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A Particular Take on Things

07/11/2019 09:40:58 AM


I am a Rabbinic Jew. Not because I went to seminary to acquire rabbinic ordination, but because the Judaism I practice is based on the interpretations of scripture through the lens of centuries of rabbinic discourse. This is to say that the religious laws that we encounter in our Bible are not always taken literally, but rather are understood via a particular legal system that guided early Jewish sages. Traditionally, this legal system is called the Torah Shebaal Peh, or the Oral Torah. It is the Oral Torah and its principles that provide the context for biblical law, and the Rabbis who subscribed to the authority of the Oral Torah were the stewards of Rabbinic Judaism. For example, it is the Oral Torah that explains that even though the Written Torah legislates an eye for an eye, it really means monetary compensation. Throughout the centuries, the Rabbis will discuss why this is the case, but ultimately as Rabbinic Jews, we follow the understanding of the Rabbis, and not just the plain sense of the text.

In Parshat Hukkat, we similarly see the influence of the Oral Law. Many in our community have encountered the Jewish practice of mourning thirty days after the passing of a loved one. If one was to search Scripture, they would notice the absence of any law prescribing this practice. Yet, Parshat Hukkat is indeed its source. In this week’s portion, the mantle of priesthood is passed from Aaron to his son Elazar. Moses, Aaron, and Elazar climb Mount Hor, Moses removes the sacred vestments from his brother, and passes them to the new future High Priest. The text then relates that Aaron breathes his last breath on the mountain, and the Israelites cry over Aaron for thirty days. This verse serves as the porotype for mourning in the Jewish tradition, and is based on the Rabbinic reading of the text. Without the Oral Torah and the Rabbinic tradition, Judaism would look starkly different.

While the Written Torah takes center stage as we ritually read the Torah throughout the week and in services, the laws as presented in the Torah only provide a partial portrait of modern Jewish practice. And while the Oral Torah provides the systems and assumptions that give Judaism its current configuration, it is also the Oral Torah that has ensured that the Written Torah could transcend its own literal implications. By assuming the Written Torah needs to be interpreted, one opens the door for adaptability and reconfigurations. Thus as the latest generation of Rabbinic Jews, it is our heritage to study both the Written and Oral laws, and find new meanings in our ancient religious texts.

This Shabbat, it is my prayer that we have opportunities to deepen our own understanding of both the Written and Oral Laws, and that the Written Torah will forever have meaning and relevancy in our daily lives.

Shabbat Shalom

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784