What Is Torah?
More than the Five Books of Moses, Torah is the guide to living.
No word in the Jewish religion is so indefinable and yet so indispensable as the word Torah. Torah is the most comprehensive term for the substance of Judaism. Torah is Teaching. Torah is Law. No one can hope to achieve even a minimal appreciation of the Jewish religion without learning, and then reflecting on, the idea of Torah and its place in the life of the Jew.
Will Herberg describes the multifaceted brilliance of this crown jewel of world literature:
It is a book, an idea, a quality of life. It is the Pentateuch; the Bible in all its parts; the Bible and the rabbinical writings; all writings dealing with revelation; all reflection and tradition dealing with God, man and the world. It is represented as a bride, the "daughter" of God, as a crown, a jewel, a sword; as fire and water; as life, but to those who are unworthy, as poison and death. It is the pre-existent Wisdom or Word of God, present at creation and acting as the "architect" of the creative work.
It preserves the world from destruction; without it, all creation would lapse into chaos; it is the harmony and law of the universe. It is all this and much more, for the exaltation of the Torah in Jewish tradition is a theme which no words can exhaust. Torah is the reason man was created. It is the equivalent of the Temple sacrifices.
Torah has been for ages the sum and substance of Jewish scholarship. But it would be utterly wrong to conclude from this emphasis on study that Jewish spirituality runs dry in the sands of intellectualism.
Torah study is a spiritual exercise in mysticism and intellectualism.
In reality, the study of Torah is something very different. It is an authentic spiritual exercise, the Jewish equivalent of mystical communion with God. Indeed, it is more likely to run into mysticism than into intellectualism.
Photo archives from the Warsaw ghetto show a door of an inn that read, "Society of Wagon Drivers for the Study of Talmud in Warsaw." This referred to coachmen who seized a few moments from their work to gather in a group to "nosh" (grab a tasty morsel of) a page of Talmud, as was noted earlier. These were not intellectuals, concerned only with the intricacies of scholastic dialectics; they were deeply religious men thirsting for spiritual refreshment and they found it, as countless generations of Jews before them, in the study of Torah.
"Oh, how I love Thy Torah; it is my meditation all day long" (Psalms 119:97). With Torah understood in its fullest sense, this may be taken as the authentic attitude of the believing Jew to Torah. Torah is law, but it is much, much more than law.
But what, after all, is a system of law doing in the midst of a religion? Looked at through the eyes of western civilization, law should not function in the arena of faith. Law should be confined to the governance of society, relating to affairs of state; faith should apply to affairs of the soul, the domain of the individual. How then do these widely disparate elements coalesce in Judaism? What is the relation of "faith" to "deed"?
Man Cannot Live By Faith Alone
Judaism maintains, as a cardinal principle in its approach to religion and to all of life, that faith and deeds are inseparable. Modern man finds this difficult to understand because he has been schooled in a western frame of reference which looks at "religion" solely as a matter of the soul, residing in that which is inward. The emphasis of religion is attitude rather than obedience, belief over action.
Judaism considers a person who lives by faith alone – not translated into deeds – to be living with vague, puffy spiritual generalities.
One who lives by faith alone – without deeds – is living with puffy spiritual generalities.
To visualize the picture perfect ideal of an earthly life achieved in the heavens, imagine Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, walking down Wilhelmstrasse with his hands behind his back and his mind contemplating the firmament. In Christian terms, this setting might change – a monk meditating about the universal God in his tiny cell in a remote mountaintop monastery.
The picture of the Jew, on the other hand, is for all time inscribed on the tablet of his imagination by the narrative in Genesis which portrays Abraham searching for "a righteous man in the center of the city"; Jacob building roads and public bathhouses to foster community hygiene in every city he visits; Moses leaving the isolation of Pharaoh's palace to enter the fray on behalf of his enslaved people.
In Judaism, there is no real question as to the superiority of right action or right intention; its only question is "What is right living?"
