilkhot Mamrim 7). Rabbi Yehuda even concludes that these kinds of passages are not really meant to be applied, but were only put in the Torah by God to test our conscience and ability to determine whether God really meant what was claimed in his name or not. Can you believe it! Not only is the Word of God rendered useless, it actually becomes a divine trick, put there to test our ingenuity so that we can, through study, determine that God never meant what he said!
Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is another case in which corporal punishment (in this case, cutting off a woman’s hand for seizing her husband’s assailant by the genitals) is rejected by the Talmudic sages. They maintain that the punishment is not to be taken literally, but should be replaced by a monetary fine (b. B.K. 28a). Sa’adiah Gaon believed this passage deserved a literal interpretation, but thought it had more to do with providing a means of escape for the man than with the woman’s punishment. Maimonides maintained that whoever insisted on the literal interpretation of the punishment (thereby going against rabbinic tradition) was a false prophet and should be put to death!
Malachi 2:16a states: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.” What do the rabbis do with this? They turn it on its head, so that instead of God speaking about his rejection of divorce, he’s depicted as saying to the husband, “If you hate her, divorce her!” or “For he who hates [his wife] should divorce [her], says HASHEM, God of Israel” (Stone edition)! This interpretation can be found in the Targum, in Rashi, Radak, and Metsudat David and Zion. Isn’t that incredible! That is the very opposite of the plain meaning of the text, and yet it is presented as the standard modern Orthodox translation, without offering any other possibilities for interpretation. Talk about reading one’s own ideas back into the Bible!
This is but one example of many rabbinic attempts to harmonize the biblical texts with their practice. Unbiased scholarship shows that the ideas of the Oral Torah, most all of which originated more than a thousand years after Moses, were read back into the Scriptures, often at the expense of the Word of God itself. Let me give you four more examples.
The first is not as crucial as the other three are, but it does show how a misinterpretation can influence subsequent understanding and end up twisting the very meaning of the text itself. The passage is Deuteronomy 31:16, in which God is telling Moses about the unfaithfulness of Israel which would take place after the death of Moses. The text seems fairly straightforward, however, R. Gamaliel, and then R. Yehosuah ben Chananiah take the phrase “will rise” as proof of the resurrection of the dead in the Torah, rather than it’s plain meaning, which refers to the level of rebellion the people will reach after Moses has gone. Seeing an allusion to resurrection in this text became an accepted, authoritative interpretation of the passage, and influenced how the verse itself would be understood, even though there is no mention of resurrection in the text. What is really amazing is that some Orthodox Jews maintain that precisely because an interpretation is so far-fetched (couldn’t possibly have come from reading the plain meaning of the text itself), there must be some authentic tradition behind it, rendering it worthy of respect! In other words, it’s the absurdity of the interpretation that gives it validity. With logic like that, what’s the point of dialogue? (And traditional Jews criticize Christians for being irrational!)
Psalm 119:126 can be read in two ways, each of which makes sense of the Hebrew: “It is time for you to act, O Lord; your law is being broken” (NIV); or, “It is a time to act for the Lord, for they have violated Your teaching” (NJV). The first interpretation emphasizes divine action, the second human action, but in both cases the action is a response to the fact that God’s law is being broken. How does tradition interpret this text? “It is a time to work for God, make void His Torah.” In other words, breaking or suspending certain laws is justified when God’s honor is at stake. How can this be argued with any kind of legitimacy?
Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which is about levirate marriage, is another case in point. While the text plainly states that a man’s brother is to marry his widow and name the first son after his dead brother, the Talmud concludes that the man does not need to carry on the name of the dead brother. Raba acknowledges that in this case the ordinary meaning of the text has been replaced by rabbinic interpretation. It is cases like this that make me wonder how the inspiration or authority of the Oral Law can be supported.
The final example I want to bring up is Exodus 23:2. The misinterpretation of this text has become almost a proverbial quote in rabbinic literature. It has been so turned on its head that rather than taking the text at face value as a warning against following the majority (i.e., when they are doing wrong or perverting the course of justice), the text is used to lend support to the idea that the majority of rabbis should be followed. There are many places which demonstrate the continuing effects of this misinterpretation which is used to justify majority rule, and none of those who use the quote admit that this is not what the verse actually says. In fact, some of them declare their interpretation to be fact, or even a divinely legislated principle (e.g., R. Reinman, R. Hirsch).
How can one possibly move from the explicit message, “Do not follow the majority,” to its complete opposite, “The majority must be followed,” especially when the misuse of the text is used to justify the powers of the rabbis to determine that they must be listened to when they interpret other texts, even when the rabbinic majority overrules the plain sense of the text, the message of a prophet, or sometimes even the voice of God himself?! As a result of this tactic, there is no way to question rabbinic interpretation, unless the majority of the rabbis change their minds. Is there any place left for appeal to the Scriptures, to the intervention of God, to logic or reason? Even though this text very clearly states, “Do not follow the majority,” tradition bases its authority on the very opposite: Majority rules!
These misinterpretations together constitute clear proof that the oral traditions are neither divinely inspired nor Mosaic. Are you ready to reject the principle of “majority rule”?
- The Oral Law has large, critical gaps in its understanding of the written Word because most of its traditions came into existence centuries after the Scriptures were written.I have already established that ancient Israel often struggled to keep the Written Torah and that there is a tradition of reading later Talmudic practices back onto the biblical characters and taking them literally (i.e., Adam knew about and was amazed by Rabbi Akiva [b.Sanh. 38a, cf. also b. A.Z. 5a]; after the flood, the descendants of Noah studied the rabbinic writings [b. Sanh. 24a)]). Many of the Torah laws do not seem to have been understood by the rabbis, most likely because of the significant gap in time between Sinai and the traditions. One of the traditional explanations for why there are disagreements and disputes among scholars is that many of the details of the laws had been forgotten. This forgetting is attributed to Moses himself (cf. Exod. Rabbah 41:6; b. Ned. 38a; y. Hor. 3:5), Joshua, or to the Sages of Israel (Rashi, b. Eruvin 21b). Some say that Moses’ death caused such a shock that other laws disappeared from the memory of the people. The Talmud itself explains that so many laws were forgotten that even through acute legal analysis, they could not be reconstructed, thus the majority had to be followed (Tem. 15b). As if this account from the Talmud didn’t cast enough doubt on the legitimacy of the Oral Law, the Talmud also says that Caleb’s brother Othniel was an advanced Talmud scholar who managed to restore the forgotten laws by means of pilpul (“dialectics”) (b. Tem. 16a)!One of the laws apparently forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses was designated as a halakha lemoshe misinai (“a law given to Moses on Sinai”). Such a law was neither based on a scriptural text, nor could its authority be derived from a scriptural text. This should make you wonder how it could ever be recovered when it was lost, since it cannot be found or derived from Scripture, or deduced through logic, and cannot be revealed by a prophet (since the Torah is no longer in heaven, according to the traditional interpretation of Deut. 30:12).
It is because these details were forgotten, the Talmud explains, that there were so many legal disputes among the rabbis about the interpretation of particular laws. What I find very interesting is that the Talmudic rabbis can demonstrate a remarkable agreement on extra-biblical traditions—even on the details—and yet, when it comes to interpreting biblical laws, they can’t seem to reach the same kind of consensus. Why would there be so much disagreement on the Written Law—and on even quite important things such as karet (the punishment of being cut off from others) and which animals and birds should be treated as unclean—if Moses had actually received everything needed to understand it, and then handed that understanding down through the generations to the rabbis themselves? How can you agree on thirty-nine subdivisions of labor forbidden on the Sabbath, but be so unsure about so many specifics of the Written Torah? How does this reflect on the claim that the Oral Law can be traced back to Moses in an unbroken chain?
The idea of there being an unbroken chain going back to Moses is a myth. Far from receiving an authoritative interpretation of the Written Torah, the rabbis developed their own traditions, and, because they were so near to them in time and in mindset, the rabbis knew these traditions quite well. Granted, there are still some disputes over minutiae in the oral tradition, but there is a general agreement on basic Jewish lifestyle. The disagreements on the Oral Law are nothing like those that are attached to the Written Law, and I would argue that this indicates that the interpretations were never passed down from Moses through the generations in an unbroken fashion.
It is ironic that while there is a very strong memory for the sources that were developed by the Talmudic rabbis, they struggled to understand the biblical sources. Their traditions were developed by human beings; they didn’t spring from God himself. Furthermore, in most cases, those traditions didn’t arise until hundreds of years after the events of the Bible, long after the laws had been given. These traditions have no direct line going back to the Bible itself.
Those who agree with Rabbi Moses Lopes Cardozo that “the interpretation Moshe taught Yehoshua [Joshua] is precisely the same interpretation taught today” are deluding themselves.
- The fact that the rabbinic traditions had to be put in writing, beginning as early as 200 CE, proves that there could not have been a previous, oral tradition passed down from Moses to the rabbis—meaning a period of roughly fifteen hundred years—without being written down.There are several reasons why the Oral Law had to be committed to writing in the first centuries of this era: life had become more difficult for Jews, they were spreading out across the world, and interpretations and discussions of the Law were growing while scholarship was declining. Considering all that the people of Israel had experienced from the time of Moses to Ezra, it would seem as though the Oral Law (if it existed) would have needed to have been written down earlier than it was.According to tradition, the reason the Oral Law could be preserved in the early days of its existence was because the Israelites were so close to the revelation on Sinai. According to this perspective, for the first fifteen hundred years the people were close enough to the Torah and had such a deep understanding of the Law that they were able to preserve intact and hand down all the details of the Oral Law from generation to generation without having to write them down.
I find this traditional explanation hard to swallow. First, as I’ve shown earlier in this section, rather than commending the people for their heightened spirituality, the Hebrew Scriptures tell a rather sad story of the nation’s disobedience through neglect of God’s laws. Second, so many of the laws that occupied the rabbis are nowhere to be found in the Tanakh. Third, it is only after the completion of the Bible that references to the legal disputes of the rabbis can be found. In fact, the Sadducees maintained that their contemporaries, the Pharisees, had generated many of the traditions the Pharisees claimed were ancient, and when this accusation is added to the mix, it becomes even more difficult to believe that the Oral Law they were advancing had actually originated with Moses.
It is interesting to note that, according to the Scriptures, all of the sins for which Israel was punished can be directly related to the written laws; there is no mention of the people suffering because they had violated the Oral Law. Some try to argue that this omission is due to the fact that the Oral Law was never transgressed, but, given their track record with the Written Law, it doesn’t seem possible that Israel would have acted any more faithfully when it came to the Oral Law. It makes much more sense simply to assume that there was no Oral Law at the time.
The fact that the rabbis, even those rivaling Rabbi Akiva’s stature, could not keep the Oral Law preserved in their memories, but had to commit it to writing within one to two hundred years after it had come into being (combined with the realization that those laws have continued to expand exponentially through the years), is a very good indication that if an Oral Law had existed over fifteen hundred years ago, it could not possibly have been preserved without being written down at some point.
There are good reasons why God based his covenant with Israel on a Written and not Oral Law—even when the laws were written down, the people struggled to remember them and keep them. That’s why the prophets were so necessary—they were sent by God to get our people back on track when they had strayed from God’s ways. Not only the people, but their traditions had got lost along the way. God sent Yeshua, the Messiah, into the world to teach us and to provide an example of how the written Word can be lived out through the Spirit. With Yeshua as our guide, there is no need for Talmuds and Law Codes, however profound or beautiful they may be.
Yes, there is much to be appreciated in the traditions preserved by the rabbis, but Moses did not receive an Oral Law in addition to the Written Law. Furthermore, the Written Law can be understood and lived out without the help of an Oral Law. It is the Word of God that brings life, not the words and traditions of human beings. We are only standing on firm ground when we hold on to God’s Word alone.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 4-84.
"The Torah is unintelligible without the rabbinic traditions." (Starts 0:00)
“The Torah (along with the rest of the Hebrew Bible) is unintelligible without the rabbinic traditions. From circumcision to Sabbath observance, from the vowels of the Masoretic text to the Messiah, we can only understand the Scriptures with the help of our traditions. Even common sense would tell you that every set of laws and rules needs ongoing oral explanation and interpretation. And let’s also be realistic. Who am I to think that I can understand the Bible on my own? I have to ask my rabbi. In the same way that I go to the doctor with medical questions and the lawyer with legal questions, I go to the rabbi with spiritual and biblical questions. Who am I to dispute him?“
Orthodox Jewish journalist David Klinghoffer argues,
- In the Pentateuch, on every page, some places in every passage or even every verse, one finds an apparent blunder: solecisms of grammar or diction, weird spelling variations, needless repetitions, missing words, missing passages, self-contradictions, pointless obscurities, logic-defying transitions, blatant anachronisms, characters introduced without identification then abruptly dropped. I say this as someone who spent ten years as a professional magazine editor: to all appearances, the editing job of the biblical text is so extraordinarily bad as to suggest deliberate sabotage. (Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God, 43)
In reply, many of the “solecisms of grammar or diction” are readily explained by historical developments in Hebrew grammar and syntax. “Weird spelling variations” only appear to be weird in light of later orthographic developments or due to our ignorance of certain scribal conventions. Furthermore, the writing style of the Torah is far different from that of Western publications today. Moreover, the rabbinic traditions often offer mutually contradictory solutions to some of the very problems Klinghoffer cites. Finally, it is obvious to any objective reader that the Pentateuch is far more accessible and understandable than the rabbinic writings.
Moses wrote, “Surely this Instruction [torah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (Deut. 30:11 NJV); nevertheless, Klinghoffer claims,
- Either the book really does seek to direct our attention to esoteric teachings, in which case the Torah is a code, a locked text, and everyone knows that neither a code nor a lock is ever made without a key; or it is the product of a unique editing process resulting in both the most ineptly edited book ever and at the same time the most brilliantly influential. (Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, 26)
Klinghoffer’s argument is self-defeating. The Pentateuch is the “most brilliantly influential” document precisely because millions of Christians throughout history have adopted it as their sacred Scriptures, and they have done so without the so-called key of rabbinic tradition. In fact, Christians’ use of the Scriptures have been so effective that they have used the Torah to transform governments and cultures.
There’s no evidence that Moses received an Oral Torah on Mt. Sinai (see 6.2 above). Exodus recounts how the people responded to the written words God gave Moses: “Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do.’ Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said” (24:3-4). Once the people agreed to observe the covenant, Moses didn’t burden them with further traditions that undermined the clear meaning of the written laws. No mention is made of oral traditions.
