3. Interpreting the Torah

The uniqueness of the traditional approach to Torah interpretation cannot be emphasized enough.  Jewish biblical interpretation exists in a completely different universe than non-Jewish modes of biblical interpretation.  In fact, they overlap so little that no amount of background in biblical studies can prepare one for the unique approach that has been used by the Jewish people for centuries since the Torah’s giving at Sinai.

In many non-Jewish (by implication, non-Noahide) religions, the Tanakh, the Torah, Prophets and Writings, are all treated with equal authority.  Some even treat the later prophets with greater authority than the Torah itself.

This is not how Torah is viewed by those of Jewish, and by extension, Noahide faith. We view the Torah, Prophets, and Writings as hierarchical – there is an order of greater and lesser authority. 

At the pinnacle of this hierarchy are the five books of the written Torah – the Chumash.  They are the final, permanent, crystallization of God’s will for mankind. The Torah will never be replaced or superseded by any other future covenant or revelation.

In the textual realm, the Torah is the primary text for deriving law and practice for both Jews and Noahides.

The Five Books of Moses (the Chumash) is the most succinct possible written expression of Torah.  However, the written Torah is only a gateway, an entry point into the larger world of Torah.

The Torah has many ambiguities but the Psalms refer to the Torah as perfect:

The Torah of God is perfect, restoring the soul…   Psalms 19:8

There are a great many ambiguities in the Torah, so how then can a perfect text contain so many ambiguities?  The answer is that Torah is not merely the text of the Torah.  There is an orally transmitted, experiential component to the Torah, one which clarifies the ambiguities and, in combination with the written text, is called perfect.   There are a number of sources for the need of the Oral Transmission:  Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim III: 23. For other proofs to the necessity of an orally transmitted component of the Torah, see Kuzari 3:35; Moreh Nevuchim I:71; Rashbatz in Mogen Avos Chelek HaFilosofi II:3; Rashbash Duran in Milchemes Mitzvah, Hakdama I. See also Rashi to Eruvin 21b s.v. VeYoser; Gur Aryeh to Shemos 34:27.

The Oral law exists for a number of reasons:

  • It explains concepts that cannot be fully captured in writing,
  • It defines unusual or rare terminology,
  • Most importantly, it provides a system of interpretation. This system of interpretation is crucial because it gives us three things:

                a. It guides us in the application of the Torah to new situations and new scenarios,
                b. It gives us standards and guidelines by which we can evaluate the legitimacy of interpretations and applications of the Torah, and
                c. It provides a means by which we can reconstruct any details of correct observance should it become blurred or forgotten due to exile and oppression.

Mesorah - Transmission

The most important element in validating interpretations of the written and oral Torah is the concept of Mesorah. Mesorah is, without question, the greatest proof to the authenticity of any concept, practice, or interpretation.

The closest translation Mesora is probably “transmission,” the giving over of information. It refers to an unbroken chain of transmission from the revelation at Sinai until the present time. Authenticity of concepts and practices is strongly based upon Mesorah.

Even archaeological evidence does not carry the authority of the Mesorah. Archaeology is concerned with reconstructing forgotten things based upon a minute amount of evidence. Mesorah is known information transmitted from generation to generation without having been forgotten. When a known break occurs in the Mesorah, the chain of transmission, and it has a practical effect on observance, we do not attempt to resurrect the Mesorah based on archaeological evidence. For example, knowing which cities in Israel were walled in ancient times is important for a number of laws.  The Mesorah, transmitted knowledge, is what we rely on to determine which cities were walled. Archaeological evidence is insufficient proof.

Writing Down the Oral Law

For much of Jewish History, the oral Torah was not written down. It was part  and parcel of the culture of a unified people living in a single location. Its integrity was also maintained by a central authority, the Sanhedrin. However, as the threat of exile loomed large and the Sanhedrin’s authority waned under Roman persecution, the Rabbis realized that the transmission of Torah study and Mesorah was in danger.

They began to write down as much of the material as possible. Their vision for this redaction was two-fold:

  • To create a representative literature of the oral component of Torah in a form that was compact and efficient for study and memorization, and
  • Create a statement of the oral law that, by way of study, would teach and preserve the correct method of Torah study and interpretation.

The final product of this effort was the Mishnah.