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January 30, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

This week’s Torah portion contains the first mitzvah applicable to the Jewish people collectively: that of celebrating the new month (12:2).   However, it does not address how to establish the new month, unlike the “Oral Law” requiring witnesses to a new moon and a Jewish court to judge their veracity.

Miller writes (citing Ibn Ezra) that because the Torah fails to address the latter issue,  “you learn at the very outset, when embarking on your study of the very first precept of the Torah, that Scripture can only be understood by means of the Oral Law.”

This claim does not make sense to me in two ways.  First, in context, there was no need for witnesses, etc.- at the time of Moses there was only one Jewish community and it was pretty obvious to everyone when there was a new month.  By contrast, when Jewish communities were miles (or hundreds of miles) from each other, it may have been more difficult for Jews to coordinate about chronological issues.

Second, the broader argument is that because the Torah is ambiguous, there must have been a Divinely mandated Oral Law to clarify the ambiguity.  If by “Oral Law” you mean “tradition of interpretation” generally, perhaps this claim makes sense.  But if by “Oral Law” you mean “Divine law given directly to Moses”, I don’t find it persuasive at all- because (a) the Mishnah (the first “oral law” document available to us) is full of disagreements among rabbis and (b) even if (a) was true, the Mishnah itself is ambiguous- otherwise there’d be no need for a Talmud.  In other words, the Oral Law is just as ambiguous as the Written Law, if not more so, and each attempt to clarify its ambiguities gave rise to new ones.

Assuming that God gave us the Written Torah, God simply chose to give us ambiguous rules, and that’s that.


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