Thursday 30 September 2010
Word of mouth
I’ve just been talking to one of our field workers who is in contact with an Orthodox Jewish man via e-mail and she feels frustrated because the man in question draws his teachings from the Talmud, that enormous compendium of rabbinic wisdom contained in over sixty tractates, whereas she wants to refer him to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner believes it is impossible for Jews and Christians to talk together meaningfully because, as he puts it in his book Jews and Christians: the Myth of a Common Tradition, Christianity is the religion of the Bible whereas Judaism is the religion of the Talmud. Christianity, he says is concerned with personal salvation, whereas Judaism is concerned with national sanctification. Consequently, there is no middle ground where both can meet. This is just a scholarly way of avoiding confrontation that could lead to Jewish people becoming concerned about personal salvation and exposing them to the teachings of the Bible.
I never come away from any discussion with people of other faiths without asking myself whether they might, however weak their arguments, be right. I suppose that’s because we as Christians are concerned about truth. I get the impression thatsome people defend their religion as they might defend their local soccer team or their favourite rock band. They want to win the argument so you’ll go away and they are prepared to bluster and even make up facts to get you to do that.
The Orthodox man my colleague is witnessing to believes that, at Sinai, God gave Moses not only the written Law but also the Oral Torah, to explain the written law. According to tractate Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”
The Oral Law (the Talmud) is the cornerstone of traditional Judaism but the written Torah says nothing about God transmitting a verbal explanation of the Torah. The only evidence for the Oral Law comes from the Oral Law itself.
Of course, if he so chose, God could have imparted a verbal explanation of the Law in order for the Jewish people to know how to order every minute of every day of their lives. He could have explained the minutiae of the Torah in such a way that every case brought before the judges of Israel could have been solved by reference to the Oral Law.
However, there is evidence in the writings of Moses that cast serious doubt on the claim that there ever was an unwritten body of law. Take, for instance, the case of the Sabbath breaker in Numbers 15:32ff:
Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.
Maybe I’ve misunderstood precisely what the Oral Torah is, but if God had exhaustively explained the application of the Law to Moses, why did Moses have to enquire of God what had to be done to the Sabbath breaker?
Take again the case of the five daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27. It is obvious that Moses did not know what should be done in the light of the request of those five women for property rights in the Promised Land. He had to seek the Lord’s mind.
There is much in the so-called Oral Law that is wise and helpful but the final authority in all matters of faith and practice must be the written word. Whenever tradition, however good that tradition might be, is added to Scripture, it swallows Scripture. This is the case with Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Christian Scientism and every other sect that sets a body of tradition alongside Scripture.
Our principle for knowing God’s mind and will must always be: “To the [written] law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).