One of the fundamental principles of Orthodox Judaism is the belief that there is a Written and an Oral Torah, both of which were revealed by God to Moses. Quite a few Orthodox rabbis declare that if a Jew does not accept this teaching, the Jew is not Orthodox and is a rebel, an apicores – one who disputes the existence of God. These rabbis insist upon believing that the Oral Torah is divine even though it differs radically with what is stated explicitly in the Written Torah. Others accept the view that the Oral Torah is not divine, but rather an invention of the Pharisees and rabbis. They recognize that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism, but rather a Rabbinical Judaism, and thus they can observe the laws as explained by the rabbis and still be considered a good Jew, even an Orthodox Jew. Samuel David Luzzatto is a good example, as one can see from his writings. Many Orthodox Jews will reject his opinions.

Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), known as Shadal, was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish scholar, and the great-grandnephew of the equally famous Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1747) author of Mesillat Yesharim. He was a devout believer in the divinity, unity, and antiquity of the Torah, but he read the Torah with an open mind and drew interpretations from many sources, Jewish and non-Jewish, ancient and modern, and always focused on the plain simple meaning of the text, as he understood its peshat.

He disliked Maimonides and philosophy, and preferred the commentary of Rashi, but not Rashi’s midrashic interpretations. He recognized that while he considered himself Orthodox, he was not so “according to the ideas of the majority of the ‘kosher’ Jews.” He rejected source criticism and emendation of the Bible text advocated by contemporary Bible critics.

He was not averse to offering rational interpretations of halakha, the Torah’s commands that differed from, and even opposed what halakha demanded, but he insisted that despite his interpretations, the halakha was controlling in practice. The following are some of his ideas, including his understanding of the Oral Torah and his application of his understanding that the rabbis can change what is in the Written Torah to a law about women.

  • God is present and involved in human affairs, performs miracles, but always includes the ways of nature in the miracles. For example, the ten plagues were natural events that occurred from time to time in Egypt, but God made them happen in a single year (Exodus 7:20).
  • It is impossible that the Israelites entered Egypt as only seventy people, and left Egypt after 210 years numbering well over six hundred thousand. They must have been in Egypt for some four hundred years and the list of names were not consecutive generations, but rather other generations that are not listed between them (Exodus 6:20 and 12:40).
  • The Israelites during the ancient period, like people of other nations, were very superstitious, and the purpose of the collection of a silver half-shekel for the Tabernacle was to alleviate their fear of the “evil eye” (Exodus 30:12).
  • Mount Sinai is called the mountain of God, not because it was holy, but because the Decalogue would be revealed there (Exodus 3:1).
  • The alien people who accompanied the Israelites when they exited Egypt were probably Egyptians who were married to Israelites and the flocks and herds that joined the exodus most likely belonged to them (Exodus 12:38).
  • All of the Israelites heard all of the commands in the Decalogue because of a special miraculous voice that God created for this purpose (Exodus 20:1), or by means of a vision (Exodus 24:10).
  • The ancient Israelites were convinced that children are punished for the misdeeds of their parents, as indicated in Exodus 20:5, 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9, Lamentations 5:7; but this view was changed in Jeremiah 31:28, Ezekiel 18:2, and Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a.

Two of Shadal’s views are especially significant and may bother what Shadal called “kosher Jews.” These views indicated that the Oral Law comprises commands developed by the rabbis, and that the rabbis changed the law concerning women’s obligation to observe certain commandments.

Shadal does not accept the view that the Oral Law, also called the Oral Torah, was given to Moses at Sinai, or at any place or time. He contends, as do most scholars, that the Oral Law is comprised of rabbinic enactments. And he states that the Torah itself orders, or permits, the rabbis to make changes, add rules, and delete what God decreed.

This permission is in Deuteronomy 17:11 which states that the Israelites should obey the decisions of the legal authorities of their time and “not stray to the right or to the left from the decision that they communicate to you.”

Shadal explains that the rabbis made the changes due to deep wisdom, fear of God, and love of humanity, to alleviate social conditions, and, in some instances, to set up restrictive “fences” around the law to assure that the law itself would not be violated.

He recognizes that the rabbis use two terms mi’d’oraita (from the Torah), and mi’d’rabbanan (from the rabbis), to classify the origin of laws. But he tells readers that these terms should not be taken literally. A law is often called mi’d’oraita even though it is clearly not mentioned in the Torah, because the rabbis found an asmakhta, a peg upon which they could hang their decree.

It is likely that Shadal felt that the rabbis did not consider their calling rabbinical enactments “biblical” because they were convinced that what they enacted was in the spirit of the Torah – the rules were wise and helpful, and the new post-temple era required them.

Shadal noted that there is no distinction made in the Torah regarding the observance of Torah commands; Just as men are obligated to observe them, so are women. Yet the rabbis in post-biblical times decreed that women are not obligated to observe the Torah’s positive commands that are time-bound, such as dwelling in a sukkah and using the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, or wearing tefillin since the observances are positive commands that occur at a specific time and are not always obligatory.

Shadal supposed that when the Torah was revealed, women were treated fairly. But during the rabbinical period the rabbis noted that women were no longer treated as they should be and were obliged to do much work in their families. So, the rabbis, Shadal claims, having compassion upon women, lessened their religious burden by allowing them to ignore many biblical positive commands.