Part Six: What Jews Who Know Authentic Judaism Believe: The Architecture of Judaism — The Talmud, the Halakhic Codes, and Authoritative Rabbinic Responsa
(For Ellen of blessed memory.)
This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly and completely in one single article or even in a limited series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians.
The purpose of this series is to inform readers authentically as to what Jews believe, to demystify. For those who live by other monotheistic faiths, may you be blessed in your pursuit of justice, kindness, morality, and ethics as you serve the One True Creator according to your understanding and belief. As explained in greater detail in Part 4, Judaism does not permit Jews to proselytize others.
Previous installments in this series can be found at these links:
Part One: The Basic Definitions of Jews and Non-Orthodox Jewish Denominations — can be found here.
Part Two: The Orthodox — can be found here.
Part Three: The Ethnicities — can be found here.
Part Four: Non-Jews — can be found here.
Part Five: What Jews Who Know Authentic Judaism Believe: The Oral Law and Written Law — can be found here.
8. The Architecture of Judaism — The Talmud, the Halakhic Codes, and Authoritative Rabbinic Responsa
The core of Judaism is rooted in the Oral Law that was transmitted approximately a thousand years before being integrated. Inevitably, over the centuries some of that law has been lost for the rest of time until the Messiah arrives. That is what happens with humans — because we are human. Likewise, with centuries of oral transmission among a faith community united by one Torah but divided by continents, cultures, languages, and centuries, exacerbated by living in eras when the primary objective was to survive anti-Jewish massacres so that descendants could carry the legacy, there evolved different transmissions. That is no different from how American law under the same one clearly written Constitution has evolved somewhat differently over approximately 230 years across a single continent, riven by differently nuanced cultures such as the more liberal Northeast, the more conservative Deep South, the more centrist Midwest, and the Wild West. Over time America has carved out approximately a dozen different federal legal jurisdictions — appellate districts of the United States Courts of Appeal — as well as fifty separate state jurisdictions. On the most critical defining issues, the existential issues that define a nation, there even is a Supreme Court that steps in to harmonize and create uniformity. And thus it operates in Judaism.
The Torah — the Written Law — serves as sort of a Constitution. The Oral Law, which remained unwritten for its first thousand years, finally was integrated in the form of the Mishnah two millennia ago, when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (the Leader), the leading rabbinic authority of his time, ruled that unbridled Roman persecutions and massive executions of Jewish religious and spiritual leaders during the era when they crucified Jesus, threatened to leave the Jews without any authoritative living minds capable of continuing the transmission. He felt, therefore, that if the Oral Law were not then perpetuated in writing, all of Judaism’s core would be lost. Scholars therefore were assigned to travel to academies and record what was being taught orally, and Rabbi Yehudah gathered it all together, compiling the Mishnah. The gathered materials were too voluminous for everything to be included, and a thousand years of separate oral transmissions also had caused a certain variance of teachings. So he documented all laws, also preserving many dissenting opinions — because, even though the minority rulings were not being practiced as the dominant practice, perhaps they once had been the original teaching Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) had learned at Mount Sinai during those 40 days and nights when G-d orally had taught him all of Judaism. Likewise, many important laws and teachings that could not be included in the Mishnah because of voluminosity were preserved elsewhere under the category of “b’righ’-ta.”
Three centuries later, as new developments and world innovations emerged, new rabbinic discussions had unfolded. It was much the same as has happened in America since 1789. The Constitution did not address whether Nazis may march in Skokie, Illinois confronting Holocaust survivors with signs reading “Hitler Was Right”; whether police need to apprise criminal suspects of their rights to obtain counsel, whether electric chairs comprise cruel and unusual punishment, and whether telephones may be wiretapped. Instead, as time and new technologies and ideas emerged, these fundamental questions came before the courts to adjudicate based on the foundational Constitutional principles set centuries earlier. Ultimately, even if a Supreme Court majority rules differently from how the original authors, the Founding Fathers, would have intended, that contemporary ruling thereupon stands as the Constitution’s principle, and dissenting opinions are preserved for another day when their alternative wisdom may enlighten. That is how any legal system necessarily works, and Judaism is not only a faith but also a legal system. Thus, as 300 years passed after the Mishnah was codified, a new even more encyclopedic work was compiled addressing new issues and experiences, and reflecting new principles of rabbinic analysis: the Gemara. When the comparatively terse Mishnah is published along with the much more expansive Gemara, that discusses its rules at much greater length, that compendium is called the “Talmud.” Again — demystifying: that is the Talmud.
