THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

Shiur #23: The Karaites and the Oral Law (II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar



     In the previous lecture, I noted the common denominator between Karaism and philosophy, the shared desire on the part of both movements to use the intellect in order to circumvent tradition and directly face the phenomenon in question – the world, in the case of the philosophers, and the Torah, in the case of the Karaites.


     The conflict between the intellect and rational argumentation, on the one hand, and tradition, on the other, as it follows from the Karaitic understanding, leads R.  Yehuda Halevi to present his fundamental argument regarding the relationship between the intellect and the service of God.  Until this point, this argument had been directed against the philosophers, who, in their search for God, tried to use the intellect in order to circumvent the Torah and prophecy.  Now, the argument is invoked against the Karaites, who, in their attempt to understand the Torah, wish to use the intellect in order to circumvent the Oral Law.


This will show you that the approach to God is only possible through the medium of God's command, and there is no road to the knowledge of the commands of God except by way of prophecy, but not by means of speculation and reasoning.  There is, however, no other connection between us and these commands except truthful tradition.  Those who have handed down these laws to us were not a few sporadic individuals, but a multitude of learned and lofty men nearly approaching the prophets.  And if the bearers of the Law had only been the priests, Levites, and the Seventy Elders, the chain beginning with Moses himself would never have been interrupted.  (III, 53)


     In his polemic against the Karaites, Rihal returns to his fundamental position regarding the mitzvot –we cannot understand how they work and how they prepare the world for the resting of the Divine influence (see the three lectures on the mitzvot).


     He lists the various groups who had unsuccessfully attempted to draw close to God or to make use of such intimacy by way of the intellect (the alchemists, the necromancers, and the like).


     The attempt, then, to analyze the Torah's mitzvot and to understand them solely through the intellect will not achieve the desired result; this is not only because the Torah intentionally concealed certain matters in order to preserve the relationship between God and man, as was suggested in the previous lecture, but also because our intellectual faculties do not suffice to understand God's intentions without a tradition to define and explain them.  Just as the mitzvot themselves (at least the received mitzvot) are not subject to rational understanding, and rational understanding could not have brought us to them, their analysis and assessment cannot be achieved through rational argumentation either, and we therefore need "outside help" – namely, the tradition.


     Rihal voices a qualification, and it is not by chance that this qualification is expressed with respect to the study of the Oral Law:


Follow not, therefore, your own taste and opinion in religious questions, lest they throw you into doubts, which lead to heresy.  Nor will you be in harmony with one of your friends on any point.  Every individual has his own taste and opinion.  It is only necessary to examine the roots of the traditional and written laws with the inferences codified for practice, in order to trace the branches back to the roots.  Where they lead you, put your faith there, though your mind and feeling shrink from it.  (III, 49)


     The Rabbi allows for rational argument to be used in everything related to the branches of the mitzvot, but only after two conditions have been met:


1)   We are dealing exclusively with "tracing the branches back to the roots." That is to say, we are not dealing with stimulating the growth of new branches based on logic, but rather with an attempt to provide a logical explanation that will connect the roots to the conclusions.  For this, however, it is necessary to accept both the roots and the conclusions.  This is accomplished by way of the tradition, which is the exclusive authority on these matters.  For example, it is legitimate to seek a logical explanation of how the rabbinic fences serve the basic law, or even how Chazal arrived from the basic laws to the fences.  But no attempt must be made to establish fences based on logic alone (as was done by the Karaites).


2)   Even the logic permitted by the Rabbi is not the logic of each individual; rather, it also is derived from tradition.  There is a traditional manner and traditional tools even in the realm of rational argumentation.  The reference here may be to the "thirteen rules of interpretation" and the rules for halakhic analysis and decision-making that have been passed down from one generation to the next.


It seems to me that this opportunity that the Rabbi provides the Torah student is connected to two points:


1)   Rihal's general tendency, according to which use of rational argumentation is meant solely to calm to heart – "in order to trace the branches back to the roots."[1]

2)   The study of the Oral Law makes greater use of the intellect than any other branch of Jewish knowledge.  The Gemara is replete with logical arguments and logical objections to such arguments.  Inasmuch as human intellect seems to be an important criterion in Talmud study, rational argumentation cannot be banished in a sweeping manner, as can be done, according to Rihal, in the theological-philosophical realm.  Rihal therefore asserts that use of the intellect in this context is possible when the above-mentioned conditions are met.  These conditions restrict the use of the intellect by negating the possibility that it will serve as a source of authority and condition for observance and by designating the traditional tools that must be adopted in order to use it.[2]




     Regarding the Oral Law, Rihal raises a number of isolated points that I wish to cite here and comment upon:


1)   "Bal tosif:"


Rihal asserts that the prohibition of bal tosif, adding to the Torah's mitzvot, is not a prohibition relating to the number of mitzvot, but rather a prohibition connected to the authority of the legislator.  It is directed at "the masses, that they should not conjecture and theorize, and contrive laws according to their own conception" (III, 41).


