Monday, August 21, 2023

Not Orthodox, Not Orthoprax Part 2


Not Orthodox, Not Orthoprax

 Link to discussion

Last week, opened on why we aren’t OrthoPrax. Now, I want to put into perspective , how it is that Jewish law developed and how we tried to apply it to contemporary situations.


Let me remind you that sometimes we as Jews have gotten very vociferous and rough about how we interpret and carry out our interpretations and this is not new. I mentioned last week that students of the Gaon of Vilna had the government of Russia throw the founder of Chabad Chasidism into jail.

Here’s a personal perspective:


 When my father was a youngster, he attended Gymnasia, which was the modern Academy of its day in his town in Galicia. Because he wore the uniform of the gymnasia student, even though his father was one of the leaders of the Jewish community and very orthodox, the Chasidim in the town threw stones at him because they thought he was a traitor for wearing the uniform of the gentiles. When World War One broke out the family had to flee from the front lines to Vienna and on the way they stopped and spent Yom Kippur in a shtibel in a small town. Here again and his brother were in uniform, and the rabbi of the shtibel got up ,pointed at my father and his brother and said “you brought the war upon us.” Heavy guilt for a youngster just about bar mitzvah age.


This fight was not just in his Europe. On my wife's side in Yemen around the same time, her uncle’s grandfather , the chief rabbi, initiated modern science and mathematics into the education curricula of the Jewish schools of Sana ,the capital. He also went out on a full-front war against the Zohar and against the Kabbalah which he believed was false and detrimental to the Jewish people. He made enemies of his fellow Rabbis and there were attempts at putting him under Cherem, expulsion. He was defended in his actions by the Rabbi of the Yishuv, Avraham Hacohen Kook. Since then, Jews of Yemen very often have been at odds with each other ,for there are either igashim, stubborn ones, or dardeim, the knowledgeable ones.



So, from whence our basis for Jewish observance?


A simple overview—what distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism from the earlier strands, Samaritan, or Priestly, Zadukim, or later,Karaim, literalist.

We all agree that the foundation is the text of the 5 Books of Moses, From there, we split.


We  use the terms, Torah She Bichtav, The Torah Text as written, and Torah she’b’al peh, The Torah as it is explained verbally. We also use the term, Mideoraita, of Torah-text base, for these laws. We then have the concept of Miderabbanan, of Rabbinic teachings.



It is the concept of Torah she B al peh, a teaching that is transmitted orally over the generations from teacher to student that is the uniqueness of Judaism beyond the text of the Bible. It was so radical in its day that the Roman Empire was afraid that the oral teachings, not the written Bible was the great danger to the Roman Empire. Thus when it comes to the period of the rebellion of Bar Kochba, the Romans permitted the reading of the Bible but forbade its teachings and interpretation.


Where does it start ?


We can presume that even in the period of the first temple as the texts that would make up the Bible are being gathered that there are schools that are enlarging upon the written word. We have terms like been Bnay Neviim, the sons of the prophets which may indicate students that gathered around a particular Tzadik or holy man and recorded his teachings and transmitted them to others. Certainly when the children of Israel return to the land of Israel and the and scribe Ezra institutes formal public reading of the Torah, he adds to it the translation into the common language of the folk Aramaic and with translation, there's also explanation.


We have the development of customs and practices that flesh out be very skimpy words of the Torah. For example, about Shabbat we have very few descriptions of what is permitted and what is forbidden in terms of work. The actual practice is being developed during this period.

One example in case is the question of self defense on Shabbat , which I mentioned earlier.  During the time of the repression of Judaism under Antiochus,the very pious would rather die than the defend themselves on Shabbat.The Maccabees introduced the principal that saving of life and self defense was essential to preserve the Shabbat.


Other rules of Shabbat as stated in the Torah text:

The Torah says: Do not go out of your “dwelling places”.

Does that really mean stay indoors?

The Torah says: You shall not have fire burning on Shabbat.

Does that mean sit in the dark? Eat cold food?


So we have practices- such as lighting fire before Shabbat, lighting Hanukah lights, reading the megillah- that catch on, and they need to be justified, in a basis in the written Torah.


Hence, the need for scholars who can make the connection between the text and the practice.



By the end of 2nd Temple period:

We have the rise of schools of scholars. The earliest teachers have no formal title, after Hillel, we have title “ Rabbi” or Rabban” My or our teacher, Master.


Authority is taken away from Prophets ( prophecy is  realm of children and the insane) and authority is moved from the text to the interpreter, even over the voice of Heaven.


Also, this period gives rise to new theology- techiat hametim-resurrection of the dead-olam haba- the next life-These are concepts rejected by the Saducees and the Temple priestly class .


We  have another concept of competing schools, of pairing goes through the period of the Mishna and continues into the period of the Talmud:


For example, Rabbi Ishmael- uses of rules of logical analysis ( 13 midot)- versus Rabbi Akiba, using unusual phrases or terms as an opening to drive a truck through ( achin v atin).


Creation of early compendia_ Mikhilta, Sifra, Sifrei- Discussions based around the texts of the Torah.


Finally, c 200,Rabbi Judah Ha Nasi( Prince) is powerful and connected to the Roman Emperor, so has the clout to create a formal compendium,The Mishnah( a play on the term for Devarim, Mishneh torah- a reteaching of the Torah). Now , rules organized around core themes -Seder- Order Agriculture; Festivals; Women; Damages; Sanctity( Sacrifices); Purity. These are then divided according to topics= Masechet=Tractate.Such as Shabbat or Courts(Sanhedrin).


What is important is to note that even this foundational document for authoritative Judaism, is itself not written in a final “ Thou Shalt”, but in a query and response, with alternate answers. Thus, the very first word of the Mishna is a question,”Me Aymatai”, From when do we begin reciting the Shma of the evening, and we get two answers-the minority opinion, then the  majority opinion, and then an example in practice.


No sooner is the is the ink dry ( or, more accurately, the oral text is memorized by the students) than new issues arise!


Jews in Land of Israel have their needs, Jews in Babylonia, have more wealth and again, different needs.


Again, we have two different sets of discussions, created by different academies-those in land of Israel creating a shorter compendium, Talmud Yerushalmi, or Palestinian Talmud- written under greater oppression of the Christian emperors. In Babylonia, wealthier, generally tolerant Persian rulers, more time to develop the text, hence, much more extensive, longer, Talmud Bavli- Babylonian Talmud. Eventually, the traditions of the Palestinian Jews becomes  the foundation of Ashkenazic practice, which the Bavli becomes the foundation for Sephardic practice.


 Also the work of pairs, Rav and Shmuel, Abbay v Rava, and competing academies- Sura & Pumbeditha. Eventually, the Bavli becomes the authoritative text. New legal figure” Rav”- one who may teach the laws but can not render rulings on sacrificial animals( long since gone) as that is reserved only for the “amoraim: ( teachers of Eretz Yisrael). The text work and final editing by “ Savoraim”-reasoners.


No sooner  is the ink dry( or memorized) and new issues arise!

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