Still, anti-missionaries claim that the Written Torah lacks sufficient information to guide the people. Rabbi Moshe Shulman asserts that “a general lack of explanation . . . exists for almost all of the commandments” (Shulman, “An Explanation of the Oral Law,” 8). Shulman’s claim is refuted by the very specific regulations concerning sacrifices (Lev. 1:14-17), the requirements for the priesthood (Lev. 21:16-23), and the prohibitions of incest (Lev. 18:9-18).
Many cite Nehemiah 8:7-8 as proof that the Written Torah requires detailed oral explanation: “The Levites . . . instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” Nevertheless, if we study Nehemiah 8 carefully, we’ll find that just the opposite is true.
First, Nehemiah 8:3 and 8:18 indicate that Ezra read the Law “from daybreak till noon” for eight days. Such a timeframe easily allows for the entire Torah to be read (even two or three times) with explanations from the Levites. If the Levites had recited the Oral Torah, Ezra wouldn’t have made it through a few chapters of the Law in the allotted time.
Second, Ezra’s audience had just returned from the Babylonian exile. They spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The Levites’ explanations were likely translations of the text or discussions of unfamiliar terms.
Third, Nehemiah 8:9b says, “For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” Rashi says that their weeping stemmed from their failure to “uphold the Torah appropriately.” The people were ignorant of God’s laws, particularly the regulations concerning Sukkot (Neh. 8:13-15). Since the Torah had to be translated just to be understood, it’s unreasonable to assume that the people could have digested and preserved much more detailed regulations in the rabbinic writings. Furthermore, the people obeyed the Law’s instructions “as . . . written” (Neh. 8:15b), not according to the oral traditions.
The Levites were able to explain the Torah’s meaning not because they understood the Oral Torah, but because they understood the Hebrew enough to translate it into Aramaic. Since they were responsible for teaching the Law, they naturally would have understood its meaning better than the average Israelite. There’s also no indication that what they classified as “Torah” went any further than the written text.
In light of the people’s ignorance of the Torah, b. Sukkah 20a seems credible: “When Torah was forgotten by Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and (re)established it.” This claim is far more believable than claims that Ezra was well-acquainted with the oral traditions (e.g., y. Shek. 5:1) or that he instituted extrabiblical regulations (b. Bav. Kam. 82a). If the people failed to obey even the most rudimentary aspects of the Written Law, how could Ezra have instituted additional regulations?
The rabbinic portrayal of Ezra’s day is similar to other unbelievable depictions of the biblical era, in which the biblical characters are recreated in the image of the later rabbis while the populace becomes absorbed in rabbinic study. Consider this description of Hezekiah’s day:
- The oil of Hezekiah . . . burnt in the synagogues and schools [meaning, he was constantly engaged in Torah study—and note also the anachronistic reference to synagogues, which did not exist in ancient Israel for several more centuries]. What did he do?—He planted a sword by the door of the schoolhouse and proclaimed, “He who will not study the Torah will be pierced with the sword.” Search was made from Dan unto Beer Sheba, and no ignoramus was found; from Gabbath [in the north] unto Antipris [the later name for a location near Jerusalem], and no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness. (b. Sanh. 94b)
Note also what Rashi (in accord with the Talmud) says concerning Genesis 26:5:
- 5 Because Abraham hearkened to My voice when I tested him. and kept My charge [Referring to] decrees to distance [himself] from transgressing the warnings in the Torah, e.g. secondary prohibitions to prevent incest from occurring, and the Rabbinic decrees to safeguard the prohibitions of the Sabbath. My commandments [Referring to] things, which, had they not been written, would have been fit to be commanded, e.g. [prohibitions against] robbery and bloodshed. My statutes [Referring to] things that the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against’ e.g. [the prohibitions against] eating pork and wearing garments of wool and linen for which no reason [is given]’ but [which are] the decree of the King and His statutes over His subjects. and My instructions To include the Oral Law, the laws given to Moses from Sinai [b. Yoma 28b].
In spite of the fact that Abraham preceded the Talmud by more than two thousand years, he allegedly followed its teachings! Rabbinic Judaism isn’t the religion of the Tanakh; it reinterprets the biblical events in light of its own practices.
Perhaps you still have a sticking point with the Sabbath; how can we know how to observe it apart from oral tradition? Some Torah commands contain many details, while others have very few. The Mishnah (m. Haggai 1:8) addresses rabbinic interpretation of these commandments, saying (per Philip Blackman’s explanation):
- “Release from vows [i.e., the rules about release from vows] hover in the air and they have naught on which to lean; the rules about the Sabbath, Festival Offerings, and sacrilegious misappropriation of sanctified property are as mountains suspended by a hair, because Scripture is meagre and the rules are many [i.e., the bases for them in the torah are few but the rulings founded on them are numerous]; laws of cases between man and man, rules of the Services [Concerning sacrifices in the Temple], laws of the clean and the unclean and the laws of incest, there have bases for support and they [i.e., the laws enjoined by the Sages are to be accepted as of equal importance and equally binding as those founded on the torah] are the essentials of the Law” (Blackman, Mishnayoth, 2:493). [An additional note of explanation adds: “The Talmud adds that we may not derive any interpretation of Mosaic laws from analogies of expression in post-Mosaic (sc., post-Pentateuchal) books. Consequently the traditional rulings of the Rabbis find only slender support in the torah in these subjects” (2:505, note 3).]
Note the following acknowledgments: 1) Some of the Talmudic laws are like “mountains suspended by a hair” (or, thread), since the Scripture says very little and yet “the rules are many.” 2) It is acknowledged that, in contrast to this, there is ample scriptural support for many of the rabbinic laws. 3) Blackman says that “we may not derive any interpretation of Mosaic laws” from biblical books outside of the Torah. As a result, “The traditional rulings of the Rabbis find only slender support in the torah in these subjects.”
Jeremiah 17:19-27 is the primary basis for the Talmud’s regulations concerning carrying on the Sabbath, yet the Talmud states that laws can’t be established from any biblical book outside of the Pentateuch! With little or no support found in the Torah, and with the support of other passages of Scripture removed, the only support left for the Talmudic laws is: This is our tradition, without which the Torah laws are unintelligible.
This logic is devastating for the oral traditions since it demonstrates that they don’t go back to Sinai. For example, consider the practice of wearing tefillin (phylacteries). According to Rabbi Moses Lopes Cardozo,
The tradition of laying [i.e., putting on] tefillin is based on a rabbinic interpretation of the following verse:
And these words which command you this day, shall be upon your heart. . . . And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be ornament between your eyes. (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:6, 8)
Nowhere does the Written Torah describe this sign and ornament. The tefillin we use today are the result of the tradition of the orally transmitted Torah. Yet not only are the fragments of tefillin found in the Qumran excavations similar to our own; the order of the biblical passages written on these fragments indicates that the difference of opinion between Rashi (eleventh century) and Rabbenu Tam (twelfth century) dates back to the earliest moments of Jewish history, for tefillin of both types were found! (Piskei Tosafot, Menachot 34b)
The literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:6, 8, however, was anything but universal. While the Qumran community used tefillin, other ancient Jewish groups did not interpret this passage from Deuteronomy literally. Additionally, the Qumran phylacteries violated Talmudic guidelines because they included the Ten Commandments. Ancient Greek Pentateuch translations and Samaritan writings reveal a metaphorical understanding of the passage.
The Talmud reveals a battle between two varying tefillin traditions. Note m. Sanhedrin 11:3: “Disregard of the enactments of the Scribes is more severely dealt with than disregard of the injunctions of the Law. If one says, ‘[Not to wear] phylacteries [is] not a transgression of the Law,’ he is exempt.” According to the tradition, a rejection of literal tefillin constitutes a rejection of the Torah. Additionally, the tefillin needed to have four compartments in accord with the scribes. This emphasis reveals a dispute over the acceptable number of compartments. The rationale for four compartments is revealed in the Schottenstein translation and explanation of b. Sanhedrin 4b (the bold text is that of the Talmud):
- But it was taught in a Baraisa [i.e., in a Tannaitic teaching not found in the Mishnah]: lttpt, lttpt, ltwtpwt—The Scripture refers to the head tefillin three time as totaphos. The first time it is spelled ttpt, the second time ttpt, and the third time twtpwt. THERE ARE THUS allusions to FOUR compartments; these are WORDS OF R’ YISHMAEL. [For discussion of this, see below.] R’ AKIVA SAYS: IT IS NOT NECESSARY to derive the number of compartments in the head tefillin from the number of times the word totaphos is mentioned; rather, the law emerges from an analysis of the word itself: The word TOT IN the language of the CASPI region means “TWO,” and the word PAS IN the language of the AFRIKI region means “TWO,” yielding a total of four compartments.
Even the most basic linguistic training reveals the folly of this logic. Scholars still have not positively identified the places and words Akiva references here. The word Akiva references (totaphos) is incorrectly divided into parts of two different words. Akiva’s evidence does little to bolster this rabbinic practice.
Was Deuteronomy 6:6, 8 intended to be taken literally? The fact that the context references writing on the doorposts could indicate an affirmative answer, but there’s no evidence that the Jews had to follow rabbinic guidelines concerning its application.
The rabbis cite the tefillin as a halakha lemoshe misinai. Rabbi Lopes Cardozo explains,
- Another indisputable class of the orally transmitted Torah is called Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai (laws given to Moses at Sinai). The difference between the explanations received and transmitted by Moshe and Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai is that the former are somewhat indicated in the text of the Torah, while the latter is not, nor can it be deduced severah [logical deduction] or the rules of interpretation. . . . Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai needs no intellectual justification, it is accepted because it was handed down at Sinai, although sometimes reasons were offered. (Cardozo, Written Torah and Oral Torah, 101-2)
Although such laws have zero biblical support, they’re still binding because they’re purported to have come from Sinai! Rabbi Cardozo even claims, “Some Halachot LeMoshe MiSinai were forgotten and later reinstated” (Cardozo, Written and Oral Torah, 104). It’s impossible to back up Rabbi Cardozo’s claims since these laws have no scriptural basis. It’s far more likely that these traditions were developed long after Moses’ day.
Some scholars say that the claim of Mosaic roots for such laws should be taken metaphorically. The Jewish Encyclopedia says, “The phrase ‘halakah le-Mosheh mi Sinai’ must not be taken literally, since many of the halakot thus designated are admittedly later rabbinical statutes.”
You might say that the idea of halakha lemoshe misinai constitutes a copout; whenever a Talmudic rabbi failed to produce biblical or logical evidence of a law, he could simply say, “It’s a halakha lemoshe misinai!” The most serious problem of halakha lemoshe misinai, however, is the fact that they add to the Law in clear disobedience to Torah commands (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).
Here are some of the halakhot lemoshe misinai as listed on the Aish Das website:
- The altered vocalization of the words which end phrases: Nedarim 37b
- Reading certain biblical words as though they contained invisible vowels: Nedarim 37b
- The tradition of reading some words which aren’t in the Torah, or not reading certain words which are there: Nedarim 37b
- Having square boxes for the Phylacteries: Megillah 24b
- Breaking Shabbat to save a life: Shabbat 132a
- Allowing plowing of a field in which there are 10 saplings in a certain space, until Rosh HaShanah of the Sabbatical Year: Succah 34a, 44a
- The minimal height of a Succah Hut: Succah 5b, 6b
- Teaching the minimum requisite length of the 3rd wall of a Succah Hut: Sanhedrin 4a; Succah 6b
- Invalidating Ritual Immersion if hair separates the skin from the water: Eruvin 4b; Succah 5b, 6a-b
- Whether the determination of how long one must remain in a leprous house in order to communicate impurity to his clothing is a Biblical law or a Law Communicated to Moshe at Sinai: Eruvin 4a; Succah 5b-6a
- Forbidding 39 Central Forms of Work on Shabbat: Shabbat 97b
- Defining a “Wall”, vis-a-vis walled-in areas and the permissibility of transportation in and out of those areas on Shabbat: Eruvin 4b, 15b; Succah 4a-6b
- Use of the principles of “Gud Achit/Asik” pretending to extend walls to meet ceilings/floors, where legally required: Eruvin 4b; Succah 5b, 6b
- Preferred Mezuzah [Doorpost Scroll] and Phylacteries types of leather: Shabbat 79b
- Using hairs and veins from Kosher animals to Sew and Wrap the Scrolls inside Phylacteries: Shabbat 108a; Makkot 11a
- The form of the knots of the straps for phylacteries [Tefillin]: Eruvin 97a
- Circumcision on Shabbat: Shabbat 132a
Some of these traditions must postdate Sinai. The commands regarding the vocalization of the Torah reveal much later developments in the Hebrew language. In addition to this, it is very difficult to accept that the thirty-nine Sabbath regulations were promulgated by Moses. The same applies to the concept of teffilin.
Moshe Shulman cites the importance of the Oral Law in reference to building a sukkah tabernacle:
“And you shall take to you on the first day the fruit of a goodly tree, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willow of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d seven days. And you shall keep it a feast to Hashem seven days in the year, it is a statute forever in your generations, you shall keep it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths seven days, all the homeborn in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 23:40–43)
Without the Oral Law, how would we understand this passage? What is a goodly tree? Apples, oranges, maybe figs? What are boughs of a thick tree? Let’s say we take an apple, a branch of a palm tree, the thickest bough of the thickest tree we can find (we’re very religious you know) and a willow (the whole tree or just a little of it?). What do we do? You can barely hold all this stuff in your hands. And this we have to keep forever? Do you get the feeling that something is missing here? And then for seven days what kind of booth do I need? (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
There’s little difficulty in interpreting Leviticus 23 unless one holds (without biblical evidence) that Moses was given the exact dimensions of the sukkah as the Talmud claims. Note Baruch Levine’s remarks: “There is no mention of the ‘etrog [the citron used in the Sukkot] even in Nehemiah 8:15. The word ‘etrog itself is of Persian origin. It represents a later interpretation of hadar as ‘citrus fruit'” (Levine, Leviticus, 125). The rabbinic interpretation is entirely untenable; there’s no evidence that Moses’ original audience understood the text this way. Rather, the text (along with many others that are misused by traditional Judaism) should be taken as a general command.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo has similarly determined that God must have explained the command, “be fruitful and multiply,” (Gen. 1:28; 9:1) in specific detail (e.g., the exact number of children and their gender); this way, Jews would know whether they had obeyed the command. This command, however, wasn’t given to Israel as a nation, and it’s not connected with specific details; it was given to the whole human race at creation and, later, after the flood.
