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The Oral Torah

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 9/4/2016 Category: Religion
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Debating Period
Viewed: 643 times Debate No: 95028
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Google docs are not a violation of conduct.


Challenge accepted. The Oral Torah is the very heart and soul of Judaism.
Debate Round No. 1


Note: all Biblical quotes are from the King James translation of the Bible. I just like it best of all English translations.

Before one debates the validity, or lack thereof, of the Oral Torah, one must at first understand what it is, and, more importantly, what it sets out to do.

First, the Oral Torah refers to three codices of rabbinical literature, the Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Mishnah is, broadly speaking, concerned with interpretations of the Torah, and the compilation of Jewish Pharisaic oral tradition (hence "Oral Torah") from the Second Temple period and about a century and a half afterwards. Even more broadly speaking, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds mainly include interpretations of the Mishnah (yes, interpretations of interpretations) and in updating (read: not changing) the Mishnaic Halacha to the late 4th and 6th centuries, respectively, and in the latter's case also to life in exile from Palestine. The two Talmuds won't be discussed much in this debate.

It is important to note that such oral traditions ultimately originate in the very dawn of Judaism, and without them, most Biblical laws and commandments would be obscure (the Bible never actually mentions on which body part the Bris would be performed, for example) or abstract to the point of people actually ignoring the commandment ("Honour thy father and thy mother", Exodus 20:12; "And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God", Deuteronomy 10:12; "...and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes", Deuteronomy 11:18). Since at least the Second Temple period, when people started to wonder what is the point of this or the meaning of that, rabbis had aimed to set those things straight and interpret them into concrete, understandable requirements. Indeed, some of these might look slightly contrived, but they're ultimately meant to enforce, and adorn, Biblical law so that there won't be any ambiguity or breaches.

Many people in the history of Judaism (see: Karaites) have doubted the validity of the Mishnah, citing the following passage: "You shall not add to the word that I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHVH, your God, which I command you." (Deuteronomy 4:2) However, the Mishnah never actually added or took away from the words of G-d, only interpreted it and made its requirements logical and specific.

My opponent mentions that the Mishnah contains laws and ways of conduct about things that didn't exist in Moses' time. Well, that's just the nature of it. The Jewish world circa 150 CE was very different from that of the 2nd millenium BCE. And as different concerns arose, so did different solutions to them. These ultimately draw from the written Torah or old tradition (the Mishnah's discussion of Samaritans comes from general Biblical passages on apostasy, and the conduct of Hanukka based mainly on Jewish tradition to celebrate the miracle of Judas Maccabeus and the victory over the Seleucids). The world isn't static, and so isn't Judaism. That Jewish law would update itself according to the "hot topics" of the time is a given.
Debate Round No. 2


First things first, it's Friday, and I'd like to greet my opponent with Shabbat Shalom.

Now let's get to it.

The circumcision argument:
This requires being familiar with the original Hebrew version, and Con is going to have to take my word for it if he isn't proficient in "Lashon HaKodesh". (This isn't a jab at you, just a slight disclaimer.) This is also going to be quite heavy on linguistics, which is why I didn't elaborate on it much in the previous round.
The Biblical Hebrew word, which I will transliterate as Orla, is equated with "foreskin" in all translations I know. In the Hebrew Bible, however, the root refers to some kind of coverage and closure, not necessarily the foreskin. In Deuteronomy 10:16, it refers to closure of one's heart, and in Jeremiah 6:10 to the sealing of one's ear (translations to English took it as a metaphor and used the same circumcision-based terminology, but this is inaccurate). Thus, we don't actually know from the text what kind of "seal" on the body it refers to. While in modern Hebrew, it came to refer solely to a man's foreskin, linguistic analysis of the Hebrew Bible shows that it is by no means exclusive. Hence, oral tradition (dating back to before the actual Torah, as circumcision was practised by the Israelites even in Abraham's times) essentially demystifies obscure passages in the Written Torah.

A comment I must make is that the books of the Bible, except for the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were canonised into the Masoretic Tanakh by rabbis a long time after they were written (to be exact, closely after the destruction of the Second Temple, circa 70 AD). Many theological Jewish books, perceived as holy by different sects of Second Temple Judaism, were excluded. Thus, when you're quoting Jonah, Psalms or anything else that is not the Pentateuch you're essentially conceding rabbinical authority on this matter. Otherwise, you may as well quote Sirach or the Testament of Abraham, since these were deemed false by rabbis, and may certainly be the truth while Ezekiel and Psalms might be lies or forgeries. How do we know what's true and what isn't? Only the Oral Torah and rabbinical tradition can confirm that.

Your example of Jonah and the Midrash about it was the main reason for the paragraph above about the canonical status of the Nevi'im and the Ketuvim. but I'll entertain it nonetheless. Rabbinical Midrashim, such as that of Lilith being Adam's first wife (which would've been a better example, I must say, because this Midrash was written about the Torah and not the Nevi'im), are not meant to be taken as the actual, Heavenly truth. They were intended to be folklore of sorts, fables that deliver a message related to morality or theology. They built on characters and stories known to every Jew in late antiquity to help people relate to them better. Now, Kabbalistic writings by Isaac Luria and others often took these as real history, but since unlike the Oral Torah they are by no means universally accepted among Rabbinical Jews around the world (such as myself), I don't think they serve as examples of oral tradition adding or detracting from the divine text.

