The Bearers of Tradition

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Stories of rabbinic sages during the first two centuries CE seem to reflect a development in which the prevailing understanding of rabbinic law (halakhah) reversed itself. The earlier model of traditionalism, described in this article as reliance on the faithful transmission of teaching from master to student, is supplemented and then superceded by a reliance on accepted rules of interpretation that allow for creative innovation.

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the members of the Great Assembly" (Pirkei Avot 1:1).

How does a rabbi know what is the correct understanding of Torah? After all, the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) hardly provides all of the rules for governing a Jewish life. To cover all of the other aspects of the law, the rabbis claim that Moses received a parallel, Oral Torah (Torah she'b'al peh); it is to the Oral Torah that Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:1 refers.

With the written Torah, there is a defined text, but how does one know if any particular statement of halakhah (Jewish law) is correct?

One approach, which I will call the traditionalist model, has a very clear answer: the oral tradition is correct if and only if one can trust the integrity and learning of the one who preserves the tradition and the chain of tradition to which he is heir. Consider the list of transmitters in Pirkei Avot 1:1; excluded from the list are the judges, the kings, and the priests, who arguably held the political power during the period between Moses and the rabbis, but who also did some pretty nasty things. Although it is not really clear who the elders or the members of the Great Assembly were, their anonymity also prevents any negative claims against them and ensures the claim of a trustworthy chain of tradition.

Consider a story about the sage Hillel, who was asked by the children of Beteira if he had ever heard whether the law of bringing a lamb to offer as a sacrifice on Passover overrode the laws of Shabbat or not. Hillel proceeds to make a variety of arguments, based upon logic and based upon midrashic interpretation. His arguments make no headway, and then the Talmud relates:

Although he sat and lectured at them all day long, they would not accept the halakhah [law] from him until he swore that he had actually heard [the tradition from his teachers] Shemaiah and Avtalyon. Having heard this from him, they got up and declared him President over them (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 39a).

Neither logic nor midrash matter; for the traditionalist children of Betaira, all that matters is knowing the authoritative tradition.

In a similar case, the Tosefta (Eduyot 1:3) reports that Hillel, Shammai, and the rest of the sages dropped their own opinions in a dispute concerning the law of an invalid mikveh (ritual bath) in favor of two weavers from the Dung Gate in Jerusalem who had a tradition from Shemaiah and Avtalyon. The Tosefta asks self-referentially why their rather lowly occupation and location was recorded, and answers:

"To teach that if the fathers of the world [i.e., Hillel and Shammai] did not stand by their own opinions where there was an authentic tradition, how much the more so should an average person not [stubbornly] maintain his position where there is an authentic tradition."

Although the traditionalist clearly prefers it when the character and integrity of the transmitter is unimpeachable, it is clear that, according to the traditionalist, neither personal status nor breadth of learning are more important than passing along that which one has learned correctly and accurately.

The leading traditionalist in Talmudic legend, however, was R. Eliezer b. Hyrkanus. For R. Eliezer, the problem was not simply maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the tradition in light of logical arguments or arguments based on midrashic interpretations. Several of the narratives involving R. Eliezer include conflicts over the use of a vote by the sages. When R. Eliezer's student R. Yossi reported that a law about supporting the poor was determined by a majority vote, R. Eliezer's fury blinded R. Yossi; then he told Yossi to return to the assembled rabbis and throw out the vote:

For I have received [this halakhah] from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and him from his teacher, [all the way back] to a law [received] by Moses on Sinai (Talmud Bavli Hagigah 3b).

The point of the story is made that much clearer by the detail that the majority's vote came to the same conclusion as R. Eliezer's received tradition. The traditionalist does not argue that logic or midrash may not come up with the correct interpretation, but that they are unreliable. Even more important, relying on them distracts the sage from his one true and authentic role--being a reliable vessel for the body of Oral Torah that one has learned and mastered.

According to the legends of the sages of the city Yavneh, R. Eliezer is ultimately excommunicated from the community of rabbis after a conflict over what is essentially a referendum on the legitimacy of creative and innovative interpretation and the use of the majority rule (the story of Oven of Akhnai, Talmud Bavli Baba Metzia 59b). At the end of his life, however, Eliezer recognized that his efforts to transmit the complete tradition accurately was doomed to failure. Upon his deathbed, the story is told that the sages who had excommunicated him came to visit:

"They kept asking him about the law of ritual purity and impurity and ritual immersion pools. They would ask him, 'Rabbi, what about this?' and he would reply, 'It is pure.' 'What about that?' And he would reply, 'It is pure.' And he continued to reply 'impure' for the impure and 'pure' for the pure.

Now after that, Rabbi Eliezer said to the Sages: 'I fear for the students of this generation, that they will be punished by death from Heaven.'

'Rabbi,' they asked him, 'what for?'

'Because,' he replied, 'they did not come and attend upon me.'

Then he said to Akiba ben Joseph, 'Akiba, why did you not come and attend upon me?'

'Rabbi,' Akiba replied, 'I did not have the time.'

Said Rabbi Eliezer to him: 'I doubt if thou wilt die a natural death.'. Rabbi Akiba came forward and sat down before him and said to him, 'Rabbi, if so, teach me now.'

He began and taught him 300 laws about [leprosy]. It was then that Rabbi Eliezer raised his two arms and laid them across his chest and cried: 'Woe unto me for my two arms! They are like two Torah scrolls and they are departing from the world! For if all the seas were ink, and all the reeds pens, and all men scribes, they could not write down all the Scripture and Mishnah I studied, nor the traditions that I heard from the Sages in the academy, yet I carried away from my teachers no more than does a man who dips his finger in the sea'" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 25:3).

How tragic an end. Is this deathbed scene an acknowledgement by R. Eliezer that the traditionalist approach itself is flawed?

In hindsight, we look upon the conflict of the traditionalists and those who recognized the need for a model of learning that allowed for innovation and adaptation, and we may see reactionaries stubbornly rejecting a forward thinking approach. Indeed, among the stories of the next generation of sages is a telling interaction of R. Akiba and R. Tarfon. R. Akiba uses a midrashic model of interpretation to state a piece of law about the kohanim (priests). R. Tarfon, himself a kohen, ridicules R. Akiba for dragging different words together to come up with the law, and claims that he himself knows a tradition, but that he cannot remember the details. When R. Akiba correctly derives the details, R. Tarfon exclaims:

By the Temple worship! You have not deviated to the right or to the left. I heard it, yet could not explain it, while you do midrash and agree with my tradition. In these words he addressed him: Akiba, whoever departs from you is as though he has departed from life (Sifra Dibbura Denedava 4).

R. Tarfon's final comment is not mere praise; the traditionalist model would have spelled death for Rabbinic Judaism, for even a great sage like Rabbi Tarfon could not remember or explain the traditions he had heard.

Nevertheless, the traditionalist approach continued throughout Jewish history and continues today. Many Jews continue to learn and transmit the tradition without learning how to interpret and apply Jewish law. Yet the traditionalist serves a crucial role in rabbinic culture. Without the traditionalist, there is no control on the forces of innovation. The traditionalist serves not only as a repository of past practice and learning, but also as an anchor against trends and fashions. Alone, the traditionalist, like R. Eliezer, would die with his learning, but in creative tension with the forces of innovation and creativity, the traditionalist ties our practice back through the generations, to the halakhah given to Moses on Sinai.

Jeffrey Spitzer teaches Torah in the Greater Boston area and is the senior educator at Jewish Family & Life!

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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.