There’s also the threefold injunction to refrain from boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21). This command led the sages to conclude that a Jew couldn’t eat meat and dairy together. The Judaism 101 website explains the elaborate implications:
- This separation includes not only the foods themselves, but the utensils, pots and pans with which they are cooked, the plates and flatware from which they are eaten, the dishwashers or dishpans in which they are cleaned, and the towels on which they are dried. A kosher household will have at least two sets of pots, pans and dishes: one for meat and one for dairy. . . .
- One must wait a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy. Opinions differ, and vary from three to six hours.
Nevertheless, Abraham, who reportedly obeyed the Oral Torah, violated it when he “brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before [his guests]” (Gen. 18:8). Some suggest that, since the guests were angels, they didn’t actually eat what was set before them. Others hold that Abraham did follow the tradition and waited several hours to serve the meat after serving the dairy products. No matter how traditional Judaism interprets this text, it has had difficulty with this passage.
It’s helpful to see how the Karaites have understood Torah regulations. Traditional Jews often criticize Karaites for their practices, but they often have a better grasp of Torah regulations than the Talmud! For instance, the Karaites cite Leviticus 19:27-28 (a passage supposedly proving the need for side-curls) as prohibiting:
- Making a bald spot on the head as an act of mourning
- Shaving the beard as an act of mourning
- Cutting the skin as an act of mourning
- Writing on the skin as an act of mourning
Many traditional Jewish men have, in religious devotion, have made themselves look very strange to outsiders by having shaved heads except for their sideburns, which they let grow out. This is ironic since the passage from Leviticus actually prohibits an odd cutting or disfigurement of one’s hair. It is unfortunate that traditional groups fight with each other regarding the length and style of their side-curls.
Let’s turn our attention to the Sabbath by examining some contemporary Sabbath guidelines and see whether they’re actually what Moses commanded.
The Talmud bans thirty-nine subdivisions of labor on the Sabbath based on its interpretation of Exodus 31:12-17:
- The primary labours are forty less one, [viz.:] sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters [over the erasure], building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, [and] carrying out from one domain to another. (b. Shab. 73a)
Let’s consider the prohibition of writing:
- WRITING TWO LETTERS. Our Rabbis taught: If one writes one large letter in the place of which there is room for writing two, he is not culpable. If he erases one large letter and there is room in its place for writing two, he is culpable. Said R. Menahem son of R. Jose: And this is the greater stringency of erasing over writing (b. Shab. 75b).
- If one writes two letters in one state of unawareness, he is culpable. If one writes with ink, chemicals, sikra, kumos, kankantum, or with anything that leaves a mark on the angle of two walls or on the two leaves [tables] of a ledger, and they [the two letters] are read together, he is culpable. If one writes on his flesh, he is culpable: He who scratches a mark on his flesh, R. Eliezer declares him liable to a sin-offering; but the sages exempt him. If one writes with a fluid, with fruit juice, with road dust, or with writer’s powder, or with anything that cannot endure, he is not culpable. [If one writes] with the back of his hand, with his foot, with his mouth, or with his elbow; if one writes one letter near [other] writing, or if one writes upon writing; if one intends writing a heth but writes two zayyinin; one [letter] on the ground and another on a beam; if one writes on two walls of the house, or on two leaves of a ledger which are not to be read together, he is not culpable. if [sic] one writes one letter as an abbreviation, R. Joshua B. Bathyra holds him liable, whilst the sages exempt him. (b. Shab. 104b)
Is this really what God meant when he gave Israel the Sabbath laws? Dr. Alan Dundes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has done a study on the idea of shinui (change), in which something that would be considered to be “work” on the Sabbath is no longer considered to be “work” if it is done in an unusual way. One modern example of shinui is in toilet paper usage on the Sabbath. The Talmud bans any kind of tearing on the Sabbath. Therefore, if no Gentile is available to tear the toilet paper, the “paper may be torn, but not on the perforations and in an unusual way, e.g., with the feet.” Or, “One may use the paper without tearing it from the roll, and when finished, insert the used portion of the roll in the toilet and flush. The paper in the bowl will thus be torn automatically from the rest of the roll” (Dundes, Shabbat Elevator, 56).
Examples of shinui can be multiplied indefinitely.
- There are some quaint forms of shinui that serve to circumvent the prohibition against “kneading,” which is defined as “binding together small particles by means of a bonding agent to form one mass” (Cohen [The Shabbos Kitchen], 142). These include reversing the usual order of combining the ingredients in food preparation—for example, instead of pouring milk on cereal in a bowl, one would put the milk in the bowl first and then add the cereal, stirring a mixture with crisscross strokes instead of the usual typical continuous circular motion, stirring a mixture with one’s bare hand or finger, or using the handle of a spoon or fork, or a knife-blade. (Cohen [The Shabbos Kitchen], 149–152; [Children in Halachah], 97–99) (Dundes, Shabbat Elevator, 57)
- In the case of a medical emergency, say with a newborn baby, one can use a normal telephone to speak to a doctor. The life-threatening rule that takes precedence over any Halachic principle would obviously be in effect. Still, even in this instance, it is preferable to employ some form of shinui. “The receiver of the telephone should be lifted off with one’s elbow or with another object. The number should be dialed with the end of a spoon, one’s little finger, the joint of a finger, etc.” (Cohen [Children in Halachah, 79–80) (Dundes, Shabbat Elevator, 36)
Orthodox rabbis say that pushing an elevator button constitutes labor on the Sabbath. Therefore, Jews must either use a Sabbath elevator (one that automatically stops on every floor) or ride the elevator in hopes that a Gentile will press the button to their floor. Some believe that using a shinui is permitted: “In the case of the elevator, one informant reported that while it was forbidden to push the elevator button with one’s finger, one could push the button with one’s elbow or even one’s nose” (Dundes, Shabbat Elevator, 33).
Here is one example of a law related to the Shabbes Goy, “a non-Jewish person who is employed by an observant Jewish family to perform activities forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath, such as cooking and turning lights on and off” (judaism.about.com/od/sabbathdayshabb2/f/shabbesgoy. htm, accessed April 1, 2014):
- According to one source, “cutting nails with scissors or a nail clipper falls under the Biblical prohibition of shearing, whereas biting or tearing off nails is prohibited Rabbinically” (S. Cohen [The Shabbos Home], 160). The same source also describes a hypothetical situation in which a woman scheduled to visit the mikveh (ritual immersion pool) Friday night forgets to cut her fingernails before the Sabbath. In such a case, “she should have a gentile tear or bite off the fingernails . . . . If the gentile is unwilling to do this, she may have the gentile cut off the nails with an instrument” (166). (Dundes, Shabbat Elevator, 66)
Many have developed loopholes not only around the traditions, but even around the Written Torah itself! Residents of Kibbutz Sarid found a way around the law against raising pigs on Israeli soil: “They raised pigs on wooden platforms so that technically, the pigs’ feet never touched Israeli soil.” In some cases, a devout Jew will “sell” his leaven to a Gentile prior to Passover and then “buy” it back right afterward. Others will “sell” their land to Gentiles in the Sabbatical year and work the now Gentile land before “buying” it back after the year is over.
These loopholes simply miss the point of what God was trying to tell his people when he gave them these laws. Why try to find loopholes if you really love the Torah? Obedience to the Torah demands trust in God. Failure to trust in God inevitably results in ingenious circumvention around the clear meaning of his laws.
I could cite hundreds of other Sabbath regulations. Talmudic Judaism does not have the true, original interpretation of the Sabbath, or of many other Torah laws, despite its claims to have an unbroken chain of tradition going all the way back to Moses.
In no way am I putting down rabbinic Judaism, which has many beautiful traditions. What I am rejecting is the notion that these traditions were received along with the Written Torah at Sinai. I’m rejecting the idea that understanding of the Written Torah is contingent upon an understanding of rabbinic tradition.
How, then, do we determine what constitutes labor on the Sabbath? Apparently, God has only given us as much information as we need in the Written Torah, meaning: 1) in an agrarian society, there was a general understanding of what constituted “work”; 2) God was not concerned with all the minute details and questions raised by Talmudic Judaism; 3) the death penalty was for flagrant violation of the commandment to cease from work on the Sabbath, not for the rabbinic interpretation of this commandment; 4) when Moses was unsure of something, he went to God, and later, questionable cases and situations could be brought to local elders, leaders, or prophets for counsel and revelation; 5) further national customs would naturally develop, but if those customs became binding and contrary to the spirit of the Torah, problems would arise.
It’s possible to obey the Sabbath laws without following detailed rabbinic guidelines. The Karaites, the Essenes of Yeshua’s day, and Messianic Jews today all demonstrate this. Gentile Christians are able to observe Sunday as a day of rest apart from extrabiblical traditions.
The Hebrew Scriptures never condemn the people for failing to observe rabbinic Sabbath guidelines. Consider Numbers 15:
- “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD’s word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.” While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.
If Moses had received an oral tradition accompanying the Written Law, he wouldn’t have needed to ask God for further instructions! Some reply that the offender must have known that gathering sticks was a violation of the Sabbath from the Oral Law, but this need not be the case. We don’t know all of the details of the account, but if we were there, we would have known that the man was guilty of breaking the Sabbath. The context indicates that his Sabbath violation was clear and flagrant.
In closing, I offer two final considerations. First, contrary to the belief of traditional Jews, the transmission of the written Scriptures does not depend upon Oral Law. The way the Hebrew Bible has been passed down is through various manuscript traditions. There are many witnesses to the biblical text, including translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic texts, which contain thousands of variants among themselves. The fact that there are so many differences among the Masoretic texts proves that it was not the Oral Law that preserved them; otherwise, they would have a much higher level of uniformity.
Second, Jewish groups that predate the Pharisees by centuries are unaware of many of the customs of the Oral Law. B. Gittin 45a recounts a difference in interpretation between the Cutheans, who took the Written Law literally, and a traditional Jewish slave, who adhered to the rabbinic interpretation. In modern times, Golan Brosh has pointed out to me in a private communication the practices of the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews who have been transported to Israel:
- As for their religion, scholars believe Beta-Israel to be one of the most traditionalistic-keeping-of-Torah communities among all Jewish ethnic groups! Their most sacred book, called The Orit, includes all books of Moses and most books in the Bible. As for some of their religious practices, they still follow sacrificing-rituals, use a very strict law considering purity (menstruating women, etc.) and preserving priestly functions . . . . On the other hand, due to the fact that they are ignorant of the Oral Law and Rabbinic heritage, they find the custom of lighting Sabbath candles a very odd tradition, as it is emphasized in the Torah not to light fire on Sabbath. They are not familiar with the talit [prayer shawl] or tefillin, they possess a different prayer book than the Siddur, and therefore practice a much different religion of Judaism.
The practices of these Jews reveal that the Oral Law can’t be dated back to Moses and that it’s possible to obey the Written Law without it. Unfortunately, for many devout Jews, the oral traditions and the written laws are so intermingled that it’s difficult to separate the two.
The rabbinic laws are mandated by fallible men, not by an infallible divine command. Proverbs 3:5-6 commands us not to lean on our own understanding, but to trust in God. Let’s heed the Lord rather than trusting in fallible rabbis.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 95-139.
"The Written Torah refers to "Torahs" in the plural: written and oral." (Starts 20:05)
“On several occasions, the Written Torah makes reference to ‘Torahs’ in the plural, meaning two Torahs. This obviously refers to the Written and Oral Torahs.”
The plural for torah is torot. Some believe that the eleven references to the torot in the Hebrew Bible denote two forms of the law, i.e. the written and oral forms of the Torah. Certainly, there are many instances in which the term torah refers specifically to the Torah (e.g., Josh. 1:8); nevertheless, there are other instances in which the word simply refers to “teaching, instruction, law, ritual.” Leviticus 6:7a makes reference to the “ritual [torah] of the meal offering.” Proverbs 3:1a reads, “My son, do not forget my teaching [torah].” The plural torot is best understood in this latter sense.
Here are all eleven usages of torot in the Tanakh (NJV):
- Gen. 26:5: inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings [torot].
- Exod. 16:28: And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you men refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings [torot]?”
- Exod. 18:16: When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings [torot] of God.
- Exod. 18:20: and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings [torot], and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.
- Lev. 26:46: These are the laws, rules, and instructions [torot] that the LORD established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people.
- Isa. 24:5: For the earth was defiled under its inhabitants; because they transgressed teachings [torot], violated laws [this is actually singular in the Hebrew], broke the ancient covenant.
- Ezek. 43:11: When they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the plan of the Temple and its layout, its exits and entrances—its entire plan, and all the laws and instructions [torot] pertaining to its entire plan. Write it down before their eyes, that they may faithfully follow its entire plan and all its laws.
- Ezek. 44:5: Then the LORD said to me: O mortal, mark well, look closely and listen carefully to everything that I tell you regarding all the laws of the Temple of the LORD and all the instructions [torot] regarding it. Note well who may enter the Temple and all who must be excluded from the Sanctuary.
- Ps. 105:45: that they might keep His laws and observe His teachings [torot]. Hallelujah.
- Dan. 9:10: and did not obey the LORD our God by following His teachings [torot] that He set before us through His servants the prophets.
- Neh. 9:13: You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules and true teachings [torot], good laws and commandments.
The Pentateuch (Gen. 26:5; Exod. 16:28; 18:16, 20; Lev. 26:45) always uses torot in a list with other legal terms like commandments and laws. Clearly, the Torah doesn’t refer to both written and oral laws, or to written and oral commandments; why then would torot be used differently than these terms? The same usage holds true in Ezekiel 43:11, 44:5, Psalm 105:45, and Nehemiah 9:13.
Isaiah 24:5 indicates that man’s disregard for God’s laws will bring judgment on the entire world. This passage refutes the claims of anti-missionary Tovia Singer, who asserts that torot is only used in reference to the Jewish nation. In this context, the NJV’s footnote is most fitting, indicating that the verse refers to “the moral law, which is binding on all men (cf. Gen. 9.4-6).” Clearly, there’s no indication of an oral Torah here, nor is there in Daniel 9:10, which refers to the torot passed down, not by Moses, but by the prophets.
