While the official canonization of the Hebrew Bible ended in the 2nd century B.C.E, the transmission of "Jewish scriptures" has continued unabated in the form of midrash or commentary to the Torah up through today. In fact, one could argue that even during the biblical period, priests, prophets, psalmists, and scribes were composing scripture by recycling and reinterpreting earlier versions of it, illustrating what one biblical scholar Michael Fishbane has referred to as "inner biblical exegesis."
The Pharisees astutely referred to this type of dynamic interpretive process as the Torah shebe'al peh or Oral Torah, which they argued was equally as authoritative as the Torah shebikhtav or Written Torah, because both were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai simultaneously as parallel divine truths. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the tannaim who had memorized the oral interpretations of the Torah by the Pharisees were forced to write them down in order to preserve them, eventually compiling them in the Mishnah by the 3rd century.
|Mishna + Gerara = Talmud|
The organic process of rabbinic commentary continued with the Amoraim, "discussers" of the Mishnah, who later compiled their interpretations in the book of the Gemara, "learning," by the end of the 5th century. Together, the Mishnah and the Gemara comprised the Talmud. While the rabbis of Palestine produced the Jerusalem Talmud, the dispersed rabbinic community of Babylonia produced its own Babylonian Talmud a century later. Yet the rabbis didn't see these texts as merely literary achievements, but rather as a continuation of sacred scripture itself, arguing that every rabbinic interpretation ever to be given was already revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai by God as part of the Oral Torah.
In the medieval period, rabbinic commentators perpetuated the divine revelation of Torah with their own midrashic or interpretive techniques to develop legal, philosophical, and mystical commentaries that would further uncover new meanings of God's word.
The 18th-century pietistic movement Chasidism would further extend the meaning of the Oral Torah beyond the earlier rabbinic commentaries to include the writings of zadikim, righteous individuals in every generation, particularly the Chasidic leaders themselves who even had the right to "cancel" a divine decree when necessary.
The medieval philosophical and legal interpretations also paved the way for modern and contemporary innovations of Jewish theology and legal observance including traditional, liberal, and feminist approaches. While the Hebrew biblical canon has remained sacrosanct throughout history, Jewish thinkers in every generation have continued to create "scripture" anew by participating in the ongoing process of interpretation.
1. Why was an oral tradition important to the transmission of Judaism?
2. What is the Torah? How are its sections divided?
3. What is midrash?
4. Why is midrash important to the oral Torah? How does it influence the text in contemporary settings?