Answering Tovia Singer on the Oral Torah

Answering Tovia Singer on the Oral Torah

A friend recently suggested that Tovia Singer had some convincing arguments in favor of the oral Torah, so I pulled up a short video of his, documenting some of those arguments, and decided to write this response. I place a high value on the work of Tovia Singer, and have watched and appreciated many of his videos. However, when it comes to the oral Torah, I’m simply not in agreement. I will detail the reasons for this as I examine each claim made in the video below.

First, let’s again clarify the B’nei Mikva position on the oral Torah. Our position is not that there is no such thing. Our position is not that it contains nothing useful. Our position is that it is not of divine origin. The real question is: was the oral Torah transmitted by YHVH to Moses at Mount Sinai?

If it was, it is just as authoritative as the written Torah. If it wasn’t, it is not absolutely authoritative or binding in any way, (though it may still contain a lot of useful wisdom, preservation of details on traditional interpretation and observance, etc.)

I am responding to the claims contained in this video (I encourage you to watch it before reading further):

The argument of Nikkudot

Roughly the first third of the video is the question presented to Singer, followed by the first portion of his answer, where he begins using the lack of vowels in the Hebrew language as a proof of oral Torah. His premise is that without oral Torah, one cannot read the Hebrew Scriptures. Nobody contests the system of vowel marking (nikkudot) devised by the Masoretes to preserve the proper pronunciation, therefore that is simple and obvious proof of oral Torah.

This is a rather silly argument in my view, and simple to dismiss.

There are several semitics languages that lack written vowels, including Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic and Tigrinya. Native speakers do not need the vowels to understand their written languages. It was only as Hebrew literacy was in serious decline, that in the 7th century CE, the nikkudot were developed.

Since native speakers of languages without written vowels have no problem reading, and since the nikkudot were not devised until beginning in the 7th century, this argument has absolutely nothing to do with the oral Torah contained in the Mishnah, part of the Talmud, claimed to have been transmitted to Moses at Sinai. The Masora (nikkudot, cantilation marks and other notes contained in the Masoretic text) is not in any way associated with, nor proof of, an oral Torah transmitted at Sinai.

In fact, one of the prominent families of Masoretes was the ben Asher family. Tovia in the above video references the most important Masoretic manuscript, the Aleppo Codex. The Aleppo Codex was the work of Aaron Ben Asher, who was a Karaite Jew! Karaites deny the divinity and binding nature of the oral Torah, so if the Masora is to be some sort of proof of oral Torah, it seems strange that one of the prominent families of Masoretes would be Karaite.

(Of course rabbinical Judaism has, several times, attempted to convince people that ben Asher was not Karaite, but that has been pretty much put to rest with the work of Rafael Isaac (Singer) Zer.)

Conclusion: The argument of nikkudot has no bearing on the divinity of oral Torah.

The argument of Ruth the Moabitess

After the vowel argument, Tovia moves onto the story of Ruth. The question he asks is: without the oral Torah, how could Ruth have converted? The issue is that Ruth is said to be a Moabite woman, and Moabites were prohibited from entering the “assembly of YHVH”:

An Ammonite or Moabite may not enter the assembly of YHVH; to the tenth generation none of their descendants shall ever do so,

for they did not meet you with food and water on the way as you came from Egypt, and furthermore, they hired Balaam son of Beor of Pethor in Aram Naharaim to curse you. (Deut 23:3-4 NET)

If it requires additional divine oral instruction, not found in the written Torah, to understand how Ruth is permitted to marry Boaz, that implies that YHVH gave Moses the above instructions, which he wrote down, but then also explained the exceptions, which weren’t written down.

