Monday, June 15, 2015

Rabbinics 101

Here are some basics for the readers who have astounded me with their ignorance over the last few days.

Torah She b'al peh or Oral Law.

TSBP consists of 7 components [List taken from Wikipedia because time]
  1. Halakha LeMoshe MiSina: Ancient halakot which have no connection whatever with Scripture and can not be connected with it, thus deriving their authority only from the tradition which ascribes them to Moses on Sinai.
  2. Dibre Ḳabbalah" (Words of Tradition): Halakot found in the prophetic books. Some of these originated at the time of the Prophets; but others are much older, perhaps having been transmitted orally, and committed to writing by the Prophets. 
  3. Dibre Soferim" (Words of the Scribes). Interpretations and regulations defining many written laws, as well as new halakhot, which the first scribes, beginning with the time of Ezra, formulated. 
  4. Midrash Halacha Interpretations and regulations covering the written law, as well as new halakhot, which the Tannaim deduced from Scripture by means of hermeneutic rules or by logical conclusions. There are differences of opinion among the scholars in regard to most of these explanations and definitions; but they are of equal weight with the written law, and are called also"Debar Torah" (Regulation of the Torah).
  5. Takanot: Customs and observances which were introduced at various times by different scholars. (like Purim)
  6. GizerotStatutes and decisions decreed by the Sanhedrin or court, and generally accepted, thus becoming laws which could be abrogated only by another court superior to the first one in numbers and scholarship. (like most of our shabbos laws)
  7. Hilkot MedinahStatutes and regulations for which the scholars had no tradition or allusion in Scripture, but which they accepted as standards after deriving them from the customs and laws of the country in which they were living. 
Everyone agrees that (1) is part of the original revelation on Sinai.
Everyone agrees that (3) (5), (6) and (7) were not part of the original revelation.
Everyone agrees that some of (2) goes back to Sinai and some of it doesn't.

The fun revolves around (4) Some of our great Rabbis thought that all of (4) goes back to Sinai. Others thought all of the rules of interpretation (which, oddly enough, are Greek in style and approach) go back to Sinai. Others thought none of it could be traced to Sinai and that all of it was produced by Chazal. We won't settle that dispute here and now, just be aware it exists.

Midrash Aggada and Aggada

Aggada are the non-legal parts of the Talmud and compositions of Chazal that consist of stories, ancient science, magical remedies, theological doctrines, and the like. Midrash aggada are the non-legal parts of the Talmud and compositions of Chazal that are explicitly based on verses. Neither are part of the Oral Law because, by definition, neither have anything to do with law.

The great Rabbis of long ago seemed to agree that Aggada was the creation of the Sages. There are passages in the Talmud which suggest this (here, too) and a host of outright statements made by Rishonim and Achronim. [many more on request.]

In fact, the idea that midrash aggada and aggada can be traced to Sinai appears to be rather late; certainly Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ohr Hachaim among  others had absolutely no qualms about rejecting midrash aggada and aggada when they thought the Sages were wrong. (Indeed in four places Ohr Hachaim emphasizes that such rejections of Chazal are perfectly ok when the subjest is non-legal)

Permission to Disbelieve

Jews who wish to identify as Orthodox are required to accept and follow normative Orthodox halacha; however Orthodox Jews are not required to believe that the Talmud or that TSBP is a source of revealed truth capable of providing grounds for belief. As cited in the previous passage, our Rishonim and Achronim have already given us permission to reject the theological and scientific ideas presented in midrash and midrash halacha whenever those beliefs contradict out intellects. Also, in addition to the many quotes I have already provided, we have Samson Rephael Hirsh's famous denial of the infallibility of the Sages and the Talmud when they discuss non-legal matters.

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