views updated May 18 2018


TORAH . It is no exaggeration to claim that the term torah is the quintessential symbol in Judaism. The present essay approaches this symbol from a variety of linguistic, historical, and phenomenological points of view. The discussion is divided into nine basic parts. The first of these offers basic etymological orientation to the semantic range of the term torah in classical Hebrew usage. Parts two to four address the problem of the nature and origins of the diverse sorts of writings that have come to be called torah in Judiasm. With the literary survey of torah complete, we then move to a survey of the ideological perspectives that Jews in various times and places have used to explain the meaning and the authority of torah. Part eight traces the profound role that the value of Torah study has played in the history of Judaism. The final part addresses the ritual functions of the book of the Torah as physical object.

Etymology and Basic Meanings

The Hebrew noun torah is formed from the linguistic stem y-r-h. This stem has a complex semantic history, bearing at least three distinct senses: "to throw or shoot," "to water," and "to proclaim or instruct." Some nineteenth-century scholars held that the stem has a primary setting in the context of divination practices, as in the casting of lots (e.g., Jos. 18:6). Indeed in Akkadian a closely related stem underlies the noun, tertu, which refers to an oracular directive or instruction. Nevertheless, in contemporary times, there has been no firm consensus about the linguistic history of the term torah prior to its characteristic usages in the Hebrew Bible and associated ancient Hebrew literature. In these sources, torah bears the primary sense of "teaching" or "instruction." Depending upon the context, torah can refer to the orally imparted wisdom of parents (Prv. 1:8, 4:2) as well as to the teachings of formal instructors, including sages (Prv. 13:14), priests (Dn. 17:11), or prophets (Dn. 1:5). Very commonly it refers to messages delivered by the God of Israel to prophetic spokespersons, usually in the form of auditory disclosures of the divine voice (Is. 30:9). Especially in the biblical book of Deuteronomy, and at key junctures in the historical accounts of the books of Joshua through 2 Kings (e.g., Jos. 8:31, 2 Kgs. 14:6, 23:25), "the book of the Torah of Moses" (sefer torat mosheh ) refers to a written collection of hortatory teachings and legal instructions. Equivalent terms, apparently referring to a complete document, are "the book of the Torah of YHWH" (sefer torat yhwh; e.g., Neh. 9:3) and "the book of the Torah of God" (sefer torat ʾelohim ; e.g., Jos. 24:26). According to Deuteronomy, these teachings were copied by Moses in response to the divine command and deposited for posterity in the ark that housed the stone covenantal tablets received on Sinai/Horeb (Dn. 31:24-26). The author of the biblical book of Nehemiah, writing sometime between the fifth and the fourth centuries bce, assumed that the scroll read by the priestly scribe, Ezra, in the covenant-renewal ceremony described in Nehemiah 8:1 and following, was a copy of this very same book of the Torah. It is represented as the written testimony of a covenantal relationship between the Israelite nation and the God of Israel, who redeemed it from slavery in the time of Moses and promises to restore Israel's fortunes in the future in return for full loyalty to the norms contained within the Torah (Neh. 9:6-10:31).

The Literary Format of the Canonical Torah

In the authoritative version known for well over 2000 years, the Torah refers collectively to the first five books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Ancient Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint, c. 250 bce and later), which form the textual basis of the Christian Old Testament, refer to these five books collectively as the Pentateuch ("the Five Books"). Greek-speaking Jews commonly referred to this collection by the term ho nomos ("the Law"; e.g., 2 Mc. 15:9, Rom. 7:1). Through the mediation of Christianity, deeply influenced by the usages of Greek-speaking Jews, it has become common in Western culture to conceive of the Torah as a law code and of torah as "law." More properly, the Torah founded in the Hebrew Bible is an extended narrative that contains law codes. In traditional Jewish usage, the general noun torahwithout the definite articlerefers broadly to any authoritative religious teachinglegal, ethical, or theological.

Neither ancient Hebrew copies of the Torah nor modern scrolls used in Jewish worship identify either the Torah as a whole or its separate books by name. In traditional Jewish usage the title of each book is drawn from Hebrew words that appear in their first sentences: Bereshit ("In the beginning"), Shemot ("Names"), Vayiqrʾa ("And he called"), Bamidbar ("In the wilderness"), and Devarim ("Words"). In Christian usage, the titles are drawn from Latin renderings of the Septuagint's Greek titles that allude broadly to the theme of each work. These are the origins of the terms routinely used in Christian communities. English translations of the Old Testament, for example, list the titles of the Pentateuchal books as Genesis (Gr. Genesis) ; Exodus (Gr. Exodos ); Leviticus (Gr. Leuitikon ); Numbers (Gr. Arithmoi); and Deuteronomy (Gr. Deuteronomion ).

Modern readers of the Torah in Hebrew will find it in two forms: as a printed book in the larger collection of a printed Hebrew Bible or as a handwritten scroll used in synagogue rituals which call for reading from the Torah in public. Scholars, perhaps, will have consulted medieval handwritten copies of the Torah that take the form of codicesseparate leaves of parchment or other writing material bound together into a book. The format of the scroll is the most ancient and is found in the earliest surviving fragmentary copies of parts of the Torah that have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. These fragments, over eighty in number, offer evidence of the state of the text as early as the mid-second century bce. They also show that the books of the Torah, like other writings presently included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, circulated in a variety of versions, many of which differ from that found in the official scriptural canon. It is not clear how early the five books comprising the Torah were routinely copied together on one scroll. Nevertheless, Jewish and early Christian literary sources from the beginning of the Common Era assume that all five books formed a single literary entity.

The Contents of the Canonical Torah

The canonical version of the Torah is a complex narrative work of extremely sophisticated composition. No simple outline of the plot of the Torah can do justice to its complexity. Major and minor themes and subplots are skillfully woven throughout the five books so that passages in one book are alluded to or even quoted in others (e.g., Ex. 16:2-3 and Nm. 11:4-6). The thematic unity of the Torah, then, fully justifies the rabbinic view that the books must be copied on a single scroll (B.T., Git. 60a). The following summary suggests the overall coherence of the Torah's narrative across the five books in which the story is told.

The Torah's master theme organizes diverse stories and collections of laws into a theologically coherent statement as well as a compelling historical narrative. The Torah is a history of the expressions of divine love for Israel and of Israel's inability to accept and respond to that love. The theme is given a universal significance in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, a complete literary unit that forms a prologue describing the origins of the world in God's creative speech (Gn. 1:1-2:4) and the early history of humanity. These chapters describe various forms of human rebellion from the time of the primordial man and woman, Adam and Eve (Gn. 2:4-3:24) and continuing through their descendants: Cain's murder of his brother, Abel (Gn. 4:1-16); the violence of Noah's generation that led to the destruction of nearly all life (Gn. 6-9); and the insolence of the generation that sought to invade the heavens by building a tower in Babel (Gn. 11:1-10).

This history of human rebellion foreshadows the Torah's depiction of God's relationship with the family of Abraham and his descendants through his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob. Genesis chapters 12 to 36 describe various covenantal promises sealed between God and these Patriarchs (Gn. 12:1-4, 15:1-21, 17:1-14, 22:15-19, 26:23-25, 28:10-15). Essential to these is the promise of the Land of Canaan as the eventual dwelling place of the Israelite people. Thematically, this Land recalls the original Garden in which Adam and Eve lived and from which they were expelled due to their rebellion. It is to be the place in which God and his human partners dwell together in harmony. But as the Torah's narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Israel is no less susceptible than the original humans to the urge to defy God. Each patriarch lives in the Land for a time, and each is tested with various hardships that require him to leave the Land. Ultimately, through a combination of famine and certain intrigues involving a plot by Jacob's eleven sons against their brother Joseph, all of Jacob's descendants migrate to Egypt (Gn. 37-50), abandoning entirely the Land promised to them through their ancestor, Abraham.

The book of Exodus opens (chapter 1) with a description of the enslavement of Jacob's descendants to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The focus of chapters 2 to 4 is the figure of Moses, a son of Hebrew slaves, spared from death and raised in the royal household, who discovers his true identity and is called upon by God to lead Israel out of slavery into a formal covenant of servitude to God himself. Chapters 5 to 15 trace the negotiations of Moses and his brother, Aaron, with Pharaoh for the release of Israel from slavery. They also describe Israel's liberation through the visitation of plagues against Egypt, culminating in the death of firstborn sons. Moses brings the freed slaves to a wilderness mountain chosen by GodSinaiand there concludes a covenant-making ceremony that includes the revelation to Moses and Israel of the legal terms of covenantal service to God (chapters 19-24). At this point Israel is in full possession of the covenant revelation and anticipates rapid entry in the Land of Canaan, where its terms are to be fulfilled.

With a few crucial narrative interruptions, the details of these covenantal laws extend from chapter 25 of Exodus, through the entire book of Leviticus, and into the first ten chapters of Numbers. The first narrative interruption in this extensive collection of laws is of great importance to the Torah's overall theme of human rebellion against divine love. Exodus chapter 32 describes how Israel, just having seen the saving power of God in his punishment of Egypt, initially rebels against the terms of its covenant at Sinai. The very first divine statement of the covenantal terms was the commandment to avoid worship of any image as a divinity and to devote cultic service exclusively to the God who redeemed Israel from Egyptian servitude (Ex. 20:1-4). Nevertheless, when Moses is delayed on Sinai in discourse with God, Israel coerces Aaron to supply a cultic icon in the form of a golden calf to serve as a focus of religious devotion. Although Israel atones for this violation, and God's anger is appeased, a pattern of disloyalty familiar from the first chapters of Genesis has been reestablished.

The book of Numbers, from chapter 11, resumes the theme of Israel's inability to be loyal to the terms of the divine covenant. It repeatedly offers stories that illustrate Israel's lack of trust in God's power. The most important illustration comes in chapters 13 and 14. Two years after the liberation from slavery, Moses has lead Israel to the border of the Land promised to Abraham. In response to God's word, he sends spies into the Land to help prepare the invasion. But the spies are intimidated by the might of the Canaanite nations living there and convince Israel not to invade. The divine response to this lack of trust is to force Moses to lead Israel on a wilderness journey lasting thirty-eight years, during which the entire generation of adults that refused to enter the Land dies off. Only thereafter is Israel brought again to the Moabite territory adjacent to the Land, with a new generation prepared to take the Land and divide it among the tribal descendants of Jacob's sons (chapters 35-36).

