While digging through my old papers I ran across this article written way back in 1981 by a Messianic Jew names Andrew P. Pilant. At the time Pilant was advocating something he called “Traditional Messianic Judaism” which was getting little attention from the mainline of the movement. Although I never met Pilant, when I came into the Messianic movement from Rabbinic Judaism around 1984 I found myself influenced by this paper. I do not agree with everything said in it, but I think it is worthy of posting here nearly 40 years later:
IN DEFENSE OF TALMUDIC LAW
By Andrew P. Pilant
“If we we’re going to be Jewish, we have to be honest about it. . .
Jewishness is something that was more than laying teffilin,
more than just singing Jewish songs. It is thinking Jewish,
it is smelling Jewish, it was taking Judaism
and putting it out to the ends of your fingertips —
so that everything that you come in contact with
would have a Jewish touch to it.”
– Andrew P. Pilant
This paper is concerned with the facet of Rabbinic study that is involved with the defense of Talmudic Law, as being a natural and integral part of Rabbinics, it must be pointed out, rests on five very important principles, as elucidated by scholars such as Z. H. Chajes:
A. That the Written, and especially parts of the Oral Law, were not the result of a historical process, but of a single divine revelation;
B. The principle that two ‘Laws’ are organically related;
C. The principle that the progressive and historical development of Jewish Law is limited exclusively to the laws of non-Pentateuchal statutes (i.e. the decrees of the Sanhedrin);
D. The principle that the Talmudic Rabbis claimed for their own teaching the finality which later authorities ascribe to them;
E. The Principle that the Torah gave to the Rabbis of the Talmudic era (500 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) Divine sanction for their legislation, and that such legislation could not be abrogated at will.
In defense of these principles, one should, because of the very nature of the subject, be able to use the rules of logic and scientific reasoning. One should assume these aspects to be true, logically testing their fundamental components and inferred derivations.
The Torah is divided into two parts, the written and unwritten (Oral) Law. The former is the written text of Scripture, the Torah, which was divinely revealed to Moses at Sinai. The later consists of expositions and interpretations. In order to understand the relationship between the Oral and Written Law, it is necessary to understand their goal. The goal of the Oral Tradition and its teachings is to get one to integrate the written Law into one’s own being. The most important tools to allow one to arrive at this goal are the many and varied Mitzvot. Mitzvot are deeds reflecting the correct interpretation of Scripture, i.e. the Oral Tradition.
The whole emphasis of Mitzvot (for example laying tefillin, not driving a car on Sabbath, not eating pork) is not in the actions that an individual must go through to perform the deed. Rather, the importance of Mitzvot lies in the inward quality the actions stimulate. A Mitzvah is not a Mitzvah because of the physical actions an individual performs, but because it stimulates in the individual an understanding of Scripture. Thus, the thoughts and intents of the heart are the more important aspect of Mitzvot. In the final analysis, the Lord is concerned with intent rather than action. This is not to say that the actions do not play a role, but should be a natural by-product of the intent. For example, two individuals can go through exactly the same actions, and it will be a Mitzvah for one and not for the other. The difference would be one of “intent.” If one understood Elohim’s Law the way He designed it to be understood, one would not be performing it as a list of instructions but would perform it as a natural result of his understanding of the world. In fact, it would never occur to him to do anything else.
Adam, being created perfect, understood the world correctly, and so
he performed Mitzvot simply because he had no reason to think otherwise.
By the time of Noah, however, this understanding of the world had
suffered aberration to the extent that Noah
was given commandments to not drink blood, not fornicate, etc. Noah’s understanding coupled with the commandments brought him up to Adam’s former level. Without the commandments, Noah may have deviated from the natural course of things and drank blood. Thus, the Lord gave him this commandment. This is also true of Enoch, and Abraham, where the Lord gave them insight to correct any misunderstandings they may have had about how the world has supposed to work.
The Lord sought to call a people to Himself. Through Moses, the Children of Israel were called to Sinai and were given the Torah along with the correct understanding of how it was to be applied in every circumstance… not the details of every situation but the mechanisms to derive the correct interpretation. For this generation, the Law and their understanding of it brought them to the level that Adam had been in Eden. This provided the Israelites with a level of understanding higher than any other nation of that generation. This is obvious, for when Moses was given the Ten Commandments he was not given two tablets of stone and left to figure them out. He understood each Commandment and its ramifications to the utmost extent.
