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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Oral Shmoral--Why Should Anyone Care?

Okay, I lied--I am not going to fill in the historical watersheds which, to my mind, contributed to a slow freeze on Torah discussion--at least not quite yet.

I want to talk for a moment about why I care about this issue at all.

Since I was first exposed to learning Gemara back when I was a wee lad of nine, I have always been fascinated with the story of how Talmudic literature came to be. I always accepted the notion that the Mishnah and the discussion of the Mishnah as found in the Gemara essentially preserved the Oral Torah that Moshe received at Sinai. I studied the classic texts that deal with notions of the Oral Torah and how it came down to us (אגרת דרב שרירא גאון, הקדמת הרמב"ם לפיהמ"ש ועוד) and found them helpful an interesting.

Some questions arose, though. Some questions are conceptual in nature like if the Oral Torah was passed on with precision how did it come to be written down in a different language? There are others which I will raise in later posts.

But I am also disturbed by the reality of what I see in various parts of the Orthodox world. In my short lifetime, most of which has been spent in that world, I have seen what I think is a perversion of the notion of Oral Torah on many levels. Aside from Rabbi Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik's astute observations regarding how the Jewish world transitioned from a mimetic tradition to a textual tradition ( I feel that there has been a general trend toward anti-intellectualism in the Orthodox world.

The notion of Torah Mi'Sinai has come to mean to many that Moshe got a copy of a typical 21st century rabbinic library from God. In part because of this notion, halachic and philosophical discussions have become more and more limited because, after all, everything which has been written until now by recognized authorities is what Moshe received at Sinai.

For this reason and others I feel I must try to understand the nature of the Oral Torah based on the information I have from the sources which speak about it--on its own terms, if you will. I want to examine what happened to those ideas and how we got where we are and where we might be able to go yet.

I need to point out for a bit of balance that the Orthodox community by and large is the only segment of the Jewish world which continues to study the Torah and the Talmud and related texts in a consistent and serious way. The other streams of Judaism certainly study them but the typical Reform or Conservative Jew has much less exposure to learning than the typical Orthodox Jew. In Israel the study of these texts has long been the purview of the Orthodox with the secular largely rejecting serious study.

Fortunately, there is movement among more and more of the secular Jews in Israel to reclaim these texts--to study them seriously and perhaps look at them in a new light.

I am rambling--but we'll talk about these things as I continue.

Next posting will get back to how the discussion started to slow down and freeze up.

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