The book of Deuteronomy opens with Moses delivering an extended speech to Israel, assembled on the banks of the Jordan River. Moses recounts the history of God's redemptive acts and Israel's ungrateful or rebellious responses, repeating and elaborating on stories told in Exodus and Numbers. He reviews the covenantal laws delivered on Sinai and elaborates in many cases upon their performance. He repeatedly underscores the fact that Israel's covenant with God entails both a blessing and a curse (e.g., Dn. 11:26-30, 28:1-68). If Israel obeys the covenantal laws in the Land it will prosper there; but disobedience will be punished by war and exile from the Land. Finally Moses writes down all God has told him in a document called the Book of the Torah of Moses. Deuteronomy closes with final words of dire prediction as well as hopeful blessings placed in Moses' mouth (chapters 32-33). At the end, in chapter 34, Moses dies and passes on the leadership of the people to his disciple Joshua. With this the Torah concludes, its readers fully aware of the eventual fulfillment of Moses' most dire predictions.

The Formation of the Canonical Torah

The canonical Torah described above contains many instances of Moses writing down utterances delivered by God. Readers both ancient and modern have wondered about the relation of the Torah-text found in the Hebrew Bible to the various documents that Moses is asserted to have written at divine dictation. Indeed, it is not unusual to read in the Torah that Moses wrote down "this Torah" or "these words" in response to a divine utterance. But careful readers also note that the antecedent of such expressions can be interpreted plausibly as the immediately preceding divine utterancesor perhaps the book of Deuteronomy itselfrather than a series of five books beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the death of Moses. Nevertheless, virtually all Jewish writings known to have been composed during the later Second Temple period (c. 400 bce-70 ce) assume that the Torah which Moses received and copied is identical to the five books found in Torah scrolls. But in some writings, such as the preamble to the noncanonical book of Jubilees (c. 160 bce), it is also assumed that the received Torah is incomplete; Moses received other revelations on Sinai as well and wrote them down. These, too, should share the authority of the Torah of Moses. The early rabbinic sages, in traditions formulated from the second through the fourth centuries ce, also believed in the Mosaic origin of the canonical text. But noticing a host of chronological discrepancies and other textual problems, they debated the possibilities that the original revelations were received and transcribed by Moses in an order that is no longer preserved in the canonical version (Mekh.Yish., to Ex. 15:9). Others suggested that the last verses of Deuteronomy describing the death of Moses were written by his disciple, Joshua (B.T., Bava Bat. 14b-15a).

The issue of the Mosaic authorship of the canonical text of the Torah has been a particular focus of modern literary-historical scholarship since at least the seventeenth century. The fundamental assumption of modern scholarship is that the Torah, like all texts, is an essentially human product composed by authors immersed in specific historical situations. Proper interpretation of the Torah, then, involves critical study of the text, reading it for literary, stylistic, and linguistic clues to the historical setting in which it was composed. This assumption has freed historians from traditional Jewish and Christian claims about the Torah's Mosaic origins, and inspired them to propose a host of theories about the historical setting of the Torah's composition and the persons or groups responsible for its creation. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the most influential historical reconstructions of the composition of the Torah have been associated with the Documentary Hypothesis proposed, most notably by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and refined by generations of later scholars.

As its name indicates, the Documentary Hypothesis holds that the canonical Torah is a composite literary creation composed, in part, of written documents that are more ancient than the final five-volume narrative into which they have been incorporated. These documents may have originated in oral narrative or legal traditions, but for the most part circulated in ancient Israelite priestly and scribal circles as written sources. Most versions of the hypothesis identify four specific sources, each with its own geographical and chronological point of origin, and each representing a distinct point of view regarding theology, politics, and, most importantly, the early history of Israel as a covenant people. The canonical Torah was created by editors who selected and combined elements from each of these sources in light of their own views about the history of Israel's covenant relationship to its God.

Most versions of the Documentary Hypothesis identify the four documentary sources as follows. The oldest source, often regarded as originating by the ninth century bce, is a collection of stories reflecting many of the historical interests of the canonical Torah: stories about early humanity, the Israelite patriarchs, and the events surrounding the liberation from Egypt. It is characterized by a preference for the proper name, YHWH, in reference to the God of Israel. It also has a particular interest in events located in the southern part of the Land of Israel. It is called the J-source, an indication of its Judean origins and its preference for the divine name (spelled jhwh in German). Scholars usually identify its creators as a school of scribes associated with the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.

The second major documentary source is identified as the E-source. This reflects its tendency to prefer the divine title ʾelohim ("God") in reference to the God of Israel, and a greater degree of interest in depicting the Patriarchs as founders of worship sites in the northern part of the Land of Israel, also known as Ephraim. Most scholars regard E as a fragmentary source used to supplement and comment on basic elements of the J-source. Presumably it was composed in the northern part of the Land of Israel prior to the destruction of the Northern Israelite Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 bce. When Ephraimite refugees migrated south to the Davidic Kingdom they brought their traditions with them. Over time they were incorporated into the J-source traditions to produce a richer and more complex narrative. Some scholars designate this blended document as JE.

The Priestly or P-source stems, as its name indicates, from priestly writers associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. Like J and E, P contains narratives that comment on primeval human history, the Patriarchal era, and experience of liberation. But its distinctive contribution is enormous and includes detailed collections of legal codes focusing largely, but hardly exclusively, on cultic rules of sacrifice, matters of cultic purity, sexual and dietary behavior, and other matters concerned with the separation of the Israelite community from various sources of ritual contamination. These are richly represented in Leviticus and Numbers in particular. The P-source was at first thought by scholars to be relatively recent, even postexilic in composition. Most opinion holds that it is probably pre-exhilic in origin, although it may incorporate certain revisions and additions stemming from postexilic priestly editors.

The final source of the Torah, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, survives in the Torah largely intact as the book of Deuteronomy. It is called D. Most regard it as having been composed by 621 bce in order to justify, in terms of Mosaic authority, King Josiah's program for a reform of Israelite cultic practices. Its continual preoccupation is that Israel's tenure on the Land is dependent upon total opposition to idolatry in all its forms and the destruction of non-Israelite shrines throughout the Land. In its present form, Deuteronomy is the introduction to a larger historical work, called by scholars the Deuteronomic History, extending from the scriptural books of Joshua through 2 Kings. Deutronomy closes with Moses' prediction of Israel's failure to heed the covenant, and the Deuteronomic History concludes with a description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its royal house and priests. Accordingly, most scholars argue that D and the history attached to it are pre-exilic works completed in the wake of Jerusalem's destruction and the onset of the period of exile.

There remains in the twenty-first century no universal consensus about precisely how to divide the canonical Torah into the constituent four source documents. Debates continue as well regarding the dating and identity of the authorswhether individuals or "schools"that stand behind the sources. Most contemporary scholars accept the view that the final work of editing the various sources into their present form must have been done sometime between the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bce and the career of the priest, Ezra (c. 450-398 bce), depicted in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as imposing the laws of the Torah of Moses upon the Judean community.

Also in contemporary times, the Documentary Hypothesis has been subject to some heated criticism by historians who regard as implausible the hypothesis's principle scenario: that the Torah was created by an editorial team that took apart and recombined elements of earlier written sources. Many contemporary students of oral tradition in ancient scribal cultures, like those of ancient Israel and early Judaism, acknowledge that written sources may lie behind both narrative and legal parts of the Torah. But they have also observed that the so-called "scissors and paste" method of composition proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis has no parallel in other ancient literary traditions. These depend heavily upon orally transmitted material, much of which undergoes transformation due to numerous public performances. This neglect of the oral-traditional dimension of the Torah, when combined with the failure of documentary critics to reach total consensus on the range of each documentary source, has drawn charges that the method of documentary analysis is too subjective to provide a definitive historical account of the composition of the Torah. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century no other theory of the Torah's origins and composition has won a consensus among contemporary academic historians of ancient Israel's literature.

Torah as Revelation

As much as the term Torah is etymologically linked to the idea of teaching, it is in all forms of Judaism linked rhetorically to the idea of revelation, i.e., teaching that stems from a transmundane source. Like the other monotheistic religions originating in the Middle East (i.e., Christianity and Islam), Judaism is grounded in claims to possess revealed texts or doctrines. Since at least the early Second Temple period, the text of the Torah of Moses has served as the paradigmatic revelation. Specifically, the document inscribed on the scroll of the Torah stems from a disclosure of God's love and will to Moses. But this is not to say that Judaism in all times and places has had a single conception of revelation or of how the Torah found in the canon of Scripture and in other more recent writings is related to the actual words disclosed to Moses.

The writings of Palestinian Jewish scribes from the Second Temple period, whose pens produced dozens of books represented as revelations disclosed to ancient prophets and sages from Abraham to Ezra, commonly accepted a stenographic model of revelation derived from the depictions of Moses found throughout the Torah itself (e.g., 4 Ezr. 14:37-48). Just as ancient authors commonly dictated their books to scribal copyists, so God dictated his teachings to his prophetic scribe, Moses. Some Second Temple scribal circles, however, asserted that Moses had written down more of the divine revelation than was contained in the scroll anchoring the growing collection of scriptural literature. Both the book of Jubilees, many copies of which were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the singular Temple Scroll, represent themselves as records of revelation to Moses. Presumably, the authors or groups promoting these works as revelation affirmed that they, no less than the canonical Torah, constituted authoritative, divinely authorized teaching.

Despite the popularity of the stenographic model of revelation in Palestinian scribal circles, there is at least one Jewish source from the late Second Temple period that suggests a rather different view. In the opinion of Philo (15 bce45 ce), a philosophically trained Jew who thrived in the Greco-Roman culture of Alexandria, Egypt, Moses was more than the copyist of the Torah. Rather, in Philo's view, Moses was the author of the Torah (e.g., On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain, 12, 94). He wrote his book in a state of philosophical closeness to God that constituted prophetic illumination. In Philo's view, Moses' narratives and laws are the external form that concealed the deeper philosophical truths taught long after Moses' death by Socrates and Plato. Only by application of allegorical methods of interpretation, Philo held, could the philosophical content of the Torah be recovered. This content, only alluded to allegorically in the concrete text of the Torah's stories and laws, constituted for Philo the true revelation to Moses. The revelation of the Torah was the perception of philosophical truth disclosed to the human mind in a state of prophetic ecstasy (e.g., On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain, 78).

Medieval Jewish thinkers, entirely independently of Philo, would revive the idea of the Torah as an allegory whose truths had to be decoded through appropriate interpretive systems. But they would do so in a way deeply influenced by Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that grew to dominate Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jews from the second century ce until the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In its classical form, as found in the later Talmudic literature of Late Antiquity, the rabbinic theory of revelation is grounded in three basic conceptions.