In the course of Israel’s history, fine points of this Law and its understanding were forgotten. The Lord sent Judges who were experts in dealing with “fine points” for this generation. The Judges expertise, combined with the people’s remembrance of the revelation at Sinai and with the written Torah, was sufficient. The bulk of Scriptures written a this time dealt with these judges. Later generations not only forgot points of the Law, but began to misinterpret and misapply them. Thus, the Lord sent the Prophets to inject correct understanding where the people had erred in their interpretation of Scripture.
Even before the birth of Messiah, the generations had deviated to such an extent from their Father’s teaching that the rabbis sought to record the “understanding” before it was forgotten all together. This attempt is seen in the Talmud. Rules and methods were discovered at this time that enabled them to write down what had previously been only mental thoughts. They sought to crystallize the Oral Tradition by giving many examples. Through the understanding of these examples and the techniques of the rabbis one should be able to reconstruct the understanding the Children of Israel had at Sinai. To one who is not aware of the methods and direction of the rabbis, the Talmud appears as a mass of confused examples and legalistic rituals. However, to those who desire to integrate the teachings of the rabbis in the fashion in which they were intended, it will stimulate within them an attitude both proper and coherent with the universe that the Lord created. The Messiah understood this perfectly. He understood the balance between the understanding that was to be integrated and the importance of the tools to accomplish this goal. Some rabbis of His day did not “understand” this balance. They emphasized the physical aspect of the Mitzvot sometimes to the exclusion of the Mitzvot’s purpose. Thus the Messiah saw that they were so wrapped up in the tool that they lost sight of the purpose of the tool. This was the only point of contention between the Messiah and the rabbinical leaders of His day. Thus, in Matthew 23:23 He declares to the Jewish leaders, “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
In the Middle Ages, a large quantity of time was spent studying and transmitting the teachings of the sages of the Second Temple Era. For these generations, the rabbi’s teaching combined with all that had gone before them was sufficient to give them a proper understanding of how the world should be. After years had passed, people began once again to lose sight of the purpose and direction of Mitzvot. Groups such as the Hasidim sought to correct this imbalance. For this generation, their teaching gave the people a correct understanding of Scripture, when combined with what they knew already.
With this background, some questions can be asked. Is the Talmud inspired? This is an awkward question to ask. The Torah is inspired in its entirety. The Oral Tradition is the Torah’s integration into one’s person, and thus is in a sense inspired because it is a reflection of the Torah. The Talmud is a logical exploration of the Oral Tradition and should be logically correct. It is important and authoritative but it functions as a tool. The Talmud is only a tool when it is used correctly, otherwise it could be a dangerous thing. Fortunately, because of its size, people do not study it unless they have a good reason.
Another question that could be addressed is whether or not the Talmud is a product of progressive revelation. This is absolutely not true! The Talmud is simply a crystallization, a reflection of the Oral Tradition. Our ability to understand the Oral Tradition in this present day has decreased to the extent that we need a portion of the Oral Tradition written down in order to understand it. The Lord has continually spoken to his people throughout the ages, but only to raise them back up to a certain level.
A third question is whether or not the Talmud is fixed and unbending. Yes and no. The Talmud reflects the perfect attitude that a person should attain, but unfortunately human beings are not perfect. Therefore the emphasis should be shifted from the Talmud to the Oral Tradition itself, which is constant for all people. It is possible that it may manifest itself with different emphases through various people’s understanding of it. A traditional Jew will make the assumption that the Talmud scholars knew enough about people that their descriptions of how Oral Tradition should manifest itself are consistent for people of all times and places. If too much emphasis is placed on the physical aspect of Mitzvot, one could totally miss the purpose for which the Mitzvot were given. For example, when a Jew dies it is a Mitzvah that he be buried in a plain pine box so that all Jews will have equal expenses in their burials. In Los Angeles, it is actually more expensive and a symbol of wealth if one can import a pine box from New York to Los Angeles. This totally negates what the rabbis were trying to say, and because the rabbis’ advice was misapplied, the Mitzvah did not achieve its purpose. It did not increase their understanding of Scripture.
Talmudic Law is a natural and integral part of the divinely revealed written Law. Each generation has lost a portion of its understanding of how the Lord wants the word to work. Each generating has been given teaching to bring them back to this level. The Mitzvot are one tool used to achieve this goal, but only if understood correctly. For any Jew and anyone who has an understanding of the Oral Tradition, the Mitzvot can increase this understanding in a very beautiful way.
Andrew P. Pilant, 1981
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