2)   Halakhic midrashim and their relationship to the plain meaning of the biblical text:


Rihal makes an effort to show that even Chazal'shalakhic interpretation of Scripture, which at times appears to contradict the plain sense of the biblical text, is not utterly detached from the simple understanding of the verses.  He does this with respect to "on the morrow of the Sabbath" (III, 41), as well as "an eye for an eye" (III, 47).


Elsewhere, however, the Khazar king raises the argument that it sometimes appears as if Chazal'shalakhic interpretations are not in consonance with the plain meaning of the text:


The Khazar king: Indeed, several details in their sayings appear to me inferior to their general principles.  They employ verses of the Torah in a manner without regard to common sense.  One can only say that the application of such verses once for legal deductions, another time for homiletic purposes, does not tally with their real meaning.  Their Aggadas and tales are often against reason.  (III, 68)


     After the Rabbi demonstrates to the Khazar king that the rabbinic interpretations are precise and faithful to logic and wisdom, he suggests that the fact that they do not correspond to the plain meaning of the text can be understood as follows:


The Rabbi: Let us rather assume two other possibilities.  Either they employ secret methods of interpretation which we are unable to discern, and which were handed down to them together with the method of the "Thirteen Rules of Interpretation,' or they use biblical verses as a kind of fulcrum of interpretation in a method called asmakhta, and make them a sort of hall mark of tradition.  An instance is given in the following verse: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat'" (Bereishit 2:16).  It forms the basis of the seven Noahide laws in the following manner: ["He] commanded" refers to jurisdiction.  "The Lord" refers to the prohibition of blasphemy.  "God" refers to the prohibition of idolatry.  "The man" refers to the prohibition of murder.  "Saying" refers to the prohibition of incest.  "Of every tree of the garden," the prohibition of rape.  "You may surely eat," the prohibition of consuming flesh from the living animal.  There is a wide difference between these injunctions and the verse.  The people, however, accepted these seven laws as tradition, connecting them with the verse as an aid to memory.  It is also possible that they applied both methods of interpreting verses, or others which are now lost to us.  (III, 73)


     Rihal proposes two ways to deal with this problem:


1)   Chazal employed rules for analyzing and interpreting Scripture that had been handed down to them through the tradition and which were subsequently lost.


2)   Chazal had received halakhic rulings, and used the verses merely as asmakhta, "a support," or even less than that, "as an aid to memory."


It should be noted that the second suggestion is very far-reaching; it turns most halakhic rulings into "halakha given to Moshe at Sinai," the source of the laws lying in tradition and not in exegesis.  This fits in well with what we saw in the previous lecture regarding Rihal's understanding of the inspired source of the Oral Law.  From this perspective, exegesis is of marginal significance, and merely a memory aid or a "support" or "sign." The spring from which the Oral law flows is that of the tradition that comes from the prophets, prophecy, and the holy spirit.


It seems to be, as I had noted in the previous lecture, that the Rambam would have reservations about this suggestion as well, for he maintains that the primary instruments of halakhic decision-making are halakhic interpretation and analysis; the results are not necessarily known from the outset.


Rihal's first suggestion does not absolutely deny the value of exegesis, but it also removes it from the realm of rational human analysis.  It insists that we are dealing with rational analysis that uses interpretative tools that can only be acquired by way of the tradition.


This is expressed in the experiential ramification towards which Rihal leads his reader in all that is connected to study of the Oral Law:


It is also possible that they applied both methods of interpreting verses, or others which are now lost to us.  Considering the well-known wisdom, piety, zeal, and number of the Sages which excludes a common plan, it is our duty to follow them.  If we feel any doubt, it is not due to their words, but to our own intelligence.  This also applies to the Torah and its contents.  We must ascribe the defective understanding of it to ourselves.  (III, 73)


     The assumption that the human intellect cannot approach the Divine Torah, and that Chazal had the appropriate tools to reach it, leads to humility and submission - first and foremost before the Torah and secondarily before Chazal.


     Rihal lived at a time when the intellect reigned supreme and with it the dizzying arrogance that man is not obligated to any truth other than that dictated by his own reason.  During such a period, the humble assertion that "we must ascribe the defective understanding to ourselves" and to the limitations of our understanding was daring and novel.


