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 already!)
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 burden.
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 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.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.