Judaism's Great Secret
Also bypassed is the urgent task of discovering the true history of the founding documents of these Abrahamic "peoples of the book." In many ways it is not a pretty story, but the task must be undertaken. For a hundred and fifty years, at least, the critical-historical method (sometimes termed the Higher Criticism) has, in effect, cut Christianity down to size. Now we are witnessing increasing and well deserved attention to the neglected "noncanonical" documents including the fifteen or so Gospel texts not included in most current editions of the New Testament. Many Christians, even learned ones, try to wriggle out of these challenges. They must not be let off so lightly.
The first definitive demonstration of the flensing efficacy of the historical-critical method was the detection of the four sources of the Pentateuch, with the accompanying disproof of its Mosaic origin. In this light, it is curious that modern Judaism with its reverence for Torah (in the strict sense, that same Pentateuch) has, by and large, shirked this task.
In the following piece I address some of the reasons for this avoidance.]
Nowadays few truly serious scholars, Christian and secular alike, would think of approaching the Bible without reference to the findings of the critical-historical endeavor, the product of generations of careful scholarship and insight. This approach is only now being extended to the Koran and the other foundational documents of Islam. The method has long been available to Jews--after all the first model of the approach was the four-stream analysis of the Pentateuch--yet modern Judaism has adopted an ingenious method of avoiding the challenge.
As Karl Popper emphasized, such immunization may give satisfaction to the immunizers. In the end, though, all cultural constructions must be formulated in such a way as to submit to the criterion of refutability. The Dual Torah doctrine, analyzed herein, serves to short-circuit this necessary procedure. Yet it provides only the appealing, but ultimately unavailing consolation of pseudo-protection. In consequence this resistance exposes modern Judaism, in all its varieties, to the charge of inauthenticity.
To understand the origins of the historical-critical method we must turn to the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. These thinkers held that the canonical texts of the Old and New Testaments, and only those texts, should determine what a Christian must believe. This restriction is sometimes known as the sola scriptura principle. It led, among other things, to the admonition that each Christian believer must read the Bible for him or herself, so that translations into the vernacular were required.
For our purposes, however, the most important consequence was the sweeping away of a mass of medieval accretions, enshrined in commentaries and the traditions maintained by the Roman Catholic church. In this way, the sola scriptura principle was able to function as a wonderful Occam’s razor, serving to excise Purgatory, papal supremacy, indulgences, magical powers of relics, clerical celibacy, and a mass of other parasitic intruders.
For the Reformers and the immediately succeeding generations in Protestant Europe, the canon of Scripture remained inviolate. The roster of books included was fixed and their text was assumed to have been conclusively established by the labors of Desiderius Erasmus and others.
In due course, however, the textual solvents devised by classical philologists began to impinge upon Bible interpretation. As a result of this work, rents in the fabric became apparent. A major first step was the discovery by the French scholar Jean Astruc that there were two distinct strands in the book of Genesis, marked by the preference for either Yahweh (as the name came later to be transcribed) or Elohim.
It was in nineteenth-century Germany, however, that the decisive steps were taken to the dismantling of what might be termed the myth of Biblical integrity. Building on the work of several predecessors, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) distinguished four distinct strands, conventionally known as J, E. D, and P in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch. This finding, and the underlying principle, came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis. Today the term hypothesis is in fact obsolete. Outside of the world of Judaism--and some Christian conservatives--most serious Bible scholars acknowledge that, as far as such matters can ever be conclusively demonstrated, this dissolution of the purported unity of the Pentateuch is a certainty. Jewish scholars and sages resisted. As S. Davis Sperling remarks, “[p]articularly odious to the faithful was the Documentary Hypothesis.” In the twentieth century, Biblical scholars such as Umberto Cassuto and Moses Segal rejected it completely. They have simply been in denial. A few, like the noted Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, made some concessions, but basically to permit them to continue the resistance.
Mainstream Protestant scholars have their own faults that derive from doctrinal allegiances, notably the falsehood that the Hebrew Bible exists to prepare the way for the New Testament. Still, these Christian interpreters will generally admit, however grudgingly, that the Documentary Hypothesis is correct. By contrast, very few Jewish scholars have embraced the finding. This obstinacy does not reflect favorably on their general reliability.
In fact, the method exemplified by the Documentary Hypothesis proved a fertile one. In the 1940s Martin Noth proposed that a follower of the creator of D, whom he termed the Deuteromistic Historian, had been responsible for the historical narrative that starts with Joshua and ends with the conclusion of the Second Book of Kings. Today this view is generally accepted.
