Copyright 2009 by Gary Konecky, 2010  by and Gary Konecky, 2011 by Gary Konecky

A school bus full of young students pulled over to allow a fire engine to pass. The children were enthralled when they saw that sitting in the front seat of the engine was a Dalmatian. They started speculating about the purpose of the dog. "I know," offered one student, "they use him to keep crowds back." "No," said another, "he's just for good luck." A third student brought the argument to a close: "No, no. They use him to find the fire hydrant."

In the last installment, we started asking the questions needed to interpret the Bible.  Once we have an understanding of how to accomplish this important task, we will then start our journey through the bible.  We will need to search for the meaning in the verses so often used to hurt the LGBTI community. 

The Bible is composed of two very different texts; the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible.  The problems we will encounter in interpreting the Christian Bible are largely issues of translation, as well as cultural and historic context.  The problems we will encounter in interpreting the Hebrew Bible will not only involve these issues, but will require us to study the oral Torah in addition to the written text, as was demonstrated in the last installment.

We also have another significant problem, which is the “Old Testament” vs. the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).  There are significant differences between what the Christians consider the “Old Testament” and what Jews consider to be their Bible.  Not only are there differences in the texts and in translation, but there are also differences in which books are included or excluded, and lastly there are differences in the sequence of the books.  Additionally, there are also differences in the “Old Testament” between the various Christian (Catholic and Protestant) Bibles.  Lastly, the Jewish people consider the term Old Testament to be offensive.

To properly interpret the Hebrew Bible, we must go back to the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Before the entire Jewish nation, G-d gave Moses and the Israelites (the Jewish people) the Torah, both the Oral Torah and the Written Torah.  Judaism is unique in that it is the only religion to claim national revelation; most other faiths claim a private revelation to a single individual. 

The Oral Torah (also known as the oral law or oral tradition) was orally taught in an unbroken chain from one generation to the next until the Temple was destroyed.  With the destruction of the Temple and the accompanying exile, it became necessary to write the oral tradition down.  The principle writings of the oral tradition are known as the Mishnah and the Talmud.  In addition to the Mishnah and Talmud, other teachings (including Midrash) were also written down.  All these writings are part of the oral tradition that has been passed in an unbroken chain of transmission from the revelation at Mount Sinai to this very day.

From Judaism’s perspective, G-d gave the Jewish people His Torah with instructions to implement it as best as possible in this world.  This world is a world far from the Divine.  There is great evil in the world, etc.  Jewish religious law (halacha or Halakah) tries to always be faithful to the spirit of the Torah, yet it understands the need to implement the law in the best possible way in an imperfect world.  There is a built in tension in doing this.  For example, one is required to fast on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement.  The fast is a complete fast (meaning nothing by mouth; not a drop of water, not a morsel of food, not a thing) for 25 hours.  What happens if someone is ill and the doctor orders that person to eat?  Here we have a situation where one is required to break a commandment (too fast) so as to not violate another commandment (needlessly putting one’s life in danger).  Later on in this series (in part 13) we will come to the midrash of Daniel the Tailor and we will discover how the Jewish sages dealt with this tension in a very interesting set of circumstances that might be relevant to the LGBTI community today.

What does this have to do with anything we are discussing?  Doesn’t the written Torah or Bible mean what it says?  What does the oral teaching have to do with anything?  I am reading the Bible not the Talmud, so why should I care what the Talmud says?  Why does halacha, or midrash, or mishnah matter?

The answer to these questions is very simple.  The relationship between the Oral Law and the Written Torah is similar to the difference between attending a lecture vs. not attending the lecture, but reading the notes your friend took instead.  This was explained in Leviticus Rabbah 22:1 as follows:  “He who loves the study of G-d’s words will not be satisfied with the written Torah, but will go on to the Mishnah and Talmud.”  In Baba Metzia 33, we are taught:  “The Rabbis have taught: ‘Those who study Scripture are scholars of degree, but not a high degree.  Those who study Mishnah are scholars of higher degree.  Those who study Talmud are scholars of the highest degree.’”  Lastly, according to Sopherim 16;  “We read:  ‘The L-rd spoke with you faces to faces.’ (Deut. 5:4)  The passage does not read ‘pan to pan,’ face to face, but ‘panim le-panim,’ faces to faces.  This teaches there are four faces or kinds of Torah: Scripture, Mishnah, Halakah, and Aggadah.”  (Note 1) 

