The Oral Torah is the Living Torah

Laws of Mamrim. 1:1:

The Supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem is the essence of the Oral Law. They are the pillars of instruction from whom statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire Jewish people. Concerning them, the Torah promises Deuteronomy 17:11: “You shall do according to the laws which they shall instruct you….” This is a positive commandment. Whoever believes in Moses and in his Torah is obligated to make all of his religious acts dependent on this court and to rely on them.

I highly recommend for everyone to study the subsequent two chapters on his own. As explained by R’ Kappah, ideally, and in the future, the halacha will once again be determined by a Sanhedrin. The sages will not look to the Talmud in order to derive the halacha like we do today (although perhaps we could make an argument that they stopped doing so in the last centuries and have taken on a common-law approach of only following immediate precedent). This got me to thinking about the nature of the living Oral Law and the Written Law.

When we study living organisms, whether flora or fauna, it is sometimes in our interest to preserve specimens in certain states, but when we use the methods at our disposal to do so, we kill those organisms, taking away their potential for further  growth and propagation. When you stick something in preservatives or freeze it, it may last indefinitely, but it will never more become part of the cycle that characterizes life.

The Torah was given with two components. The written law is frozen and immutable, it may not be added to or detracted from, and is to be copied from generation to generation exactly as is. It is the DNA of the living Torah, but the actual organism is the Oral Law, which was once living and breathing and open to interpretation by its transmitters. Like all life created by God, it was dynamic and adaptable, and capable of encompassing new disciplines. In the words of our sages, it was both a tree of life for those who supported it, and the water that gave life to everything else.

Thus, we could understand why it would be so wrong to commit it to writing, to preserve it exactly as it was at a given point in time. It was only in the most urgent of situations that the sages did freeze it, to seal it as it was, as the only alternative was to let it be lost forever. But it came at a cost. The preserved Oral Law was no longer capable of living, of growing,  or of reproducing, and most unfortunately, we were left with little knowledge as to how, one day, to remove it from the paradoxically necessary yet poisonous formaldehyde and resuscitate it.

2 thoughts on “The Oral Torah is the Living Torah

  1. Pingback: Rupture and Reconstruction Two Decades Later |

  2. Pingback: On the Times Commonly Presented for Birkat HaL’vana, Part 3 – The Seforim Blog

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