To render torot as “Torahs” (in the sense of the Oral and Written Torahs) requires tremendous twisting of the pertinent passages. The Orthodox Jewish Stone version reveals the irregularity in translation. This version translates torot as “teachings” on most occasions, but in Isaiah 24:5 translates it as “commandments,” a less precise term. It then provides a bizarre translation of Genesis 26:5: “Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” The inconsistency in translating Genesis 26:5 indicates a desire to read into the text an element clearly not present, particularly in light of the mention of “safeguards,” “commandments,” and “decrees.” The Stone rendering also assumes that Abraham possessed both the Written and Oral Torahs, in spite of the fact that they were revealed to Moses over 500 years later! There’s no evidence that God revealed either Torah to Abraham.
This inconsistency is also seen in the footnote to Leviticus 26:46: “The word wehatorot [translated correctly in Stone as “teachings”] is in the plural because it refers to two Torahs: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah . . . . [B]oth were given at Sinai.” The Stone version reveals the same inconsistency as the rabbinic tradition, which interprets torot as referring to the Written and Oral Torahs.
The Tanakh makes no reference to dual Torahs. There’s also no evidence of an Oral Torah from the Pharisees and the early rabbis. While the Pharisees certainly had well-established traditions, their enemies never credited them with teaching the notion of two Torahs. This idea appears to have developed over a lengthy period of time, primarily after the Second Temple’s destruction.
Additionally, Josephus and the Qumran writings make no mention of an Oral Torah. Certainly, these writings refer to Pharisaic teaching at the time and even refer to Pharasaic tradition; however, they never assert that Moses received this tradition on Mt. Sinai. Note Jacob Neusner’s remarks:
- At issue in the initial stage is the status of a few specific rulings and, of far greater urgency, the standing of the sages in a chain of tradition to Sinai. The dual Torah, the Oral Torah—these do not surface. It is entirely feasible to speak of oral tradition without introducing the category of the Oral Torah, whether the symbol or the myth. (Neusner, What, Exactly, Did the Rabbinic Sages Mean by “The Oral Torah”?, 216)
There’s no evidence that the Pharisees promoted the notion of an Oral Torah received at Mt. Sinai; instead, they did pass along their traditions over several generations, beginning in the second century BCE. Over time, they began to assert the antiquity of their traditions, eventually leading to the conclusion that Moses received them on Mt. Sinai as the Oral Torah.
While the early rabbinic evidence certainly points to some laws purported to have come from Moses at Sinai, there’s little evidence of a full-blown Oral Torah. The Mishnah makes zero references to dual Torahs. The Tosefta (another foundational compilation of rabbinic law dated shortly after the Mishnah) mentions “two Torahs” only three times. Mayer Gruber observes:
- In tSanhedrin 4:5 ‘two Torahs’ refers to the two scrolls of the Pentateuch to be written by and for every king of Israel [see Rashi to Deut. 17:18]. In the two remaining cases—tHagigah 2:9 and tSotah 14:9—’two Torahs’ is the term of disparagement applied to the controversies between the disciples of Hillel and Shammai, who, it is alleged, created their two separate doctrines because they failed to study carefully the single Torah which they all received from Hillel and Shammai (Gruber, “The Mishnah as Oral Torah,” 114).
Pirke Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers), likely composed near the end of the Mishnah’s compilation, claims that Moses received “Torah” on Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, who transmitted it to the elders, who transmitted it to the judges and prophets, all the way down to the rabbinic sages (see m. Avot. 1:1). Martin Jaffee, however, notes that the notion of two Torahs “emerges in only the faintest form and lies buried obscurely in but two passages of midrashic exegesis—not an auspicious beginning for an ideological conception that would . . . come to dominate rabbinic discourse about the origins and authority of halakhic norms” (Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth, 98).
What then of the Babylonian Talmud? It is alleged that Hillel and Shammai told a potential Gentile convert to Judaism of the existence of “a Written Torah and an Oral Torah” (b. Shab. 31a). Reform Rabbi Louis A. Rieser contests this account:
- The tale functions to read the rabbinic program back into an earlier time, specifically into the late Second Temple period. By invoking the mythic figures of Hillel and Shammai, this tale creates a bridge back to the ancient days. It also serves to justify the rabbinic program by retrojecting the evolving rabbinic methods and assumptions back to the period of the founders, Hillel and Shammai. As the opening paragraphs of M. Avot build a continuous chain of tradition from Moses to the rabbis, so this tale retrojects the methods and assumptions of the rabbinic program to an earlier time. (Rieser, “On One Foot,” 22, my emphasis)
The term “Oral Torah” is found elsewhere in the Talmud only in bYoma 28b and bQiddushin 66a. So much for the Oral Torah being foundational to Judaism! Again, while there were traditions purported to have Mosaic origins, the specific word torot (as used in Scripture and by the early rabbis) doesn’t carry the meaning of two different Torahs.
Apart from Sifra to Genesis 26:5, the concept of the Oral Torah appears only in one other place in the rabbinic writings in reference to Leviticus 26:46; however, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the Talmud, takes issue with this argument:
- Rabbi Akiva asked: “And were [only] two Torahs given to Israel? Were not many torahs given to Israel [as demonstrated by the following biblical texts]: “this is the torah of the burnt offering” (Lev. 6:2); “this is the torah of the meal offering” (Lev. 6:7); “this is the torah of the guilt offering” (Lev. 7:1); “this is the torah of the peace-offering” (Lev. 7:11); “this is the torah concerning a person who dies in a tent” (Num. 19:14). (Gruber, Rabbi Akiva’s Messiah, 114 n. 13)
Of course, Rabbi Akiva firmly believed in oral tradition. But he didn’t believe that the reference to torot in Leviticus 26:46 refers to two Torahs, one oral and one written.
Gruber observes, “The only other explicit reference to a dual Torah doctrine in the tannaitic midrashim is in Sifre Devarim on Deut. 33:10” (Gruber, Rabbi Akiva’s Messiah, 114 n. 13). The Masoretic text (the authoritative text according to the rabbis) of Deuteronomy 33:10, however, reads torah, not torot, completely undercutting the entire argument.
From this we can make three important observations: 1) There were differences in the Hebrew texts used by the ancient rabbis, even in the text of the Torah; 2) The verse cited to prove that there was not just one Torah given to Israel actually makes reference to only one Torah in the text found in every Rabbinic Bible used today; 3) Even the variant reading of Deuteronomy 33:10 reflected in the midrash, speaking of Torahs in the plural in no way points to two Torahs. Rather, in keeping with all the verses we discussed above, it is in the context of ordinances (mishpatim).
In summary, although traditional Jewish writings are replete with discussion of the Oral Torah, there’s no evidence from Scripture or the early rabbinic writings that torot refers to dual Torahs.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 84-95.
"The rabbis have the sole authority to interpret the Law." (Starts 3:50)
“According to Deuteronomy 17:8–13, the rabbis have the sole authority to interpret the Law and to tell us how to live. Whoever refuses to listen to them is guilty of a serious sin in the sight of God.”
This passage nowhere refers to the rabbis! Take a look for yourself:
- If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your courts—you shall promptly repair to the place that the LORD your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the LORD chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left. Should a man act presumptuously and disregard the priest charged with serving there the LORD your God, or the magistrate, that man shall die. Thus you will sweep out evil from Israel: all the people will hear and be afraid and will not act presumptuously again (NJV).
Jeffrey Tigay observes, “This is not a court of appeals but a court of referral for difficult cases in which guilt or innocence cannot be determined or how to apply the law is unclear.” The court was composed of levitical priests “or the magistrate in charge at the time” to rule on “matters of criminal and civil law” (Tigay, Deuteronomy, 163).
Rashi interprets “homicide” (literally, “between blood and blood”) as, “between ritually unclean blood [of menstruation] and ritually clean blood.” He interprets “assault” (literally, “between affliction and affliction”) as, “between a ritually unclean lesion and a ritually clean lesion” (as related to leprosy). However, according to Tigay, “Menstruation and ‘leprosy’ are unlikely to have been subjects of litigation in the local courts” (Tigay, Deuteronomy, 164). Still, this passage is cited to give rabbinic leaders far-reaching authority. Rambam goes so far as to say, “Even if it seems obvious to you that the judges are in error, follow their ruling. Do not say, for example, ‘How can I execute this man whom I believe to be innocent?'”
The rabbinic approach is dubious. First, Deuteronomy 17 establishes a court to sort out difficult cases, not to legislate every minute detail of a Jew’s life. Second, the text refers not to the rabbis, but to judges. The decisions of this “Supreme Court” would be taken as binding; anyone who disregarded them would face the death penalty. (Sadly, this passage is misused to undermine the Written Law. Rabbinic leaders are to be followed even when their rulings run counter to the clear meaning of the Torah.) The Scriptures nowhere grant the rabbis this power!
Note the following texts from Moses Maimonides that emphasize rabbinic authority:
- In order to “cleave to God,” one must “cleave to the sages and their disciples” (Sefer HaMitzvot).
- One who vilifies the sages “will not receive a portion in the World to Come and is included among those who ‘scorned the word of God'” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 6:11).
- 1,001 sages are of greater authority than 1,000 prophets (Introduction to the Mishnah).
- Whenever there’s a difference between rabbinic tradition and the clear meaning of Scripture, the former is always to be followed. Any prophet who advocates otherwise is to be put to death (Introduction to the Mishnah).
There’s also the following Talmudic account, which discusses the cleanness of an oven:
- R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of ‘Aknai . . . . Said he to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place—others affirm, four hundred cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,” they retorted. Again he said to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards—”No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined. Again he urged: “If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,” whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: “When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?” Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: “If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!” But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.” What did he mean by this?—Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline [misquoting the end of Exod. 23:2] R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?—He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.” It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him. (b. Bava Mesia 59a-b)
Majority rule from rabbinical tradition reigns supreme! It’s superior to supernatural miracles, true prophets, and even God’s own voice from heaven! According to the Schottenstein Talmud’s note to b. Sanhedrin 90a, to reject the divine authority of the Oral Torah is to forfeit one’s place in the world to come.
Let’s say that you’re a strict Orthodox Jew debating with me the meaning of Deuteronomy 25:11-12. I cite other ancient Near Eastern law codes to say that the text should be taken literally, but you cite tradition to support the idea of monetary recompense. In so doing, you reject the plain sense of the text.
What if a devout Jewish prophet (one with a proven track record of predicting the future) were to come and say that the Torah should be interpreted literally? What if he were to even call down fire from heaven to prove that he’s telling the truth? Would you still refuse to believe in the literal meaning of the Torah?
What if God’s voice were to speak from heaven and say that the Torah should be interpreted literally? Would you still reject the clear teaching of Scripture, a true prophet, a divine miracle, and even God’s voice in favor of rabbinic tradition? How do you think God would deal with you on Judgment Day should you do so?
Although the Talmud teaches that the Torah is no longer in heaven (lo’ bashamayim hi’), it nonetheless attributes divine inspiration to the rabbinic sages (b. Bava Bathra 12a). As Rabbi Abraham Yeshayah Karelitz (Chazon Ish), says, “Those who are forever toiling in Torah and whose eyes are cast Heavenward for assistance in properly interpreting the Law—they are the angels produced by toil in Torah. It is their obligation to do as the Torah spirit within them dictates” (Finkelman, The Chazon Ish, 102).
While a culture can’t survive without law enforcement, human leaders often institute unjust laws (e.g., Isa. 1:21-28). We can’t blindly follow human leaders no matter how full of integrity they may be. Simply put, neither Deuteronomy 17 nor any other scriptural text gives the rabbis this kind of comprehensive power.
I don’t take any of this lightly. Yeshua transformed my life in 1971. As I spend my life sharing his message, I find significant opposition from traditional Jews. Other Jewish believers in Yeshua experience insults and even physical persecution for sharing their faith. I’ve reached my conclusions about rabbinic authority through a careful search for God’s truth.
The Mishnah records an event that further highlights rabbinic authority (Rosh HaShanah 2:8-9). When Rabbi Joshua challenges Rabban Gamaliel’s timing of the new moon, Gamaliel orders Joshua to meet him with staff and purse in hand on the Day of Atonement (based on Joshua’s reckoning). Jewish law forbade Joshua from doing this, but he supposedly needed to learn the supremacy of rabbinic authority. Rabban Gamaliel had the power not only to establish the timing of holy days (whether right or wrong), but he could also force another respected sage to violate his own conscience and submit to his authority.
Traditional Judaism has placed the authority of the rabbis above that of prophetic teaching from heaven. As the introduction to a commentary on the Shulchan Arukh states, “The truth is as the sages decide with the human mind.”
Note the ending to the story in b. Bava Mesia 59a-b cited earlier:
- A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. R. Gamaliel too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. ‘It appears to me,’ he reflected, ‘that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.’ Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel!’ At that the raging sea subsided.
Subsequently, however, when Rabbi Eliezer poured out his heart to God in tearful supplications, Rabban Gamaliel suddenly died:
- Ima Shalom was R. Eliezer’s wife, and sister to R. Gamaliel. From the time of this incident onwards she did not permit him to fall upon his face. [Meaning, in a special time of daily prayer in which the supplicant would fall on his face and pray prayers with his own words. The footnote in this translation explains, “Ima Shalom feared that her husband might pour out his grief and feeling of injury in these prayers, and that God, listening to them, would punish R. Gamaliel, her brother.”] Now a certain day happened to be New Moon, but she mistook a full month for a defective one. [Had this been the day of the New Moon, R. Eliezer would not have prayed the special prayers, but it turned out that his wife’s calculation was incorrect.] Others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him.16 [On her return] she found him fallen on his face. ‘Arise,’ she cried out to him, ‘thou hast slain my brother.’ In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. ‘Whence dost thou know it?’ he questioned her. ‘I have this tradition from my father’s house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.’
Is there any reflection of divine displeasure about the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer, even here within the Talmud—or , at the least, with the spirit of the ban?
Note also the fate of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon (882-942) who, after vehemently condemning the Karaites, was excommunicated by David ben Zakkai and Rabbi Kohen-Zedek. The writ of excommunication called him “the bloody and wicked man” and “a churl, the son of a nobody.” Sa’adiah responded in like fashion.