The first is that "Torah is from Heaven" (M. San. 10:1)that is, the God of Israel is the exclusive source of the Torah. In holding this view, the rabbinic sages shared the views of generations of Palestinian Jewish scribes before them, who regarded Moses as a kind of stenographer taking dictation from the God of Israel. The sages also accepted another element of Second Temple Jewish thought, the idea that certain writings produced after the time of Moses were disclosed to religious teachersprophets in the line of Mosaic authority but subordinate to him in statuswhose writings were the result of inspiration by the "holy spirit" (ruah haqodesh : e.g., B.T., Meg. 7a). Rabbinic discussion of the extent of the canon of the Hebrew Bible revolved in part around the criterion of inspiration (T. Yad. 2:14). Thus the relatively recent book of Daniel, composed around 167 bce, is included within the rabbinic scriptural canon on the basis of its attribution to an ancient seer from the Exilic period. But an older work, a collection of wise sayings from the pen of the Temple Scribe Yeshua ben Sirach (included in Christian collections of the Apocrypha as the Wisdom of ben Sira, c. 180 bce), was not included in the rabbinic canon, despite its popularity among rabbinic sages as a source of wisdom.

The third key element in the rabbinic conception of revelation is that the Sinaitic revelation to Moses included two intertwined but discrete bodies of teaching. One of these, the actual scroll of the Torah of Moses (and by extension, later books included in the rabbinic scriptural canon), was called the written Torah (e.g., Tanh.-Bub., to Ex. 19:1). But in addition, God had disclosed an unwritten body of knowledge which alone could unlock the secrets of the written Torah. This unwritten revelation is called the oral Torah (e.g., Avot Nat., A:15). Other Jewish groups of the Second Temple period had asserted the existence of books of revelations that were not contained in the Torah of Moses. But the rabbinic claim is unique in insisting that this revelation was not found in books, but only available as oral tradition learned at the feet of rabbinic sages themselves. Indeed, in rabbinic terminology, the "study of Torah" (talmud torah ) refers specifically to the study of the written and oral Torah, for Torah had become the comprehensive term denoting the entirety of teachings recognized by rabbinic tradition as authoritative. By early medieval times, rabbinic scribes and teachers had come to preserve oral Torah in discrete written compilations, most importantly, the Mishnah and its Talmudic commentaries. These were routinely memorized by rabbinic disciples, whose discussions and inquiries into the texts of oral Torah continued the oral tradition despite the use of writing in its preservation.

Torah as Law and Ontological Principle

The term torah, in addition to its specific sense of "teaching" and the more comprehensive suggestion of "revealed teaching," has also served to convey the concept of "legal rule." This meaning is already well attested in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Nm. 19:14). It is confirmed as well in the penchant of Greek-speaking Jews and early Christians to refer to their collection of scriptures as "the Law" (ho nomos ; Matt. 5:17). Within classical rabbinic Judaism, the written Torah served as a fundamental source of civil and ritual law. Rabbinic sages, functioning as jurisprudents, interpreted and applied the law within the traditional framework of the oral Torah.

A homiletic passage of the Babylonian Talmud (B.T.) (Mak. 24a) asserts that God had revealed in the written Torah no less than 613 specific commandments (mitsvot; sing. mitsvah ). The Talmud nowhere lists these commandments, a task that would be taken up by many medieval legal codifiers. Nevertheless, the conceptual tools and interpretive principles for identifying these commandments and applying them in practical affairs were transmitted in the oral Torah tradition (e.g., the Bar. Yish.). These yielded the authoritative procedures (halakhot; sing. halakhah ) for embodying the commandments in the covenant life of Israel. In practice, the legal force of a commandment in the written Torah was delimited exclusively by the meaning ascribed to it in the halakhic tradition of the oral Torah, regardless of what the semantic meaning of the commandment might suggest. Thus, to take a famous example, the written Torah's commandment to take "an eye for an eye" in the case of damages caused by negligence (Ex. 21:23) is defined halakhically to mean that the responsible party must compensate the victim financially for his or her loss (e.g., Mek. Yish. to Ex. 21:23).

The most decisive development in rabbinic conceptions of Torah as a legal system was the emergence of various attempts to systematically organize the vast legal discussions of the Talmudic literature into manageable codes that could serve the needs of rabbinic courts and educated laity. First in the Islamic world, and then in Latin Christendom, rabbinic scholars produced a series of influential halakhic collections. These experimented with a variety of organizational formats. The Sheʾiltot of Rabbi Aha (c. 750), for example, organized halakhic norms in tandem with the rabbinically prescribed Torah readings for the Sabbath which served as their sources. Others, such as the halakhic digest of Rabbi Isaac Al-Fasi (1013-1103), followed the traditional sequence of Talmudic tractates, extracting essential halakhic conclusions from the give-and-take of the debates within which the Talmud had preserved them. The most innovative and encyclopedic attempt at codification was the Mishneh Torah, composed by Moses ben Maimon ("Maimonides," 1135-1204). He organized all of rabbinic halakhah within the framework of fourteen major topical headings, each of which included several subheadings, all arranged in scrupulous logical sequence. Subsequent codes, such as Rabbi Jacob ben Asher's ʾArbʿa Turim (fourteenth century) and Rabbi Joseph Caro's Shulhan ʾArukh (sixteenth century) revised Maimonides's comprehensive organizational categories. They also narrowed Maimonides's scope, focusing only upon halakhic norms that governed the daily life of individuals and the community as a corporate entity. Thus, vast halakhic topics that depended upon the existence of the Jerusalem Temple were excluded, despite their extensive treatment by Maimonides. The primary categories developed in the ʾArbʿa Turim have become conventional in later rabbinic halakhic thinking until contemporary times. They are ʾOrakh Hayyim (laws governing the liturgical cycle of the day, week, and year); Yoreh Deʿah (ritual laws, such as the dietary restrictions, that signify the holiness of the Jewish community); Hoshen Mishpat (the topics of civil and criminal law); and ʾEven Ha'ezer (halakhot governing the contraction, duration, and dissolution of marriage).

In addition to this halakhic-jurisprudential development of the meaning of Torah as "law," classical rabbinic tradition also suggested that Torah constituted a kind of law of being, "a precious instrument through which the world was created" (M. Avot 3:14). The thought was driven home vividly in midrashic settings, in which the Torah was likened to an architect's blueprint that proved indispensable to the builder of a palace (Ber. Rab. 1:1) or claimed to have existed for 947 generations prior to the creation of the world (B.T., Zev. 116a). Such suggestions that the Torah in some sense preceded the creation of the world entailed, of course, a radical disassociation of Torah, conceived as a principle of being, from the specific writings found in books. Torah, in the context of such discussions, now denoted an ontological principle that transcended the existence of the historical Torah of Moses, even as the latter pointed toward and symbolized that ontological reality.

The jurisprudential and ontological developments of the idea of Torah among the sages of Late Antiquity provided the foundations upon which medieval rabbinic intellectuals, responding to larger movements in Islamic and Christian thought and piety, created fresh formulations of these themes. Many of these formulations were inspired by polemical interactions. The pioneering figure in the Jewish philosophical tradition, Rabbi Saʾadia ben Joseph (882-942) produced his masterpiece, The Book of Opinions and Beliefs, in part as an effort to demonstrate to rationalist critics the rationality of the Torah as a legal system stemming from God and disclosed in its complete and final form to Israel's prophets. Deeply influenced by the rationalist Islamic school known as the Mutʿazilite Kalam, Saʾadia hoped to use the Kalam's own rigorous methodology to demonstrate the intellectual sufficiency of Torah as a comprehensive source of divine knowledge. Building upon traditional Talmudic distinctions between pragmatic rules (mishpatim ) and inscrutable divine decrees (huqqim ), Saʾadia argued that both were absolutely essential in the context of the Torah as revelation. Laws self-evidently necessary for social order, such as the prohibition against murder (Ex. 20:13), were entirely susceptible to rational explanation. Apparently absurd requirements, such as the injunction against certain types of foods (e.g. Lv. 11:1ff.), on the other hand, required revelationbecause unaided reason would never discover them as the will of God. In this sense, the rational laws of the Torah are a crucial part of revelation because they inspire confidence in the inscrutable divine will that commands as well the nonrational prohibitions and injunctions of the Torah (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, III.35).

Reflection on the rationality of the Torah as a source of law, a characteristic leitmotif of the Jewish philosophical tradition since the time of Saʾadia, reached its high point in the work of Maimonides. An Aristotelian critic of the Kalam, Maimonides argued for the complete rational intelligibility of all of the laws of the Torah. He did so both by philosophical argument and jurisprudential demonstration. Maimonides' great codification of the halakhah, discussed above, demonstrated the rational integrity and complete harmony of the entire body of written and oral Torah. By contrast, Maimonides' principal philosophical work, the Guide of the Perplexed, offered a powerful defense of the rationality of the Torah as a guide to the perfection of human beings as creatures of God. He rejected earlier distinctions, such as those of Saʾadia, between rational and nonrational commandments, arguing instead for the conceptual cogency of the entire system of revealed law as developed in the oral Torah. Acknowledging that the rationality of some commandments was more immediately clear than others, he insisted that the Torah's law remains the most complete and incomparable disclosure of the divine will in human language (Guide of the Perplexed III:26-28).

When thinking about the ontological dimension of the Torah, thinkers such as Saʾadia and Maimonides hesitated to subscribe to the idea of the Torah as a pre-existent ontological principle that pervaded creation. In their view, to speak of the Torah pre-existing the world was tantamount to questioning the fundamental belief that God created the world from nothing. Torah could reflect, as law, the mind and will of God, but it could not be conceived as something co-eternal with God. This type of ontological thinking about Torah, in fact, became characteristic of the qabbalistic tradition, a distinctly antiphilosophical movement of Spanish and southern French pietists that began to take shape in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

Qabbalists such as Rabbi Todros Abulafia (1220-1298, writing in ʾOtsar Hakavod, to Shab. 28b), tended to reject as hubris the Maimonidean idea that the human mind could justify divine commandments through the exercise of reason. All of the 613 commandmentsthe reasonable as well the absurdwere profound mysteries fulfilling some hidden purpose in the economy of creation. In qabbalistic thought, which reprised certain neo-Platonic themes that had originally inspired Jewish philosophers as well, thinking about the Torah as law and ontological principle was, in fact, elegantly combined. The pioneering Talmudist, biblical interpreter, and qabbalist Rabbi Moses ben Nahman ("Nahmanides," 1194-1270), asserted in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah that the Torah is nothing less than the being of God in linguistic form, a series of divine names. Reflecting such conceptions, writers such as Azriel of Gerona (early thirteenth century) conceived the 613 commandments of the halakhic tradition metaphorically as the "limbs" of God, each limb corresponding to an appropriate human limb for which that commandment was destined (Per. Ag., 37). On this view, the "reason" for the commandments had nothing to do with rational justification of the divine will. Rather, a Jew's performance of commandments according to their halakhic prescriptions effected a communication of being between God and his creatures (e.g., Zoh. II: 165b). The Zohar, a canonical expression of thirteenth-century Qabbalah, expressed this principle as a kind of axiom: "Three dimensions of being are bound up with each otherthe Blessed Holy One, Torah, and Israel" (Zoh. III:73a). That is to say, Torah is at one and the same time a system of law and the root of all existence. By enacting the law, Israel unifies the limbs of God into their ideal configuration, thus bringing blessing to the world (Zoh. II:85b).