Inasmuch as the Mishnah — and its subsequent Gemara elaboration — all stemmed from what Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi could salvage amid Roman persecution, preserving as much as he could of the Oral Law that G-d had taught Moshe Rabbeinu through 40 uninterrupted days and nights on Mount Sinai, Jews today regard the Talmud as the Oral Law. Two somewhat parallel versions of the Talmud came to be compiled, one primarily in Hebrew in Palestine-Israel and now known as the “Jerusalem Talmud” (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the other predominantly in Jewish Aramaic, with substantial portions in Hebrew also, compiled in Babylonia (now mostly Iraq) and known as the “Babylonian Talmud” (Talmud Bavli). The Babylonian Talmud today is by far the dominant authority for everyday contemporary Jewish life because it was compiled for Judaic living in a world without a Holy Temple in full force on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. While the Mishnah reads more as a dry legal code, the Gemara — which is the much deeper and lengthier dominant portion of the Talmud — sometimes reads as a legal code, sometimes contains scholarly, fascinating, and even intense debates between and among rabbis trying to decide how best to apply the Mishnaic law of 300 years earlier to the latest realities of the day in Babylonia, and sometimes ventures way off-course into story-telling and random observations on wide ranges of topics ranging from husbands and wives whose marriages are loving versus those that miss the mark, the best medicines and medical treatments of the day, and the wisdom of traveling during daytime hours versus at night time.
Many Talmudic discussions adhere to the subject on the table, while others venture widely into segués that run for lengthy pages upon pages (folios) until somehow the discussion manages to return to the topic at hand. Contrary to the frothing hatred spawned and spewed about the Talmud for centuries by anti-Semites who cannot read Aramaic, have no sense of the context of the discussions, who live from conspiracy to conspiracy, and who would not know the difference between Baba Kamma, Baba Batra, and Baba Black Sheep, the Talmud’s 2,711 double-sided folios gathered in 63 distinct tractates focus actually on Jews living with Jews, observances of Jewish law, and directing our behavior to make it through life in This World (“Olam HaZeh”) so that we may be rewarded with eternal blessing and a place of reward in The World to Come (Olam HaBah).
(The Talmud does not discuss Christianity. There is not a single reference to any of the key Christological figures — none to Paul or Saul of Tarsus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Thomas, nor to any of the books Christians regard as sacred like Acts, Revelations, and such. Nothing about Jesus Christ. Nothing about Mary or Joseph or Three Wise Men or Lazarus. There simply is not. Christianity itself was just unfolding as a world faith within the Roman Empire at that very time, and it was not on the rabbis’ radar that such an emerging religion one day would change the face of history and would interface quite as dramatically as it would with Ashkenazic Jewish history. During the years the Mishnah and Gemara were being compiled, those in the new religion were facing their own Roman persecutions. Internal Christian theology still was settling on whether to observe Saturday as the Sabbath or to move it to Sunday, with sources like Matthew 28:1 pointing to Sunday; only Emperor Constantine’s decree centuries later helped secure the practice. Unfortunately, it was so common in those days for Romans to crucify Jews that the Mishnah in Tractate Yevamot 16:3 discusses whether we accept court testimony that a specific husband died (so that his possible widow now may remarry) if the witnesses testify they saw a corpse on a cross but could not make out the crucified deceased’s full face and nose. That discussion is purely jurisprudential — Jewish life under Roman law — with no theological overlay.
