Friday, March 17, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Oral tradition of Jewish literature

The reason that Talmud is known as Torah she-b’al-peh meaning Oral Torah, is because up until the time of Rabbi Judah the Prince, it was transmitted orally.  Individual students might make written notes; that was permitted as a reminder.  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 6b, including Rashi’s note.)  But study and usage were oral, either in class or in action in the courtroom.

The components of Talmud are two: Mishnah, the post-Torah records of information needed to run Jewish culture; and Gemara, supplemental material from oral discussions and courtroom decisions.  There are two sets of Gemara, one developed in Babylonia and the other developed in the Holy Land.
The Mishnah plus Gemara from the Holy Land is called Jerusalem Talmud.  There  are 1700 numbered pages in the classic edition.
The Mishnah plus Gemara from Babylonia is called Babylonian Talmud.  There are 2700 numbered pages in the classic edition.
You’re going to object that Talmud breaks the rule as an oral communication because it is lengthy.  But don’t forget the fact that written material tends to be linearly organized, such as by subject.  Talmud is hard for most people to understand because its organization is associative.  The rule of association is personal to the people who transmitted it and relates to the particular subject under discussion, how the discussion got started, and the purpose for discussing it. 
Everybody who tries to understand Talmud has to put in a lot of work.  None of them were there when the discussion got started, some of them don’t live in a subculture which applies Talmud, and some people take up the study without a solid grasp on the underpinnings of Talmud in Torah and Mishnah.  Plus there’s a habit of trying to relate to it through translations instead of primary documents.
Now you’re going to object that Gemara is a commentary.  The answer is, it’s an in-culture commentary, developed specifically to clarify Mishnah, which is a commentary itself. 
Mishnah developed specifically to clarify the law in Torah, and to supplement it since experience in the courtroom showed that the Torah had gaps of information needed to decide court cases and teach courtroom procedure.
Those gaps occurred because Torah itself was an oral communication.  Oral communications suffer from problems with human memory; we easily forget what we don’t use on a regular basis.  Gd, being omniscient, would have known better than to try and tell the Israelites everything they would need to know in future millennia, because they would have forgotten what they didn’t use and didn’t understand, and they would have to recreate it anyway once they did need it.  Telling them that it was illegal to start a car on Shabbat would never have survived the millennia between establishment of Shabbat and invention of the car.  Even in writing – remember those lost Greek works? – it might have disappeared or – remember the Bamian statues? – been destroyed.
Torah law is much shorter and simpler than Talmud, but it has the gaps of information typical of orally transmitted material, and it also has an associative organization, the rule for which we do not know because the rule was not recorded at the time or passed along.  (I’ll take a guess at it at the end of this blog based on the statement of a rabbi which he made in audio lectures on Talmud.)
There are two reasons why things don’t get recorded.  One is that nobody records great secrets because they can get into unauthorized hands through carelessness or deliberate stealing.  The other reason is that nobody records things that are common knowledge.  Nobody imagines that they might be forgotten.
Things that were common knowledge, when the ancestors of the Jews began using Torah, dropped out of communications because they need not be said.  Once they dropped out of communications, it was a matter of time until they dropped out of memory.  When a case came into court where such information would have been useful, it was gone.  Then the court had to create a ruling that supplemented whatever they knew.  Torah explicitly permits this in Deuteronomy 17:8-12. 
Torah has gaps and an associative structure.  Because it is like Talmud in this way, I believe that its origin is oral, not written.  But wait, there's more.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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