Are the Rabbis Right?
By Dr. Michael Brown
It’s often said by the rabbinic community to Christians that you cannot have a Christianity without a Christ. And it’s said in somewhat of a negative way. In other words, you can have a Judaism without a Messiah, but you cannot have a Christianity without a Christ.
I don’t take that as an insult. I thank God for sending us the Messiah. But I want to give you a parallel statement— you cannot have rabbinic Judaism without a rabbi. You cannot have traditional Judaism without a tradition.
According to the rabbinic teaching, quoting from an introduction to the Talmud by a famous Jewish scholar named Zevi Hirsch Chajes, “The Torah, divine instruction, is divided into two parts: the written and the unwritten law. The former, the written law, consists of the Pentateuch, which was divinely revealed to Moses at Sinai.”
Everyone accepts the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) as authoritative, the written law that God gave and that formed the basis for all later Jewish thought, all later Jewish law, all later Jewish teaching. This is the foundation and I agree with this. But now Chajes goes on to say “the latter, the unwritten law, comprises expositions and interpretations which were communicated to Moses orally as a supplement to the former.”
The traditional Jewish view is that God gave Moses the written law, which is often obscure and doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. That was put down in writing. And then God told Moses all the other things, really hundreds and thousands of laws and interpretations and insights into the written Scriptures. He told Moses to pass them on to Joshua and then Joshua to the elders that lived in his day and then the elders to the prophets, and so on right up to Jesus’ day and then after that right up to the rabbinic community to this day.
Some of those traditions got written down. That’s called the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the later Jewish law codes. Other traditions were just passed on orally. But according to Chajes, “Allegiance to the authority of the said rabbinic tradition is binding upon all sons of Israel since these explanations and interpretations have come down to us by word of mouth, from generation to generation right from the time of Moses.”
Those sentences that I just quoted to you are the traditional, standard view. The oral law was handed down to Moses and he handed it down, directly transmitted it, and it’s been transmitted verbatim throughout all the ages.
And it says here, “They have been transmitted to us, precise, correct, unadulterated. And he who does not give his adherence to the unwritten law and the rabbinic tradition has no right to share the heritage of Israel.”
Chaim Schimmel, a Jewish lawyer who wrote a book called The Oral Law, speaking of our Jewish people, says this, and this is very surprising: “They do not follow the literal word of the Bible, nor have they ever done so. They have been fashioned and ruled by the verbal interpretation of the written word, more particularly by the Torah, which embraces both the written and the oral law.”
Now here’s the problem I have with all of this. I can show you by the five books of Moses and throughout the rest of the Scripture that there was no such thing as an authoritative oral tradition. God made a covenant with Israel for all time based on a written word and a written word alone. Every single reference in the entire Hebrew Bible to violating the Torah of Moses is only a reference to violating the written Torah. There is never any reference to violating any oral law, oral tradition or anything. Why? Because it didn’t exist. It was developed much later and then in the memory of the people was attributed to an earlier time in history.
Yet despite the lack of evidence, the rabbinic community has placed great importance on the oral law. Tractate Gittin, 60b of the Babylonian Talmud says: “The Holy One, blessed be He, did not make His covenant with Israel except by virtue of the oral law.” And then in the Jerusalem Talmud, in Tractate Pe’ah, Section three, Halakhah three, a rabbi was trying to figure out which was more important, the oral law or the written law. He says: “Words were given orally and words were given in writing and I didn’t know which of the two sets was the more valuable. However, from the verse, Exodus 34:27, ‘According to these words have I made a covenant with you…,’ we learn that those that were transmitted orally are the more valuable.”
What does Exodus 34:27 have to do with the oral law? Let me read this verse to you from the New Jewish Version (all Scriptures below are from this version): “And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.” Look at that. “Write down these commandments.” How do they get the interpretation based on this verse that the oral law is more valuable than the written law because it explains and interprets the written law? Very simply—by a total misinterpretation of the Hebrew words translated “in accordance.” The Hebrew words by themselves would mean “on the mouth.” But every Hebrew scholar would agree that here the words mean “in accordance.”
So God didn’t say I’m making a covenant with you based on the oral law. He said I’m making a covenant with you based on what you’re going to write down. Many times the rabbinic community accuses Messianic Jews of taking Scripture out of context and of twisting the meaning of Scripture. And I’d say with all respect to the great learning that many rabbis do have, that the foundations of rabbinic Judaism are based on misinterpretation and twisting of Scripture.