The qabbalistic unification of Torah as law with Torah as a principle of being proved immensely influential. The Jewish philosophical tradition, which had never engaged more than a relatively small minority of Jews, would essentially die out by the sixteenth century. But from the thirteenth century onward, qabbalistic ideas transmitted in the Zohar and by its exegetical interpreters came to dominate much of the rabbinic intellectual leadership. Indeed, one of the last great Jewish philosophers, Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410), was himself deeply sympathetic to the Qabbalah's insistence that the Torah could not be comprehended by human rationality. Qabbalistic perspectives on Torah are also represented in the writings of later intellectual leaders, such as Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), Rabbi Moses Alshekh (c. 1590), Rabbi Haim Vital (1542-1620), the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loewe ben Betsalel: 1525-1609) and the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon: 1720-1797). The writings of Rabbi Haim Vital and the Maharal were particularly influential in the development of Eastern European Hasidism, a revivalist movement founded in the eighteenth century. The idea of Torah as an ontological principle of being is richly represented in the early Hasidic writings of such influential masters as Rabbi Shneʾur Zalman of Liady (1745-1813), author of Tanya, and Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), the author of Meʾor ʿEnayim.

Torah as a Record of Jewish Moral and Historical Experience

In the contemporary world it is still possible to find communities of Jews remaining ideologically committed to stenographic conceptions of the revelation of the Torah. For the most part, such Jews structure their behavior exclusively in light of the oral Torah's halakhic tradition as defined in the Shulhan ʾArukh, and regard the Torah as a creative principle at the heart of reality. But they consider themselvesand are so considered by most other Jewsas ultra-orthodox rejectionists, opposed to all influences of Western civilization upon Judaism. Accordingly, their intellectual impact upon the thought of Jews more accepting of modern civilization has tended to be minimal. Of far greater influence in most forms of contemporary Jewish thinking about the Torah are intellectual traditions that emerged in the context of modern European Protestant religious thought and went on to shape much of the intellectual style of modernity. These include in particular an ethical universalism associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a romantic focus on personal religious experience stemming from the work of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and an idealist search for the patterns of historical development that achieved influential formulation in the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831).

These traditions stand behind three fundamental shifts in Jewish thinking about the Torah in the past two centuries. The first, inspired by Kant, is the shift from conceiving Torah as a legal instrument requiring absolute obedience to conceiving it as a source of eternal moral values and ethical norms. Thinkers following in this tradition include, among others, Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903), Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), and Leo Baeck (1873-1956), all of whom found the essence of Judaism to be in the Torah as the first historical expression of ethical monotheism. The Torah remains essential, in this view, as an ongoing inspiration to moral seriousness and universal ethical concern on the part of the Jewish people. The ritual and civil laws of the Torah are no longer literally binding upon Jews, although the ethical values informing them abide.

The second shift, inspired by Schleiermacher, moves the traditional notion of revelation in the direction of personal subjectivity, transforming the giving of the Torah from an historical event to a moral and psychological experience. For much of modern Jewish religious thought, the Torah is conceived as a written record of the profound personal religious experiences enjoyed by Israel's prophets and still retrievable for the modern reader through the proper interpretation of the text. A brilliant and influential exponent of this view was Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the founder of Reform Judaism. In the middle of the twentieth century, the existentially oriented philosophical and hermeneutical writings of Martin Buber (1878-1965) brought this theme to the attention of a wide audience. Buber focused upon revelation as the matrix of an I-Thou relationship with God as the Eternal Thou. He was famous for insisting that the laws of the Torah could only constitute revelation if they were subjectively experienced as commandments by the individual.

Finally, the third shift involves a revision of the relationship of the Torah to historical and cultural processes. Classically, the Torah is transhuman and originates with God. For most modern Jewish thinkers, the Torahboth as a collection of texts and as a system of valuesis a tradition that developed in accord with historical processes and under a variety of cultural influences. This shift can ultimately be traced back to the influence of Hegel's notion of history as the temporal unfolding of an eternal Absolute Spirit that would eventually come, through the dialectical patterns intrinsic to the logic of its own being, to a complete self-consciousness of itself. This conception was first applied to the history of Judaism by Nahman Krochmal (1785-1840). He viewed the Torah in dialectical terms as both the product of historical Jewish experience and the eternal, ideal structure of that experience. The influential writings of the twentieth-century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) take issue with much of Hegelian idealism, but remain deeply committed to the concept of the eternality of the Torah as a unique structure of Jewish being and consciousness. Rosenzweig's interchange of letters with Buber over the nature of the Torah's commandments as revelation remains a crucial signpost in the history of modern Jewish thinking about the Torah.

Throughout the twentieth century, modern Jewish religious thought in the United States, Europe, and the State of Israel has elaborated upon the Torah as a source of Jewish ethics, a record of Jewish religious insight, and a product of Jewish historical and cultural experience. For the most part, this conversation has proceeded without the contribution of those Jews, mostly of Eastern European and Middle Eastern origin, who for a variety of reasons have rejected modern culture in principle. A singular exception is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1992), descendant of a prestigious family of Lithuanian Talmudists, and the principal mid-twentieth-century exponent of modern Orthodox Judaism. Fully conversant with the Kantian, Scheiermachian, and Hegelian foundations of modern theology, Soloveitchik devoted himself to constructing a workable theory of the continued authority of the halakhic tradition of written and oral Torah over Jewish life. For Soloveitchik, the halakhic tradition embodies an historically given and existentially grounded mode of human consciousness. Intellectual mastery and scrupulous observance of Torahparadigmatically, the tradition of received halakhic normsenables Jews to transform their broken human existence in accordance with the ideal construct of human personhood imagined for all humanity at the time of creation.

At the beginning of the twentieth-first century, Torah continues to occupy a central place in Jewish religious discourse. All of the traditional themes of modern Jewish conceptions of the Torahthe ethical, the personalist, and the historicisthave their exponents and these conceptions continue to be refined in both popular and academic writings. A potentially significant development in more recent decades is the emergence of an explicitly "postmodernist" style of Jewish thought inspired by developments in European philosophy and literary studies associated with a movement known as "Deconstruction." Emanuel Levinas (1905-1995), the French author of both philosophical works and Talmudic commentaries, has been influential in this trend, particularly among American thinkers. The principle tendency of Jewish postmodernism is to expose the ideological underpinnings of the primary pillars of modern thought in generalits claim to ethical ultimacy and historically comprehensive vision. By depriving modern thought of its absolute authority over values and visions of the past, Jewish postmodernists have begun to experiment with new ways of engaging the texts of Torahbroadly conceived now as the entire sum of texts that disclose dimensions of Jewish existence. It remains to be seen how these new ways of reading will influence Jewish conceptions of Torah in coming decades.

Torah Study as a Form of Judaic Piety

A famous rabbinic text included in the rabbinic ritual for daily morning blessings concludes its list of praiseworthy acts with the phrase "and the study of Torah overrides all of them" (talmud torah keneged kulam : P.T., Peʾah 1:1). This phrase summarizes the centrality of Torah study in rabbinic Judaism. To a certain degree the study of the Torah of Moses is given a high evaluation in a variety of Second Temple-period Jewish settings (cf. Ps. 119, Preface to the Wisdom of ben Sira, and Rule of the Community, QS 6:6-8). But in rabbinic Judaism, which coalesced over a century after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce, Torah study came to occupy a new role. It was conceived as a form of piety which, on a par with formal public worship, substituted for the vanished sacrificial service performed in ancient times by the Jerusalem priesthood (B.T., Meg. 16b). Both activities were regarded by sages as world-sustaining acts which, like sacrifice itself, drew divine energy into the world and ensured its being (e.g., M. Avot 1:2). Indeed, it is not uncommon for rabbinic sages to suggest that Torah study may be even more important than prayer and performance of other commandments as a form of sacrificial worship (e.g., B.T., Qid. 40b). Like public prayer, however, talmud torah was conceived by rabbinic sages as a paradigmatically male form of divine service (B.T., Qid. 29a). Accordingly, for most of the history of rabbinic Judaism, Torah study has been primarily a male activity, deemed crucial in the shaping of masculine Jewish identity.

The character of Torah study in classical rabbinic times can be inferred from careful study of the surviving rabbinic literature. It is clear, first of all, from the remarkable facility of midrashic literature in finding the most obscure biblical texts to make an exegetical point, that many rabbinic sages had full recall of virtually the entire canon of the written Torah. Indeed, a common form of Palestinian rabbinic entertainment included competitions in stringing the most impressive list of biblical verses under specific themes (P.T., Hag. 2:2). The disciples of sages were also expected to master the emerging tradition of oral Torah. Whereas written versions of such crucial texts as the Mishnah may have circulated as early as the third century, the preferred way to study oral Torah was by hearing the text recited by a teacher or an official text-memorizer (B.T., Git. 60b). Disciples would rehearse their oral texts prior to examination by a master, often using distinctive tunes (T. Oh.16:8) or other mnemonic techniques (B.T., Hor.12a) as an aid to memorization. The master would then review not only the orallymemorized text (B.T., ʿEruv. 54b), but engage the student in extemporaneous analysis of the text in comparison with other texts on connected themes (B.T., Bava Qam. 117a).

The rabbinic disciple-communities of late antiquity were rather small circles associated with individual sages. Torah study in this setting was, therefore, part of an evolving relationship between teacher and student. In medieval times the expansion of the rabbinic community and the consequent production of written compendia of the Talmudic tradition engendered important changes in the character of Torah study. Large institutionalized schools of rabbinic education (yeshivot ; sing. yeshivah) were created and the study of a fixed text, often encountered primarily in written form, began to replace the process of oral memorization. By the tenth century, written commentaries by especially influential masters (e.g., Rabbi Hananʾel ben Hushiʾel of Kairouan, Rashi of Troyes) began to circulate in manuscript copies as part of the Torahcurriculum and came as well to be regarded as part of the oral Torah.

The emergence of print technology in the late fifteenth century was embraced by rabbinic authorities as providential, for it enabled the wide dissemination of both the written and the oral Torah in uniform formats that transcended local textual differences and scribal practices. The expansion of profound Talmudic scholarship in sixteenth- through seventeenth-century Eastern Europe was in part enabled by the production of printed copies of rabbinic literature for use in the great yeshivot. Thanks to printers, the prodigious memories encouraged by Talmudic learning were aided by the production of text editions in which identical, clearly printed words could be found on the exact same page of hundreds of copies of a given rabbinic work throughout the Jewish world. Whereas this premium on memorization led at times to a rather arid academicism, various educational reforms renewed rigorous conceptual analysis of Talmudic discourse under various pedagogical theories until well into the nineteenth century.

