The Formation of the Oral Torah

How the Talmud came to occupy its place in the canon of authoritative Jewish texts as the "Oral Torah"

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The upshot is that the source of the rules of the Mishnah (and other writings) is Scripture, not freestanding logic.

The far extreme (2)--everything in the Mishnah makes sense only as a (re)statement of Scripture or upon Scripture's authority--is taken by the Sifra, a post‑Mishnaic compilation of exegeses on Leviticus, redacted at an indeterminate point, perhaps about C.E. 300. The Sifra systematically challenges reason (= the Mishnah), unaided by revelation (i.e., exegesis of Scripture), to sustain positions taken by the Mishnah, which is cited verbatim, and everywhere proves that it cannot be done.

The Fully-Developed Solution: "Oral Torah"

The final and normative solution to the problem of the authority of the Mishnah worked out in the third and fourth centuries produced the myth of the dual Torah, oral and written, which formed the indicative and definitive trait of the Judaism that emerged from late antiquity. Tracing the unfolding of that myth leads us deep into the processes by which that Judaism took shape. The two Talmuds know the theory that there is a tradition separate from, and in addition to, the written Torah. This tradition it knows as "the teachings of scribes."

There is ample evidence, implicit in what happens to the Mishnah in the Bavli, to allow a reliable description of how the Bavli's founders viewed the Mishnah. That view may be stated very simply. The Mishnah rarely cites verses of Scripture in support of its propositions. The Bavli routinely adduces scriptural bases for the Mishnah's laws. The Mishnah seldom undertakes the exegesis of verses of Scripture for any purpose. The Bavli consistently investigates the meaning of verses of Scripture and does so for a variety of purposes.

Accordingly, the Bavli, subordinate as it is to the Mishnah, regards the Mishnah as subordinate to, and contingent upon, Scripture. That is why, in the Bavli's view, the Mishnah requires the support of proof texts of Scripture. By itself, the Mishnah exercises no autonomous authority and enjoys no independent standing or norm-setting status…

Having represented the Mishnah as it did, the Bavli's authorship quite naturally chose to represent its own system in the same way--that is to say, as a mere elaboration of a received tradition, a stage in the sedimentary and incremental process by which the Torah continued to come down from Sinai. And for that purpose, I hardly need to add, the mixed logics embodied in the joining of philosophical and propositional statements on the principle of fixed association--commentary attached to a prior text--served exceedingly well.

That explains how, in the Bavli, we have, in the (deceptive) form of a tradition, what is in fact an autonomous system, connected with prior systems but not continuous with them. The authorship represented their own statement of an ethos, ethics, and defined social entity, precisely as they did the received ones, the whole forming a single, seamless Torah revealed by God to Moses at Sinai.

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Jacob Neusner

Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic.