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The “Rabbinic Judaism” Myth

I think the holier than thou attitude of Jewish Orthodoxy is rather funny. Orthodoxy is not at all similar to traditional Judaism. Real traditional Judaism was based on the Temple, with a special class of people, Priests, making animal sacrifices. A far cry from the Rabbinic Judaism that evolved after the destruction of the temple.

Let’s take this as a FAQ question:

Isn’t it true that modern “Rabbinic Judaism” is a far cry from what existed during the days of the Temple?

Here would be a first stab at an answer:

This is a common argument, but a study of Jewish and historical sources shows that all evidence is much to the contrary.

Neither of us is surprised that the Talmud presents its laws as having always been part of the Torah. Those who believe “Rabbinic Judaism” to be a later development posit that the Rabbis – either from deception or delusion – all claimed that their laws had existed from the beginning. What we should not expect, on the other hand, is to find evidence of Talmudic-style Rabbinic legal wrangling hundreds of years before the Temple was destroyed. Yet this is precisely what we do find: Hillel, Shammai and their students all lived and died while the Temple was standing, and the Talmud records literally hundreds of arguments attributed to them.

Furthermore, if the Rabbis were developing new laws from the written Torah, then the Talmud should have presented how various Rabbis interpret the verses. Far more often, what we find is just the opposite: “from which verse does Rabbi X derive law Y?” This only makes sense if the Oral Law was something which all the Rabbis knew, accepted and understood in advance of their debates.

And finally, were it the case that new laws were being created, we should have expected a far greater divergence of opinion than that which we actually find. As many have pointed out, any number of Torah laws, from Shabbos, to Tefillin (Phylacteries), to Tzitzis (fringes on a Tallis, a four-cornered garment), could be interpreted in a multitude of different ways. And indeed, the Talmud is filled with arguments about these laws… but how great are these arguments? Ask a knowledgeable Rabbi for the most relevant, most important difference of opinion represented in the Talmud, and he might well answer: the law of a “psik reisha d’lo nicha lei” – which I will explain below.

Let’s first look at where all these Rabbis agree:

All agree that G-d exists and gave the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.
All agree that G-d gave an Oral Law along with the written Torah.
All agree that Shabbos runs from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
All agree that the “labors” prohibited on Shabbos are rigidly defined.
All agree that there are precisely 39 such labors, no more, no less.
All agree on each and every one of the 39 labors.
All agree that for doing a labor deliberately, the punishment was death.
All agree that the aforementioned penalty could only be applied under such restrictive regulations that it was almost impossible to do.
All agree that for doing a labor negligently, a sacrifice was to be offered.
All agree that for doing a labor accidentally, there was no punishment.

So where do they finally argue? Let’s say I want to move a bench across the lawn on Saturday afternoon. The lawn is fenced in and clearly my private domain. But dragging the leg of the bench will create a furrow, such as one makes before seeding crops – and that is one of the 39 forbidden labors. I don’t want the furrow, I just want to get the bench from point A to point B, but there isn’t any other way to do it. Am I allowed to do this, or not?

Congratulations. We’ve just found the biggest argument in the entire Talmud.

If the laws were being created on the spot, wouldn’t these intelligent, imaginative and highly analytical Rabbis have found more areas of disagreement? Throughout history, Jews have been highly educated and also opinionated – “if you have two Jews, you’ve got three opinions” – and they couldn’t find more to argue?

No, because the truth is that they were working with a body of Law which had already existed for thousands of years – but which they were writing down because they saw Torah was in danger of being forgotten. Entire tractates discuss laws regarding sacrifices and every other element of Temple service, and the Rabbis are those who have taught us what the Kohanim (priests) did, what the Levites did, and what others were permitted to do. Not only did they not usurp Priestly authority, they recorded that authority in great detail.

If we examine “external sources,” we find additional evidence that the Oral Law and Rabbinic “fences around the Torah” were commonly known many years before the Temple’s destruction. Even the Christian Gospels record that Jesus was challenged because his disciples did not wash their hands in ritual fashion before eating bread – a Rabbinic enactment never recorded in Jewish sources until hundreds of years later!

In addition, the “Pharisaic Rabbis” were not one sect among many, but the controlling authorities. “The masses follow the Pharisaic Rabbis,” writes Josephus. The same is clear from the Christian works. Rabbinic Judaism was not a post-Temple creation, but was normative Judaism while the Temple stood. There is no valid reason to reject the assertion of the Talmudic Rabbis that they were merely recording that which was part of Jewish tradition since Mt. Sinai, and remains a central part of the Jewish heritage to this day.

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