The premium on memorized mastery of the written text and its commentaries, in conjunction with distinct methodological approaches derived from nineteenth- and twentieth-century innovators, continues to be the distinguishing trait of yeshivah -grounded Torah study in contemporary Orthodox and Hasidic centers of Torah study throughout the world. Curricula vary depending upon the specific ideological commitments of distinct communities. For example classical Hasidic sources are not commonly taught in yeshivot founded by anti-Hasidic authorities. Nevertheless, the core of contemporary Torah study remains the Babylonian Talmud and the commentaries printed on its margins and in the appendices to each printed volume. Closely associated with study of the Talmud is careful analysis of the traditional medieval codes, particularly those of Maimonides, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, and Rabbi Joseph Caro, with their panoply of associated commentaries and supercommentaries. A recent innovation in many contemporary yeshivot is the inclusion within the curriculum of explicitly theological studies (hashqafah ). Examples might include the more philosophical passages of Maimonides's Mishneh Torah, works of classical Qabbalah, or works of ethical self-scrutiny stemming from the nineteenth-century Musar movement founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1786-1866).

Among contemporary Jews, the primacy of Torah study as a Judaic religious value is felt even beyond the circles of traditional yeshivot. The explosion of electronic media and an ongoing industry in the translation of classical Judaica into a variety of languages has enabled the creation of novel settings for popular as well as advanced Torah study. Similarly, the revolutionary achievements of feminism in Western culture have affected most Jewish communities. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, Torah study was made widely available to women in the more liberal religious denominations. Most recently, certain Orthodox communities in both the United States and the State of Israel have experimented with opening advanced Torah study to women.

Contemporary Jewish communities of any size will have multiple outlets for the study of Jewish history and tradition at diverse levels in synagogues or community centers. Many of these, based upon Western educational models, take the form of classes for children and adults on various themes and include the study of the written and oral Torah in the original languages and in accessible translations. Whereas such contexts do not yet provide the comprehensive technical mastery and ideological élan of Orthodox yeshivot, they testify to the continued significance of Torah study as a form of Jewish identification.

Torah Scroll as an Object of Ritual Devotion

The Torah in Judaism is more than a subject of study. The scroll of the Torah, read aloud in the synagogue liturgies of the Sabbath, holy days, and at other prescribed occasions, is Judaism's most important ritual object. It is invested with a numinous qualityqedushah ("holiness")which, like other ritual objects described in the anthropological studies of tribal cultures around the world, is conceived both as a source of charisma and as something deeply vulnerable to violation. The qedushah invested in the scroll must therefore be protected. This protection is afforded by ritual activities that surround all aspects of its handling.

The ritualization of the scroll begins even prior to its first use in public synagogue worship. Complex halakhic requirements surround every stage of its creation. These govern the preparation of the hides and inks used by the scribe, the shapes of the letters used in writing, the spellings of the words in the text, and the paragraphing of textual units. The scribe, who must copy the text letter-by-letter from another suitable scroll, will have rinsed his hands prior to setting to work to ensure the requisite degree of bodily purity. Women whose menstrual cycles render them ritually unclean for certain periods of each month may not serve as scribes for this reason.

Once it is ready for use, a Torah scroll must still be protected from defilement through contact with sources of impurity, including the hands of synagogue worshipers. The means of protecting the scroll also serve a second function of drawing attention to and beautifying it. It is wrapped in a finely made, embroidered sheath or case. Often it will be adorned as well with finely wrought silver crowns and breastplates. Thus protected from random touching, the scroll is stored in a specially designed, ornate cabinet at the very front of the synagogue. This cabinet is normally called the ʾaron haqodesh ("the holy ark") and recalls the box in which Moses placed the stone tablets that represented the covenant between Israel and God.

The formal liturgy of reading the Torah in public is also deeply enmeshed in ritual performances. These call to mind the charismatic qedushah of the scroll and, at the same time, assimilate the empirical, existing scroll in the synagogue to the Torah of Moses revealed on Sinai and stored in the original holy ark. When, at the appropriate liturgical moment, the ark is opened, the entire congregation must rise to attention, as if royalty had entered the room. At this point the worshippers recite in unison a verse from the Torah: "And when the Ark began to move, Moses said: 'Arise, O Lord, and scatter your enemies, and may those who hate you flee from before you'" (Nm. 10:35). The scroll is then borne around the synagogue in a solemn procession accompanied by the singing of texts from the book of Psalms. During this procession, worshippers engage in formal acts of adorationparticularly, touching the sheath with a prayer shawl or prayer book, and kissing the place on the shawl or book that touched the Torah. At the end of the procession, the scroll is brought to a reading table, usually in the front of the congregation or in its very midst. It is carefully removed from its sheath and placed on the table, covered by a protecting cloth.

The actual reading of the Torah, commencing at this point, is equally surrounded by ritual performances. Depending upon the occasion, anywhere from three to seven congregants will be honored with an "ascent" (ʿaliyah ) to the Torah. The term ascent intentionally recalls Moses' ascent to Sinai. During these ascents a preselected passage will be read aloud, normally by a professional reader. Each person who ascends to the Torah recites, before and after the reading, a benediction of thanks to God for the privilege of having received the Torah. During the reading, the reader keeps track of the text with a silver or wood pointer (yad), so as to avoid touching the scroll. At the conclusion of the final ascent, the Torah, now unfurled to expose a minimum of three columns of its text, is raised high in the hands of a designated congregant. At this the congregation points to the scroll and intones the following formula from the Torah itself (Dn. 4:44): "This is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel at God's command, by Moses' hand." The scroll is then rolled, returned to its sheath, and carried in a second adorational procession back to its storage place in the ark.

Like all sacred objects, Torah scrolls can become defiled and disqualified for liturgical use (pasul). For example, constant use over the years may cause ink to chip from the scroll, rendering a word illegible. This is sufficient to prevent the scroll from being read until the ink is restored by a duly qualified scribe. Tears in the parchment and other minor repairs may also be made to restore the scroll to service. But if a scroll suffers massive irreparable damageas in a fire or other disasterthe scroll is retired from use. In some communities, a defiled scroll is afforded the honor due to a human corpse and buried. In others it is stored in a special storage area (Genizah ) with other damaged books that contain the divine name and, therefore, cannot be intentionally destroyed.


Amir, Yehoshua. "Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo." In Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, edited by Martin Jan Mulder, pp. 421454. Philadelphia, 1988.

Campbell, Antony F., and Mark A. O'Brien, eds. Sources of the Pentateuch: Texts, Introductions, Annotations. Minneapolis, 1993.

Goodblatt, David. Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia. Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.

Heller, Marvin J. Printing the Talmud: A History of the Earliest Printed Editions of the Talmud. Brooklyn, 1992.

Jaffee, Martin S. Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, c. 200 bce400 ce. New York, 2001.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages. Detroit, 1991.

Kellner, Menachem. Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel. Oxford, 1986.

Leiman, Sid Z. The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence. Hamden, Conn., 1976.

Matt, Daniel. "The Mystic and the Mizwot." In Jewish Spirituality From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Green, pp. 367404. New York, 1986.

Morgan, Michael L. Dilemmas in Modern Jewish Thought: The Dialectics of Revelation and History. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Najman, Hindy. Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism. Leiden, 2003.

Neusner, Jacob. Torah: From Scroll to Symbol in Formative Judaism. Philadelphia, 1985.

Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature. Louisville, Ky., 1996.

Posner, Raphael, and Israel Ta-Shema, eds. The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey. Jerusalem, 1975.

Ray, Eric. Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll. New York, 1998.

Scholem, Gershom. "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism." In On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, by Gershom Scholem, translated by Ralph Mannheim, pp. 3286. New York, 1969.

Urbach, Ephraim E. The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development. Translated by Ralph Posner. Masada, Israel, 1986.

Whybray, R. N. The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study. Sheffield, U.K., 1987.

Martin S. Jaffee (2005)


views updated May 11 2018


TORAH (Heb. תּוֹרָה).

The Term

Torah is derived from the root ירה which in the hifil conjugation means "to teach" (cf. Lev. 10:11). The meaning of the word is therefore "teaching," "doctrine," or "instruction"; the commonly accepted "law" gives a wrong impression. The word is used in different ways but the underlying idea of "teaching" is common to all.

In the Pentateuch it is used for all the body of laws referring to a specific subject, e.g., "the torah of the meal offering" (Lev. 6:7), of the guilt offering (7:1), and of the Nazirite (Num. 6:21), and especially as a summation of all the separate torot (cf. Lev. 7:37–38; 14:54–56). In verses, however, such as Deuteronomy 4:44, "and this is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel" and ibid. 33:4, "Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob" and the references in the Bible to "the Torah of Moses" (cf. Josh. 1:7; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; 8:1, 8; Mal. 3:22), it refers particularly to the Pentateuch as distinct from the rest of the Bible. In later literature the whole Bible was referred to as Tanakh, the initial letters of Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Hagiographia), a meaning it retained in halakhic literature to differentiate between the laws which are of biblical origin (in its Aramaic form, de-Oraita, "from the Torah") and those of rabbinic provenance (de-rabbanan). The term is, however, also used loosely to designate the Bible as a whole.

A further extension of the term came with the distinction made between the Written Torah (Torah she-bi-khetav) and the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-al peh). The use of the plural Torot (e.g., Gen. 26:5) was taken to refer to those two branches of divine revelation which were traditionally regarded as having been given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Yoma 28b, and see *Oral Law). Justification was found in the verse of Exodus 34:27, which can be translated literally as "Write thou these words for by the mouth of these words I have made a covenant." The word "write" (ketav) was regarded as the authority for the Written Law (hence Torah she-bi-khetav, i.e., the Torah included in the word ketav) while "by the mouth" (al pi) was taken to refer to the Torah she-be-al peh (i.e., the Torah referred to in the phrase al pi; cf. Git. 60b). Lastly, the word is used for the whole corpus of Jewish traditional law from the Bible to the latest development of the halakhah. In modern Hebrew the word is used to designate the system of a thinker or scholar, e.g., "the torah of Spinoza."