Aggadah is the part of the oral tradition that includes midrash.  Aggadah can best be described as explanatory matter in the Talmud and rabbinic literature.  The purpose of aggadah being interpreting or illustrating the Hebrew Bible.  To properly understand the Hebrew Bible, one is expected to go beyond the plain meaning of the written text and to study the Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah as explained above.  I intend to take the very traditional Jewish approach of using Mishnah, Talmud and aggadah for our studies of the Hebrew Bible.  For those who are not familiar with these texts, I think you will find the journey eye opening, and fascinating (as well as being challenging). 

Additionally, it is important to note that:

Torah is approached at four different levels: the P’shat, the plain meaning, the Remez, the “hinted” allusion, the Drash, the life-lesson and the Sod, the foundational, “secret” meaning - not a secret because it cannot be told, but secret because to truly understand, the teaching must be lived with, experienced over time - it must become a spiritual practice.  (note 2) 

In a minute we will start to work through my example of how the Oral Law and the Written Torah work together.  Some of you may find the following example difficult to follow.  That is okay.  My goal here is to acquaint you with a very complex process that uses a system of logic that is very different from the way you were taught to think.  By showing you an example, and by using a passage from Leviticus that is similar to that which we will be dealing with later; I am hoping you will understand that the least obvious answer, the seemingly incorrect answer, may well be the correct answer.

Now we will start working our way through my example.  Leviticus 20:15 states:  And a man who lies with an animal, shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal.”  (note 3) 

This seems straightforward.  Here we have a sexual offense punishable by the death penalty.  Lets assume the man is convicted.  Should the man be put to death?  The text is plain, clear, and unambiguous.  There does not appear to be any exceptions.  He should be executed, right?  Not necessarily.  Perhaps there is something we overlooked, something that is not apparent, something seemingly not related.

Exodus 23:7 states:  “Distance yourself from a false matter; and do not kill a truly innocent person or one who has been declared innocent, for I will not vindicate a guilty person.“   (note 4)

You now say, but he was tried and convicted.  What is the problem?  How is this verse relevant?  Is there even a relationship between these verses?  These are good questions.  Now lets consult with the great sage and Torah commentator Rashi.

Rashi says:

and do not kill a truly innocent person or one who has been declared innocent: How do we know that if one emerges from the court guilty [and is given the death sentence], and one [of the judges] says, “I have a way to prove his innocence,” we must bring him back [to the court and retry him]? Because the Torah states: “and do not kill a truly innocent person.” Although he was not declared innocent-for he was not vindicated by the court-he is, nevertheless, free from the death penalty, because you have reason to acquit him. And how do we know that if one emerges from the court innocent, and one [of the judges] says, “I have a way to prove his guilt,” we do not bring him back to the court [to retry him]? Because the Torah states: “and do not kill… one who is declared innocent.” And this one is innocent because he was vindicated by the court. -[From Mechilta, Sanh. 33b]

For I will not vindicate a guilty person: It is not incumbent upon you to return him [to court] for I will not vindicate him in My law. If he emerges innocent from your hand [i.e., from the courts], I have many agents to put him to death-with the death penalty he deserves. -[From Mechilta, Sanh. 33b]  (note 4)

Well it seems the matter is now even more confusing.  Is it possible that maybe we were a little hasty in sentencing the man to death?  Is it possible that Exodus 23:7 might impact the death sentence from Leviticus 20:15?  The situation does not seem as straightforward as it did.  This is not a problem.  It just means we need additional guidance from the oral tradition. 

I am about to introduce a mishnah (Makkot 1:10).  The sages quoted in this mishnah are considered giants in their knowledge of Torah and are among the most brilliant sages in Jewish history.  The sanhedrin referred to in this mishnah was the court system in ancient Israel.  It is important to note that ancient Israel did not have a system of religious, civil laws and criminal laws as we understand things today.  The law in ancient Israel was the Torah, and the laws of the Torah covered religious matters, civil matters (including divorce, torts, property disputes) and criminal acts. 

