-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 6:2
What is Torah?
I hear people speak about “Torah study” and “the power of Torah,” etc. But I’m not clear what exactly they are referring to with the term “Torah.” Is that more than the Five Books of Moses?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The word “Torah” literally translates as law or teaching.
Torah is the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each book is one-fifth of the Torah. In Hebrew, this is collectively called the Chumash (literally: fifth).
It is called the Five Books of Moses because G-d dictated the text to Moses, who then wrote it down. Moses also plays a central role in the Torah.
Sometimes you will see the Five Books referred to by the Greek word, Pentateuch, which means “Five Books.” (“Pent” means five, and “teuch” means book.)
The second, more colloquial use of the term “Torah” includes the entire body of rabbinic literature – the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and Writings, the Midrash, the Talmud (the compilation of rabbinic teachings explaining the biblical commandments), and even any teaching today based on these sources.
In this regard, Torah is the “constitution” of the Jewish people, covering the totality of law and lore, including lifecycle, business and medical ethics, holidays, family life, etc.
So when someone says, “I’m going to a Torah class,” or shares a “Devar Torah” (word of Torah), it is usually meant in the broader sense, not the Five Books in particular.
“What is Torah?”
-from the “Ask the Rabbi” column at Aish.com
Since I’m in pursuit of the answer to the question What is the purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism,” which I first asked in Part 1 of this series, the question asked of the Aish Rabbi couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s the question behind the question, the very center of my ongoing discussions with my Pastor about why I believe that Jews who have come to know Jesus as the Messiah are still obligated to the Torah mitzvot.
To say one is obligated to Torah begs the question, “What is Torah?”
But that’s not an easy question to answer, though the Aish Rabbi did a pretty good job. However, that one answer isn’t the only answer. I know my Pastor wouldn’t consider any extra-Biblical sources as “Torah” because he considers only the Bible as containing the inspired Word of God. Midrash and Talmud, not so much.
But if we must necessarily turn to Judaism to answer the question, the answer won’t be palatable to most Christians, especially Biblical literalists.
Another Aish Rabbi answers the same question differently:
The accurate meaning of “Torah” is twofold. Firstly it comes from the word “hora’ah,” which means teaching. More precisely it means “teaching with direction,” i.e. the type of teaching which enables and empowers one with a direction to proceed. The same word could be used in Hebrew with such teachings both in spiritual and secular realms.
The second meaning is from the word “orah,” which means light. One example of this reflected in the verse which states, “A mitzvah is a candle, and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). This can be understood on multiple levels:
One thought is that the Torah is the source of spiritual illumination in the world. Besides it being the source of Judaism, through it and its teachings we serve as a light unto the nations. As such the Torah serves as the foundation of much of Christianity and Islam.
The Torah also, more importantly, serves as the source of illumination for our own lives. Like the Clouds of Glory which guided the Jews for 40 years in the Desert, providing illumination and direction at night, the Torah lights our paths and provides the Jewish people with direction throughout our long period of exile, even through the darkest of times.
The Torah also provides direction in each Jew’s personal life. In business, family life or interaction with others, the Torah offers the ethical and moral compass by which to navigate the most complicated and tempestuous, thorny issues.
But then what do you do with commandments like this?
You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together.
Is that Torah? It’s certainly located within the Five Books of Moses. Do observant Jews perform that mitzvah today? Some do. Why don’t all Jews observe it, even those who may observe other mitzvot, such as wearing tzitzit or keeping some form of kosher? Is there more than one way to “do” Torah?
The answer to a simple question such as “What is Torah” seems multi-leveled and elusive. It’s further complicated by the fact that different streams of religious Judaism observe the mitzvot in different ways or observe some but not all of the codified mitzvot. I know Reform Jews who will go out to lunch at a restaurant on Shabbos but who maintain a tab so they can pay their bill (handle money) on a different day. Orthodox Jews couldn’t imagine themselves doing such a thing, even in their worst nightmares.
Another example: as far as I can tell, there are multiple forms of kosher, one being glatt kosher. If kosher is kosher, why different or varying standards?
This all goes back to my statement to my Pastor asserting the believing Jews are obligated, for instance, to “keep Kosher.” Yes, but “What is kosher?”
I mentioned in another blog post that my concern with looking to Christian sources for the answer to these questions is that the response will be biased by the assumption that Jesus “fulfilled” the Law so that all or much of it is no longer required for the believing Jews. However, looking to Judaism for the answer introduces a bias in the opposite direction, especially if part of that answer states that all of the midrashim and Talmud must be considered as Torah and thus infallibly inspired (or at least authorized) by God.