See also *Judaism.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Origin and Preexistence

"Moses received the Torah from Sinai" (Avot 1:1). Yet there is an ancient tradition that the Torah existed in heaven not only before God revealed it to Moses, but even before the world was created. The apocryphal book The Wisdom of Ben Sira identified the Torah with preexistent personified wisdom (1:1–5, 26; 15:1; 24:1ff.; 34:8; cf. Prov. 8:22–31). In rabbinic literature, it was taught that the Torah was one of the six or seven things created prior to the creation of the world (Gen. R. 1:4; Pes. 54a, et al.). Of these preexistent things, it was said that only the Torah and the throne of glory were actually created, while the others were only conceived, and that the Torah preceded the throne of glory (Gen. R. 1:4). According to Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean, for 974 generations before the creation of the world, the Torah lay in God's bosom and joined the ministering angels in song (arn1 31, p. 91; cf. Gen. R. 28:4, et al.). Simeon ben Lakish taught that the Torah preceded the world by 2,000 years (Lev. R. 19:1, et al.) and was written in black fire upon white fire (tj, Shek. 6:1, 49d, et al.). Akiva called the Torah "the precious instrument by which the world was created" (Avot 3:14). Rav *Hoshaiah, explicitly identifying the Torah with the preexistent wisdom of Proverbs, said that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect builds a palace by looking into blueprints. He also took the first word of Genesis not in the sense of "In the beginning," but in that of "By means of the beginning," and he taught that "beginning" (probably in the philosophic sense of the Greek archē) designates Torah, since it is written of wisdom (= Torah), "The Lord made me the beginning of His way" (Prov. 8:22; Gen. R. 1:1). It was also taught that God took council with the Torah before He created the world (Tanḥ. B. 2, et al.). The concept of the preexistence of the Torah is perhaps implicit in the philosophy of Philo, who wrote of the preexistence and role in creation of the Word of God (logos; e.g., Op. 20, 25, 36; Cher. 127) and identified the Word of God with the Torah (Mig. 130; cf. Op. and ii Mos.).

*Saadiah Gaon rejected the literal belief in preexistent things on the grounds that it contradicts the principle of creation ex nihilo. In his view, Proverbs 8:22, the verse cited by Rav Hoshaiah, means no more than that God created the world in a wise manner (Beliefs and Opinions 1:3; cf. Saadiah's commentary on Proverbs, ad loc.).

*Judah b. Barzillai of Barcelona raised the problem of place. Where could God have kept a preexistent Torah? While allowing that God could conceivably have provided an ante-mundane place for a corporeal Torah, he preferred the interpretation that the Torah preexisted only as a thought in the divine mind. Ultimately, however, he expressed the opinion that the Torah's preexistence is a rabbinic metaphor, spoken out of love for the Torah and those who study it, and teaching that the Torah is worthy to have been created before the world (commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah, pp. 88–89; cf. Solomon b. Abraham Adret, Perushei Aggadot).

Abraham *Ibn Ezra raised the problem of time. He wrote that it is impossible for the Torah to have preceded the world by 2,000 years or even by one moment, since time is an accident of motion, and there was no motion before God created the celestial spheres; rather, he concluded, the teaching about the Torah's preexistence must be a metaphoric riddle (cf. Commentary on the Torah, introd., "the fourth method" (both versions); cf. also Judah Hadassi, Eshkol ha-Kofer, 25b–26a; and cf. Abraham Shalom, Neveh Shalom, 10:8).

*Judah Halevi explained that the Torah precedes the world in terms of teleology; God created the world for the purpose of revealing the Torah; therefore, since, as the philosophers say, "the first of thought is the end of the work," the Torah is said to have existed before the world (Kuzari 3:73).

*Maimonides discussed the origin of the Torah from the standpoint of the epistemology of the unique prophecy of Moses (Guide of the Perplexed 2:35; 3:51; et al.; cf. Yad, introd.). The tradition of the preexistence of the Torah was not discussed in the Guide of the Perplexed; however, the closely related tradition of the preexistence of the throne of glory was (2:26, 30, et al.). The discussions of Moses' prophecy and of the throne of glory are esoteric and controversial, and each reader will interpret them according to his own views, perhaps inferring Maimonides' position concerning the origin of the Torah.

Within the framework of his Neoplatonic ontology, Isaac ibn Latif suggested that the Torah precedes the world not in time, but in rank. He cited the aggadic statements that the Torah and the throne of glory preceded the world, and that the Torah preceded the throne of glory, and he intimated that the Torah is the upper world (wisdom or intellect) which ontologically precedes the middle world (the celestial spheres, the throne of glory) which, in turn, ontologically precedes the lower world (our world of changing elements; Sha'ar ha-Shamayim).

While the tradition of the preexistence of the Torah was being ignored or explained away by most philosophers, it became fundamental in the Kabbalah. Like Ibn Latif, the kabbalists of Spain held that the Torah precedes the world ontologically. Some kabbalists identified the primordial Torah with Ḥokhmah (God's wisdom), the second of the ten Sefirot in emanation. Others identified the Written Torah with the sixth Sefirah, Tiferet (God's beauty), and the Oral Torah with the tenth Sefirah, Malkhut (God's kingdom). Emanational precedence signifies creative power; and it was with the Torah that God created the angels and the worlds, and with the Torah He sustains all (Zohar 3, 152a; Num. 9:1).

Ḥasdai *Crescas, who in the course of his revolutionary critique of Aristotelian physics had rejected the dependence of time on motion, was able to take preexistence literally as chronological. He interpreted the proposition about the preexistence of the Torah as a metonymy, referring actually to the purpose of the Torah. Since, according to him, the purpose of the Torah and the purpose of the world are the same, namely, love, and since the purpose or final cause of an object chronologically precedes it, it follows that the purpose of the Torah (i.e., love) chronologically preceded the world. As its final cause, love (= the purpose of the Torah) is a necessary condition of the world; and this is the meaning of the talmudic statement, "Were it not for the Torah [i.e., the purpose of the Torah, or love], heaven and earth would not have come into existence" (Pes. 68b; Or Adonai 2:6, 4; cf. Nissim b. Reuben Gerondi, Commentary on Ned. 39b).

Joseph *Albo also interpreted the preexistence of the Torah in terms of final causality, but his position was essentially that of Judah Halevi, and not that of his teacher, Crescas. He reasoned that man exists for the sake of the Torah; everything in the world of generation and corruption exists for the sake of man; therefore, the Torah preceded the world in the Aristotelian sense that the final cause in (the mind of) the agent necessarily precedes the other three causes (Sefer ha-Ikkarim 3:12; cf. Jacob b. Solomon ibn Ḥabib, Ein Ya'akov, introd.; Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, Novelot Ḥokhmah, 1).

The theory, based on the statement of Rav Hoshaiah, that the Torah was the preexistent blueprint of creation, was elaborated by Isaac Arama, Isaac Abrabanel, Moses Alshekh, Judah Loew b. Bezalel, and others.

In modern Jewish philosophical literature, Nachman *Krochmal analyzed the interpretation of the Torah's preexistence by the author of Sha'ar ha-Shamayim (Ibn Latif and not, as Krochmal supposed, Ibn Ezra), and his analysis bears implications for his own idealistic concept of the metaphysical and epistemological precedence of the spiritual (Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman, 17; cf. 12, 16).

Franz Rosenzweig, in his existentalist reaction to the intellectualist interpretation of the Torah by German rabbis, appealed to the aggadah of the preexistence of the Torah in an attempt to show the absurdity of trying to base the claim of the Torah merely on a juridical or historical reason: "No doubt the Torah, both Written and Oral, was given to Moses on Sinai, but was it not created before the creation of the world? Written against a background of shining fire in letters of somber flame? And was not the world created for its sake?" ("The Builders," in: N. Glatzer (ed.), On Jewish Learning (1955), 78).

Nature and Purpose

In the Bible, the Torah is referred to as the Torah of the Lord (Ex. 13:9, et al.) and of Moses (Josh. 8:31, et al.), and is said to be given as an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob (Deut. 33:4). Its purpose seems to be to make Israel "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). It was said that "the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Prov. 6:23). The Torah was called "perfect," its ordinances "sweeter than honey and the flow of honeycombs" (Ps. 19:8, 11; cf. 119:103; Prov. 16:24). Psalm 119, containing 176 verses, is a song of love for the Torah whose precepts give peace and understanding.

In the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Ben Sira, the Torah is identified with wisdom (see above). In another apocryphal work, the laws of the Torah are said to be drawn up "with a view to truth and the indication of right reason" (Arist. 161). The Septuagint rendered the Hebrew torah by the Greek nomos ("law"), probably in the sense of a living network of traditions and customs of a people. The designation of the Torah by nomos, and by its Latin successor lex (whence, "the Law"), has historically given rise to the sad misunderstanding that Torah means legalism.

It was one of the very few real dogmas of rabbinic theology that the Torah is from heaven (Heb. Torah min hashamayim; Sanh. 10:1, et al.; cf. Ex. 20:22 [19]; Deut. 4:36); i.e., the Torah in its entirety was revealed by God. According to the aggadah, Moses ascended into heaven to capture the Torah from the angels (Shab. 89a, et al.). In one of the oldest mishnaic statements, Simeon the Just taught that (the study of the) Torah is one of the three things by which the world is sustained (Avot 1:2). Eleazar ben Shammua said: "Were it not for the Torah, heaven and earth would not continue to exist" (Pes. 68b; Ned. 32a; cf. Crescas' interpretation above). It was calculated that "the whole world in its entirety is only 1/3,200 of the Torah" (Er. 21a; cf. tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 15d). God Himself was said to study the Torah daily (Av. Zar. 3b, et al.).

The Torah was often compared to fire, water, wine, oil, milk, honey, drugs, manna, the tree of life, and many other things; it was considered the source of freedom, goodness, and life (e.g., Avot 6:2, 3, 7); it was identified both with wisdom and with love (e.g., Mid. Ps. to 1:18). Hillel summarized the entire Torah in one sentence: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow" (Shab. 31a). Akiva said: "The fundamental principle of the Torah is the commandment, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself '" (Lev. 19:18). His disciple Simeon ben Azzai said that its fundamental principle is the verse (Gen. 5:1) which teaches that all human beings are descended from the same man, and created by God in His image (Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12; tj, Ned. 9:3, 41c; Gen. R. 24:7).

Often the Torah was personified. Not only did God take council with the Torah before He created the world (see above), but according to one interpretation, the plural in "Let us make man" (Gen. 1:26) refers to God and the Torah (Tanḥ. Pekudei, 3). The Torah appears as the daughter of God and the bride of Israel (pr 20; 95a, et al.). On occasion, the Torah is obliged to plead the case of Israel before God (e.g., Ex. R. 29:4).

