Monday, July 11, 2005

In theory, could a well-meaning minority have rejected the Talmud?

The early authorities (Geonim, Rishonim) explained that the Talmud gets its authority from the fact that it was accepted by kelal Yisrael. That is, the Jewish people in general--not the gedolei ha-dor--accepted the Talmud and in doing so it became binding, so to speak.

Now there was a minority that didn't accept the Talmud. The Karaites, as they came to be called, aren't "well-meaning" for my purposes (but that doesn't mean they were insincere). The reason why is because they rejected rabbinic Judaism, the accumulated interpretations and practices of Judaism up to that point in favor of a clean reboot, so to speak, a return to the text of the Torah and a new beginning. That is not what I mean with my question, could a well-meaning minority have rejected the Talmud. Furthermore, once the Talmud did become binding, there can't be a "well-meaning" rejection of it (not that people who do so can't have pure intentions either).

Let me explain my question by way of analogy. In general, the Jews of Yemen did not accept the binding authority of the Shulhan Arukh. Why not? Because it didn't speak to them. They had the Mishna Torah. The Shulhan Arukh was a necessary update for the Jews of all the halakhic activity of the previous hundreds of years. By and large nothing had changed in Yemen. Its Jews didn't live differently in the 12th century and the 16th. They weren't influenced by different cultures and exile in the way the rest of Jewry, whether in Spain, North Africa or Western and Eastern Europe. To them the Shulhan Arukh was like a new operating system upgrade that they didn't need. Now it seems patently obvious that it was their prerogative to reject the Shulhan Arukh. Obviously they would still be halakha-abiding Jewish citizens.

Rewind a thousand years. It should be obvious that before the Talmud was written that Jews didn't need the Talmud to be rabbinic Jews (paradox alert). They had the Mishna, they had rabbis and they had their customs and laws which they practiced. The fact that the Talmud wrote down the embellishments of the Mishna and the hot topics of the previous three hundred years in the yeshivas didn't initially change anything in Judaism. The same way that Jews could lead halakhic lives twenty five years before the appearance of the written Talmud, they could lead halakhic lives twenty five years after its appearance. Right?

So what if a minority community of well-meaning Jews hadn't accepted the Talmud the way Yemeni Jews didn't accept the Shulhan Arukh, but without rejecting halakha? Would that have been an acceptable prerogative of Jews at the time?

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