The Innovative Spirit and Jewish Tradition

Although the rabbis propagated the belief that rabbinic teaching went back to Moses on Mt. Sinai, many classical texts clearly demonstrate that the rabbis understood the innovative nature of their work.

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The standard rabbinic understanding that God revealed to Moses a written Torah and an oral Torah has often come under criticism: If it all goes back to Moses, then why state that something is the opinion of Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael? Clearly, while the rabbis saw the authority for their interpretations as going back to Moses, they had to recognize that much of their work was innovative. Indeed, if they did not innovate, they would have risked becoming the stewards of an irrelevant body of law rather than the authoritative guides for a dynamic, living Judaism. During the times of the Hasmoneans, the sages innovated and allowed for raising arms in self-defense on the Sabbath; they also innovated in creating the holiday of Hanukkah. Later rabbis, recognizing that Hanukkah was established after the Bible, ask a very basic question that addresses the larger issue of rabbinic innovation.
 
 "What blessing do we say [on Hanukkah candles]? ‘…who has sanctified us through mitzvot and commanded us to light Hanukkah candles.’
 
But where were we commanded?
 
Rav Avya says: From the verse ‘Do not deviate [from the judgment that they tell you either to the right or to the left]’ (Deuteronomy 17:11).
 
Rav Nehemiah says: From ‘Ask your father and he will tell you, your grand-parents, and they will say to you’ (Deuteronomy 32:7)’" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23a).
 
Without biblical authority for the holiday, how indeed can we claim to be "commanded" to light Hanukkah candles? Rav Avya’s approach quotes a crucial text from Deuteronomy that, in many ways, provides a context for rabbinic self-understanding.
 
"If a case is too difficult for you to decide…you shall go to the place that the Lord your God has chosen and you shall appear before the levitical priests and the judge that is there in those days. You are to inquire, and they are to tell you the word of judgment. You are to do according to the judgment that they announce to you from that place that the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. You shall act according to the law they shall teach you and according to the judgment that they shall tell you; do not deviate from the judgment that they announce to you either to the right or to the left" (Deuteronomy 17:8-11).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.

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