(In similar measure, the Talmud says nothing about Islam because Muhammed would not emerge yet for centuries. Thus, the rabbis of the Talmud instead were focused on idolatry of the sort that had marked Biblical times, had dominated among Canaanites and Philistines in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in the Holy Land, and that continued as central to Greek and Roman theology that their oppressive leaders imposed on Jews.
(Likewise, as for internet postings about Kabbalah, such internet spewings and even published books predominantly are utter nonsense. Rather, Kabbalah is adjunct, way outside core Judaism, and very few of us — including highly trained and experienced Orthodox rabbis like me, a rabbi of more than 40 years who has held my share of rabbinical leadership posts — ever study any of it. It includes such ideas as “tzimtzum,” that G-d had to reduce his infinite size (so to speak) to fit into this world, that people who do good deeds help release “good holy sparks” in the world, that those who sin cause the release of “bad unholy sparks.” If you like those images, fine. Kabbalah simply is not an important or particularly relevant part of normative mainstream Judaism. A few Hasidic groups (see Part 3 of this series) take a greater interest in the subject, but 98 percent of their adherents do not know what they are talking about when they even mention “Kabbalah.” It is telling that the best known “followers of Kabbalah” are the likes of Madonna, Marla Maples, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher — like other celebrities in that world of money and nonsense, some who find “The Answer to Life’s Meaning” in Scientology (e.g., Tom Cruise, Elisabeth Moss, John Travolta), in Hare Krishna (e.g., George Harrison, Russell Brand, Steve Jobs), or in whatever exotic path is next. The “Kabbalah” sorts were attracted to a guy named Philip Berg who set up a “Kabbalah Centre” — not surprisingly in California — and they started wearing red strings on their wrists. A pouch of red strings can be purchased for $26 at the Kabbalah Centre Online Store. I personally prefer, for about the same price, the 19-piece Gold Ribbon gift box of Godiva Kosher Chocolates with ganaches, creamy pralines, rich caramels, fruits, and nuts. If you prefer a Philip Berg red string, enjoy it.)
Over the centuries that followed the Babylonian Talmud’s emergence mostly in the 5th century, new innovations came about, new questions arose, new cultural realities prevailed. In the 12th century, one of Judaism’s greatest rabbinic authorities (and very possibly the greatest) in all of history, Rabbi Moshe the son of Maimon — Maimonides or “The Rambam” (pronounced “Rahm’-bahm”) monumentally undertook to compile and codify all of Judaism — all the laws in the Torah, all the laws on all the folios of the Talmud — into one orderly code of law that omitted virtually all the rabbis’ fascinating conversations, discussions, stories, debates, and suggestions and that also reorganized certain teachings that had been scattered in random segués, compiling them together more topically, into more tightly organized subject chapters — and he did it all in a delightfully readable crisp Hebrew. This revolutionary code of law sometimes is called “The Strong Hand of the Rambam” (Yad HaChazakah) because the Hebrew word for “hand” is comprised of two letters that have a numerical equivalent of 14, the number of volumes in the code. It is known far more commonly as the “Mishneh Torah.” That code has become a primary authority guiding Jewish practice to this day, and was particularly so during its first half millennium.
By the mid-1500s, great rabbinic authorities felt the time had come to update the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah to reflect new cultural realities of the new world that had emerged over four more centuries. They scrupulously adhered to Rambam’s codified rulings but modified the organizational structure a bit, re-formatting the Jewish codes into four broad categories: laws of everyday life (Orach Chai’m), laws of men interrelating with women (Even HaEzer), civil laws of jurisprudence (Choshen Mishpat), and esoterica like the laws of building mikvehs (“mikva’ot” or ritual pools of water), laws of animal slaughter, and other esoterica and miscellany (Yoreh De’ah). This monumental opus of definitive Jewish law, customs, and practice came to be known by the fanciful name “Shulchan Arukh” (the “Prepared Table”). Inasmuch as its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo of Tz’fat (Safed, Israel), was a Sephardic Jew whose practices and traditions were Sephardic (discussed among ethnicities in Part 3 of this series), a small but distinct percentage of his authoritative rulings differed from those of Ashkenazic teachings. As a result, an encyclopedic Ashkenazic rabbinic work or two were compiled to offer an alternate compendium for Ashkenazim, but the sense emerged universally that a single monumental code for all Jews to reference would be best to maintain Jewish harmony for centuries to come. To unify the Jews in their varying nuances of religious practice, since most everything in Judaism is identical for Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known by the acronym “Rama”) of Krakow, Poland inserted brief “notes” and “thoughts” (hagahot) into the text of Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh wherever a ruling of his differed from how Ashkenazim practice. That way, it all is there, integrated into one definitive Code of Jewish Law. Since The Rama was augmenting Rabbi Karo’s “Prepared Table,” Rama’s efforts are known fancifully as the mapah — the “Table Cloth.”
