Criticism of the Oral Law
What Yeshua` thought of the Oral Law
The criticisms which Yeshua` voices against ‘The Law’ are not against Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew bible – but against the Oral Law (or “Traditions of the Elders” as the ancient Pharisees called it ). The Oral Law contains commentary based upon commentary, rabbinical commandment layered upon rabbinical commandment, so much so that many rabbinical decisions are not actually based on Torah but upon other rabbinical decisions. Even today, Orthodox rabbis know that the Oral law causes problems for people (e.g. widows, paternal Jews to name but two groups). However, they are not willing to lift the burden and return to Torah, because it means admitting the Oral law is unjust. Yeshua’ saw the oral Law as a burden; he criticised their Pharisaic antecedents for the same inflexibility:
“You tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but you’re not willing to lift a finger to help”. (Mt 23:4, Lk 11:46)
Today, there are some ordinary Jews, especially on the fringes of the Orthodox community, who feel the laws of the Talmud are too intricate and cumbersome. They feel it keeps them at a distance from God, and these people end up lost to Christianity. Yeshua` also felt that, rather than bringing people to God, the Oral Law kept people away from the kingdom:
“…you shut the door of God’s kingdom in people’s faces and throw away the key. And you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who wish to enter to go in!” (Mt 23:13, Lk11:52).
Today, Talmidi and Karaite Jews complain that in a number of instances, the Talmud actually forbids the observance of Torah. Examples are the observance of the New Moon holiday, the wearing of blue cords (techelet) on the corner fringes of our garments, the observance of the Nazirite vow, not pronouncing God’s Name under any circumstances, and many more. They may seem like trivial and unimportant mitzvot, but they are part of a heritage which was designed to mould the Jewish soul, and give us a sense of the greatness and holiness of God. Yeshua` himself criticised this fact of the Oral Law:
“So for the sake of your Traditions, you have in fact nullified the commandment of God!” (Mk 7:13, Mt 15:6).
Yeshua` criticised how the Oral Law took things to extremes
In the New Testament, Christians read how we Jews supposedly argue about what things to swear by (Mt 23:16-22, Mt 5:34-37), and how we Jews quibble over how far up our elbows we should wash before we eat, lest our food become contaminated (Mk 7:18-23, Mt 15:17-20). Some Christians look at this and think to themselves, “How trivial Jews are, how stupid the Torah must be to command Jews to do this. I’m so glad that Christ came to do away with Torah, so that I don’t have to follow it!”)
The fact is, that Torah nowhere commands us to do these things, rather it is the Oral Law which does. Yeshua` is condemning the Oral Law, NOT Torah. While the whole ethos and emphasis of the Oral Law causes Jewish people to focus on ritual and external holiness, Yeshua`’s teaching shows us that God desires us to focus instead on inner holiness.
Our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees
Torah is not difficult. Even Liberal Talmidis observe more mitzvot from Torah than Liberal Rabbinical Jews do. When we observe our heritage, and try our best to follow as many mitzvot as possible, it makes us one with our history, and heightens the sense of wonder and of the holiness of YHVH our God.
In our willingness to try our best to observe God’s commandments – even if it isn’t perfect – and in our gentle, humble and compassionate encouragement towards others to do the same, Talmidi Jews feel that the righteousness of our faith is upheld:
“whoever observes them, and teaches them to others, shall be called great in the kingdom of God. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes, you’ll never find the kingdom of God” (Mt 5:19-20)
The prophet Yeshua` saw the Oral Law as a burden. It is true that the Oral Law mitigates some of the harsher punishments in Torah, but it also hides the true intent of the written Torah, and in some cases overrides it.