The message of the Torah is for all mankind. Before giving the Torah to Israel, God offered it to the other nations, but they refused it; and when He did give the Torah to Israel, He revealed it in the extraterritorial desert and simultaneously in all the 70 languages, so that men of all nations would have a right to it (Mekh., Yitro, 5; Sif. Deut. 343; Shab. 88b; Ex. R. 5:9; 27:9; cf. Av. Zar. 3a: "a pagan who studies the Torah is like a high priest"). Alongside this universalism, the rabbis taught the inseparability of Israel and the Torah. One rabbi held that the concept of Israel existed in God's mind even before He created the Torah (Gen. R. 1:4). Yet, were it not for its accepting the Torah, Israel would not be "chosen," nor would it be different from all the idolatrous nations (Num. 14:10; Ex. R. 47:3, et al.).

In the Hellenistic literature contemporaneous with the early rabbinic teachings, Philo considered the Torah the ideal law of the philosophers, and Moses the perfect lawgiver and prophet and the philosopher-ruler of Plato's Republic (ii Mos. 2). His concept of the relationship of the Torah to nature and man was Stoic: "The world is in harmony with the Torah and the Torah with the world, and the man who observes the Torah is constituted thereby a loyal citizen of the world" (Op. 3). He wrote that the laws of the Torah are "stamped with the seals of nature," and are "the most perfect picture of the cosmic polity" (ii Mos. 14, 51). Josephus, in his Against Apion, discoursed on the moral and universalistic nature of the Torah, emphasizing that it promotes piety, friendship, humanity toward the world at large, justice, charity, and endurance under persecution. Both Philo and Josephus wrote that principles of the Torah, e.g., the Sabbath, have been imitated by all nations.

Saadiah Gaon expounded a rationalist theory according to which the ethical and religious-intellectual beliefs imparted by the Torah are all attainable by human reason. He held that the Torah is divisible into

(1) commandments which, in addition to being revealed, are demanded by reason (e.g., prohibitions of murder, fornication, theft, lying); and

(2) commandments whose authority is revelation alone (e.g., Sabbath and dietary laws), but which generally are understandable in terms of some personal or social benefit attained by their performance. Revelation of the Torah was needed because while reason makes general demands, it does not dictate particular laws; and while the matters of religious belief revealed in the Torah are attainable by philosophy, they are only attained by it after some time or, in the case of many, not at all. He taught that the purpose of the Torah is the bestowal of eternal bliss (Beliefs and Opinions, introd. 6, ch. 3). He held that Israel is a nation only by virtue of the Torah (see below).

In the period between Saadiah and Maimonides, most Jewish writers who speculated on the nature of the Torah continued in the rationalist tradition established by Saadiah. These included Baḥya ibn Paquda, Joseph ibn Ẓaddik, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Abraham ibn Daud. Judah Halevi, however, opposed the rationalist interpretation. He allowed that the Torah contains rational and political laws, but considered them preliminary to the specifically divine laws and teachings which cannot be comprehended by reason, e.g., the laws of the Sabbath which teach the omnipotence of God and the creation of the world (Kuzari 2:48, 50). The Torah makes it possible to approach God by awe, love, and joy (2:50). It is the essence of wisdom, and the outcome of the will of God to reveal His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (3:17). While Judah Halevi held that Israel was created to fulfill the Torah, he wrote that there would be no Torah were there no Israel (2:56; 3:73).

Maimonides emphasized that the Torah is the product of the unique prophecy of Moses. He maintained that the Torah has two purposes; first, the welfare of the body and, ultimately, the welfare of the soul (intellect). The first purpose, which is a prerequisite of the ultimate purpose, is political, and "consists in the governance of the city and the well-being of the state of all its people according to their capacity." The ultimate purpose consists in the true perfection of man, his acquisition of immortality through intellection of the highest things. The Torah is similar to other laws in its concern with the welfare of the body; but its divine nature is reflected in its concern for the welfare of the soul (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:27). Maimonides saw the Torah as a rationalizing force, warring against superstition, imagination, appetite, and idolatry. He cited the rabbinic dictum, "Everyone who disbelieves in idolatry professes the Torah in its entirety" (Sif. Num. 110; Guide 3:29; Yad, Ovedei Kokhavim 2:4), and taught that the foundation of the Torah and the pivot around which it turns consists in the effacement of idolatry. He held that the Torah must be interpreted in the light of reason.

Of the Jewish philosophers who flourished in the 13th and early 14th centuries, most endorsed Maimonides' position that the Torah has as its purpose both political and spiritual welfare. Some, like Samuel ibn Tibbon and Isaac *Albalag, argued that its purpose consists only or chiefly in political welfare. Others emphasized its spiritual purpose, like Levi b. Gershom, who taught that the purpose of the Torah is to guide man – the masses as well as the intellectual elite – toward human perfection, that is, the acquisition of true knowledge and, thereby, an immortal intellect.

While Maimonides and the Maimonideans generally restricted their analyses of the nature of the Torah to questions of its educational, moral, or political value, the Spanish kabbalists engaged in bold metaphysical speculation concerning its essence. The kabbalists taught that the Torah is a living organism. Some said the entire Torah consists of the names of God set in succession (cf. Naḥmanides, Perushei ha-Torah, Preface) or interwoven into a fabric (cf. Joseph Gikatilla, Sha'arei Orah). Others said that the Torah is itself the name of God. The Torah was identified with various Sefirot in the divine body (see above). Ultimately, it was said that the Torah is God (Menahem Recanati, Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot, 3a; Zohar 2, 60a [Ex. 15:22]). This identification of the Torah and God was understood to refer to the Torah in its true primordial essence, and not to its manifestation in the world of creation.

The first Jewish philosopher to construct a metaphysics in which the Torah plays an integral role was Ḥasdai Crescas, who, notwithstanding his distinguished work in natural science, was more sympathetic to the Kabbalah than to Aristotle. He taught that the purpose of the Torah is to effect the purpose of the universe. By guiding man toward corporeal happiness, moral and intellectual excellence, and felicity of soul, the Torah leads him to the love of neighbor and, finally, the eternal love of God [devekut], which is the purpose of all creation (Or Adonai, 2:6). Like Judah Halevi, he took an ultimately anti-intellectualist position, and maintained, in opposition to the Maimonideans, that the very definition of the Torah as the communication of God to man implies beliefs about the nature of God and His relation to man which cannot, and need not, be proved by philosophy.

Joseph Albo, developing some Maimonidean ideas, taught that the Torah, as divine law, is superior to natural law and conventional-positive law in that it not only promotes political security and good behavior, but also guides man toward eternal spiritual happiness (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:7).

In the writings of Isaac Arama, Isaac Abrabanel, Moses Alshekh, Judah Loew b. Beẓalel, and other late medievals, the conflicting approaches to the Torah of Maimonideanism and the Kabbalah converged to give expression to the theme, already adumbrated in Philo, that the Torah exists in the mind of God as the plan and order of the universe (Arama, Akedat Yiẓḥak, 1; Abrabanel, Mifalot Elohim, 1:2; Alshekh, Torat Moshe to Genesis 1:1; Judah Loew, Netivot Olam, 1:1; Tiferet Yisrael, 25; cf. above). In Italy, *Judah b. Jehiel (Messer Leon), influenced by the Renaissance emphasis on the art of rhetoric, composed the Nofet Ẓufim, in which he analyzed the language of the Bible and, in effect, presented the first aesthetic interpretation of the Torah (cf. Judah Abrabanel, Dialoghi di Amore).

Influenced by Maimonides, Baruch *Spinoza took the position taken by some early Maimonideans that the Torah is an exclusively political law. However, he broke radically with those Maimonideans and with all rabbinic tradition by denying its divine nature, by making it an object of historical-critical investigation, and by maintaining that it was not written by Moses alone but by various authors living at different times. Moreover, he considered the Torah primitive, unscientific, and particularistic, and thus subversive to progress, reason, and universal morality. By portraying the Torah as a product of the Jewish people, he reversed the traditional opinion (but cf. Judah Halevi) according to which the Jewish people are a product of the Torah.

Like Spinoza, Moses *Mendelssohn considered the Torah a political law, but he affirmed its divine nature. Taking a position similar to Saadiah's, he explained that the Torah does not intend to reveal new ideas about deism and morality, but rather, through its laws and institutions, to arouse men to be mindful of the true ideas attainable by all men through reason. By identifying the beliefs of the Torah with the truths of reason, Mendelssohn affirmed both its scientific respectability and its universalistic nature. By defining the Torah as a political law given to Israel by God, he preserved the traditional view that Israel is a product of the Torah, and not, as Spinoza claimed, vice versa.

With the rise of the science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) in the 19th century, and the advance of the historical-critical approach to the Torah, many Jewish intellectuals, including ideologists of Reform like Abraham *Geiger, followed Spinoza in seeing the Torah, at least in part, as a product of the primitive history of the Jewish nation. Nachman Krochmal, in his rationalist-idealist philosophy, attempted to synthesize the historical-critical thesis that the Torah is a product of Jewish history, with the traditional thesis that the entire Torah is divinely revealed. He maintained that, from the days of Abraham and Isaac, the Hebrew nation has contained the Absolute Spiritual, and this Absolute Spiritual was the source of the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, whose purpose is to perfect the individual and the group, and to prevent the nation's extinction. The Oral Torah, which is, in effect, the history of the evolution of the Jewish spirit, is inseparable from the Written Torah, and is its clarification and conceptual refinement; which is to say, the true science of the Torah, which is the vocation of the Jewish spirit, is the conceptualization of the Absolute Spiritual (Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman, esp. 6–8, 13).

The increasing intellectualization of the Torah was opposed by Samuel David *Luzzatto and Salomon Ludwig *Steinheim, two men who had little in common but their fideism. They contended – as Crescas had against the Maimonideans – that the belief that God revealed the Torah is the starting point of Judaism, and that this belief, with its momentous implications concerning the nature of God and His relation to man, cannot be attained by philosophy. Luzzatto held that the foundation of the whole Torah is compassion. Steinheim, profoundly opposing Mendelssohn, held that the Torah comes to reveal truths about God and His work.

While Spinoza and Mendelssohn had emphasized the political nature of the Torah, many rationalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized its moral nature. Moritz *Lazarus identified the Torah with the moral law, and interpreted the rabbinical statement, "Were it not for the Torah, heaven and earth would not continue to exist" (see above), as corresponding to the Kantian teaching that it is the moral law that gives value to existence. Hermann *Cohen condemned Spinoza as a willful falsifier and a traitor to the Jewish people for his claim that the Torah is subversive to universalistic morality. He held that the Torah, with its monotheistic ethics, far from being subversive to universalism, prepares a Jew to participate fully and excellently in general culture (in this connection, he opposed Zionism and developed his controversial theory of "Germanism and Judaism"). He maintained that in its promulgation of commandments affecting all realms of human action, the Torah moves toward overcoming the distinction between holy and profane through teaching all men to become holy by always performing holy actions, i.e., by always acting in accordance with the moral law.

