The Bible is Meaningless without the Talmud (Shabbos 31)
Christians today are some of the greatest supporters and friends of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. In many ways, Israel owes its very existence to Christian political activism over the last century and change. For over a millennium, however, the Jewish people suffered from Christian antisemitism. What changed in Christian attitudes towards Jews? What was the cause of this seismic shift in perspective?
The story begins with the Protestant Reformation, when Christians stopped to re-evaluate their beliefs about the Bible. One of the new ideas espoused was Sola Scriptura, meaning that, in order to understand God’s word, one should ‘solely’ examine the ‘scripture,’ without resorting to any commentary. The closest understanding to the plain meaning of the text was the correct understanding.
The Jewish people were one of the winners of that new approach to reading the Bible. Previously, the popular Christian approach was Replacement theology, which espoused the belief that Christians had replaced the Jews as the covenantal people. Such an understanding taught that any time the Bible referred to Israel, it was understood as referring to Christians. According to the tenet of Sola Scriptura, however, the literal meaning of the Bible had to be taken at face value.
If the Bible said Israel, it could not mean anything other than Israel. Which mortal could suggest that they knew better than the literal meaning of scripture? Once such an understanding gained traction, it was not long before many Christians acknowledged that God had promised the Jewish people that the exile would be followed by an ingathering and return to the Land of Israel. Christians reading the Bible through such a lens began to believe that the messianic era could not arrive until the Jews returned to Israel. Over the course of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, many Christians began engaging politically to assist in the “restoration” of the Jews to Israel.
These Christian Restorationists later became known as Christian Zionists. Many twentieth and twenty-first century milestones of the State of Israel were direct consequences of Christian Zionist efforts, from the Balfour Declaration to President Truman’s recognition of the UN partition plan. While Christians today support the State of Israel for a variety of reasons, Sola Scriptura provided the underpinnings for Christian Zionism.
And so the Jewish people have much to be thankful for this new way of Christian thinking. Sola Scriptura has been a lifeline for our nation. The literal reading of the Bible has played an integral role in the establishment of the State of Israel and the transformation of the relationship between Christians and Jews. But what does Judaism have to say about reading the Bible literally? Do we believe that the precise understanding of the text is the correct meaning?
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: כַּמָּה תּוֹרוֹת יֵשׁ לָכֶם? אָמַר לוֹ: שְׁתַּיִם, תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְתוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה. אָמַר לוֹ: שֶׁבִּכְתָב אֲנִי מַאֲמִינְךָ, וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה — אֵינִי מַאֲמִינְךָ. גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב. גָּעַר בּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ בִּנְזִיפָה. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. יוֹמָא קַמָּא אֲמַר לֵיהּ: א״ב ג״ד. לִמְחַר אֲפֵיךְ לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: וְהָא אֶתְמוֹל לָא אֲמַרְתְּ לִי הָכִי! אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לָאו עֲלַי דִּידִי קָא סָמְכַתְּ? דְּעַל פֶּה נָמֵי סְמוֹךְ עֲלַי
There was an incident involving a gentile who came before Shammai. He said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. He then came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: Didn’t you rely on my authority (as to the order of the letters)? Therefore, you must also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah (and accept the interpretations I teach you).
Traditional Judaism believes that when Moshe stood atop Mt. Sinai, he received both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah. The latter is the explanation for the former. Without it, it is impossible to discern the true meaning of the text. Even before one wishes to ascertain meaning beyond the text, one must be able to read the text, which appears with neither vowels nor punctuation. Only with the assistance of the Oral Torah can one read the words and sentences. For example, the word for ‘milk’ in Hebrew is chalav. The same word could also be read ‘chelev’, which means ‘fats’. Without the guidance of the Oral tradition, we might have thought that we could not mix meat and meat-fats. Only when we read the Divine text with the direction of the Divine explanation do we know God’s intent. Ultimately, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi and his successors redacted the Oral Torah, which became known as the Talmud (consisting of the Mishnah and Gemara).
Throughout our history, movements questioning the veracity of the Oral Torah have arisen, from the Sadducees to the Karaites, and many others. Adherents of these groups did not practice Judaism homogeneously, as each felt that their understanding of the meaning of scripture was the most precise. By contrast, traditional Judaism has maintained a consistency and uniformity across the globe and across history, such that the differences in religious observance between traditional Jews are so minor that they have never constituted a fissure in the tradition. A Sephardic Jew can pray in an Ashkenazi shul and eat in a Yemenite home, with the knowledge and comfort that the prayer service and the food will meet a familiar and acceptable religious standard.
God appears to have a sense of humour. At first glance, there is a certain irony in the fact that many of Israel’s greatest supporters today are Christians who are committed to reading the Bible literally, a concept that runs contrary to traditional Jewish belief. The truth, however, is that nobody reads the Torah literally. The story of Hillel and the convert demonstrates that it is impossible for anyone to read the Bible without the assistance of the Oral Torah. The only way to make any sense of the Written Torah is with the accompaniment of the guidance and explanation of the Oral Torah, as transmitted via the Sages through the generations.
Unless one is reading from an actual Torah scroll, a commitment to a ‘Sola Scriptura’ understanding of the Bible assumes a text that has been approved by rabbis adhering to the Oral tradition. If your Bible translates ‘chalav’ as ‘milk’, and not ‘fats’, then you have joined the Oral Torah club. There is nothing independent of the Oral Torah that would suggest that the precise meaning should be one or the other.
And perhaps therein lies the underlying reason for the intense love many Christians feel for Israel, the land and the people. As one pastor once commented to me, without Judaism’s foundation, Christianity would be a cult, a completely invented religion. The faith of the most fervently dedicated believer in the literal word of the Bible is rooted in their belief that the Sages faithfully transmitted the correct interpretation from Sinai until the time the Torah was translated into Greek, in the form of the Septuagint.
On a certain level, Christians have always recognized the need to revert to Jewish tradition and rabbinic guidance to aid in their understanding of the Bible. Maimonides writes that we may teach Torah to Christians, as they believe in the Divinity of the Torah. Other religions have questioned the truth of the Torah, but even when Christians were not particularly friendly towards the Jewish people, they always remained steadfast in their commitment to the Bible’s authenticity as the word of God. Perhaps that was Hillel’s rationale for teaching Torah to the fellow who claimed to want to hear only the Written Torah. The mere fact that he had sought out the guidance of a rabbi was sufficient proof of his belief that he could not understand the Torah by reading it alone, without the advice of an approved Torah teacher.
The Torah is Hashem’s guide to life for all humankind. That’s why He instructed Moshe to translate the Torah into seventy languages. And indeed, three millennia later, no other Book has had a greater impact on the world than the Bible, from the standpoint of human morality to the repatriation of the Jewish people to Israel in modern times. May we continue to see a flourishing of traditional Torah learning and support for the State of Israel!