Reconstructionist Rabbi Moshe Zemer uses such examples to make sense of contemporary polemics of the ultra-Orthodox against other branches of Judaism. He cites Rabbi Moshe Feinsten (1895-1986) who concluded: 1) non-Orthodox rabbis are heretics; 2) a traditional Jew may not accept a position or pray in a non-Orthodox synagogue; 3) a traditional Jew who associates with the non-Orthodox is in jeopardy of leaving the Orthodox fold.
Ironically, Rabbi Feinstein has been attacked by other ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Yomtov Halevi Schwartz said that Feinstein “misled [people] to eat unkosher foods by ruling that it is permissible for old people to eat meat in the homes of their apostate children” (Zemer, Evolving Halakha, 305). One ultra-Orthodox rabbinic court declared Rabbi Feinstein’s yeshiva “a forbidden place” which would “cause the present and future generations to commit sins of sectarianism, heresy, and the uprooting of religion” (cited in Zemer, Evolving Halakha, 305; emphasis in the original).
Here are ultra-Orthodox Jews fighting with one another, branding one another as heretics! We cite these examples to show how traditional groups sometimes treat one another. This treatment, however, extends more vehemently to those on the outside.
Look at traditional Jewish sentiments against the Karaites. It has been ruled that a Jewish physician may not violate the Sabbath by treating a Karaite, and that a Jewish midwife may not deliver the baby of a Karaite. A footnote in the Stone Torah claims that the Karaites “sat in spiritual darkness all their lives.” All these attacks stem from the fact that the Karaites dared to interpret the Torah on their own apart from the rabbis. Traditional Judaism tolerates no rivals, and it does this without any support from the Torah.
Traditional rabbis claim to have a monopoly on Mosaic authority and maintain that they are the only valid interpreters of the Law, although nowhere in Scripture do we find that they have been given such authority. Yet, rabbinic leaders who abuse Scripture insist that they are to be followed without question! Consider Rabbi Baruch Paz’s claims:
- The Rabbis are permitted to enact safeguards in order to prevent the violation of Torah commandments, even if the safeguard itself “uproots” (i.e. violates) a Torah law. Yet, we find a discrepancy between the sages of the Talmud concerning the nature of this uprooting. According to Rabbi Natan in the name of Rabbi Oshaya, rabbinical safeguards may be enacted in cases where they result in a passive violation of a commandment of the Torah (i.e. to forbid that which the Torah permitted), but not in cases where they would cause an active violation (i.e. to permit that which The Torah forbade). Rabbi Chisda, though, holds that the Sages are even permitted to legislate an active violation. Rabbi Natan in the name of Rabbi Oshaya admits, though, that in a case where the violation is only temporary it is permissible even in the case of an active violation . . . .
- These are preventative measures, safeguards designed to prevent people from violating actual commandments of the Torah. (Baruch Paz, “Adding, Uprooting, and Rabbinical Authority”)
Is there any reason to take the words of fallible men over the eternal truth of God? Note Jeffrey Tigay’s remarks on Deuteronomy 13:1:
- Keeping in mind that a prophet is God’s envoy . . . it is noteworthy that in a Hittite treaty, the suzerain tells his vassal that when he sends him messages, if there is a discrepancy between the written text of a message and the oral version given by his envoy, the written message is authoritative and the envoy is not to be believed. Here in Deuteronomy the discrepancy is between the written text of the Decalogue and the oral claims of the false prophets. (Tigay, Deuteronomy, 188)
If we apply the same standards to rabbinic traditions, the Written Law should trump the Oral Law every time! Yet the Seven Rabbinic Commandments connect God’s blessings with obedience to rabbinic laws:
- These seven rabbinical commandments are treated like Biblical commandments in so far as, previous to the fulfillment of each, this Benediction is recited: “Blessed be the Lord who has commanded us . . .,” the divine command being implied in the general law (Deut. xvii. 11, xxxii. 7; Shab. 23a). Many of the Biblical laws are derived from the Law only by rabbinical interpretation, as, the reading of the Shema’ (Deut. vi. 4–7), the binding of the tefillin and the fixing of the mezuzah (ib. 8–9), and the saying of grace after meals (ib. viii. 10). (Wikipedia, “Mitzvah”)
The citation from b. Shabbat 23a says,
- What benediction is uttered? [after the lighting of the Hanukkah candles]—This: Who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukkah. And where did He command us?—R. Awia said: [It follows] from, thou shalt not turn aside [from the sentence which they shall shew thee (Deut. 17:11)]. R. Nehemiah quoted: Ask thy father, and he will shew thee; Thine elders, and they will tell thee [Deut. 32:7].
The rabbis misused and continue to misuse Deuteronomy 17 to claim sweeping power over Jewish life, even to the minutest details. Their approach to the Torah mirrors the current trend of judicial tyranny in America by which judges actually create new law, rather than simply ruling upon it. A similar tyranny is taking place among the rabbis of traditional Judaism. I know that the rabbis are well meaning, but they’ve placed manmade tradition above God’s Law. The testimony of Isaiah is fitting:
- All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
- The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
- The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever (Isa. 40:7–8).
I urge you to place your trust on the sure foundation of God’s Word rather than the fallible ideas of men.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 139-161.
"Biblical figures such as Daniel followed the rabbinic traditions." (Starts 12:11)
“Various passages in the Tanakh demonstrate that biblical figures such as Daniel followed the rabbinic traditions. For example, according to Daniel 1, he wouldn’t eat certain foods—just as the rabbis teach, but something not required in the Written Torah—and according to Daniel 6, he prayed three times each day—just as the rabbis teach. Similarly, Nehemiah 13 follows the rabbinic understanding that forbids buying and selling on the Sabbath, although this is not explicitly spelled out in the Written Torah.”
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t inspired to abolish slavery because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. How, then, could biblical characters who lived at least 800-900 years before the completion of the Talmud have derived their practices from it?
You say, “Our traditions go back to Sinai.” Actually, the traditions were based, in part, on personalities such as Daniel and Nehemiah, whose lives and texts predate the Talmud by centuries. The fact that leading Jewish groups (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes) disputed the details of Torah regulations reveals that there was no unified, authoritative oral tradition prior to the Second Temple’s destruction.
On what basis did Daniel practice these customs? He may very well have started them. He may also have been following commonly accepted cultural practices. There’s zero evidence, however, that these customs were rooted in an Oral Torah from Sinai.
Note some rather strange conclusions from the rabbis. Dutch rabbinic scholar Lopes Cardozo cites 1 Kings 6:7, which allegedly proves that Solomon was aware of an explanation in the third century CE Mechilta. This text “explains that the prohibition of building with cut stone applied not only to the altar, but partially to the rest of the Temple: the building could be constructed from hewn stones only if the cutting was done at the quarry rather than at the building site” (Cardozo, Written Torah and Oral Torah, 80). Isn’t it far more likely that wise Solomon logically deduced his practice from the written text (Exod. 20:24)? Solomon was the basis for the oral tradition, not the other way around.
Lopes Cardozo also claims that Jeremiah 17:21-22 reveals knowledge of the Talmudic ban on “transferring articles from one domain to another on Shabbat”: “This is what the LORD says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers.” This passage is based on an inspired word of the Lord that condemns labor on the Sabbath; it is not based on the oral traditions that legislate the transference of articles between houses on the Sabbath. According to Charles Feinberg, “The Sabbath had been chosen by the people to bring their produce in from the country, since they worked the fields during the week . . . . The people carried burdens out of their homes in exchange for the produce brought into the city” (Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” 489). Again, the Talmud’s instructions were based on Jeremiah’s exhortation, not the other way around.
Note similar remarks by Rabbi Moshe Shulman concerning Jeremiah 17:
- Carrying an object from outside of a walled city into a walled city is prohibited because they are different domains . . . . Where is the command in the Written Torah to refrain from carrying on Shabbos that Jeremiah claims was commanded to our fathers? It is only in the Oral Law. This verse, too, states clearly that an Oral Law was commanded to Moshe on Mount Sinai. (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
Isn’t it possible that God gave special revelation to Jeremiah prohibiting such activity? Or maybe the people’s carrying of loads so clearly constituted work so as not to need further explanation. For Rabbi Shulman, these notions are impossible; Jeremiah derived his conclusions from a meticulously detailed list of oral traditions from Sinai. Note, though, that the Talmudic regulation prohibits “transferring articles from one domain to another” (into and out of a domain). Jeremiah simply prohibits carrying a load into Jerusalem’s gates or out of one’s house. The regulations aren’t the same.
Rabbi Shulman has more “proof” from Nehemiah 10:30-31:
- “They joined to their brothers, their nobles, and entered into a curse and into an oath, to walk in G-d’s law, which was given by Moshe the servant of G-d and to observe and do all the commandments of Hashem our Lord and His ordinances and His statutes, (a) and that we would not give our daughters unto the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons, (b) and if the peoples of the land bring ware or any food on the Shabbos to sell, that we must not buy them on the Shabbos, or on a holy day, (c) and that we would forgo the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt.”
- . . . Look at (b), this is the prohibition of the Oral Law of buying and selling on Shabbos. Unlike a and c this language does not appear anywhere in the Written Torah! But the Oral Law that this verse confirms was given to Moshe says that it is forbidden . . . . This is a clear proof from the Tanach that the Oral Law does exist and it is the same as ours today! (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
Contrary to Shulman’s claims, this text records a pledge that essentially said, “We will not do any business on the Sabbath.” Look at how Nehemiah describes the people’s regard for the Sabbath:
- In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” (Neh. 13:15–18)
This matches well the description of Nehemiah 10:31. The people treated the Sabbath as they would any other day; they went about business as usual. There’s no way they would have understood the seemingly endless oral Sabbath traditions, which even scholars find difficult to decipher.
When I observed Yom Kippur in Brooklyn years ago, I tried to take some tissues with me to the synagogue. I learned that, not only could I not carry tissues on a holy day, but I couldn’t even tear a tissue on a holy day! Can you imagine God condemning the people of Nehemiah’s day not just for doing business on the Sabbath, but even for carrying tissues in their pockets?
There’s a general rule that the complex develops out of the simple. Just as simple addition comes before advanced trigonometry, so the simple Sabbath practices of Nehemiah’s day came before the Oral Torah.
Rabbi Shulman cites another example, this time from Daniel,
- We are also presented with a serious problem by what we find in Daniel 1:8- 12:
- “Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, nor the wine which he drank, therefore he requested of the chief of the officers that he might not defile himself. And G-d granted Daniel mercy in the sight of the chief of the officers . . . try your servants, I beseech you, ten days; and let them give us pulse (lit. raw seeds) to eat and water to drink.”
- . . . We are dealing with two laws that were decreed by our sages [rather than the Written Torah]. The first is a prohibition of eating food cooked by a non-Jew, and the second is that of drinking wine touched by a non-Jew. Daniel . . . followed the Oral Law by restricting himself to pulse and water. (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
John Goldingay offers several possibilities for Daniel’s practice here. His last is the most likely option:
- Pagan food and drink may simply epitomize the pagan uncleanness associated with exile (cf. Isa. 52:11). This reflects the fact that what we eat and drink, like what we wear and how we speak, generally constitutes an outward expression of our self-identity and commitments. These are particularly significant for groups in exile or under persecution . . . . Daniel’s abstinence thus symbolizes his avoiding assimilation. (Goldingay, Daniel, 8-9)
Even the text itself never mentions the Torah or oral traditions. It’s likely that the rabbis decreed that the people couldn’t eat food cooked by a Gentile or drink wine touched by a Gentile based on this passage. After all, both Joseph (Gen. 43:24-33) and Elijah (1 Kings 17:7-16) ate food prepared by Gentiles. Daniel was not following later Rabbinic legislation.
There’s also Daniel 6:10: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree [to pray to no other god besides Darius] had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” Rabbi Shulman claims,
- There is an orally known decree that the Jewish people always pray towards Jerusalem. We see that this was done by Daniel [citing Dan. 6:10] . . . Here we see Daniel doing two things, first praying three times a day, as was his custom from long before then, and as is stated in the Oral Law. He also is praying toward Jerusalem, following the command that Solomon had given [1 Kings 8:29-30]. (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
Shulman’s contention is self-defeating; why would he have needed the Oral Law if he had the instructions of Solomon? Solomon’s command was the basis for Daniel’s practice of praying toward Jerusalem.
Daniel’s praying three times a day was likely a personal practice; there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise. If Daniel’s practice reflects an oral tradition going back to Sinai, why is there no earlier evidence for it? The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal earlier and distinct practices of prayer than the rabbinic writings. Additionally, Daniel (along with others such as Solomon and Ezra) knelt in prayer, contrary to rabbinic practice. Psalm 95:6 exhorts us to kneel before God. Why have you abandoned the Scriptures and followed the rabbinic writings instead?
Let’s look at one other example from Rabbi Shulman:
- There are four major fastdays that the Jewish people meticulously keep. They are part of the oral tradition of the Jewish people . . . . Why does the holy prophet Zechariah, in the name of Hashem, discuss these four major fast days (and tell us that in the messianic age they will become holidays) if they are nowhere commanded to be kept in the Scriptures? “Thus said Hashem of hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month (17 of Tamuz), and the fast of the fifth month (9 of Av), and the fast of the seventh month (the fast of Gedaliah), and the fast of the tenth month (10 of Teves) shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons” (Zech. 8:19). Nowhere in the Written Torah is there a mention of these fasts; they were decrees of the prophets. (Shulman, “Oral Law”)
Zechariah 7:1-3 reads:
- In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the LORD came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech, together with their men, to entreat the LORD by asking the priests of the house of the LORD Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
The people didn’t learn to fast on this day from divinely instituted oral traditions. If they had, why did they ask the priests and prophets whether their exilic practice was still valid? Zechariah rebuked them for their self-centeredness; he didn’t praise their obedience to the Oral Law (Zech. 7:4-7).
Furthermore, the people consulted a prophet, who answered with a divine message, rather than with human reasoning and discussion of legal precedent. This passage does little to bolster the claims of anti-missionaries, especially since Zechariah 8:18-19 points to a Messianic alteration in how we relate to the Torah: Yom Kippur would become a day of celebration, not contrition!
Zechariah’s description of the fasts formed the basis for the rabbinic traditions. He nowhere indicates that the fasts were divinely appointed at Sinai; he simply says that they’ll change from mourning to joy.
In summary, logic proves that the rabbinic writers based their customs on those of Nehemiah and Daniel, not vice versa.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 164-179.
