Should I Be a Noachide or a Karaite?
Real questions, submitted by actual OU Torah followers, with their real answers. NOTE: For questions of practical halacha, please consult your own rabbi for guidance.
Q. I would like to ask you a question on a subject I'm sure you get a lot. I left Christianity wanting to follow as a Noachide, but I have concerns, like whether I should be a Noachide or a Kara'ite. I've seen videos, read online, heard and talked with people from both, but I just can't be at ease until I know for sure. The Orthodox rabbis say that the Oral Torah is a completion of the written, the details and commentaries that are not in the main books of scripture, that these go all the way back to Moshe and without them, you can't understand the written scripture. The Kara'ites claim the Hebrew written scripture is enough. “Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk...” means to not boil it in its mother's milk, because that's what the ancient Canaanites would do as a sacrifice to their fertility goddesses. Why would the Oral Law need to be oral if God saw the Oral Law would one day be in danger of being forgotten? The people of Israel in the time of Nehemiah and Ezra didn't even know the written Torah, until the king rediscovered it in the Temple. Are there any Orthodox Jewish people or Kara'ites who can help me?
A. Thanks for your question. And no, I don’t get this one too often! The Oral Law is certainly an indispensable component of the Torah. The text says not to leave one's place on the Sabbath – what's one's place? His city? His house? His bed? We are told that performing labor on the Sabbath is a capital offense but labor isn't defined in the text; wouldn't it be nice to tell us what labor is so we could avoid it? We're told to wear “totafos” (tefillin/phylacteries) but they're never defined. How should we know what to put on? There are many such examples. For me, the clincher is Deuteronomy 12:21, in which we are instructed to slaughter mean in the manner in which we have been commanded – and yet no such commandment is recorded in the text! That's because it's part of the Oral Law.
Why would God include an oral component to the Torah? There are several reasons but the one most germane to our conversation, I think, is this: Judaism has a Bible – many call it the "Old Testament." You have no doubt noticed that a number of other religions have adopted our Bible as part of their own Scriptures. That may be so but they don't have the Oral Law, so they can't really copy our practices. The Oral Law ensures that Judaism stays Jewish.
There's a famous story in the Talmud. A potential convert went to Hillel and said, "Accept me as a convert but teach me only the Written Law and not the Oral Law." Hillel said, "Fine. First you have to learn to read Hebrew. This letter is an alef and this letter is a beis. Go home and memorize it." The man came back the next day and Hillel said, "Okay, let's review. That's a beis and that's an alef." "But yesterday you said that was the alef and that was the beis," the man objected. "You see?" Hillel said, "You can't even understand the Written Law without relying on our oral tradition!"
One correction: The Torah was found in the Temple in the time of King Josiah, long, long before the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (see 2 Kings 22). They didn't just find "a Torah," the text says they found "the Torah," i.e., the original manuscript that Moses had stored alongside the ark, as described in Deuteronomy 31:26. So it wasn't that they didn't have Torah scrolls; they did. This was a significant archaeological find in its own right, but it was especially jarring since the scroll was rolled to the curses in Deut. 28, which was (rightly) taken as a bad sign.
I hope this helps.
Rabbi Jack's latest book, Ask Rabbi Jack, is now available from Kodesh Press and on Amazon.com.