So then, in the oral Torah, wouldn’t we expect to see something indicating that although the written Torah says one thing, YHVH also instructed Moses that there were exceptions? Let’s see what we find in the Mishnah:

What is the reason why he gave instructions that inquiry be made concerning him? Because it is written, And Saul clad David with his apparel, being of the same size as his, and about Saul it is written, From his shoulders and upward he was tallerer than any of the people. Doeg the Edomite then said to him, ‘Instead of inquiring whether he is fit to be king or not, inquire rather whether he is permitted to enter the assembly or not’! ‘What is the reason’? ‘Because he is descended from Ruth the Moabitess’. Said Avner to him, ‘We learned: An Ammonite, but not an Ammonitess; A Moabite, but not a Moabitess! . . . ‘Does then Egyptian exclude the Egyptian woman’? ‘Here it is different, since the reason for the Scriptural text is explicitly stated: Because they met you not with bread and with water; it is customary for a man to meet [wayfarers]; It is not, however, customary for a woman to meet [them]’. ‘The men should have met the men and the women the women!’ (from Yevamot 76b)

The Gemara comments that this disagreement with regard to the source of the halakha that it is permitted for an Ammonite or Moabite woman to enter into the congregation is like the following dispute between tanna’im: The verse states: “An Ammonite or a Moabite” (Deuteronomy 23:4); an Ammonite man is barred from entering into the congregation, but not an Ammonite woman, and similarly, a Moabite man is barred from entering into the congregation, but not a Moabite woman. This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda, who derives the halakha from the masculine form of these two terms. Rabbi Shimon says: The verse states: “Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way” (Deuteronomy 23:5). Since it is the way of a man, but not the way of a woman, to go forth to meet guests, females were not included in the prohibition. (from Yevamot 77a)

Here we find that the answer in the oral Torah is actually inferred from the written text itself! Amazing! We find there is no evidence in the Mishnah that the permission for Ruth to marry Boaz comes from anything beyond the written Torah itself.

If you think about it, there are numerous reasons the text might allow for permission for Ruth to marry Boaz, beyond the inference above:

  1. To the 10th generation. Was there a time limit that had expired by the time of Ruth and Boaz?
  2. It isn’t precisely known what the assembly of YHVH is, and whether this prohibition relative to it would ban conversion, marriage, etc. Judges 20:2 seems to suggest this assembly is a legislative body, not a term referring to the entire nation. This would make this a simple prohibition on putting certain foreigners in positions of authority.
  3. Since the Israelites had conquered Moab by this time, it could be that the term Moabite simply meant that Ruth resided in the (former) land of Moab.
  4. Ruth was already Israelite by way of her first marriage to Naomi’s son. (If there was a problem, it would have been dealt with then, before Boaz was ever in the picture.)
  5. Suppose the prohibition were to apply to ALL Moabites/Moabitesses for all time. What’s to stop someone from ignoring the command? Samuel sacrificed at the high place (1 Sam 9) in direct violation of the Torah (Num 33:52). It’s not as if the Israelites were perfectly obedient.

Conclusion: The story of Ruth contains no proof of oral Torah. On the contrary, we see that the oral Torah derived the permission for Ruth to marry Boaz directly from the text of the written Torah, not from extra information given to Moses by YHVH!

Arguments from the New Testament

At this point in the video, Tovia segues to using the New Testament to prove oral Torah. This seems of dubious value to me, but we’ll dig into Tovia’s assertions in this area as well. He first points out Matthew 23:2. Let’s look at the verse with a bit of surrounding context:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

“The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.

Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. (Matt 23:1-4 NET)

Now, in verse 2 Jesus is supposedly saying that because the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, they are to be obeyed. But then he immediately starts criticizing them. As you read further, by the time you get to verse 13, he’s saying:

“But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in. (Matt 23:13 NET)

At this point in his speech, Jesus is asserting that neither the Pharisees nor those over whom they wield authority and control are able to enter the kingdom of heaven! Are we really to believe that he advised his followers to follow the Pharisees in the early part of this chapter? It seems questionable, does it not?

Jack Dean Kingsbury, former Aubrey Lee Brooks professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote “To date, no scholarly proposal for resolving these apparent contradictions has proved entirely satisfactory.” in reference to Matt 23:2-3. (Matthew as Story [2d ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988]).

