In the previous post, I spoke in passing about the tangential, rather than causal relationship between the Written and Oral Torah. In this post, I want to clarify and expand upon this idea.
In traditional Jewish learning, the divinity of the Torah leads to a fundamental axiom that the Torah text is entirely intentional. There are no extra words, letters, or even decorations of letters, and there are no accidental or meaningless omissions either. In Midrash Halacha, the Tannaic-era works of halachic scholarship that adduce laws from the Torah text, this relationship is foundational. Hence, over and over again in Midrash Halacha there is an exegetical structure in which laws or aspects of laws are connected to seemingly “extra” words in a verse.
The above seems to contradict my opening statement – it appears that laws are directly connected to the verses! A closer examination of the exegetical structure is called for. Generally, the Midrash will quote a verse, and then state that based on the plain reading of the verse, we can only deduce some aspect of the halacha. The Midrash will then ask from where we can learn the other aspects of the halacha which we know to be the complete halacha. It will then identify some extra word or phrase in the verse to attach the additional aspects of the halacha to.
Let’s take an example from the giving of the Torah. The verse in question states “ko tomar l’veit Yakov v’taged l’bnei Yisrael.” – “So shall you say to the House of Jacob, and tell to the Children of Israel.” The Midrash then says that based on the above verse, we can infer only that the men received the Torah, and goes on to ask from where can we learn that the women received it as well. The Midrash then says that the Torah’s use of the phrase ‘Beit Yakov’ comes to include the women. In other words, without that phrase, we would have understood that the men received the Torah, so its inclusion must mean that some other group aside from the men also received the Torah – namely, the women.
There’s nothing about the phrase Beit Yakov that forces us to understand it in this manner. The interpretation is entirely local, and includes no claim that Beit Yakov always refers to the women, nor does it bring any proof that this, rather than some alternative explanation is intended (for example, that Beit Yakov refers to the converts, and Bnei Yisrael refers to the direct descendants of Jacob).
What this means is that the knowledge of the dimensions of the halcha, the Oral Torah, inform the interpretation of the Written Torah. We know the halacha, so all we seek to do is find a plausible phrase on which to hang our hats. This mode of interpretation is quite free – the words barely have to suggest the meaning we wish to attribute to them. In the Talmud, we see many examples where the additional of a single letter comes to include a whole new category of subject for a ruling, even though the letter itself suggests no such textual meaning.
This illustrates exactly what I meant when I said the relationship between the Oral and Written Torah is non-contingent. On a deeper level, what it suggests is that the underlying issues in Jewish theology is not whether the Written Torah is divine, but whether, how, and to what extent the Oral Torah is divine. This is a subject we will return to again and again.