Recently, I began studying the development of Torah Shebe’al peh with my students in Jerusalem. The course is entitled From God’s Mouth? — The Evolution of The Oral Law and it meets at the Fuchsberg Center Wednesday mornings. Our goal is to trace the evolution of halakhah from what I call the ‘process of canonization’ (mitzvot, minhagim, takanot & gezerot — more on those terms as the course develops) to the ‘canonization of process’ — how generations of scholars decided what was the legitimate approach to Halakhic derivation and codification (‘Midrash, Mishna, Gemara, Sifrei halakhah & responsa’) to create an unbroken link between Sinai and our day.
It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for years.
Some students asked me ‘how long will this course be?’ and my answer is ‘I don’t know.’ I may bow to the academic calendar or continue this until it’s played out. I may write a book, I may just leave the material and have someone else write it. (Not that there haven’t been some wonderful books written already, like Hirsch-Weiss’ Dor Dor ve’dorshov or Orbach’s Hahalakhah — Mekorotehah ve’Hitpathutah’). I am recording our classes (and believe me, there is nothing so painful as seeing yourself lecturing in front of a group) but at least this way I have a record of what we say so that I can prepare pod casts for the future (which I am doing now and will tell you more about later).
I believe that we have gone through two major shifts since Sinai: the first being the canonization of the Torah and closing the book on Torah shebikhtav (written law); the second being the canonization of process, when generations of scholars decided what kinds derivations would be acceptable ways to determine Torah Shebe’al peh.
I believe a third shift is imminent.
The day is short and the work is long. But I hope at then end of day (or work), we will have added something to the understanding of where it all began and, possibly, have a better idea of where it could eventually lead.