Jaroslav Pelikan-Talmud, Reason and Imagination

I am reading some more of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book, Who’s Bible Is It. He leads us through what has happened with Jewish oral tradition. For Judaism there is a twofold authority. The law was given and long existed in written form. But the orally handed down interpretation of the law was just as authoritative.

This oral tradition came about because Israel existed sometimes at home in Palestine but often geographically scattered and culturally challenged. New environments called for new interpretations of the original revelation.

Also, Hebrew has only revived as a spoken language in modern times. For much of history, Jews spoke other languages. So the Hebrew needed interpretation.

But the Pharisees and the rabbinic movement that developed from them seem to have always seen the oral tradition as just as God-given as the written texts. The idea goes back to Nehamiah 8:7-8.


Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah – all of whom were Levites – were teaching the people the law, as the people remained standing. They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read” (NET Bible).

Some of the terms are confusing.

Targum relates to the interpretation given in the synagogue to the Hebrew text. Someone would read the text, then an interpretation or paraphrase was given. These interpretations were not free-lance. They were handed down from master to pupil and father to son. In Luke 4:16-30 the problem people had with Jesus’ Targum was probably that he free lanced.

Midrash was a term that referred to a retelling of scripture that was so free as to add to scripture rather than just translate and interpret it.

Halakhah was an amplification of the law. For instance, the law says not to work on the Sabbath. A Halakhah amplified that to say not to lite a fire on the Sabbath.

Haggadah was a narrative or anecdotal interpretation that appealed to the imagination and was much used by Jewish mystics.

Eventually all this oral material became so extensive that the rabbis compiled much of it in several volumes known as the Talmud.

My Protestant mind rebels against this all as just man-made tradition. But I appreciate that Pelikan points out how the wisdom literature in the Bible implies that the human mind and reason can make sense of scripture and life. The rabbis used reasoning and imagination to expound scripture. From a certain perspective, the Talmud just carries on the project of those who wrote books like Proverbs and Job.

My thoughts about this include these:

Although Judaism gets accused of legalism, the use of reason and imagination to interpret scripture actually provides a way out of legalism.

This provides a better approach to something like sexual ethics. People today might actually be able to hear us if we were to say that the reasons for biblical limits on sexual behavior are that they promote a happy and orderly life. The book of Proverbs takes something of that approach and there is a lot of room there before you fall into permissiveness or relativism.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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