I also mentioned in my previous blog post that my Pastor believes there is a perfect and permanent Torah in Heaven that is never-changing, but that idea takes us immediately into mystic realms best left for another time (the upcoming Part 3 of this series). However, my Pastor also said that he would never tell a Jewish person who came to faith in Messiah that they had to give up their Torah observance because that’s who they are in terms of covenant, ethnicity, culture, and as a lived-Jewish experience. Part of being a Jew is Torah, even for Jews who have never studied Torah.
For instance, another Aish Rabbi answered the question of a sixty-six year old Jewish man who had never studied Torah before and was feeling as if he had “come to the party too late,” so to speak; that he was too old to begin to learn Torah.
When it comes to Torah study, there is no time like the present.
Maimonides writes (Laws of Torah Study 3:7):
“Perhaps one will say: ‘[I will interrupt my studies] until after I make money, and then I will return and study; [I will interrupt my studies] until after I buy what I need and can focus less on my business, then I will return and study.’
“If you think like this, you will never merit the Crown of Torah. Rather, make your work provisional and your Torah study permanent. Do not say: ‘When I have free time, I will study,’ for perhaps you will never have free time.”
Some people use the excuse, “I’m too old to begin learning.” But we know that Rebbe Akiva didn’t even learn the Aleph-Bet until he was 40 years old. This is the same Rebbe Akiva who became the greatest sage of his generation with 24,000 students!
Some people are hesitant to learn Torah because they can’t imagine ever becoming a scholar – so therefore why even get started? But that is faulty thinking. Every drop of Torah study is precious and eternal.
The story is told of Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, who lived in the Lithuanian town of Ponevich. In the 1930s, when the Nazi threat grew grim, he escaped and made his way to Palestine. Arriving on the shores of Tel Aviv, he proudly proclaimed: “I have come here to establish a Yeshiva.”
Those who had come to greet the rabbi were perplexed: “Apparently you are not aware,” they told him, “that Rommel’s troops are now stationed in Egypt, and planning a total invasion of Israel. The Jewish Agency is destroying its records; the rabbis are distributing thousands of burial shrouds throughout the country. Our annihilation is imminent!”
“That will not deter me,” replied Rabbi Kahaneman. “Even if I am able to spread Torah learning for only a few days, that in itself would be of eternal significance.”
Rabbi Kahaneman built the Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and named it after his Lithuanian town of “Ponevich.” Today it is the largest Yeshiva in Israel with thousands of students.
I don’t know if you consider this “Biblical,” but for me, this is one of the most powerful arguments as to why all Jews, believing and otherwise, should zealously pursue studying and observing the mitzvot. Because Torah (however you define it) is at the heart of what it is to be a Jew. Not that secular, non-observant Jews aren’t Jewish…they certainly are, but something incredibly wonderful happened at Sinai when Hashem gave the Torah through Moshe. A people were brought together and united “as one man” before God in a way that had never happened previously in human history. It’s arguable that such a thing has ever happened since.
Although Christians have blessings without end through Israel and through Messiah, we never stood at the foot of Mount Hor and watched it burn in Divine fire and smoke. According to midrash, God spoke all the words of Torah simultaneously, in all of the seventy languages of the nations. It was truly wondrous and terrifying. Whether that happened literally or not, the point is that an event occurred at Sinai that forged and fused the Jewish people into a nation in a way that has never happened before or since.
I believe that Jesus is the prophet greater than Moses but salvation comes from the Jews, as the Master said himself (John 4:22). If we say that all or at least a whole lot of Torah (whatever that is) has gone the way of the Dodo bird, then all or at least a whole lot of what happened to the Children of Israel at Sinai went with it.
What is Torah? If Pastor is right and Torah, the whole Word of God, actually, exists in a perfect and immutable form in the Heavenly court, then it cannot be annulled, deleted, edited, altered, folded, spindled, or mutilated in any way. If that is true and if the “earthly” Torah was given as a sort of copy or model, just as the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert was a “scale model” of the Heavenly Court of Hashem, then both the original and the model are Holy.
One does not desecrate the altar of the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) without desecrating God. If we say that parts of the Torah can be removed, minimized, and deleted for the inheritors of the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people, what are we saying about the Holy original? What are we doing to God?
What is Torah and what are the Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah supposed to do about it?
This is an exploratory series, so I’m not going to try to answer all of the above right now. I’m just setting the scene and inviting the players to take up their roles. Answer for me, if you will, the questions about Torah in a way that our brothers and sisters in the Christian church can comprehend and see how Torah is an ideal and a goal for the Jewish people, even as is the Messiah who is in Heaven and who will return.
The world is a place of constant change and unrest. Each point in time is distinct from the point before and the point after. Every point in space is its own world, with its own conditions and state of being. It is a world of fragments constantly rushing like traffic in anarchy.
Look at your own life: You do so many different things, one after the other without any apparent connection between them.
Inner peace is when every part of you and every facet of your day is moving in the same direction.
When you have purpose, you have peace.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
More questions and another perspective on the purpose of Torah coming up in Part 3 of this series on Monday.