"Rabbi Akiva said, jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to
immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah.
Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for
abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence."
Last week we discussed the concept of the oral transmission -- the part of
the Torah given orally to Moses and not committed to writing. We explained
why it was necessary that a large part of our tradition remain oral. The
world is a vibrant and ever-changing place. There are an infinite number
of people and life situations. There is no way any one work, no matter how
wise and insightful, could ever put into writing how every person should
act in every possible life situation. And the Torah -- man's guidebook for
living in this world -- had to reflect that same dynamism and vibrancy. It
had to be a living document. Rather than attempting to spell out all
proper human behavior for us, G-d provided us with eternal principles of
truth -- as well as with the tools for properly interpreting and making
derivations from the Written Torah. Each succeeding generation would study
that same tradition and apply its same eternal truths to an ever-changing
world and our ever-changing lives.
We might even say that the Oral Law was given to us orally because even
after receiving the Torah at Sinai man's job was not complete. G-d gave us
principles and rules of Biblical exegesis, but He did not spell out for us
every detail of our lives. G-d was not interested in dictating to man step-
by-step how he must live his life. His "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6)
was not to be an army of mindless automatons, each following a prepared
script and acting precisely the same way. G-d made each of us different.
Each of us must study the Torah and interpret its personal and
individualized message for him or her. Thus, we did not merely become
*recipients* of G-d's Torah; we became G-d's *partners*. We would take the
Torah, master it, and apply it to all life's situations.
And so, the Oral Torah represents the fact that even after giving us the
Torah, G-d's work was not complete. Only we can complete G-d's sacred
mission. Only we can take G-d's eternal messages, assimilate them, and
apply them to our lives.
There is an important postscript to this discussion, one I felt central
enough to devote at least a part of this class to. One of my readers posed
the following question: Don't we have the entire Oral Law in writing
today -- in the forms of the Mishna, the Talmud and literally tens of
thousands of other works? Although Israel and the Torah endured well over
a millennium before the writing of the Talmud, today we possess our entire
tradition in writing -- vast amounts of it translated into readable
English (not the Latin-English translations I grew up with). And if so,
does this mean either that we've lost the true vitality of the Torah --
Judaism has become dormant and ritualistic -- or that there was really no
reason for it to have been given orally in the first place?
The answer is that even after the Mishna and Talmud were recorded, they
were in anything but a complete and frozen form. Anyone who has had the
privilege of studying so much as one page of the Talmud knows that it is
not a clear, well-organized book of laws and customs. It consists of
controversies, back-and-forth debates, tangents (and tangents on the
tangents), and unfinished discussions. (This is apart from the large
collection of stories, ethical lessons, and Midrashic material it
contains.) The Talmud often seems to begin discussing a subject by jumping
right into the middle because, as the Talmud often says, "since [the case
at hand] was based on a rabbinic derivation, it was dear to the Sages"
(see e.g. Yevamos 2b). (As I heard R. Berel Wein once put it, the Talmud,
the way it throws cases, concepts and jargon around, seems to just assume
that the studier, opening to its first page, knows the entire Talmud
The reason for this is because the Rabbis, even though they recognized the
need to write down the Oral Torah, wanted to preserve its freshness and
vitality. It would still be a living document. Later students who would
study it would not just read dry decisions of Jewish law -- almost as
reading some dreary handbook of constitutional law or of historical court
proceedings. (My eyes get heavy just at the mere mention.) They would
*relive* the same discussions the Sages had before them. They would see
the devotion, the energy -- and the life -- that went into the Talmud's
writing, and become a part of that same process. They would see the
principles of the Talmud being weighed and debated; they would come to
appreciate the legitimacy of a wide range of opinions.
Further, the great personalities of the Mishna and Talmud would come to
life for them. The Talmud displays the religious life of our ancestors as
vibrant, diverse and zealous. In this manner, the Sages who recorded the
Talmud achieved a near miraculous feat. They did not merely record the
words or the information of our tradition. They captured its soul.
To state it differently, if a seeking Jew wanted to find out how to
observe Judaism, if he were seeking simple answers to the how's of
Judaism -- as if Judaism were merely some collection of rituals -- the
Talmud would hardly be the place to go. He would find an animated but
confused collection of debates and discussions, and of only partially-
organized statements of law often without clear conclusions. The purpose
of the Talmud was never to define Judaism in a ritualistic sense. If,
however, such a person wanted to know what Judaism is *really* all about,
he will turn to the Talmud. It contains the life-force of the Jewish
People, the power which has kept us strong and vital throughout the ages.
It tells the true story of what it means to be a Jew.
I would like at last to conclude this discussion with one final point. (I
hear that sigh of relief coming from x-thousand readers. ;-) There is an
additional reason why G-d gave us a partially oral Torah. It is in order
to make us the responsible party for its preservation. An oral tradition
does not endure on its own. It cannot just sit on a shelf -- so that if
it's ignored for one generation the next can come along and pick it up. If
we do not keep it alive, if we do not take what we know and pass it on to
our children, it will be lost. G-d did not make us *recipients* of a
tradition; He made us its *bearers*. We must see ourselves as part of a
tradition. We are links in a chain of transmission, and we are obligated
to pass it on to our children. If we forget the Torah, corrupt it, or make
light of it, our children's lives will be that much less enriched.
Even today, with so much of the Oral Law recorded and even translated into
English, Judaism is not really a religion which can be picked up in a
book. As many works of law and commentary we have, Judaism's essence can
never be captured in book knowledge. It is a living religion. If we live
it, our children will see what it is all about. If we consign our
children's education to textbooks or the classroom, our children will see
it as no more than a course of study and far more likely, an unwanted
I feel one of the most poignant examples of Judaism's attitude towards
tradition is the Passover Seder. When we sit at the Seder with children,
family and friends, we are reminded that we are the bearers of our
tradition. The Torah emphasizes that the story be passed from parent to
child: "And it shall be when your son asks you in the future saying, 'What
is this?' you shall say to him, 'With a mighty hand did G-d take us out of
Egypt from the house of slavery...'" (Exodus 13:14). Our children are
turning to us for answers -- something for better or worse they rarely do.
Thirty, forty, fifty years ago our grandparents and parents were telling
us this story. Now it is our turn, and we tell it anew to our children and
grandchildren. We realize that this has been done in our family -- as well
as in any Jewish family which still remembers -- literally every single
year for over 3300 years. Our tradition is real to us -- and vibrant. It
came down to us through the millennia because our parents and their
parents before them and their parents before them took the heritage they
had received -- the story of our people -- preserved it, and passed it on
to their children.
And this is what we tell our children on the Seder night. We do not come
to nag, to argue or to force religion down their throats, nor do we claim
we always know better or are ideal parents. But we come as bearers. We
speak with the full authority and backing of the well over one hundred
generations before us who carried the same message -- through exile,
suffering and assimilation. Parents do not lie to their children. The
story of the Exodus has been preserved, it has the same freshness and
relevance because G-d told a nation "You shall say to your son..." (ibid.
verse 8), and we have done so every year since. We, the "ordinary" members
of the Nation of Israel, have accomplished this through patience, memory,
and perseverance. It is our obligation -- to our nation, to our forebears
and to our children -- to continue the message of Judaism, to take the
little we have preserved, the little that has remained, and to bless our
children with that same legacy.