What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by Howard Greenstein
TaNaK is what Judaism calls the Written Torah. This
Written Torah is that document which, so far as we can determine,
was initially proclaimed to the people of Israel in relatively complete
form by Ezra the Scribe in 444 BCE. The account
of that presentation can be found in Nehemiah 9 and 10.
addition to the Written Torah, a verbal tradition that complemented,
clarified and expanded the Written Torah achieved prominence sometime
during the Second Commonwealth. The tradition was known as the Oral
Law in contrast to the Written Law of the Torah.
Oral Law was a compilation of teachings whose origins probably derived
from the dawn of Jewish history and which had been expounded and
expanded by each succeeding generation. Traditional Judaism teaches
that the contributions of all these generations were revealed to
Moses at Mt. Sinai together with the Written Law; therefore they
are invested with the same supreme authority as the Torah itself.
Again, in the traditional view, the Written
Law and Oral Law are inseparable, because both encompass the totality
of divine teaching which contains all knowledge for all time to
historical view of the Oral Law attributes its origins to the limitations
of the Written Law in the Torah. This view does not deny the antiquity
of these oral teachings by successive generations, but contends
that that they were basically an attempt, through interpretation
and amplification, to adapt the Torah to changing times and circumstances.
As an agrarian society acquired a more urban character, as a diversity
of trades and crafts developed, as the world expanded geographically,
it became increasingly urgent to deepen and broaden the application
of the Written Law to ensure its relevance and vitality. That was
the function of the Oral Law.
the second century, Rabbi Judah the Prince recognized that the rapidly
increasing body of tradition could no longer be preserved and perpetuated
orally, even in times of relative peace and tranquility. It was
difficult to find scholars who could absorb the enormous quantity
of information that had accumulated for several centuries. Rabbi
Judah therefore decided to edit in written form the oral traditions
of the past.
Oral Torah was organized into six sections or “orders.”
This first codification of Jewish teaching following the Written
Torah, done in the second century, was called the Mishnah (“Repetition”).
Its legal decisions were based upon, though not limited to, the
Written Law and developed out of intensive discussions and debates
among leading scholars. All opinions about the interpretation of
Scripture, however, were subject to the test of certain rules or
“hermeneutic” explanatory principles that had been formulated
by the rabbinic sage Hillel.
regulations which governed the daily routines of Jewish life and
determined the pattern of conduct for all occasions in all places
were catalogued under a general rubric called halakah,
which is perhaps best translated as “the way” of acceptable
Jewish conduct. In addition to halakah, the system also included
a body of instruction which explained, expanded and often embellished
the law under consideration by clarifying its principal or larger
significance. Such material often followed the pattern of teaching
by maxim, legend or parable, or by a homiletical treatment of the
text. This segment of the literature was known as aggadah,
which means literally “the telling” of the story, or
in modern terminology, preaching.
aggadah may not only be found as an integral part of the Mishnah,
but also as a separate literary enterprise attached to the text
of Scripture itself and arranged as a self-contained commentary.
In this independent form, the material is
classified as midrash, which means “the search”
with reference to new or hidden meanings in the Written Law.
and aggadah interact very closely. They are often exceedingly difficult
to separate. One reinforces the other and complements the other.
Halakah addresses the question
of what a Jew should do while aggadah explains why he should do
the codification of the Mishnah, the same process that had necessitated
an expansion of the Written Law now also required an expansion of
the Mishnah. Beginning with the rabbinic sages Rav and Shmuel in
the third century, the leading scholars examined closely the text
of the Mishnah they had inherited and eventually developed a formidable
collection of their own interpretations and modifications based
on their careful review and scrutiny of the Mishnaic text.
lengthy discussions and decisions they rendered were also committed
to writing and were called collectively the gemara, signifying
the “completion” of the Mishnah. The Gemara could always
be distinguished linguistically as well as conceptually from the
Mishnah by reference to the titles assigned to the teachers of each
source. The teachers of the mishnah were known as the tannaim
(“teachers”). Those responsible for the Gemara were
known to posterity as the amoraim (“interpreters”).
The fusion of the Mishnah with the Gemara, the combined teachings
of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, produced the voluminous, supreme
classical postbiblical work of Jewish antiquity, the Talmud.
Talmud is an exceedingly difficult library of books on virtually
every conceivable subject of human concern. To be
fully understood, it cannot be read casually; it must be studied
carefully and thoroughly. Even the serious student would find it
almost unintelligible without the contribution of brilliant medieval
commentators, the most famous of whom was Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac,
better known as Rashi. Rashi and others, especially Maimonides and
Nachmanides, wrote running commentaries to almost every sentence
and word of the text. Their explanations were placed along the margins
of every page of the Talmud.
text of the Talmud reflects consistently a firm belief in the absolute
truth of the Torah, the Written Law. For the rabbinic mind, the
truths of the Torah were perfect and immutable.
If any statement in the Torah seemed superfluous, contradictory
or obsolete, the problem derived not from the text but from the
inadequate understanding of the reader. Indeed,
apparent difficulties in the text were often cited as clues or hints
to exceptionally profound and mysterious meanings.
one interpretation did not meet the requirements of the Torah, the
only recourse was to change the interpretation, not the Torah. This
supreme trust in the process of interpretation may seem contrived
to the modern mind, but it was essentially an effort to maintain
the continuity of Judaism without tarnishing the integrity of the
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.