     The understanding that does not bestow exclusive authority upon Chazal to determine Divine truth on the basis of prophecy, inspiration, and tradition, but rather attributes their authority almost entirely to the license granted to them by God (the position of the Rambam) leaves considerable room for disagreeing with Chazal and their understanding.  If the only reason not to rebel against their rulings is the authorization that had been granted to them, and not to us, to issue rulings and decide, there is greater opportunity for argument.[3]


1)   "Fences:"


Rihal emphasizes that the fences established by Chazal do not undermine the Written Law, but rather strengthen it, and they were instituted for that very purpose (III, 40-41).


2)   Discovery of a Torah scroll during the second Temple period:


Rihal is not prepared to accept in the literal sense that the people who lived during the second Temple period had forgotten the Torah.  He argues that this does not fit in with their knowledge concerning the construction of the Temple and the altar and the offering of the sacrifices, which presumably were brought.  He therefore proposes that the verse, "And they found written in the Torah" (Nechemia 8:14) refers to an awakening and reinforcement, rather than a discovery (III, 54-63).[4]  


3)   Religious striving:


Alongside the great advantages of clinging to tradition that Rihal discusses, he mentions also one disadvantage:


The Khazar king: I have neither seen anything of the kind, nor heard about it.  I see, nevertheless, that they are very zealous.

The Rabbi: This, as I have already told you, belongs in the province of speculative theory.  Those who speculate on the ways of glorifying God for the purpose of His worship, are much more zealous than those who practice the service of God exactly as it is commanded.  The latter are at ease with their tradition, and their soul is calm like one who lives in a town, and they fear not any hostile opposition.  The former, however, is like a straggler in the desert, who does not know what may happen.  He must provide himself with arms and prepare for battle like one expert in warfare.  Be not, therefore, astonished to see them so energetic, and do not lose courage if you see the followers of tradition, I mean the Rabbanites, falter.  The former look for a fortress where they can entrench themselves, while the latter lie down on their couches in a place well fortified of old.  (III, 36-37)


     Rihal extends the advantage enjoyed by the Karaites to all those who wish to draw near to God by way of their intellect and reason.  The main disadvantage of this approach, as Rihal demonstrated over the course of the book, is the absolute and exclusive reliance on human reason.  Such a person has nothing to hold on to beyond his intellect.  He sits as judge, and the entire world, even God and His hosts, pass before him.


     A person who lacks external support to rest upon is absolutely dependent upon himself, his understanding, and his achievements.  Alongside the limitations that such a lifestyle imposes, extraordinary responsibility rests on his shoulders.  He cannot divert his attention for even a moment from intellectual analysis.  Everything that he does must follow from rational investigation, or, as the Rabbi refers to it, "zealotry."


     A person who relies only on his own intellect is very active.  He demonstrates initiative and leadership in everything related to his contemplative and religious world.


This is not true of the traditionalist.  The traditionalist who accepts the authority of the tradition and its sages does not have to worry about his religious observance.  Consciousness and insight are not essential, for his actions are not dictated by reason and understanding, but by the authority upon which he relies.


Rihal does not condemn this passivity.  He analyzes and explains its source and in that way he understands it.  But does he demonstrate understanding in this regard? Is it easy for him to see his opponents within and without, the Karaites and the philosophers, striving day after day, hour after hour, with their Divine service, while those who belong to his own camp demonstrate carelessness and at times even indifference? I have my doubts!


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] See lecture no. 8, note 8.

[2] Rihal says something similar about the Sages of the second Temple period: "The view of the Rabbis is based on the tradition of the Prophets" (III, 39).

[3] Rihal makes an important comment on the interpretation of the midrashim and aggadot when he says that there are three types of aggadot:

1)   Aggadot that come to strengthen and confirm an idea or a belief.

2)   Aggadot that offer a "historical" description of the visions of the leading Tannaim and Amoraim.

3)   Aggadot that serve as parables for mysteries that must not be revealed.  (In this context, Rihal offers an interesting interpretation of two well-known midrashim that deal with the things that were created before Creation (III, 73).


Rihal concludes the third part of his book by mentioning statements and midrashim that do not fall into any one of the above-mentioned categories.  He argues that these were arbitrarily added by disciples who did not understand them only because they had been stated by their masters, and these statements presumably have concealed meanings.  But he introduces a note of apology into his words, saying that these statements have no halakhic significance, and as such the absence of any convincing explanation is not especially problematic.

[4] In this context, let me add two comments:

1)   With these words, Rihal presents his understanding of Scripture's historiosophy: "The compiler of the Holy Writ did not pay so much attention to hidden matters as to those generally known" (III, 63).  That is to say, Scripture means to record the main events that have significance and lasting importance, but not necessarily all the details of the events under discussion.

2)   Rihal's interpretation of the finding of the Torah scroll is especially significant in light of the fact that this event is the foundation of the critical method propounded by the school of Wellhausen.