Healing, helping, concrete betterment have their own intrinsic meaning regardless of the intentions that motivated them. Intention is important, of course, but it can be reflected only in tangible reality. Providing shelter for a homeless teenager has meaning that is independent of the intention behind the deed.
Judaism is averse to spiritual generalities, to looking for meaning in a life detached from doing, as if meaning existed as a separate entity. Its penchant is to convert ideas into deeds, to transform metaphysical principles into patterns for action, to endow the most sublime principles with bearing upon everyday conduct and, conversely, to sanctify the mundane.
But how do we know which deeds are called for? And how do we determine the difference between right and wrong if we are not guided by faith?
The answer is: Keeping the Law.
God's will is given as a gift to man encased in a body of commandments, "to do's," what Jews call mitzvot (mitzvah, in singular). Mitzvot constitute the fixed religious standards of action that do not change with every impulse of society. The reasons for these commandments are not often self-evident and go beyond the reach of human beings, although they do depend on the stable understanding and steady interpretation of the teachers of every generation and on their application of these laws to daily realities. The ultimate obligation is not to believe in God, but to do the will of God.
Mitzvah is the irreducible, organic matter of the Jewish religion. In popular usage, it refers simply to "a good deed." But its significance and force stem from its original, formal, and correct usage: commandment. God, the issuer of the mitzvah, is the metzaveh, "He who commands." The engine of Jewish law and observance is the keeping of the mitzvot, the commandments given by God.
Acting Out One's Faith
By living as Jews, we act out our faith as Jews.
Doing a mitzvah is not simply doing a "good deed"; it is, in fact, keeping God's law in its specific detail. The will of God is revealed in the mandates of Torah, primarily in the form of Halachah – literally "the way" – that is, the way to fulfill the commandments.
Halachah, like Torah itself, is one of Judaism's most important and elusive terms and, without comprehending it, Judaism is not comprehensible. It is, more than any other single entity, the quintessence of Judaism.
The Torah provides for an oral interpretation that is dynamic and progressive and is absolutely necessary to understanding the written Torah. The Oral Law, is not only an interpretation of the law, but its application to the changing circumstances of reality by logical and traditional principles that the Torah itself establishes.
The Torah's oral interpretation is dynamic and progressive.
The law is decided by learned rabbis in response to questions put to them by individuals and whole communities. Their decisions eventually get enacted and then written down as codes of law. The codes then get studied, interpreted and applied by the same system. All of these, in addition to a variety of regulations and decrees, form the body of the Oral Law.
Herman Wouk, in This is My God, described the process eloquently:
What we have then is a system of amendment originating with "the wise" and subject to ratification or annulment by the law – abiding community at large, in a quiet referendum that is continuous and effective.
The question straightway arises: who are these "wise," and by what power are they ordained?
They are the students who receive their ordination from the heads of the great yeshivot, the academies of Torah learning, who are not formally elected or officially appointed, but are simply acknowledged by the communities who keep the law. In a sense, then, the community of those who keep the law is the informal supreme court of Judaism. They decide who the religious authorities are. They do this by directing their religious questions to the few scholars in each generation, and by following or not following their rulings.
Law: The Elixir of Life
In fact, far from being enslaved by the law, Jews were enamored of it. We cannot take our leave of the subject of Torah without expressing this most characteristic sentiment of Jewish literature – the love of Torah.
You may ask: can a people "love" a law? Yet, that is the exquisite paradox inherent in the concept of Torah – it is respected and studied and feared, while it is loved and embraced and kissed. All at once. There is no good in this world – no ideal, no blessing, no perfection, no glory – unless it is associated with the law.
To Jews, the Torah is "light"; it is the "glory of the sons of man"; it is the energizing sap of life for "the dry bones" (Ezekiel 37:4) which symbolize the "people in whom there is not the sap of the commandment."
To Jews, the law is mayim chayim, refreshing, life-restoring, living waters to Jews; the sweetness of honey and milk, the joy and strength of wine, and the healing power of oil. It is an "elixir of life" that brings healing to all.