"Modern computer studies show that the Oral Law was divinely inspired." (Starts 16:35)
“Modern computer studies have demonstrated that the Torah and the Oral Law are divinely inspired. Haven’t you heard of the Bible Codes? And there are indisputable examples proving that the Oral Law was supernaturally inspired. For example, only the Oral Law knew the exact length of a lunar month—and I mean exact. Modern science confirms this.”
The claims of Bible Codes are suspect because 1) they’re not derived from the original writings, but from later copies and 2) many mathematicians and scholars find the reasoning behind such codes to be unsound.
The reliability of the “Bible Codes” is dependent upon letter-for-letter accuracy of existing manuscripts with the original texts. Bible Codes are developed by arranging letters set apart at equal distances into words and phrases. Therefore, even a few misplaced letters will dramatically impact one’s conclusions.
The spelling of words in Masoretic manuscripts often differs from how such words would have been spelled in the original texts. It’s impossible that these manuscripts can reliably be used to decipher Bible Codes. The claim of Masoretic perfection is tantamount to the claim that the 1611 King James Version is the only inspired English translation. The basis for the KJV Only movement is easily disproven when we realize that there have been several revisions of the King James Bible with thousands of discrepancies between them. Similarly, even if we assume that the Masoretic manuscripts preserve every word of the original texts (a difficult assumption to make), the spelling differences alone render Bible Codes useless.
While it is true that some scholars have been so impressed by the Bible Codes that they’ve converted to Orthodox Judaism, the findings of such a methodology are purely coincidental and arbitrary since they reveal codes only in copies, not the original texts, which we do not have. Furthermore, scholars applied Bible Code techniques to the Hebrew translation of War and Peace and obtained findings similar to those from the Tanakh. (Such findings obviously don’t prove the divine inspiration of War and Peace!) For further detail, see Dr. Randall Ingermanson’s book Who Wrote the Bible Code? and Prof. Barry Simon’s (an Orthodox Jew) article “The Case Against the Codes.”
If you say that the Bible Codes oppose Yeshua’s Messianic claims, I could show you 300 lengthy codes that say otherwise and sixteen hundred shorter codes in Isaiah 53 alone! Furthermore, the agnostic Russian scientist Ivan Panin converted to Christianity after discovering precise mathematical patterns in the Greek New Testament. It seems that we would be on surer footing by looking at the direct statements of Scripture rather than trying to decipher codes.
It’s curious that Bible Codes have never been used to discover future events. Why would we discover details about 9/11 in the Bible Code after the fact rather than being warned of the event in advance? This seems incongruous with God’s purpose in Scripture.
What, then, of the assertion that the Oral Law is inspired based on its precise reckoning of the lunar month? There are plenty of other accurate ancient calendars; the traditional Jewish lunar reckoning happens to be virtually exact. Are these other calendars “partially inspired” as compared with the Talmud? What about the Mayan calendar’s remarkably exact reckoning of the solar year? Will you ascribe divine inspiration to Mayan traditions?
In spite of the Talmud’s accuracy in reckoning the lunar month, it fails miserably in other places. Rabbinic world history contains an infamous error of 159 years. There are also these incredible examples:
- Caleb was a father when he was 10 and a great-grandfather when he was twenty-six (y. Yeb. 10:7).
- Bathsheba was six when she first gave birth and was eight when she bore David’s child (b. Sanh. 69b).
- Rebekah left her father’s house to marry Isaac when she was three (Sofrim 21:9).
- Ahijah the prophet predated Moses and lived till the time of Elijah (b. B.B. 121b).
An anti-Semitic website has also listed “Sick and Insane Teachings of the Jewish Talmud”:
- Gittin 69a. To heal his flesh a Jew should take dust that lies within the shadow of an outdoor toilet, mix it with honey and eat it.
- Shabbath 41a. The law regulating the rule for how to urinate in a holy way is given.
- Yebamoth 63a. States that Adam had sexual intercourse with all the animals in the Garden of Eden.
- Yebamoth 63a. Declares that agriculture is the lowest of occupations.
- Sanhedrin 54b. A Jew may have sex with a child as long as the child is less than nine years old.
- Yebamoth 59b. A woman who had intercourse with a beast is eligible to marry a Jewish priest. A woman who has sex with a demon is also eligible to marry a Jewish priest.
- Abodah Zarah 17a. States that there is not a whore in the world that Rabbi Eleazar has not had sex with.
- Hagigah 27a. States that no rabbi can ever go to hell.
- Gittin 70a. The Rabbis taught: “On coming from a privy (outdoor toilet) a man should not have sexual intercourse till he has waited long enough to walk half a mile, because the demon of the privy is with him for that time; if he does, his children will be epileptic.”
- Pesahim 111a. It is forbidden for dogs, women or palm trees to pass between two men, nor may others walk between dogs, women or palm trees. Special dangers are involved if the women are menstruating or sitting at a crossroads.
If we view the Talmud as folklore, than we don’t need to go through tireless efforts to defend these statements. But if we claim divine inspiration for the Talmud, these statements are problematic. You might say that these statements are haggadic (non-legal) rather than halachic, but the Talmud itself doesn’t distinguish between these uses. Other halachic decisions in the Talmud clearly abuse Scripture. The rabbinic sages had many admirable qualities, but the statements above reveal that they didn’t follow in the footsteps of Israel’s past prophets.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 180-187.
"Jesus himself taught that his followers were to submit to the Pharisees." (Starts 23:33)
“Jesus himself taught in Matthew 23 that his Jewish followers were to submit to the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees—in other words, to follow the Oral Law.”
In Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees in no uncertain terms, calling them “hypocrites,” “blind,” and “snakes.” How then do we explain these verses?
- Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt. 23:1–4)
The reference to Moses’ seat may refer to a literal seat in the front of the synagogue where the Torah teacher would exposit the Law. It may simply refer to the Pharisees’ significant position as guardians of Moses’ teachings. In either case, the Pharisees were responsible for teaching the Law. Interestingly enough, Jesus does not condemn them for their meticulous tithing of spices, which went far beyond the Torah’s requirements (v.23). Rather, he condemns them for forgetting “the more important matters of the law.”
Let’s first examine how Jesus interacts with the Pharisees in other passages. Jesus denounces the Pharisees as “blind guides” leading people into a “pit” (Matt. 15:14). His rebuke of their traditions is so severe that they “plotted how they might kill Jesus” (Matt. 12:14). Jesus insists on a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees in order for entrance into the kingdom (Matt. 5:20), and tells his followers to beware of “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:12). Why would he later tell his disciples to follow this same teaching?
The Gospels also record conflicts between Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The Pharisees condemned Jesus’ disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:2) and questioned their transgression of tradition, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt. 15:1). The later rabbinic writings place the practice of hand-washing before eating on par with Torah commandments, yet the disciples didn’t follow this tradition.
Even Yeshua himself didn’t follow the Pharisees’ traditions. In John 5, he healed a crippled man on the Sabbath and told him to carry his mat. In John 9, he healed a blind man on the Sabbath: “He spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (vv. 6-7). This healing violated the laws against kneading and application of non-essential medicine on the Sabbath.
Even a cursory examination of Matthew 23 reveals that Jesus couldn’t have been teaching his disciples unconditional submission to the Pharisees. While he says, “You must obey them and do everything they tell you,” he also says, “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” How could Jesus’ disciples do everything commanded them by teachers who were filled with “greed,” “self-indulgence,” and “hypocrisy” (vv. 25, 31)? He also declares, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (v. 4). Such loads could only be implemented through the Pharisees’ teaching! Jesus consistently demonstrated his desire to free people from such traditions. He would never tell people to unconditionally follow those who keep men from the kingdom of heaven and turn them into “twice as much a son of hell” as they are” (vv. 13-14).
This begs the question, “What is the proper meaning of Matthew 23:3?” Scholars have offered several options.
- D. A. Carson says that the command, “Do everything they tell you,” is an instance of “biting irony, bordering on sarcasm” (cf. Isa. 48:1-4). In this interpretation, Jesus was actually telling his disciples not to do everything the Pharisees told them to do. Carson notes a chiasm (an intentionally shaped verse structure named for the Greek letter chi—which is written as “x”—following a pattern such as A B B A):
- A: v.2—the leaders have taken on Moses’ teaching authority—irony
- B: v.3a—do what they say—irony
- B:’ v.3b—do not do what they do—nonironical advice
- A: v.4—their teaching merely binds men—nonironical advice. (Carson, “Matthew,” 473)
- According to Donald Hagner, Jesus was instructing his followers to obey the Pharisees only when they accurately taught the Torah. Jesus obviously wouldn’t have expected them to violate the Torah if the Pharisees had told them to do so. Since the Pharisees were the recognized legal authorities, they were to be obeyed. Other New Testament passages teach that believers are to submit to political authorities as long as their laws don’t cause believers to sin (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).Rabinowitz clarifies, “In view of the fact that Matthew routinely declares the teachings of the Pharisees to be wrong or hypocritical, we should assume . . . that Jesus’ command to do ‘whatever they say’ is an exaggeration. To press panta [“all things”] to mean every single word of Pharisaic halakhah is exegetically unsound” (Rabinowitz, “Matthew 23:2-4,” 423). John Nolland summarizes, “We might say that the scribes and the Pharisees were walking copies of the Law. What they did with it might be suspect, but not their knowledge of it. They could be relied on to report the Law of Moses with care and accuracy” (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 923).
- Upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowds praised him (Matt. 21:9), but the religious leaders scorned him. Jesus replied to the religious leaders, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt. 21:43). The Pharisees detected that this was an attack against them and “plotted to entrap him in what he said” in the next chapter (22:15). Of course, the Pharisees’ efforts failed as Jesus’ responses left them awestruck. Since the broader context of this passage indicates that the Pharisees would be displaced because of their hypocrisy, the instruction in 23:3 can hardly be interpreted as a demand for unqualified submission.Jesus’ statement indicates that, while the Jewish people should follow the Pharisees while they’re in power, this power would soon be overthrown. This is clearly demonstrated in the parable of the vineyard owner and his tenants: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (Matt. 21:38-39). The religious leaders agreed on the proper punishment: “[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (21:41). Jesus’ words were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Pharisees’ authority clearly ended.
- Daniel Gruber cites Exodus 18:13-16, “And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening . . . . ‘When they have a difficulty, they come to me, and I judge between one and another; and I make known the statues of God and His laws.'” He sees this as “Moses’ seat.” Therefore, the religious authorities were “judges . . . exercising the authority that God had given.” Jesus’ instructions were to recognize their authority as civil leaders; however, Gruber cautions that this passage isn’t a summons to obey “the authority of the rabbis”:Sometimes people unthinkingly say that Yeshua was telling his talmidim [disciples] to obey the authority of the Rabbis. “Rabbi” was only an honorific title in the time of Yeshua. There was no rabbinic system; there was no rabbinic authority. In the Talmud, the first person to even be called a rabbi is Yohanan ben Zakkai, after the destruction of the Second Temple. (Gruber, “The Seat of Moses,” 4, citing Saldarini, “Reconstructions of Rabbinic Judaism,” 438)In Gruber’s view, Jesus advocates submission to the civil verdicts of the Pharisees, but not unqualified obedience to all that they teach.
- Nehemia Gordon bases his view on the medieval Shem-Tov Hebrew manuscript of Matthew. Some scholars believe that this document may, in some cases, reflect readings from Matthew’s Hebrew original (if the original was indeed written in Hebrew). Gordon translates the Hebrew text of Matthew 23:3 as,The Pharisees and sages sit upon the seat of Moses. Therefore all that he [meaning, Moses] says to you, diligently do, but according to their reforms [takkanot] and their precedents [ma’asim, lit., deeds] do not do, because they talk but they do not do. (Gordon, Hebrew Yeshua vs. Greek Jesus, 48)Gordon explains, “In the Hebrew Matthew, Yeshua is telling his disciples not to obey the Pharisees. If their claim to authority is that they sit in Moses’ Seat, then diligently do as Moses says” (Gordon, Hebrew Yeshua vs. Greek Jesus, 48)! Though the majority of scholars wouldn’t concur, Gordon’s explanation would emphatically argue against unconditional submission to the Pharisees.In light of all this, a few caveats are in order. Jesus was not calling all Pharisees evil. In fact, Jesus and his disciples observed certain Pharisaic customs. Furthermore, some New Testament passages praise Pharisees (Luke 13:31; John 3:1-2). In addition to this, some Pharisees were followers of Yeshua, which means that the rebukes of the Pharisees aren’t universally connected to all Jewish religious leaders. It is also important to note that Paul himself was a Pharisee. Finally, Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees in Matthew 23 has parallels in rabbinic literature (Weinfeld, “The Charge of Hypocrisy in Matthew 23”), which means that the kind of attack Jesus leveled at the Pharisees was not unheard of.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 248-260.
Seven arguments against the Oral Law (Starts 32:36)
1) The Scriptures indicate clearly that God’s covenant with Israel was based on the written Word and on the written Word alone.
The final authority was the written Word, and final, legal appeal was made always and only to the written Torah, not to an alleged oral Torah. It was always and only the written Law, not the oral, that determined the nature of Torah transgressions, and it was always and only for sinning against the written Law, not the oral, that the people were rebuked as being in violation of the Law of God (and/or Moses), since an official, binding, allegedly-inspired Oral Torah did not exist.
