Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On Torah she-be-'al peh

Mississippi Fred MacDowell
Zogt di Gemora:

ת"ר מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו כמה תורות יש לכם אמר לו שתים תורה שבכתב ותורה שבעל פה א"ל שבכתב אני מאמינך ושבעל פה איני מאמינך גיירני ע"מ שתלמדני תורה שבכתב גער בו והוציאו בנזיפה בא לפני הלל גייריה יומא קמא א"ל א"ב ג"ד למחר אפיך ליה א"ל והא אתמול לא אמרת לי הכי א"ל לאו עלי דידי קא סמכת דעל פה נמי סמוך עלי:

Our Rabbis taught: A certain heathen once came before Shammai and asked him, 'How many Toroth have you?' 'Two,' he replied: 'the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. 'I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah [only]. [But] he scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, he taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth; the following day he reversed [them] to him. 'But yesterday you did not teach them to me thus,' he protested. 'Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral [Torah] too. (trans. Soncino version)

(Shabbos 31A)
I would venture to say that this piece is so well known that it is a famous Gemara, if you will. Generally the incident is cited in support of what we might call the Torah she-be-'al peh doctrine of rabbinic Judaism. The incident could happen today. The only trouble is that it simply isn't so that only a ba'al masorah could teach Aleph-Bet and teach it correctly. It isn't so today and it wasn't so the day that Hillel taught the potential convert to say Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Daleth.

So what's peshat? If we wish we can work backwards and say that my objection is illusory. Hillel said it, ergo it is an airtight container of proof for TSHBP. That seems unsatisfactory for obvious reasons. After all, it may have convinced the nakhri in the incident (actually, the Gemara doesn't say--I suppose we may presume that it did, or else Hillel's reply could hardly have been considered a successful answer to the challenge). If so, how could Hillel have given an ultimately unsatisfactory proof for TSHBP?

Perhaps we can say the following. Hillel wasn't giving proof at all. The doctrine of Torah she-be-'al peh is clearly integral to rabbinic Judaism (I add the 'rabbinic' caveat only to forestall any objections, but the facts are that TSHBP is a ubiquitous element of Judaism. The exceptions are exceptions, and obviously the parameters of TSHBP is subject to healthy debate in the sources, traditional and non-traditional). But ultimately TSHBP is faith based. Whatever proof one can offer, there are replies, and replies convincing enough that TSHBP is evidently not a given.

The proselyte could have gone to a Sadduccee and been converted and also taught the Aleph-Bet correctly. It doesn't follow that because he has to rely on Hillel, ergo "there are two Toroths", as the Gm' puts it.

However, the point is that he went to Hillel. This is what he wanted in on. If you go to Hillel, if you want to join our club then you must ultimately trust our interpretations and traditions. What other option is there?

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