To this day the Shulchan Arukh is the authoritative word on Judaism. George Soros and Bernie Sanders would not know they had encountered a Shulchan Arukh if it hit them in their heads. Through the ensuing 500 years since its codification, the Shulchan Arukh has been maintained as relevant and up-to-date by half a millennium of rabbinic responsa literature, in which the most authoritative rabbinic leaders of each generation publish compendia of their written answers to questions they are posed regarding Jewish practice. In the past century, for example, such authoritative compendia have included the published responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe), Ashkenazic Jewry’s single greatest authoritative source during the latter half of the 20th century, and by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Y’chaveh Da’at and Yabi’a Omer), the parallel Sephardic Torah giant of the contemporary age. Both Rabbis Feinstein and Yosef of righteous blessed memory also published further works, and so have dozens — even hundreds — of other leading rabbis, many also of extraordinary authority like the 18th century Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (the “Nodah B’yehudah”), Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (the “Vilna Gaon”), and end-of-century-into-the-next Rabbi Avraham Danzig (the “Chayei Adam”) and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the “Chatam Sofer”); the 19th century Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (the “Arukh HaShulchan”), Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Chai”), and the transitional 20th century Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim (the “Mishnah B’rurah”), Rabbi Avraham Karelitz (the “Chazon Ish”), Rabbi Yosef Dov Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (the “Tzitz Eliezer”), and others.
Through these continuing rabbinic responsa and through subsequently published accounts of their thoughts and rulings by their closest rabbinic disciples, Judaism’s Code of Jewish Law remains definitive and controlling for Judaic practice to this day. This is what I call the “Architecture of Judaism.” It is built on the Written Law of the Torah (alternately called “Torah,” “Chumash,” “Five Books of Moses,” or “The Pentateuch”), the Oral Law as preserved in the Talmud, the Codes of the Middle Ages, and the authoritative rabbinic responsa that have followed. Amid and intertwined throughout is the “Mesorah” — the way of Tradition by which authoritative custom and practice further takes on its own life, embedding Judaism with history and culture. Thus, Ashkenazim do not eat beans, peas, or rice on Passover but Sephardim manifestly do. Orthodox men technically can be permitted to work in the marketplace without wearing a yarmulka, but most wear it anyway and always when at prayer, when eating, and when at home. Only two candles need be lit to welcome the Shabbat into the home, but the daughters of mothers who lit as many candles as they had household members follow family tradition and light one for the husband, one for each child, and one for themselves. Many Jews descending from Syria do not eat chick peas on Passover because the way they pronounce the first and last Hebrew consonants in the word “chummus” sounds the same as the way they say “chametz” (leavened food prohibited on Passover) because their “tz” is sounded more like an “s” (which also explains the surname of the Greek Jewish singer, Neil Sedaka, a word for “charity” more commonly pronounced as “tzedakah” by Jews elsewhere). In that way, the mesorah (tradition) of Jews tracing their paternal lineage to Aleppo, Syria differs even from other North African Sephardic Jews from adjacent Arab lands.
