Tradition: Adapt or Adopt?

Tongues on Fire

Halakha is a human invention. It was invented by a group of spiritual and religious visionaries. The rabbinic tradition tells that Moshe Rabénu (Moses) received the halakha at the same time as the written Torah was Dictated. There cannot be any serious doubt that Moshe began a process of interpretation. Torah ordains judges and courts be established. Who was to reconcile inevitable disputes if Shimon's court ruled differently than Ruvén's on the same point of law? Moshe was a prophet and prophetic, inspired invention of spiritual tradition was an established fact. The rabbinic halakha claims succession to the prophetic invention of tradition (Pirqé Avot 1:1):
Moshe received Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua. Joshua? To the elders. The elders? To the Prophets. They transmitted it to the Anshé Khneset Hagdola. ...

Rabbinic tradition begins with Ezra. He was a priest and among the last of the prophets, along with Malachi, Zechar’ya and Haggai. Pirqé Avot continues: The Members of the Great Assembly teach: Be patient in judgement; develop many disciples; and actively make s’yag latora .
(1:2) Shimon Hatzadiq was among the last of the Anshé Khneset Hagdola. He used to teach: Three principles guide the world: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness.

Shimon Hatzadiq

The first historical personality of Rabbinic civilisation. He was not a rabbi. He was High Priest prior to Maccabean times. He is regarded by the Mishna (PA 1:2) as the precursor to Rabbinic traditions. Six generations of named leaders are named in succession after Shimon Hatzadiq (PA 1:3-11). Five of these generations were the Zugot, who had a unique, paired leadership: one served as Nasi and the other served as Av Bet Din respectively. The last of these paired leaders were Hillél and Shammai.

Hillél & Shammai

Hillél was Nasi and Shammai was Av Bet Din. They were the founders of scholarly schools which were also political parties. It goes too far to call Bét Hillél liberal. It was tolerant of diversity and tended to be plebian in its worldview. Today we would say it was middle-class and socially progressive. It does not go too far to call Bét Shamm'i socially conservative. It tended to be Patrician in its worldview. These two batim contended against each other socially, judicially and politically. The standardised halakha of the Mishna is almost always determined according to the opinion of Bét Hilél.

Aqav’ya Ben-Mehalalél

A member of the Sanhedrin; Aqav’ya was excommunicated for not retracting what his colleagues regarded a disgraceful comment. During a debate in which the tradition of Avtalyon and Shmy’ah was brought forth in testimony he remarked scornfully that the testimony was inaccurate (see EJ 2:478). He did not repent of his contary views, of which the Mishna records four (Eduyot 5:6), but he adjured his son to follow the majority (Eduyot 5:7).

Rabban Yochanon Benzaqi

He was the least of Hilél’s students, states Avot de Rebbe Natan; R. Yochanon was one of the leading sages of Yerushalayim and served as a deputy to R. Shimon Ben-Gamaliél. R. Shimon was Nasi and co-led a national unity government with the Priestly party in the years previous to the Roman destuction of the Temple in 70 CE. He was martyred by the Roman occupiers as an instigator of the Jewish war against Rome. R. Yohanon built in Yavneh the foundation of halakhic development after the destruction. He was abandoned by the majority of sages. They waited until Yavneh was better established and attended only when Rabban Gamaliél, R. Shimon's son, was assured of installation as Nasi. Rabban Yohanon was assisted by Rebbe Yehoshu'a Ben-Hananya and Rebbe Eliezer Ben-Horq'nos.

R. Yehoshu'a

R. Yehoshu'a was an iconoclast and willing to challenge authority. The Nasi R. Gamaliél was deposed after insulting him. R. Eliezer was a wealthy man. He was conservative and inclined to the Bét Shamm'i. Both were diplomats and served on embassies to Galut.

These are the principals who will be succeeded rather than supplanted by future principal leaders. We will meet them in the next section.