It’s possible this is a mistranslation. Early church fathers were of the opinion that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, and the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew contains an alternate reading of verse two which reads:

“Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and Sages sit, and now, all which HE (Moses) will say unto you-keep and do; but THEIR ordinances and deeds do not do, because THEY say and do not.” (For more information see https://unitedisrael.org/seatofmoses/)

This would certainly resolve the difficultly of Jesus ordering his followers to obey those who were keeping them from entering the kingdom! But, whichever way you choose to look at it, you can’t derive from this passage any proof of a divine oral Torah.

The argument of healing on the Sabbath

Tovia moves on to discuss a story which he says is completely invented, anchored in John 7:22-23:

However, because Moses gave you the practice of circumcision (not that it came from Moses, but from the forefathers), you circumcise a male child on the Sabbath.

But if a male child is circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses is not broken, why are you angry with me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath? (John 7:22-23 NET)

Tovia says in the above video:

Jesus responds “You can circumcise a boy on the 8th day, if it comes out on Shabbos, so if you can heal a small limb, how much more so could you heal the entire body? I defy you, go to any Christian in the world, explain to me that text, explain to me what is the basis of that response.”

He goes on to explain that the oral Torah rules that one cannot cause a blood letting wound on Sabbath, which one cannot find anywhere in the written Torah. The oral Torah then provides for an exception specifically for circumcision on the Sabbath. Because of this, there is no possibility that this passage in the New Testament is not based on this prohibition and exception in the oral Torah.

Tovia says “Now we understand the New Testament from the Talmud; It’s unbelievable!”

No matter how I look at this, I cannot see any validity to the argument. Jesus specifically says “Moses gave you the practice of circumcision (not that it came from Moses, but from the forefathers)”. If there is any oral transmission implied by this passage, it’s right there. Circumcision was given to Moses in the Torah, but was already practiced from the time of Abraham, and was a practice handed down from the generations of Abraham to Moses. There is a clear and valid example of oral Transmission.

What is not clear at all is that one couldn’t come to the conclusion that circumcision on the Sabbath is okay based on only the written text; The idea that you first have to have the oral Torah outlaw bloodletting wounds on Sabbath and then permit an exception for circumcision seems like a huge overreach to me.

Here’s the commandment of circumcision in the Torah:

The LORD spoke to Moses:

“Tell the Israelites, ‘When a woman produces offspring and bears a male child, she will be unclean seven days, as she is unclean during the days of her menstruation.

On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised. (Lev 12:1-3 NET)

Does it say “except on the Sabbath” anywhere? No! Is circumcision regular work which is forbidden on the Sabbath? No! Would anyone think they could, or should, keep this commandment by circumcising on the seventh or ninth days when the eighth falls on the Sabbath? No!

Tovia, likely unwittingly, acknowledges this when he explains at minute 14:45: “However, because when we have the commandment, to circumcise a boy on the eighth day, the Torah says you should do it on the day, for the oral Torah tells us ‘even if it comes out on Saturday.'” When written down, grammatically what he is saying may be hard to understand, so you may want to watch this portion of the video again. Basically, what Tovia is saying here is that the written Torah commands it to be done on the eight day specifically, and the oral Torah backs that up by saying even if it’s on the Sabbath. However, there is no need for the oral Torah to say this, because it is the oral Torah itself which, contrary to the written, prohibits a bloodletting wound on the Sabbath, and then has to specifically make an exception to it for circumcision. The written Torah needs no such exception, for it doesn’t contain the prohibition which necessitates the exception.

According to the written Torah, circumcision is performed on the eight day after birth, period. No further explanation is needed.

There is absolutely no reason Jesus’ words in John 7, whether accurate or a fabrication, rely on anything from the oral Torah to make sense; none whatsoever! Why Tovia even brings this argument when he prefaces it by saying that this story is absolutely fabricated in the first place is a mystery.

There you go, all points from this video addressed, and in my opinion zero proof of the divinity of the oral Torah. See also our other article Is the Oral Torah Divine?

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