Rabbi Mordechai Becher of Gateways was recently at Stern and gave a lecture instructing students in how to answer questions regarding the Oral Law. Above please see the sheet he handed out to all of us (complete with my notes) and below, please see my comments elaborating upon the ideas he mentioned.
1. How do we know the Oral Law is there? Why do we need it?
a) The Torah is not the Bible, in that it is not simply the Old Testament portion of the Christian bible. It is far more vast, and far more expansive than that.
b) We know that we have an Oral Law because we have a certain system of translation and interpretation regarding the very words of the Written Law. The Written Law is in Hebrew, and it is written in Torah scrolls without vowels or punctuation. Therefore, when one encounters certain words, such as for example chlv, that means they can either be read as chalav (milk) or cheilev (fat). Our Oral Law elaborates upon these words and gives us the correct punctuation/ interpretation/ reading. This is one of the ways in which we see the Oral Law clearly working in tandem with the Written Law.
c) Have you ever learned to swim from a book? No, you probably did not. You learned how to swim in a hands-on situation, where you were actually in the water, with someone instructing you what to do. Rabbi Becher makes the point that there was actual practical hands-on material that was taught to people via the Oral Law as opposed to being written down because that is simply a better method of transmission.
d) There are certain words used throughout the Written Torah that are not explained/ elaborated upon. These include words like "work, affliction, life, slaughter" and suchlike. What do these words actually mean? One is meant to "afflict oneself" on Yom Kippur. Does it mean we should sit on thumbtacks while listening to opera music? What's the legal definition of affliction? These words are explained and elaborated upon in the Oral Law.
e) Thus it follows that since Written Law is incomprehensible in and of itself (after all, what does "work" or "affliction" mean) it would make sense the author of the work would also provide the explanations. That is the Oral Law.
f) Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch states in his Commentary on Exodus 21:2 that the Oral Law is like the actual lecture given by a professor or teacher while the Written Law is like lecture notes. If you simply read the lecture notes, you are not necessarily going to understand the material in the way you would if you attended the lecture. For example, when we write Chemistry notations we use shorthand. Au stands for gold, and Na for yet another substance. Now, if an English major comes over and tries to read your notes, which say things to the equivalent of Au, NaCl and so forth, she won't understand the material until you explain the code.
2. Why not write it all down? What is the advantage of an Oral Law?
a) Do physicians learn how to become doctors due to their years of medical school, or because of on-the-job experience, where the material is transmitted from actual doctors making diagnoses and suchlike? Generally, the on-the-job experience is more valuable. Similarly, the Oral Law as a method of oral transmission is simply the form better suited to transmitting this information.
b) The Written Torah is like a compressed zip file while the Oral Law unzips it. Therefore, the Written Law is very portable and compact, and everything can be derived from it; that's easier than writing down all the Oral Law and carrying that around, too.
c) The written word is easily stolen, distorted or changed (just look to the other religions that base themselves on the Torah.) If one has an Oral Law, it is harder to steal, change or adapt.
d) An Oral Law, due to the fact that it is oral as opposed to written, has to be studied because it only exists in our hearts and minds. If we do not study it, it will be forgotten. Therefore, this creates an incredible study ethic in the Jewish people as a whole.
e) The fact that this is an Oral tradition means that one cannot simply open up a book and study for oneself, but must come into contact with the actual symbols of the transmission of the law; there is a need for personal contact with the transmitters of tradition.
f) The Oral Law means that one cannot simply open up the Written Law, look at it for 10 minutes, and then assume that one understands it completely. The Oral Law requires effort; it is difficult to master, and therefore we are anti-superficiality and superficial understandings of the text. We must actually exert ourselves in order to reach the truth. "Thou shalt think."
g) Feedback mechanism- When one learns the Oral Law, this allows for question/ answer discussions where questions are valued, as opposed to merely memorizing a rulebook.
h) There was a Tai Chi master who was swaying, his arms moving and slapping lightly against his sides. Why? Because if someone were to push him, he would sway and turn, instead of standing strong against the push, which would then topple him. The idea is to "change enough to stay the same." When it comes to the flexiblity of halakha in the Oral Law, we change enough to stay the same. (For example, the law is that we cannot kindle fire, and we adapt that to our times by not using electricity on Shabbat- that is changing enough to stay the same.)
3. Maybe the message was distorted? What about Broken Telephone?
a) If there were simply one person transmitting the message, perhaps you would have a point. However, imagine this scenario. You have ten groups, and the teacher whispers in a student's ear (of each of the ten groups) the words "ABCD." Now, the first boy has only ever heard the word "ADHD" so assumes that is what was said. The second has parents who are into rock so he hears "AC/DC." The third is Israeli and hears "AB3D." But if all the separate groups compare their chains, 6 out of 10 groups will have heard A for the first letter, 8 out of 10 B, and so forth, so they will be able to piece back what the original message was. So too, we have thousands of chains for our tradition- every individual, family and community is a testament to that- so it is far more likely we have it right than wrong.
b) Message ingrained in receiver since cradle (we grow up in Jewish houses, hear Torah since the time we are born)
c) Logical system can be reconstructed using its rules- the Oral Law could be reconstructed if necessary off of the Written Torah
d) If it's important/ integral to you, you won't mishear. If someone calls you up and gives you a very important stock tip, you won't mishear the stock name. If the Torah is important to you, you won't lose the message.
e) There are plenty of written references to the Oral Law, whether it be the Torah, Prophets and Writings or the private notes students took at lectures (even though there was no official edition, students were allowed to take notes on the material taught when it comes to the Oral Law.) In Ezekiel, for instance, the prophet references the laws of mourning. Also, mikvas were discovered on Masada that were built 300 years before the Mishna was written down and were constructed almost exactly the same way as our modern-day mikva would be.
f) Review, mneumonic devices and rhymes and tunes were all created to allow for memorization and correct transmission.
g) Inertia of entire society and state. Law enforcement- Can you imagine a police officer stopping you and informing you that it is Shabbat so you shouldn't be smoking that cigarette? These laws were lived, not just laws of the book, so everyone knew them.
4. Is there any evidence of the antiquity and observance of the Oral Law?
a) Uniform acceptance of basic principles- even the Karaites and Sadducees. For example, in the Written Law we read that our animals have to be slaughtered a certain way. What way? Well, that explanation is offered by the Oral Law. Even the Karaites and Sadducees agreed regarding that interpretation of ritual slaughter.
b) Artifacts predating redaction of Mishna (For example, you can see Tefillin that predate the Mishna by 200 years in the Israel museum)
c) Dead Sea scrolls
d) Septuagint's Greek translations
e) Prophets accept Oral Law as given
f) Consistency and universality of complex calendar among all communities, even without communications
g) Genetic distinction of Cohanim, descendants of Aaron, Cohen Modal Haplotype. Genetic mutation shows Kohanim have a common ancestor.
h) Cholent, hamin, orisa, skhina- protest against Karaite rejection of Oral Law- do not light a fire but you can have a fire burning. Original protest food! Every Jewish community has its own form of cholent, whether it be potatoes and beans, cracked wheat and garlic and rice and so forth. All these stews were created for the same purpose- to demonstrate you don't believe in the Karaite tradition but rather in the Oral tradition that one is permitted to have hot food on Shabbat day. (You see this in the Baal Ha'Meor to the 3rd chapter of Shabbas in his commentary to the Rif.)