What I want to challenge you with is this: by giving oral law a higher place than God’s written Word, rabbinic tradition has usurped divine authority. Rabbinic tradition has replaced the prophetic voice. Rabbinic tradition has taken the place of a face-to-face encounter with God.
Let me explain to you what I mean by a face-to-face encounter with God. In Deuteronomy 5:2-4, Moses is speaking to the children of Israel as they are about to enter the promised land after almost forty years of wandering in the wilderness, He says: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb [Sinai]. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire….”
You say, “Well, what does that mean?” Didn’t God make a covenant with our forefathers and here Moses is saying he didn’t make it with our fathers, but only with us?
Here’s what it means. Moses said that God made the covenant with us the living. Yes, he did make a covenant with your fathers, but they’re dead now. They died in the wilderness. You who heard God speak from the mountain face to face and are still alive, you are the ones He made the covenant with.
Why? Because God doesn’t make covenants with dead people, but only with living people. I can’t say, “Well, God made a covenant with my forefathers, therefore I am in it.” No. I have to myself enter into it. I myself have to have that living experience, that living entering into the relationship of the covenant with God.
But didn’t God also make a covenant with our children? Yes, but they themselves must enter into it in a living way.
When I asked an ultra-orthodox man why he lives the way he lives, the basic gist of his answer was, “Well, it’s pretty good. My father did it, I learned it from him, now I’m going to teach my children and they’re going to learn it from me and they’re going to grow up and do the same things I do.”
Have you entered into that relationship with God that Moses and the first generation of Israelites had, or have you simply mimicked what you learned and your fathers mimicked what they learned? I don’t mean mimicked in a negative way, I mean following traditions that have been learned by rote. Is that what you’re doing as a traditional Jew?
One of the foundations of rabbinic Judaism is that the majority rules. The only text in the Bible that is used to prove that is Exodus 23:2-3: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.” In other words, don’t follow the majority (mighty). What the rabbis did is knock out the word “don’t” and just said, “Follow the majority.”
If you’ll read rabbinic scholars talking about it, this verse is admittedly taken out of context and changed in meaning. Nowhere does the Bible hint at such a thing, that the majority of the leaders in the community have the right view. In fact, basically every time that you read the history of our Jewish people in the Bible, you’ll see very plainly that the majority, even the majority of leaders, was almost always wrong.
“How do you know who was right or wrong?” you ask. The first thing is that we have the written word. Whoever violated or changed the meaning of the written word could not be following God. They could not be right. Not only that, God would confirm His Word with miracles, signs, and wonders. And finally, God spoke to His people through the prophets.
One of the greatest rabbis who ever lived was Moses Mamonides (1135-1204). In his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, he says some very startling things. He says that if someone who is a proven prophet tells you to follow the literal word of the Torah and the literal word runs contrary to the rabbinic interpretation, he’s a false prophet. That is saying that human rabbinic authority is more weighty, more powerful, more decisive than the testimony of a proven prophet following the literal word of the Scripture. If you accept this, then the plain sense of the Bible is no longer binding. You can make anything mean anything.
The rabbi’s view is that somehow or another rabbinic interpretation is the true interpretation of the written law, even when it seems to contradict what is written down. What I say is this: according to Exodus 24, verses 3-4, it says that Moses read aloud all the words that were written down in the book and that that was the covenant that the Lord made with the children of Israel. (See also Exodus 34:27.)
Joshua 1:8 says “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.” Did you get that? “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips….” That’s what God gave to the people of Israel. It’s the written Torah. The oral Torah, the oral tradition was something that came in much later and violates prophetic authority.
I remember when I first believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that he had come to fulfill the promises in the Torah that God would raise up a prophet and that he was the last great prophet that God raised up to speak to Israel. I understood that he came as the fulfillment of the image of the high priest in the Torah who would stand and make sacrifice and make atonement for the sins of the people.
It says in Isaiah 53, that the righteous servant of the Lord,
makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; assuredly I will give him the many as his portion, he shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners (vs. llb-12).
When I understood that Jesus made atonement for me, my life was radically changed. I want you to understand this great mystery, that Jesus who was exalted and recognized as the Messiah and loved and worshiped by men and women, millions and millions of them all over the world, to this day, was a Jewish carpenter who was nailed to a tree and despised by our own people. And to this day is despised by many of our own people. But He is the key. That’s the mystery. He was the exalted One, He was the despised One. He is One and the same.
Are the rabbis right about Talmud? Are the rabbis right about Jesus?