How many commandments were given at Mt. Sinai? The answer, surprisingly, is not 10. The Torah speaks of the aseret ha’devarim, the Ten Utterances, not the Ten Commandments. When one gets down to counting the commandments, she finds that the first of the utterances, “I am the Lord your God,” is not exactly a commandment, and that some, like “You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not bow down to them nor shall you worship them,” actually contain 3 commandments, if not more.
How many Torahs were given at Mt. Sinai? The answer, perhaps somewhat less surprisingly, is not 1. According to the Rabbis there were two Torahs given at Mt. Sinai: the Written Torah – that is, the 5 Books of Moses – and the Oral Torah – the traditions of interpretation of the Biblical text that are recorded, in what eventually became written form, in the Talmud.
But what exactly is this Oral Torah? And if God wanted clarify more what the mitzvoth meant, why not just write it in the Torah text itself? Well, in good Jewish fashion, there are at least two answers to this question.
According to one approach, found in Sefer HaHinukh (13th century), the enormous level of detail that we find in the Talmud was directly dictated by God to Moses. Following this approach, all the debates in the Talmud are a less-than-ideal reality brought on by imperfect transmission. The process of halakha is an attempt to get back to the original meaning of the Torah and to identify the Oral Tradition that is or that approximates the detailed verbal instruction that Moses received at Mt. Sinai. There is only one correct halakha in any given case, we trust the Sages to get it right, and if for some reason they make a mistake, then that is their responsibility, not ours.
As to why God didn’t just write it all down, we don’t really know, but it might have to do with allowing the Torah’s broad message to be accessible by all people while ensuring that those with the Oral Tradition – the Jews in general and the Rabbis in particular – would serve as the custodians of its halakhic meaning that is relevant only to the Jewish people.
In opposition to this approach, many great authorities – including both Maimonides and Nahmandies – state that outside of a small handful of laws, the Oral Tradition is not about transmission; it is about interpretation. The Torah as a written text would always be open to multiple possible interpretations. God therefore empowered the Rabbis to give the binding interpretation of the Torah. The Torah is our Constitution, and the Sanhedrin, our central halakhic High Court, is our Supreme Court. The question is not what the Torah originally meant, it is what its binding halakhic meaning is. In Nahmanides words: “For it was in accordance with the interpretation that the Rabbis would give, that God gave us the Torah.”
For this model, the Oral Tradition is not a static thing to be transmitted, it is a live, vibrant thing to be discussed, argued and debated. It is a way that we as human beings partner with God in the Torah’s meaning and in what makes halakha. There is not just one true halakha; what the halakha is can change over time – just as the legal meaning of the Constitution has changed over time – based on how the Sanhedrin rules. And when we no longer have a Sanhedrin, which has been the case for about two millennia, then authority will be de-centralized and we will live in a world of multiple and competing halakhic truths: “These and these are the words of the living God.”
This does not mean that the Rabbis can impose their readings onto the text; the process must be done with integrity and with a desire to discover the true meaning of the Torah. And it does not mean that everyone is empowered as an interpreter of the text’s halakhic meaning – that requires a certain level of learning and recognition by one’s colleagues and one’s community. But what is does mean is that when the process is done properly, what emerges is halakha, is the Oral Torah.
This latter approach was adopted by Rav Moshe Feinstein, the preeminent halakhic authority for American Orthodox Judaism in the last century. He writes in his introduction to his responsa, Iggrot Moshe, that he was fearful to take on the responsibility of being a halakhic authority, lest he offer an incorrect ruling, something that did not accord with the true meaning of the text. But then he realized – so he writes – that as long as he approaches his task with proper fear of heaven, with honesty, with mastery of all the sources, and with full rigor of process, then his rulings would, by definition, be halakha.
It is no surprise that Rav Moshe was also one of the boldest and most creative decisors that we have had for a long time. Such courage from a decisor reflects not only confidence in oneself and one’s mastery, but also a belief that the Oral Torah is a living, breathing phenomenon, one that invites us to take a part in it, to be partners with God in the meaning of the Torah.