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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by Howard Greenstein

The 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.

In 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.

This 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 come.

A more 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Halakah 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 it.

After 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

If 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 Torah.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard 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).

Excerpts 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.


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