As explained in Part One of this series, 33-40 percent of people today identifying themselves as American Jews when interviewed by Pew surveys and by other American pollsters actually are not Jewish whatsoever — and that even includes large numbers of their rabbis. However, this Part of the series reveals something much deeper. Even among the 60-67 percent of people correctly identifying as Jews — and no question at all, they are Jews — the vast, overwhelming majority of them do not have a notion in the world of what Judaism means or entails. What you now have read in this section is, after all, a somewhat truncated “Reader’s Digest version,” necessitated by the exigencies and realities of word counts and publishers’ space considerations (as well as by readers’ limits of focus in an era where typing 140-280 characters comprises an ample conversation, where commercial television cannot communicate longer than 22 minutes without breaking for marketing inducements, where children have been reared on an ADHD “Sesame Street” culture that screams and jumps from splash to splash, and where texting eliminates the need 4 any1 2 spell, 2 punctu8, or even 2 write in cursive). Yet, you now know more about actual authentic Judaism than do Chuck Schumer, Adam Schiff, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (the “BDS anti-Semites” at Ben & Jerry’s), George Soros, Bernie Sanders, and 98 percent of the Jews in Hollywood — combined.
They know nothing Judaically. They know absolutely nothing. They learn absolutely nothing of enduring Judaic substantive value. To the degree that they get enrolled for a year at age 12 in a temple’s “bar mitzvah” class, they emerge knowing more about bars than mitzvas. Given all the Judaism there is from which to draw forth some information, the ignorance they bear is beyond stunning. It is breathtaking. Most cannot open a Talmud folio correctly. Most have never even touched or seen a volume of Talmud even though it now is available in several elegant English-translated editions, in hard cover or paperback, and can arrive next-day on Amazon Prime. They not only cannot read a sentence but even a word in it. They cannot read the page header. If you tell them the header says “Tractate Sukkot, Chapter 5, HeChalil (“The Flute”), Folio 56a,” they will look at you like a deer in headlights after the headlights have been turned off and the deer realizes it is standing in a South Bronx bath tub, not in the woods of a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon or a Disney movie. They issue press releases to the media, in names of pseudo-“Jewish” organizations with acronyms like “ADL” and “HIAS” that belie their utter Judaism-free content and values structure. Then, other Jews exactly like them in such media as the New York Times dutifully reprint their releases as though they speak authoritatively in the name of Judaism. It is a sham, a fraud on society of indescribable proportions.
The matter transcends differences of opinion. Rather, they know absolutely nothing factual on which to base a Judaic opinion. That is why such Jews running the New York Times covered up the Holocaust, no less than they falsified and covered up Stalin’s mass murder of Ukrainians during the Holodomor, why they gave inordinate news coverage to promote Reform Judaism’s leaders in the American Council for Judaism, who fought tooth-and-nail through the 1930s and 1940s against the creation of the country of Israel — and why the New York Times still, to this day, attacks Israel and falsifies facts and photos and captions concerning Zionism so mercilessly that Ben & Jerry, two mere purveyors of ice cream, have access to their op-ed page to pillory Israel, while Bari Weiss finds herself quitting every young journalist’s dream job of a lifetime because, as a Jew, she found she no longer could walk into her office in the New York Times.
In this entire description of the “Architecture of Judaism,” there was not a single mention of “tikkun olam” (“repairing the world”). That was no oversight; the term simply is irrelevant. It all is part of the same fraud on society. It is a term that appears briefly and rarely in so little classical rabbinic literature. It appears fleetingly as a two-word infinitive barely embedded in the middle of one prayer as an affirmation that Messiah will arrive only when idolators and other atheists and pantheists on earth somehow come to recognize and bend a knee of deference to the One True G-d. When someone Jewish, who would not know Judaism if it were posted on his or her door as Martin Luther once posted his 95 theses, mouths blandishments virtue-signaling his or her “Social Justice Warrior” credentials by saying that he or she pursues “tikkun olam,” all your internal whistles, alarms, and sirens should sound off like a loud clanging bell bleating “FRAUD! FRAUD! PHONEY BALONEY! NUKH A YUTZ!”
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