I have been inspired by one of my current MJTI classes to reflect a bit more on concepts around Oral Torah. I want to begin by sharing two underlying assumptions I bring to the conversation right from the get-go:
1. I do not believe legalism has anything to do with Judaism whatsoever. Among the critiques I have of developed mesorah (tradition/heritage), and there are some, legalism does not ever come up.
2. I DO believe Oral Torah is an indispensable componant to the life of any Jewish community and to attempt to completely do away with it is both unfortunate and impossible.
The question lies in what "it" is. I have a few thoughts for our consideration.
I plan on doing an extended "series" on this topic and so I will start with what I believe Oral Torah is NOT.
Oral Torah is not a collection of documents. In other words, I would say it is inaccurate to define Oral Torah as : Talmud, Tur, Shulchan Arukh, Midrash Rabbah, etc. The process of Oral Torah led to the creation of such works. Oral Torah, by definition, oughtn't be reduced to a list of documents.
Oral Torah is not a verbatim recitation of a series of laws given to Moses at Sinai. The Savoraim, who redacted the Gemara, preserved a number of metaphors, declarations, and parables to describe the differences between Oral Torah and Written Torah and they did not seek to describe anything apart from Oral Torah's "rootedness" and authority from Sinai (examples to come in the series).
Oral Torah does not "trump" Written Torah-Oral Torah was never in competition with Written Torah in the first place. To put them at odds is to fundamentally misunderstand the sages who first described them as unique componants of Torah.
In the coming days and weeks I will post more on what Oral Torah actually is (and it is multiple things)...first a mashal (parable):
" What is the difference between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah? To what can it be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who had two servants and loved them both. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and each a bundle of flax. What did the wise servant do? He took the flax and spun a cloth. He took the wheat and made flour. He cleaned the flour and ground, kneaded and baked it, and set it on top of the table. Then he spread the cloth over it and left it until the king would come. The foolish servant, however, did nothing at all." (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2)