The laws of ancient Israel were the laws given in the Torah and the sanhedrin was responsible of seeing to it that those laws were carried out by the people.

Makkot 1:10 states:

                                             1)                     If one fled after having been convicted at a court and again comes up before the same court, the [first] judgment is not set aside. 

                                         One)                Wherever two witnesses stand up and declare, “We testify that so and so was tried and convicted at a certain court and that so and so were the witnesses” the accused is executed.

                                             2)                     [Trials before] a sanhedrin are customary both in the land [of Israel] and outside it.

                                             3)                     A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous.

                                         One)                Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years.

                                        Two)                Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say:  “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.

                                      Three)              Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked:  “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.” (note 5)

Now for an explanation of the key part of the above Mishnah:

Section three:  This famous piece of Mishnah testifies to some of the Rabbis’ deep hesitations with regards to the death penalty.  As we have seen throughout tractate Sanhedrin and tractate Makkoth, convicting a person of a capital crime is no easy matter.  The person must be warned beforehand and then the crime has to be explicitly witnessed by two valid witnesses.  Therefore, the first opinion in our mishnah, concludes that a court that executes once every seven years is a murderous court.  Since the laws of testimony are so strict, any court that executes more often than this is assumed to be illegally suspending the laws and is therefore, in a sense, engaging in murder itself.  Rabbi Elezar ben Azariah says that once in seventy years already makes a court murderous.  Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva brag that had they been on a sanhedrin no one would have ever been executed.  At the end of the mishnah Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, the political leader of the Jews at the time, notes a sound of caution.  The Rabbinic tendency to be overly lenient on executing murderers can take its toll on society.  In his opinion the attitudes of the other Rabbis cause the numbers of murderers to rise. (note 5)

We now have two bible verses that seem to be at possible odds with each other plus we have a teaching from the mishnah.  Do we put the man to death or not?  What is the law?  Lets review the offense.  The offense is between man and G-d.  Rashi teaches us; “If he emerges innocent from your hand [i.e., from the courts], I have many agents to put him to death with the death penalty he deserves.”  Furthermore, at least two sages of the mishnah are also clearly opposed to capital punishment.  Surprisingly, the answer is that despite the unequivocally clear statement in Leviticus 20:15, despite the difference of opinion in the mishnah, the answer is that the defendant is not to be put to death and G-d will exact punishment.

Now that we had an example of the complex process by which we reason through a Torah passage, we are left with the question, what was the point of this exercise?  What is the lesson of G-d requiring the death penalty, only to have His commandment seemingly ignored?   Not merely ignored, but contradicted by some of the greatest sages in Jewish history.

Earlier, I explained that Jewish religious law is Torah based, yet tries to implement Divine intent in a world that is far from Divine.  The above is my example of that process and from this process we now know the oral tradition modifies and explains the Written Torah. 

With the understanding that the oral tradition explains and modifies the written Torah, we now come to a teaching from Pirkei Avot, literally Chapters of the Fathers, more commonly called Ethics of the Fathers.  Chapter five of Pirkei Avot teaches that before a child is five, he should learn the Hebrew alphabet.  At age five, he should start studying scripture.  At age 10, he should start studying the Mishnah.  At 13, he is obligated to fulfill the commandments.  At age 15, he is to start studying Talmud.

Therefore, we can conclude that those who interpret the Bible literally and use it to attack the LGBTI community are not scholars of a high degree (as quoted from Baba Metzia 33 above) and that they have the same understanding of scripture as a boy less than 10 years old (as illustrated in Pirkei Avot above).


Note 1:  The source of the quotes from Leviticus Rabbah, Baba Metzia, and Sopherim is  page 467 of The Talmudic Anthology, Tales & Teachings of the Rabbis, edited by Louis I. Newman in collaboration with Samuel Spitz, copyright 1945, published by Behrman House, Inc.

Note 2:

Note 3: 

Note 4:

Note 5:

The Talmud will be crucial to our exploration of the Hebrew Bible.  A wonderful seven-part video that introduces the Talmud can be found at:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

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