Monday, March 31, 2008

Update: "The unbroken chain of Mesorah"

I finally made some headway into the Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. One of the first articles deals, interestingly enough with the understanding of the concept of the Oral Torah, which was discussed some time ago on this blog.

Seems like the machlokes that happened in the comments to my post actually goes back to antiquity. According to Elizabeth Shanks Alexander in her essay The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, there were two major understandings of Oral Torah. The first is the idea of the "unbroken chain of transmission" which focused on the "verbatim" transmission of tradition from teacher to student. This is exemplified in the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot, as well as the story in B. Eruvin 54b which described an ingenious method that Moshe used to ensure accurate transmission whereby first he repeated the Oral Torah to Aaron, then to his sons, then to the Elders, and then to the nation. Then Aaron taught the Oral Torah to his sons, while Moshe listened, then to the Elders, then to the nation, then the sons taught the Torah in front of Moshe and Aaron, and so on.

A different view of Oral Torah can be seen in other sources. This view sees the Oral Torah as an "actualization of interpretive possibilities already embedded within the text of the Written Torah". This is demonstrated by the story of Moshe, Rabbi Akiva and the crownlets on the Torah in B. Menahot 29b. "The second set of source represents the orality of the Oral Torah in a manner quite different from the first set. Here, Oral and Written Torah differ not only in the medium of their revelation but also in their degrees of relative fixity and fluidity. Whereas the words of the Written Torah are fixed for eternity, the words of the Oral Torah are unfolded in an ongoing manner through the vigorous engagement of student and teacher with the foundational text of the Written Torah."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get the new book from Hartmann, Talks about this topic a lot.

March 31, 2008 7:56 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Can you be more specific?

March 31, 2008 8:07 PM  
Blogger The Candy Man said...

Hey kvetcher, note that the Mishna in Avot never explicitly talks about the "Oral Torah." It just says "Torah."

There are some classic Mishnas on the tradition, but the best might be Eduyot 5:6-7. Chew on this one!
Akabia b. Mahalalel testified concerning four things. They said to him, Akabia, withdraw these four things which you say, and we will make you the father of the court in Israel. He said to them: It is better for me to be called a fool all my days than that I should become even for one hour a wicked man in the sight of God; and let not men say: he withdrew his opinions for the sake of getting power....

A classic line. The Mishna continues:

... In the hour of his death he said to his son: Withdraw the four opinions which I used to declare. And he said to him: Why did not you withdraw them? He said to him: I heard them from the mouth of the many, and they heard [the contrary] from the mouth of the many. I stood fast by the tradition which I heard, and they stood fast by the tradition which they heard. But you have heard [my tradition] from the mouth of a single individual and [their tradition] from the mouth of the many. It is better to leave the opinion of the single individual and to hold by the opinion of the many. He said to him: Father, commend me to your colleagues. He said to him: I will not commend you. He said to him: Have you found in me any wrong? He said: No; your own deeds will cause you to be near, and your own deeds will cause you to be far.

Thx for an interesting post!

April 01, 2008 12:31 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>Hey kvetcher, note that the Mishna in Avot never explicitly talks about the "Oral Torah." It just says "Torah."

Not sure what you're arguing here. Do you believe that the Rabbis who put this into the first Mishna of Avot did not believe that the Oral Torah was included in the term "Torah"?

PS, good quotes!

PPS, sorry for being pedantic, but I am e-kvetcher. There is another blogger who calls himself the Kvetcher (David Kelsey), and I don't want to be confused for him.

April 01, 2008 5:56 AM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

I think it's great that you summarized an article from this interesting book. The volume is just full of new ideas, many of which deserve wider dissemination. The articles by Yaakov Elman, and Boyarin remain with me.

Jewish studies is really soemthig else. Maybe a thousand guys worldwide max produce more interesting chidushim than a hundred and fifty thousand yeshiva guys, many times over.

April 01, 2008 11:49 AM  
Blogger -suitepotato- said...

evanstonjew: "aybe a thousand guys worldwide max produce more interesting chidushim than a hundred and fifty thousand yeshiva guys, many times over."

Why do you suppose this is? All the men who attend yeshiva, who study in kolel, and so little interesting compared to a few. Is it so few are capable of being interesting? What is it to be interesting? Surely not merely being controversial for so many are and not interesting. Maybe there's a subtle truth in that ratio about men.

Anyhow, one wonders if there was a moment when Moses thought, "mmmm, eh, he could have said that better, but it says the same thing."

In the smallest of changes are the grains of avalanches.

April 01, 2008 5:32 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

sweet potato...interesting question.(lol)

A few answers are obvious. On the university side there is a great deal to be said in favor of critical inquiry, philogical training and proper methodology. On the yeshiva side they are working in a very small space that has been picked over many times. They lack imagination and lack the skills to come at the issues except in traditional ways. And most importantly they are scared to say something new if it contradicts a medieval.The number of new lumdus seforim produced in the 50 years counting by authors must be under a hundred. Most seforim are repacakging older material,likutim, nitpicking halachos.

I went to school with a guy who has put out a 500 page volume on making the proper bracha, bringing down the views of other achronim, 20 pages on cereal,etc.I can't speak for you. I say not interesting.

April 01, 2008 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> Can you be more specific?


April 01, 2008 7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life.

April 01, 2008 7:20 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

You don't think I googled it before asking? It's not so easy to find...

April 01, 2008 7:29 PM  

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