There is indeed no Biblical commandment to cover one's head at all times or even during prayer. In fact, there's no such law in the Mishnah either. It is traced back to the Babylonian Talmud, where in the opinion of some it was a symbol of respect for Heavens, among other things, and was to be worn during prayer, blessings and Torah study (as far as I know, even Karaite communities wear Kippah during prayer). In later years, some (mainly Sepharadi) communities started to wear it the whole day long for the same reason mentioned in the Talmud. It is, again, by no means universally practised and many do not wear Kippah 24/7. The main reason that most Orthodox Jews nowadays do that (I myself would like to, but I am currently in a very secular enviroment in which wearing a Kippah would raise some eyebrows - and once, with Heaven's help, I'm done studying - I will most likely start doing that) is to stand out from secular and non-Jewish people ("You shall not walk in their statutes", Leviticus 18:3).

Of course, the commandment that there will be a blue string in the Tzitzit stopped being observed by Rabbinical Jews in about the 7th Century when blue ink was very expensive and the vast majority of Jews couldn't afford it. In medieval Europe, it was almost inaccessible to even royalty, not to mention Jewish peasants. Thus, there was little choice but to ditch the commandment. Since the 19th Century, the blue string is slowly finding its way back to the Tzitzit, and it is endorsed by most rabbis in Israel. Yes, it's not uncontroversial (mostly because according to the Kabbalah, the blue string will be returned in the days of the Messiah). But it is definitely a thing, and mistakes of the past can be fixed ("I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee", Isaiah 44:22).

Another thing - Shabbat candles are lit before Sabbath day, on Firday afternoon before sunset. Where I live, the time today will be 18:33.

"And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment: And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee", Deuteronomy 17:9-10.

Here we see that the priests and judges (in Biblical times, the Levites; during the Second Temple peiod, the Sanhedrin; today, the rabbis) have the authority to direct the people according to the needs of their time and place. Hanukka is commemorated as simply as lighting candles in memory of miracles that happened to the people of Judah. Fasting on the 9th of Av (as well as other dates) to commemorate the destruction of the temple is not a command given by G-d. Should you not fast on the day of such a tragedy? Important dates in Judaism are not limited to those mentioned in the Written Torah. Simply forgetting they happened doesn't make any sense. In fact, the Bible itself describes how Mordecai sets the 14th and 15th of Adar as feast days ("And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far: To stablish this among them, that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly", Esther 9:20-21) even though they have no mention in the Torah.

The word of G-d in the Written Torah is infallible and timeless; but to deliberately avoid all the miracles (and tragedies) of Judaism's history is an affront to G-d himself.
Debate Round No. 3


"My opponent cites no sources saying that orlah does not mean foreskin..."
The main reason I haven't is because the two sources I know, namely Rashi and Judah Leow ben Bezalel, are both rabbinical, and I thought citing them (in Hebrew, of course, since no English translation of them is available AFAIK) wouldn't be of much use since you'll most likely say they are not authoritative or biased. But since you didn't have a problem linking to a Karaite website, I suppose I may as well indulge in it. Loew's Tif'eret Yisrael, 19. And while I do suppose that you'll still doubt the authority of that, keep in mind my lengthy post deconstructing the word's use in the Bible. It doesn't solely refer to the foreskin, and isn't simply a by-extension metaphor for something bad (since it only refers to coverage or sealing, not something else as it would've if it actually were a metaphor). For what it's worth, I'm a linguistics student myself, and I think this analysis is straightforward and correct.

"The Dead Sea Scrolls contain almost the entire Tanakh..."
That is not precise. Namely, the scrolls do include most of the Bible, but note that no fragments of Esther were found. Also, they do include fragments of books such as the Book of Enoch, Tobit, Sirach, etc. that aren't actually part of the modern Tanakh. In fact, the Scrolls if anything challenge any notion of a unified Masoretic text before the destruction of the Temple. Otherwise, you would complain that celebrating Purim is rabbis "adding" to the Biblical text. We do see some vague general consensus when it comes to more ancient books, but books written from after the Babylonian era were much less widely agreed upon. From Wikipedia, "Development of the Hebrew Bible canon".

As for Nevi'im - the Torah does establish that the Lord will bring prophets to guide Israel even after the death of Moses, but there were quite a few prophetic texts that didn't make it into the Tanakh, i.e. the Book of Gad the Seer, Baruch, etc. Why should you not accept them and accept Isaiah and Joel instead?

"Rabbis...have been appointed by man to teach"
Yes, based on their extensive knowledge of the scriptures and their unyielding piety. One must understand that the Jewish Sanhedrin was compiled largely of man-appointed rabbis because of an influx of "prophets" (including, but not limited to, Jesus of Nazareth) that caused an unrest and disunity among the people. Having a group of intellectually (rather than emotionally) oriented sages decide the proper interpretation to the Bible, and serve as an authority equal to that of prophets appointed by G-d, was necessary to secure the continuation of a stable base of Jewish halachic law. No matter how one sees their legitimacy (or lack thereof), it was completely required to "set the record straight" at a time when there were multiple differing opinions by rabbis and "prophets" that only served to confuse the people and prompted them to leave the Mitzvot completely. If not for a strong religious authority, that would likely have happened to the entirety of Jews.

No, I do not need to prove that the Oral Torah originated from Moses and Sinai to win the debate. Note that the title debate (which you have started) does not say something like "The Oral Torah is the work of man" or "The Oral Torah cannot be traced back to Moses", but simply "The Oral Torah". I frankly do not believe that it is the word of G-d himself passed down from generation to another. But I do believe it is an unshakably important part of Judaism, and that's what I argue for.
Debate Round No. 4
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Debate Round No. 5
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