A consensus now holds that the Book of Isaiah consists of three separate parts, melded together in a kind of shotgun wedding. The three distinct parts are chs. 1-35; chs. 36-39 (purloined from other parts of the Tanakh); and chs. 40-66 (“Trito-Isaiah). This triad is another product of the historical-critical approach.
These, and other discoveries, demonstrated that Scripture was not what it seemed. Traditional claims of authorship, such as the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, were false. Moreover, the presumed unity of the texts dissolved into distinct strata representing concerns active at the time of composition or editing. German scholars sought to clarify these contexts by determining the “Sitz im Leben,” the life situation that governed the creation of the different strands of Scripture.
Other solvents stemmed from the increasing amount of comparative material that was recovered from the Middle East, beginning with the major decipherments of the nineteench century. The motif of the Flood clearly migrated from Mesopotamia, where it is found much earlier. The Code of Hammurabi clearly influenced the legal sections of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Yet other texts seem to have Egyptian origins.
As might be expected, scholars in conservative Christian seminaries resist these conclusions. Clinging to their doctrine of inerrancy, evangelicals oppose source-analysis of Scripture. And even some mainstream Protestant exegetes (who generally have the best record in biting this particular bullet), still seek to backtrack by alleging some core unity of the Bible.
However, the resistance of modern Judaism has been much more principled and thoroughgoing; it is highly resistant to change. Modern Judaism has availed itself of a special resource in fighting the implications of the historical critical-method, as embodied in the Documentary Hypothesis and the discoveries of modern archaeology. This approach stems from the concept of the Oral Torah.
What is the Oral Torah? First, it is not simply a “synonym for the Mishnah and the Talmud” (as the glossary in the Jewish Study Bible suggests), though to be sure those texts are major vectors of it. Nor is it the “authoritative interpretation of [Written] Torah” (idem). This last is a concept derived from Christian hermeneutics.
Perhaps the best short definition derives from David Stern. “[T]he Rabbis believed that the Bible--or what they called the Written Torah--was only one of two revelations God had given to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Alongside the Written Torah, they believed, God had also revealed to the Israelites an Oral Torah, which as its name indicates, was delivered and transmitted orally. Precisely how to define the Oral Torah is one of the great debates among Jewish scholars. For our present purposes we may say that it comprises everything that the Rabbis believed was ‘Judaism’ that is not explicitly written in the Torah; admittedly, this is a vast and heterogeneous body of material that encompasses everything from the many laws not spelled out in the Bible to the Rabbis’ own beliefs and theology as well as all their folk wisdom and lore.” As the last point reveals, this is an ocean without bounds. Almost anything said by a rabbi, at any time or place, could be part of the Oral Torah.
Of course, some would take a more restrictive view, holding that the Oral Torah was essentially complete by ca. 600 CE, when the canon of the two Talmuds was closed. Yet no one is compelled to adopt this minimalist view. And it remains the case that, in the Jewish view, the Mishnah and the Talmuds, despite their lofty status as examples of wisdom and scholarship, are in the end merely vectors of the Oral Torah. They are, as it were, lodging places for a phenomenon of much greater extent. According to the traditional view, it starts with Moses, Indeed, as delivered to him, it was complete then. Yet full disclosure of its manifold contents may not have achieved even now. There is nothing to prevent an opinion expressed in 2008 by a rabbi in Grand Rapids or Toulouse, let us say, from ranking as an authentic manifestation of some component of the Oral Torah.
In principle, the Oral Torah and the Written Torah cannot be in conflict. What happens, though, if they appear to disagree with one another? Then supposedly the Written Torah would be supreme. This is the way things should be, but (as James L. Kugel concedes) in reality the Oral Torah usually wins out. Accordingly, the reverence accorded the Torah scrolls in Jewish worship is something of a scam. The Scriptures are constantly subject to discipline and correction (to put the matter plainly) through the agency of the unseen presence of the Oral Torah.
In his book How to Read the Bible (pp. 680-81), Kugel puts the matter this way. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook, and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling. Every sabbath the Torah is, quite literally, held up above the heads of the worshippers in synagogue, kissed and bowed to and touched in gestures of absolute submission. . . . Yet on inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of the words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definite and final interpretation.”
An egregious, foundational example is the notion that the Ten Commandments, as vouchsafed to Moses in tablet form, were a mere table of contents. Each one designates a kind of file cabinet. These ten big items accommodate the 613 mitzvot or obligations, grouped according to theme in relation to the appropriate Commandment. The 613 (or 611 according to some accounts), obviously compiled much later, were, according to this fable, delivered to Moses in toto during the Mt. Sinai experience. Thus a whole mass of diverse material, much of it of dubious relevance, was shoehorned into the earlier texts. In this fashion--and countless others could be cited--the Oral Torah has in effect seized the Written Torah in a parasitical, controlling invasion.