Just do a search of the name “Moses” in the Tanakh, beginning with the book of Joshua until you get to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, and look up every phrase such as “as the Lord said to Moses,” or, “as the Lord commanded Moses,” or, “as Moses commanded,” or, “as Moses said,” or, “as Moses assigned.” In every single instance, reference is made to something that is written in the Five Books of Moses. Every single instance! In fact, to save you time, I’ve done the search for you. Check out these verses for yourself, do some cross-referencing back to the Pentateuch, and you’ll see that the evidence is indisputable. Here is the breakdown:
as I/he/the Lord command(s/ed) through Moses (Josh 1:3; 9:24; 11:23; 14:2, 5, 6, 10; 17:4; 20:2; 21:2, 8; Judg 3:4; 1 Kin 8:53, 6; Mal 3:22; Neh 1:7-8; 8:14; 9:14; 1 Chron 22:13; 2 Chron 33:8; cf. also Josh 22:9; Neh 10:30; 2 Chron 35:6; ); as Moses commanded (Josh 1:7, 13; 4:10; 8:31, 33, 35; 11:12, 15; 20; 22:2, 5; 2 Kin 18:6, 12; 21:8; 1 Chron 6:34; 15:15; cf. also 2 Chron 8:13); as Moses said (Josh 4:12; Judg 1:20); as Moses gave/assigned/apportioned (Josh 12:6; 13:8, 15, 21, 24, 29, 32-33; 18:7; 22:4, 7). If there was a divine command to Moses or through Moses, it referred to the Written Torah, plain and simple. Nothing outside of that was commanded by God. Even in cases where the phrase “as Moses said” was used – a phrase that, theoretically could easily have referred to a spoken law rather than a written law – it referred back to something Moses spoke that was recorded in the Written Torah (cf. Josh 4:12 with Num 32:20-22; Deut 3:18-20; and cf. Judg 1:20 with Num 14:20-24; 32:6-12; explained more specifically in Josh 14:6-15; see also Num 13:21-22)
Stop for a moment and take in the force of yet another set verses, all of which contain the Hebrew word katuv, “it is written,” emphasizing the authority of the written Torah. That was the inviolable standard that was to be followed (the NRSV is cited here):
- This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. (Josh 1:8)
- . . . just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used”; and they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed offerings of well-being. (Josh 8:31)
- And afterward he read all the words of the law, blessings and curses, according to all that is written in the book of the law. (Josh 8:34)
- . . . and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. (1 Kings 2:3)
- But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the LORD commanded, “The parents shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the parents; but all shall be put to death for their own sins.” (2 Kings 14:6)
- “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)
- The king commanded all the people, “Keep the passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.” (2 Kings 23:21)
- Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. (Ezra 3:2; see also 6:18, with k-t-b in Aramaic)
- And they kept the feast of booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as each day required. (Ezra 3:4)
- See also Neh 8:15; 10:34; 10:36; 2 Chron 23:18; 25:4; 30:5; 30:18; 31:3; 34:21; 35:12; 35:26.
2) There are no explicit or implicit references to the Oral Torah within the Written Torah.
3) Throughout biblical history, not only was there no evidence of an authoritative oral Torah, but at times there was gross ignorance of the written Torah.
4) Contrary to many Rabbinic traditions, Moses did not receive every detail of the Oral Law on Mt. Sinai.
5) The Rabbinic writings at times completely violate or twist the plain meaning of the Scriptures, making clear that they can not represent a valid tradition dating back to Moses.
6) The Oral Law has large, critical gaps in its understanding of the written Word, due to the fact that most of its traditions came into existence centuries after those scriptures were written.
7) The fact that the Rabbinic traditions had to be put in writing, beginning as early as 200 CE, proves that there could not have been a previous, oral tradition passed down from Moses to the rabbis – meaning a period of roughly 1500 years! – without being written down.
"Anyone who tells us to deviate from the Law of Moses is a false prophet."
“We have an eternal covenant that was given at Mount Sinai, and anyone who tells us to deviate from that covenant is either a false prophet, a false teacher, or both. Just look at the last verse in your “Old Testament.” What does it say? Remember the Law of Moses! That’s why we reject Christianity. It’s a foreign religion and a deviation from Sinai.”
We’ve already established that Jesus didn’t abolish the Torah but fulfilled it (see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 4, 5.28), that there’s no biblical evidence for an Oral Law accompanying the Torah (6.1-3 and 6.6), and that the Sinaitic covenant is based on written texts, not the oral traditions that form the basis of traditional Judaism (6.4).
By contrast, our faith is rooted in the Written Torah, which promises worldwide blessings through Abraham’s seed (6.9). The biblical calendar and sacrificial system point to Yeshua (see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 2, 3.9-3.15), the prophet whom God promised would guide future generations (see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, 4.1). While Rabbinic Judaism holds that the interpretations of the Written Law are above everything else, Yeshua’s followers see the Torah as more central than the manmade traditions concerning the laws. For Messianic Jews, the Torah is foundational for God’s continued revelation and activity in the earth.
You might counter by arguing that Malachi 3:22-24 (4:4-6 in Christian Bibles) is proof of an enduring Mosaic Torah until Elijah comes. Note how the NJV divides the text:
- Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel.
- Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.
The passage first gives a critical reminder to the people to obey the Torah. Then, there’s a promise of the future coming of Elijah prior to the terrible judgment. Notice, however, that there’s no indication that Malachi’s revelation is the final word from God before Elijah’s coming. With the Messiah’s arrival, our relationship to the Torah has changed.
You might also point to Deuteronomy 30, which clearly states that, once we come back to the land, we’ll continue following the Torah. I discuss this passage in detail elsewhere (6.12). Whereas traditional Judaism isn’t based on Sinai, but on subsequent extrabiblical traditions, we hold that the same God who gave the Law at Sinai has now spoken through his Son.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 162-164.
"Judaism is anything but a dead religion; Christianity is a step down."
“Judaism is anything but a dead religion. It has inspired and preserved millions of our people for thousands of years. In fact, as far as spirituality is concerned, Christianity is a decided step down for a Jew. The rabbis and religious Jews, both men and women, who survived the Crusades, Inquisition, and Holocaust without wavering in their faith are a testimony to the vitality of Judaism.”
Traditional Judaism has a number of admirable qualities:
- It has sought to be loyal to the one true God.
- It has made observance of the Torah the very foundation of life.
- It has held tenaciously to the Torah calendar.
- It has set forth lofty ethical principles.
- It has created a tremendous repository of practical and spiritual wisdom.
- It has developed a system of tradition and study that has helped to preserve us as a distinct people for many centuries.
- It has produced strong families, great respect for elders, and continuity between the generations.
In spite of all this, I’ve found God’s true riches in the person of Yeshua; these are far more valuable than manmade traditions, no matter how beautiful such traditions may be.
I fear that, as Jews, we’ve missed our sacred mission here on earth. If we had kept the Law exactly as written, we could have been a light to other nations:
- See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 4:5–6)
We are called to proclaim God’s works to the nations: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done” (Ps. 105:1). Isaiah 42-53 points out our call to testify to the nations:
- A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
- he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope [or, will wait for his teaching].
- . . . I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
- to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:3–4, 6–7)
- Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.
- And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength—
- he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
- This is what the LORD says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel— to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Isa. 49:5–7)
These passages refer to the Messiah, who perfectly fulfills the calling of Israel. If they refer to Israel instead of to the Messiah, we’ve failed to accomplish our calling! Either way, our calling to be a light to the nations won’t be accomplished by isolating ourselves in continual study.
I know that you might recite daily prayers for the nations in the Amidah, but the Scriptures we’ve just cited demand more than prayers. If you’re honest, you’ll admit that of all our people’s concerns, the salvation of Gentiles isn’t generally high on the list. Yet the “missionary religion” of Christianity takes it seriously when the psalmists urge proclamation of God’s faithfulness to the world:
- Therefore I will praise you among the nations, O LORD; I will sing praises to your name. (Ps. 18:49)
- All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,
- for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. (Ps. 22:27–28)
You can’t simply explain away these passages as dealing with the Messianic age. The Psalms call us to presently declare God’s works to the nations. Note the Stone translation’s comments on Exodus 19:6, “The entire nation is to be dedicated to leading the world toward an understanding and acceptance of God’s mission.” In the English translation to Sforno’s commentary on the same passage, a footnote states that it’s Israel’s “mission to teach mankind to recognize and serve God as Abraham their father did from the very outset of his mission” (Pelcovitz, Sforno, 380-81). We’ve clearly failed in our calling. Traditional Judaism has an inward focus, while the Psalms call us to turn our attention to the outside world.
You might point to the Lubavitchers as an example of those who do teach God’s laws to the Gentiles, but even the Lubavitchers aren’t primarily focused with this missionary task. They claim that, in the Messianic age, the Gentiles will be servants of the Jews.
Consider Malachi 1:11, “‘My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the LORD Almighty.” This same idea is expressed in Zechariah 14:9: in the future, “The LORD will be king over the whole earth.” Yes, some passages do speak of Gentiles serving the Jews, but these refer either to Israel’s former enemies or to the fact that the nations will bless Israel because of Israel’s position in God’s sight.
In my own experience of preaching Jesus in other nations (even in a place like Paderu in Andhra Pradesh, India), I’ve had a sneak preview of the fulfillment of such prophecies. I have many friends who’ve invested their lives in world missions to preach Yeshua to the ends of the earth. Yes, you might exalt Jewish men who pray and study in the yeshiva, but such intense study does little to reach the nations with the truth about God. Followers of Yeshua have taken this message to the nations, many times at tremendous risk to their health and safety.
While it’s true that Maimonides admitted that Christianity and Islam had done good for the world in spite of their erroneous teachings, Maimonides wrote in the same context,
- Can there be a greater stumblingblock than [Christianity]? All the prophets spoke of the Messiah as the redeemer of Israel and its savior, who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their [observance] of the Mitzvot. [By contrast, Christianity] caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord. (As translated by Touger, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, 236)
Also, the comparison of Christianity to Islam is unfair because Christianity, unlike Islam, embraces the Hebrew Scriptures. Look at what else Maimonides says,
- Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. [Ultimately,] all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite [meaning, Muhammad] who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, [motivating the nations] to serve God together, as [Zeph. 3:9] states: “I will make the peoples pure of speech that they will all call upon the Name of God and serve Him with one purpose.”
- How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of the Messiah, Torah, and mitzvoth. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands, to many stubborn-hearted nations, and they discuss these matters and the mitzvot of the Torah. They say: “These mitzvoth are true, but were already superseded in the present age and are not applicable for all time.” [This refers to the Christian position.]
- Others say: “Implied in the mitzvoth are hidden concepts that cannot be understood simply. The Messiah has already come and revealed those hidden [truths].” [This refers to the Islamic position.]
- When the true Messianic King will arise and prove successful, this [position becoming] exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors endowed them with a false heritage and their prophets and ancestors caused them to err. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, 236-39)
Maimonides fails to consider the experiences of former Muslims, Hindus, and atheists who’ve had dramatic, supernatural encounters with Jesus. Even Jews have had such experiences! How could all these people have such experiences apart from God?
Indeed, the fact that Jesus has caused hundreds of millions of Gentiles to know the one true God is sure proof that he is the promised Messiah. Unfortunately, we’ve focused so much on keeping the Torah and the traditions that we’ve neglected our call to reach the world. Thankfully, through Yeshua, it’s not too late to change that. Note the words of Scottish pastor Andrew Bonar:
- Israel is the “everlasting nation” who are to be life from the dead to all nations. And the sure word of prophecy declares, “He that scattereth Israel shall gather them.” “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever.” “Yea, I will rejoice over them, and will plant them in their own land assuredly, with all My heart, and with all My soul.”
- Crowned with her fairest hope, the Church Shall triumph with her Lord, And earth her jubilee shall keep, When Israel is restored.
- (Cited in Brown, Our Hands Are Stained with Blood, 23.)
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 204-219.
"Judaism began with a revelation witnessed by the nation; it can't be changed."
“Judaism is a unique religion. Of all the religions of the world, only Judaism began with a public revelation witnessed by the entire nation. No one and nothing can alter that fact or change the substance of that revelation.”
In spite of the alleged strength of this argument, three factors militate against it.
First, traditional Judaism can’t lay exclusive claim to the Tanakh. This revelation is also shared by believers in Yeshua, whose faith is built upon the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Second, this very revelation you cite offers zero evidence of an Oral Torah! God’s covenant at Sinai was founded upon the written Word alone. While all Jewish groups have historically regarded the existence of the Written Torah, there has been considerable dispute about the oral traditions. Out of all the ancient Jewish groups, only the Pharisees asserted that an Oral Law accompanied the Written Law given to Moses.
Third, God’s revelation didn’t end with Sinai, but continued with the rest of the Tanakh. Believers in Yeshua see the prophetic writings as building upon the Torah and pointing to the Messiah. We follow the authoritative words of God, not those of men.
The Oral Law, not the Torah, is distinctive to traditional Judaism. Nowhere do the Scriptures indicate that Jews are to follow oral traditions that supplant the Written Torah.
“But,” you might argue, “God gave the revelation at Sinai publicly before the nation, whereas Jesus’ revelation came privately before a few disciples.” In reality, there were public signs accompanying Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2; Luke 2), earthly ministry, death, and resurrection! Jesus’ ministry could scarcely have been more public. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at Passover, when Jews would have thronged the city. The Spirit came at Shavuot, when Jews from around the world would have been in Jerusalem. Peter’s message at Shavuot proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah was accompanied by a miraculous gift of languages, and such signs continued to accompany the apostles’ ministries. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ revelation was publically proclaimed.
You might point to Deuteronomy 4:15-34 as proof that we’re breaking the Law and idolizing a man (Yeshua) rather than worshipping God alone; however, we don’t worship a human form. The New Covenant writings affirm that God cannot be seen (John 1:18a; 1 Tim. 6:16). Yeshua, however, is God revealed in the flesh.
Yeshua is the fulfillment of all the Tanakh, including the revelation given by God on Mount Sinai, and for this reason it is impossible to accept the Torah entirely while rejecting him.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 235-238.
"Judaism is a rational religion; Christianity is illogical and unreasonable."
“Judaism is a rational, reasonable religion. It says, “Use your mind,” not, “Shut off your mind.” Christianity, on the other hand, is illogical and unreasonable. It demands absolute faith without any rational proof.”
Whenever the Gospels quote the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, they always add (or substitute for one of the other terms) the word mind (Mark 12:29-30; Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27). Our movement can hardly be called anti-intellectual! Admittedly, out of all the world religions, traditional Judaism may very well place the most emphasis on rational study, but it has exalted study to an unhealthy degree, making it the primary criterion of determining one’s devotion to God.
The New Testament also emphasizes the need to study God’s Word. Paul told the Colossians, “Let the word of Messiah dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom (Col. 3:16a). Paul required Timothy to give diligence to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13). Many New Testament passages emphasize the significance of teaching Scripture (Matt. 4:23; 5:2; 7:28; 9:25; 28:20; Acts 2:42; 4:2; 5:21, 25, 42; 13:1, 12; 18:11; Rom. 6:17; 12:7, et al.).
There’s nothing in the New Testament that calls us to turn off our minds. Peter instructed his readers, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). Look at the writings of Paul, Matthew, and Luke and you’ll find that these Scriptures are easily on par with the Tanakh in terms of intellectual rigor.
