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Rabbinic Judaism or Rabbinism (Hebrew: "Yahadut Rabanit" - יהדות רבנית) has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the 6th century CE, after the codification of the Babylonian Talmud. Growing out of Pharisaic Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism became the predominant stream within the Jewish diaspora between the 2nd and 6th centuries, with the redaction of the oral law and the Talmud as the authoritative interpretation of Jewish scripture and to encourage the practice of Judaism in the absence of Temple sacrifice and other practices no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism is based on the belief that at Mount Sinai, Moses received directly from God the Torah (Pentateuch) as well as additional oral explanation of the revelation, the "oral law," that was transmitted by Moses to the people in oral form.
Mainstream Rabbinic Judaism contrasts with Karaite Judaism (Hebrew: יהדות קראית), which does not recognize the oral law as a divine authority nor the Rabbinic procedures used to interpret Jewish scripture. Although there are now profound differences among Jewish denominations of Rabbinic Judaism with respect to the binding force of halakha and the willingness to challenge preceding interpretations, all identify themselves as coming from the tradition of the oral law and the Rabbinic method of analysis. It is this which distinguishes them as Rabbinic Jews, in comparison to Karaite Judaism.
In keeping with the commandments of the Torah, Judaism had centered tightly on religious practice and sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews were deprived of a central place of worship and religious activity and were unable to fulfill the Temple-related practices mandated in the Tanakh, and were scattered around the world.
Written and oral law
The feature that distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism is the belief in the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the tradition taught by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Law and that the Oral Law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the Oral Law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. To demonstrate this position some point to the Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible are cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties. Additionally, all the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God telling these law to Moses and commanding him to transmit them orally to the Jewish nation. None of the laws in the Written Law are presented as instructions to the reader.
Development of Rabbinic Judaism
As the Rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing. The theory that the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval led to the committing of Oral Law into writing was first explained in the Epistle of Sherira Gaon and often repeated.
The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemara, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. Indeed, it states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them — for example, the prohibition to do any "creative work" ("melakha") on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, and only given practical meaning by the definition of what constitutes 'Melacha' provided by the Oral Law and passed down orally through the ages. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, "don't steal", without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring — according to Rabbinic thought — a subsequent crystallization and definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and would therefore require the existence of either an Oral Law tradition to explain them, or some other method of defining their detail.
Much Rabbinic Jewish literature concerns specifying what behavior is sanctioned by the law; this body of interpretations is called halakha (the way).
Until the Jewish enlightenment of the late 18th century, and the resulting division of Ashkenazi Jewry into religious movements or denominations, especially in North America and anglophone countries, halakha had the universal status of required religious practice. This remains the prevailing position among Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Reform Jews do not generally treat halakha as binding.
- See, Strack, Hermann, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Jewish Publication Society, 1945. pp. 11-12. "[The Oral Law] was handed down by word of mouth during a long period...The first attempts to write down the traditional matter, there is reason to believe, date from the first half of the second post-Christian century." Strack theorizes that the growth of a Christian canon (the New Testament) was a factor that influenced the Rabbis to record the oral law in writing.
- See, for example, Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 193.