There are then two myths of the Oral Torah. The first, an obvious fabrication, is the idea that in its entirety it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The second myth is the idea that the Oral Torah--a potentially infinite body of opinion, legend, and interpretation--is coequal with the Written Torah. As we have noted, though, to all intents and purposes the Oral Torah supersedes its sibling.
As far as the written record shows, the elements of this second, or Oral Torah emerge only with the Mishnah, around 200 CE. To be sure, the Mishnah contains citations from rabbis who lived in earlier generations, some in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. But the principles of selection are those devised by the sages who compiled the Mishnah some eighteen hundred years ago. In turn, the Mishnah served as the basis for the elaborations of the two Talmuds. As this process shows, Judaism, as we now know it, is younger than Christianity.
One of the reasons for the elaboration of the Oral Torah is that it resolves “apparent” contradictions residing in the received text of the Tanakh. Moreover, the Oral Torah, despite its supposed Mosaic origin, was of great help in dealing with the disappearance of Temple-centered Judaism after 70 CE, and its replacement by a new set of interpretations intended to cope with the changed circumstances of living in exile, among peoples who were often hostile, or at best uncomprehending.
The way in which the Oral Torah works recalls the function of the Tradition cherished by the Roman Catholic church. There Scripture is supplemented and, to all intents and purposes, overridden when necessary, by this body of doctrine, whose stability is assured by the Roman pontiff, sometimes assisted by the Councils. Judaism, however, has not and never has had an equivalent of the pope. Today, to cite one example, Benedict XVI is considering discarding the doctrine of Limbo. Perhaps, with his approval or that of one of his successors, this excision will be performed. In Judaism, however, there is no controlling body to sift the criteria that would allow for such doctrinal purging. As a result there are no limits to the expansion of the Oral Torah, which grows vaster than empires. The whole body of opinions and commentaries stemming from rabbis of any period is susceptible to admission into the precincts of the Oral Torah.
There is another interesting similarity, and difference with Roman Catholicism. That Christian denomination religion boasts several large bodies of commentary. Perhaps the most important are the Patristic writers (including such figures as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Jerome) and the Scholastics (with Thomas Aquinas at their head). Superficially, these bodies of commentary are similar to the Oral Torah--but only superficially. In the end the writings of an Augustine and an Aquinas are ancillary. They do not pretend to have a hotline to what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai.
The distortions that were the inevitable result of the capture of the Written Torah by the Oral Torah extend to Hebrew philology. Few rabbis acknowledge the point that the Hebrew language, like all languages, evolved, with meanings changing according to circumstances. The rabbis also anachronistically project back later meanings of words onto earlier contexts where they are not appropriate--again in obedience to the controlling material in the Oral Torah. In fact most advances in the critical study of Hebrew philology have been made by German and English Protestants, who have produced authoritative versions of the texts. For all these reasons, the conventional wisdom that recommends “consulting a rabbi” for the understanding of Hebrew texts is unsound. Of course, the rabbis can read Hebrew, but in doing so they habitually incorporate anachronisms derived from later beliefs and practices. These anachronisms make them unreliable guides in the matter of philology.
We return now to the historical-critical method. Here the Oral Torah provides, or seems to provide, and impregnable bulwark. We can be assured, so the argument goes, that the solvents of the historical-critical method do not apply, because the Oral Torah, not within the purview of this method, overrides them.
As noted above, some Jewish scholars have indeed sought to grapple with the challenge provided by the historical-critical method. James L. Kugel, a lucid scholar who taught at Harvard University and who happens to be an orthodox Jew, does so--with disturbing results: “modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable.”
Kugel, though, turns out to be a mugwump. He seeks to negotiate the matter by a kind of “dual-magisterium” approach. There is one set of truths, those elicited by the application of the historical-critical method, and another produced by Jewish tradition, beginning (in his view) in the three centuries immediately preceding the beginning of the Christian era.
This schizophrenia also flourishes among conservative Christian scholars. Nonetheless, it simply will not do. In the end, knowledge must be unitary.
Notwithstanding the diversity of Judaism in many areas, the concept of the Dual Torah has never, it would seem, been explicitly renounced by any significant branch of modern Judaism. That is the “great secret” noted above. There are of course “ethical” variants that reduce the role of the supernatural and other things that are now difficult to accept. These too, however, depend on the body of commentary that constitutes the Oral Torah.
Rarely discussed outside of Jewish circles, the Oral Torah is truly an elephant in the room.
Today we hear much about how Islam needs a Reformation. That may be. Judaism also needs a Reformation in which the historic role of the Oral Torah would be placed under close scrutiny. Neither of these developments is likely to happen.