Christianity has produced some of the world’s brightest thinkers, men such as Thomas Aquinas and C. S. Lewis. Early in American history, nearly all institutions of higher learning were started by Christians. There were also many followers of Jesus who established branches of science (see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 2, 3.25).
You might think that some aspects of Christian theology seem irrational, but the same is often true of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud. Beliefs such as the Trinity aren’t actually illogical; they simply transcend our human capacity for thinking. Some cite the alleged quote by Tertullian, “I believe it because it is absurd,” as proof that Christianity is irrational. David Limberg explains the meaning of this remark:
- . . . the more improbable an event, the less likely is anyone to believe, without compelling evidence, that it has occurred; therefore, the very improbability of an alleged event, such as Christ’s resurrection, is evidence in its favour. Thus far from seeking the abolition of reason, Tertullian must be seen as appropriating Aristotelian rational techniques and putting them to apologetic use (Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church,” 26).
In other words, for Tertullian absurdity is not the object of belief, but in the form of improbability, it is a reason for belief since it indicates divine origin. Even so, the New Testament still warns against the possibility of intellectual pride, a warning echoed in the Hebrew Scriptures as well:
- Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
- in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
- Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. (Prov. 3:5–7)
- Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish. (Isa. 29:14)
The New Testament writers echo the reality that trust in human wisdom is vain. True wisdom comes from trusting God and his Word (1 Cor. 2:6-7). Will you set aside the human wisdom of traditions and seek God’s wisdom in the Word?
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 238-243.
"Anything good in the New Testament can be found in Rabbinic Judaism."
“Anything good in the New Testament can already be found in Rabbinic Judaism; anything new in the New Testament is not good.”
This objection is entirely subjective. If we gauge the New Testament and the traditional writings based on their effects on the world, the New Testament wins hands down (though there are many beautiful aspects of rabbinic tradition as well).
Since Jesus was thoroughly Jewish by heritage and lifestyle, we shouldn’t be surprised to find parallels between his teachings and the rabbinic writings, which indicates they have a common source. Yeshua may have borrowed some of his sayings from Jewish traditions, but the rabbinic writings could just as easily have borrowed from Yeshua. Either way, Jesus and the rabbis taught their audiences similarly and, when we compare the two, we find nothing lacking in the teachings of Jesus.
At the same time, Jesus’ teaching was unique: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28-29). There are also many ethical teachings found only in the New Testament. Note these words of Jesus:
- Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:35–37).
Can you find any rabbinic corollary for these words? Consider the profundity of the following words of Jesus found in the Gospel of John:
- Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [speaking of his death by crucifixion], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. (John 3:14–21)
Is there anything in the rabbinic writings comparable to some of Paul’s teachings?
- Who shall separate us from the love of Messiah? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
- “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” [Ps. 44:22]
- No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Messiah Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35–39)
If you read the New Testament, you will find a fountain of moral and spiritual refreshment.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 243-248.
"Traditional Jews are the people of the Book."
“Traditional Jews are the people of the Book. Read the Hebrew Scriptures and ask yourself, ‘Who follows these laws and commandments?’ Traditional Jews.“
Some traditional Jews argue that they’re not people of the Book. Note Chaim Schimmel’s remarks:
- They [the Jewish people] do not follow the literal word of the Bible, nor have they ever done so. They have been fashioned and ruled by the verbal interpretation of the written word, more particularly by the “Torah”, which embraces both the Written and the Oral Law. (Schimmel, Oral Law, 19)
The Karaites claim to be the true people of the Book. Their name literally means, “Followers of Scripture.” They may be better represented by this title than Rabbinic Jews, who’ve added oral traditions to Scripture and ignored many of God’s commandments.
Many traditional Jewish practices have no biblical foundation. If you point out areas of the Torah that traditional Jews aren’t obeying, many of them will say, “We’re doing what the Oral Law says!” Are traditional Jews really the people of the Book? Not if Oral Law trumps the written Word.
The true people of the Book are called not only to obey the Law, but also to be a light to the nations. In this regard, Messianic Jews alone are the true people of the Book – not the Karaites or traditional Jews.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 261-262.
"According to Psalm 19, the Torah is able to save and convert the soul."
Note how the NJV translates Psalm 19:8a: “The teaching [torah] of the LORD is perfect, renewing life.” The term torah here refers generically to teaching or instruction, not to the Pentateuch. Even if we assume that the term refers to the Torah, this text is no problem for followers of Yeshua. We too believe that the Torah “renews life.” This text doesn’t teach that the Torah converts the soul.
The Torah has many positive uses. It can encourage us, rebuke us, keep us from sin, and teach us about God. One thing it can’t do, however, is transform us from the inside. Note Paul’s comments about the Law:
- Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:19–20)
We can all identify with Paul’s remarks; whenever we find out that something is forbidden, we’re frequently tempted to do it. The Law reveals our sinful condition. Fortunately, there’s a solution to our transgression of God’s Law:
- For it makes no difference whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, since all have sinned and come short of earning God’s praise. By God’s grace, without earning it, all are granted the status of being considered righteous before him, through the act redeeming us from our enslavement from sin that was accomplished by the Messiah Yeshua. (Rom. 3:22–24, Jewish New Testament)
None of us have perfectly obeyed God’s Law. Thankfully, the Messiah took our place on the cross; he took the punishment of sin for us. Since we’re sinful people, the Law could never redeem us. Ultimately, the Law was designed to point us to the Messiah. According to Galatians 4, Yeshua gives us our full spiritual inheritance. As a Jew, you are an heir, but you have yet to receive the full inheritance through the promised Messiah. Thanks to Yeshua, you can now live out the Torah and experience God’s forgiveness.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 262-265.
"I'll keep my Judaism. You have nothing I need or want."
“You can have your Jesus. I’ll keep my Judaism. You have nothing I need or want.”
I’ve spent many years thinking through the issues I raise in these books. I pray that these volumes have given you food for thought to reconsider Jesus’ claims.
I totally agree with the Torah’s exhortation not to “follow gods that neither you nor your fathers have known” (Deut. 13:6); I’m not calling you to follow a foreign deity. Look in the Scriptures and you’ll see that the God I worship is the same God as the one worshipped by our forefathers.
If you’re a religious Jew, are you certain that you’re in a right relationship with God? Ignore your reputation and the opinions of your friends and answer honestly.
If you’re a non-religious Jew, are you really so certain that there is no God who judges the earth? Isn’t God’s supernatural preservation of his people evidence that there’s something to the claims of Scripture? Are you really sure that following your own path is the wisest course of action?
Perhaps you don’t even know that God exists. He promises that if you seek him passionately, you’ll find him (Deut. 4:29; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7-11; Heb. 11:6).
Perhaps you’re struggling with sin. Ezekiel says that you can receive a “new heart” through repentance (Ezek. 18:30b-32).
Jesus gives a parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to “a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45). It’s worth abandoning everything to find Jesus the Messiah! Note Jesus’ words:
- If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me . . . . If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mark 8:34b-38)
If Jesus had no shame in dying for you, you ought to have no shame in following him. Today could be the day that you turn to him and receive salvation!
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 265-267.
"The Christian view sees the Law as a curse; we see it as a gift."
“According to Deuteronomy 30:11–14, it is not difficult to keep the Torah, which is God’s special gift to Israel. This is completely contrary to the Christian view that sees the Law as an impossible-to-observe burden and as a curse.”
- Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 30:11-14 NJV)
God’s people already possessed his Written Law: they didn’t need to traverse heaven and sea to discover God’s will. This passage opposes the idea that the Torah can’t be understood apart from rabbinic traditions. Commentator Jeffrey Tigay notes that the Law is “not too baffling. It is not beyond your ability to understand. The same root (p-l-‘) refers in 17:8 to a legal case in which the judges do not know how to rule” (Tigay, Deuteronomy, 287).
Obadiah Sforno explains this passage in terms of repentance:
- It is not beyond your understanding: that you should have need for prophets (to explain the way of repentance)
- Nor is it far away: that there be need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you, in such a manner that you may be able to do it while still in exile; and this he explains by saying
- It is not in heaven: There is no aspect of repentance which necessitates the amplification (lit., telling) of a prophet
- Neither is it beyond the sea: You also have no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it to you in such a manner that will be possible for you (to do it) in exile . . . .
- In your mouth and in your heart that you may do it: to recognize your sin in your heart, that you sinned against God, the Blessed One, and to regret it and confess to it by words of your mouth.
Sforno indicates that it’s not difficult to repent, but he nowhere indicates that it’s easy to obey the particulars of the Law.
“But,” you might argue, “Deuteronomy 30 identifies the Torah as the way of life rather than death.” Paul says this is true as well (Rom. 7:12). The difficulty is that we’re sinners and we’ve failed to keep the Law. That’s why God promised the inauguration of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). While it is true that this passage from Jeremiah promises that the torah will be written in our hearts, even if it refers to the Written Law, the fact that God must make this covenant reveals our inability to keep the old covenant. Jesus shed his blood to ratify this new covenant and a new, Spirit-enabling life is now available to you. Interestingly enough, some interpreters take Deuteronomy 30 as a reference to this very covenant.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 219-223.
"The only identifiable Jews are those whose ancestors rejected Christianity."
“The only identifiable Jews today are those whose parents, grandparents, or great grandparents rejected Christianity (or secularism). Only those who were traditional Jews have survived as a people.”
Note God’s unconditional promise:
- This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD Almighty is his name:
- “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”
- This is what the LORD says:
- “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD. (Jer. 31:35-37)
God further promises that we’ll be back in the land even without our repentance and not for our own sake.
- “I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the LORD’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.
- “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.” (Ezek. 36:19–23)
God’s gracious promises, not traditional Jewish practices, have preserved our people. In light of this, assimilation is more of a sociological phenomenon than a spiritual one. When someone leaves a tight knit community (such as the Amish) to amalgamate into the larger culture, such departure doesn’t prove the accuracy of the community’s practices.
When someone leaves traditional Judaism, he’s branded as an outcast. Such branding is much more likely to produce assimilation. Consider my Messianic Jewish friend who lived in a Jewish community. His newborn child died before she was even a year old, but the Jewish authorities wouldn’t allow him to bury his child in the cemetery since he was a Messianic Jew (even though he lived a distinctly Jewish lifestyle). In light of such cruel tactics, does this objection really prove traditional Judaism?
Reform Judaism also claims that its practices have preserved Jewish identity. Have they? Note the following declaration of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (Agudath Harabonim):
- Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. Their adherents are Jews, according to the Jewish Law, but their religion is not Judaism . . . .
- . . . . There is only one Judaism: Torah Judaism. The Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all, but another religion.
- The present declaration is not based upon a new decision in Jewish Law. It is as old as Sinai . . . Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. They are outside of Torah and outside of Judaism.
- Having caused havoc in the United States, leading generations of Jews toward assimilation and intermarriage, they now attempt to export their alien Ideology to Israel. By promoting pluralism in Judaism, they seek to be recognized as rabbis entitled (contrary to existing law in Israel) to carry out Rabbinical functions, such as marriage, divorce, and conversion, contrary to Torah law.
- In addition to the above, from Torah perspective, it is imperative to support Israel’s government in their refusal to change the status quo regarding the exclusive Orthodox Rabbinic authority . . .
- Quotations from Torah luminaries of our time on the status of the Reform and Conservative movements and their clergy:
- Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel, zt’l: “Reform is not Judaism at all”—Dvar Halacha—Jerusalem 1956.
- The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l: “The doctrines and ideologies of the Reform and Conservative movements can only be classed in the category of heretical movements which have plagued our people at one time or another, only to disappear eventually, having no basis in our everlasting Torah, the Torah of truth, the living Torah, Toras Emes, Toras Chaim.”
- Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l: “The Karaites of the Geonic period were closer to Judaism than are the Reform of our time.”
Orthodox Jews assume that only Orthodox Judaism is legitimate. Although a Reform, Conservative, or Messianic Jewish family might have preserved its Jewish heritage for several generations, Orthodox Jews still declare their Judaism illegitimate. They want the preservation of Jewish heritage, but only according to their narrow definition! Is this really a commendable attitude?
Many Jews (Karaite, Reform, Conservative, and Messianic) have retained distinctly Jewish practices apart from traditional teaching; however, Orthodox Judaism has had somewhat of a monopoly over Jewish religious practice for centuries. While I certainly share more common ground with ultra-Orthodox Jews than many Reform Jews—such as the authority of the Hebrew Bible and lofty moral standards—I also recognize that the monopolizing influence of the Orthodox has done little to deter Jewish assimilation. The insistence of Orthodox Jews that their version of Judaism is the only legitimate form of Judaism does nothing to encourage other Jewish groups to successfully prevent cultural assimilation.
Orthodox Judaism fails to recognize Messianic Judaism’s great contribution to retaining Jewish identity. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (as cited by David J. Randolph) found that 100% of all Messianic Jews surveyed said that “being Jewish was very important” in their lives. They scored higher than any other Jewish group, including Orthodox (77%), Conservative (58%), and Reform (40%) (see DellaPergola, “New Data on Demography and Identification Among Jews in the U.S.,” 84-86). In light of this, why does Rabbi Tovia Singer cite Messianic Judaism as “our AIDS” (see Beiser, “For the Love of Jesus,” 29)? We’ve done a great deal to prevent Jewish assimilation! Nevertheless, Orthodox Judaism sets the rules and doesn’t recognize any other form of Judaism as valid.
You might argue, “We’re still the only ones who’ve been consistently faithful for so many years.” I don’t buy this argument because: 1) Nowhere did God say that the group that was preserved was therefore right in its beliefs. 2) If the blessings of our nation were really dependent upon observing traditional Jewish practices, why didn’t God bring us back to the land in past generations when the majority of Jews were observant? 3) The Karaites also claim an unbroken presence through the centuries. 4) Traditional Judaism has succeeded largely by shutting down the other forms of Judaism, occasionally using violent tactics to accomplish their goal of Orthodox hegemony.
Some point to Exodus 20:5-6 as proof of traditional Judaism, since in this passage God declares himself “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” reasoning that those who leave the Orthodox fold assimilate within four generations. This text, however, nowhere references assimilation. In fact, other passages (e.g. Jer. 31:37) indicate that many Jews will be preserved in spite of their wicked deeds! Furthermore, for most of traditional Judaism’s history, the people have been scattered without a Temple.
God alone deserves credit for the Jewish people’s preservation; let’s not give the credit that’s due to him to any other group.
For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 5, pp. 223-235.