In their German translation of the Bible, Martin *Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated torah as Weisung or Unterweisung ("Instruction") and not as Gesetz ("Law"). In general, they agreed on the purpose of the Torah: to convert the universe and God from It to Thou. Yet they differed on several points concerning its nature. Buber saw the Torah as the past dialogue between Israel and God, and the present dialogue between the individual reader, the I, and God, the Thou. He concluded that while one must open himself to the entire teaching of the Torah, he need only accept a particular law of the Torah if he feels that it is being spoken now to him. Rosenzweig objected to this personalist and antinomian position of Buber's. Taking an existentialist position, he maintained that the laws of the Torah are commandments to do, and as such become comprehensible only in the experience of doing, and, therefore, a Jew must not, as Buber did, reject a law of the Torah that "does not speak to me," but must always open himself to the new experience which may make it comprehensible. Like Cohen – and also like the Ḥasidim – he marveled that the law of the Torah is universal in range. He contended that it erases the barrier between this world and the world to come by encompassing, vitalizing, and thereby redeeming everything in this world.

The secular Zionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave religious thinkers new cause to define the relationship between the Torah and the Jewish nation. Some defined the Torah in terms of the nation. Thus, Mordecai *Kaplan translated *Aḥad Ha-Am's sociological theory of the evolution of Jewish civilization into a religious, though naturalistic, theory of the Torah as the "religious civilization of the Jews." Others, like Buber and Rosenzweig, considering secular nationalism dangerous, tried to "interdefine" the Torah and the nation. Whereas Buber saw the Torah as the product of a dialogue between the nation and God, he held that the spirit of the nation was transfigured by that dialogue. Rosenzweig, whose position here resembles Judah Halevi's, stated both that the nation's chosenness is prior to the Torah, and that the acceptance of the Torah is an experiential precondition of its chosenness. Other thinkers defined the nation in terms of the Torah. Thus, Abraham Isaac *Kook, whose thought was influenced by the Kabbalah, taught that the purpose of the Torah is to reveal the living light of the universe, the suprarational spiritual, to Israel and, through Israel, to all mankind. While the Written Torah, which reveals the light in the highest channel of our soul, is the product of God alone, the Oral Torah, which is inseparable from the Written Torah, and which reveals the light in a second channel of our soul, proximate to the life of deeds, derives its personality from the spirit of the nation. The Oral Torah can live in its fullness only when Israel lives in its fullness – in peace and independence in the Land of Israel. Thus, according to Kook, modern Zionism, whatever the intent of its secular ideologists, has universal religious significance, for it is acting in service of the Torah (see esp. Orot ha-Torah).

In the State of Israel, most writers and educators have maintained the secularist position of the early Zionists, namely, that the Torah was not revealed by God, in the traditional sense, but is the product of the national life of ancient Israel. Those who have discussed the Torah and its relation to the state from a religious point of view have mostly followed Kook or Buber and Rosenzweig. However, a radically rationalist approach to the nature of the Torah has been taught by Yeshayahu Leibowitz who, in the Maimonidean tradition, emphasizes that the Torah is a law for the worship of God and for the consequent obliteration of the worship of men and things; in this connection, he condemns the subordination of the Torah to nationalism or to religious sentimentalism or to any ideology or institution. Outside the State of Israel, a similarly iconoclastic position has been taken by the French phenomenologist Emmanuel *Levinas, who has gone further and written that the love for the Torah should take precedence even over the love for God Himself, for only through the Torah – that knowledge of the Other which is the condition of all ethics – can man relate to a personal God against Whom he can rebel and for Whom he can die.

eternity (or nonabrogability)

In the Bible there is no text unanimously understood to affirm explicitly the eternity or nonabrogability of the Torah; however, many laws of the Torah are accompanied by phrases such as, "an everlasting injunction through your generations" (Lev. 3:17, et al.).

The doctrine that the Torah is eternal appears several times in the pre-tannaitic apocryphal literature; e.g., Ben Sira 24:9 ("the memorial of me shall never cease") and Jubilees 33:16 ("an everlasting law for everlasting generations").

Whereas the rabbis understood the preexistence of the Torah in terms of its prerevelation existence in heaven, they understood the eternity or nonabrogability of the Torah in terms of its postrevelation existence, not in heaven; i.e., the whole Torah was given to Moses and no part of it remained in heaven (Deut. 8:6, et al.). When Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah were debating a point of Torah and a voice from heaven dramatically announced that Eliezer's position was correct, Joshua refused to recognize its testimony, for the Torah "is not in heaven" (Deut. 30:12), and must be interpreted by men, unaided by the supernatural (bm 59b). It was a principle that "a prophet is henceforth not permitted to innovate a thing" (Sifra, Be-Ḥukkotai 13:7; Tem. 16a; but he was permitted to suspend a law temporarily (Sif. Deut. 175)). The rabbis taught that the Torah would continue to exist in the world to come (e.g., Eccles. R. 2:1), although some of them were of the opinion that innovations would be made in the messianic era (e.g., Gen. R. 98:9; Lev. R. 9:7).

Philo saw the eternity of the Torah as a metaphysical principle, following from the Torah's accord with nature. He believed that the laws and enactments of the Torah "will remain for all future ages as though immortal, so long as the sun and the moon and the whole heaven and universe exist" (ii Mos. 14; cf. Jer. 31:32–35). The belief in the eternity of the Torah appears also in the later apocryphal works (e.g., i Bar. 4:1; Ps. of Sol. 10:5) and in Josephus (Apion, 2:277).

With the rise to political power of Christianity and Islam, two religions which sought to convert Jews and which argued that particular injunctions of the Torah had been abrogated, the question of the eternity or "nonabrogability" of the Torah became urgent.

Saadiah Gaon stated that the children of Israel have a clear tradition from the prophets that the laws of the Torah are not subject to abrogation. Presenting scriptural corroboration for this tradition, he appealed to phrases appended to certain commandments, e.g., "throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant" (Ex. 31:16). According to one novel argument of his, the Jewish nation is a nation only by virtue of its laws, namely, the Torah; God has stated that the Jewish nation will endure as long as the heaven and earth (Jer. 31:35–36); therefore, the Torah will last as long as heaven and earth (cf. Philo, above). He interpreted the verses, "Remember ye the Torah of Moses… Behold, I will send you Elijah…" (Mal. 3:22–23), as teaching that the Torah will hold valid until the prophet Elijah returns to herald the resurrection (Beliefs and Opinions 3:7).

Maimonides listed the belief in the eternity of the Torah as the ninth of his 13 principles of Judaism, and connected it with the belief that no prophet will surpass Moses, the only man to give people laws through prophecy. He contended that the eternity of the Torah is stated clearly in the Bible, particularly in Deuteronomy 13:1 ("thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it") and Deuteronomy 29:28 ("the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this Torah"). He also cited the rabbinic principle: "A prophet is henceforth not permitted to innovate a thing" (see above). He offered the following explanation of the Torah's eternity, based on its perfection and on the theory of the mean: "The Torah of the Lord is perfect" (Ps. 19:8) in that its statutes are just, i.e., that they are equibalanced between the burdensome and the indulgent; and "when a thing is perfect as it is possible to be within its species, it is impossible that within that species there should be found another thing that does not fall short of the perfection either because of excess or deficiency." Also, he mentioned the argument that the prophesied eternity of the name of Israel ("For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before Me… so shall your seed and your name"; Isa. 66:22) entails the eternity of the Torah (cf. Saadiah above). He held that there will be no change in the Torah after the coming of the Messiah (commentary on Mishnah, Sanh. 10; Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 9; cf. Sefer ha-Mitzvot; Guide of the Perplexed 2:29, 39; Abraham ibn Daud, Emunah Ramah).

Ḥasdai Crescas listed the eternity of the Torah as a non-fundamental true belief, i.e., required by Judaism, but not essential to the concept of Torah. Unlike Saadiah and Maimonides, he did not try to found this belief directly on a biblical text (but cf. his Bittul Ikkarei ha-Noẓerim, 9), but solely on the rabbinic dictum: "A prophet is henceforth not permitted to innovate a thing" (see above). To elucidate the belief from the point of view of speculation, he presented an argument from the perfection of the Torah, which differed markedly from its Maimonidean precursor. The argument proceeds as follows: The Torah is perfect, for it perfectly guides men toward the ultimate human happiness, love. If God were to abrogate the Torah, He would surely replace it, for it is impossible that He would forsake His purpose to maximize love. Since the Torah is perfect, it could be replaced only by an equal or an inferior; but if inferior, God would not be achieving His purpose of maximizing love; and if equal, He would be acting futilely. Therefore, He will not abrogate the Torah. Against the argument that replacement of the Torah by an equal but different law would make sense if there were an appreciable change – for better or worse – in the people who received it, he retorted characteristically that the Torah is the excellent guide for all, including both the intellectuals and the backward (Or Adonai, 3, pt. 1, 5:1–2).

Joseph Albo criticized Maimonides for listing the belief in the eternity of the Torah as an independent fundamental belief of Judaism. In a long discussion, which in many places constitutes an elaboration of arguments found in Crescas, he contended that nonabrogation is not a fundamental principle of the Torah, and that moreover, no text can be found in the Bible to establish it. Ironically, his ultimate position turned out to be closer to Maimonides' than to Crescas'; for he concluded that the belief in the nonabrogation of the Torah is a branch of the doctrine that no prophet will surpass the excellence of Moses (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 3:13–23).

After Albo, the question of the eternity of the Torah became routine in Jewish philosophical literature (e.g., Abraham Shalom, Neveh Shalom 10:3–4; Isaac Abrabanel, Rosh Amanah, 13). However, in the Kabbalah it was never routine. In the 13th-century Sefer ha-Temunah a doctrine of cosmic cycles (or shemittot; cf. Deut. 15) was expounded, according to which creation is renewed every 7,000 years, at which times the letters of the Torah reassemble, and the Torah enters the new cycle bearing different words and meanings. Thus, while eternal in its unrevealed state, the Torah, in its manifestation in creation, is destined to be abrogated. This doctrine became popular in later kabbalistic and ḥasidic literature, and was exploited by the heretic Shabbetai Ẓevi and his followers, who claimed that a new cycle had begun, and in consequence he was able to teach that "the abrogation of the Torah is its fulfillment!"

Like his contemporary Shabbetai Ẓevi, but for much different reasons (see above), Spinoza committed the heresy of advocating the abrogation of the Torah. Subsequently, in the 19th century, Reform ideologists held that the abrogation of parts of the traditional Torah was not a heresy at all but was necessary for the progress of the Jewish religion. Similarly, many intellectuals and nationalists held that it was necessary for the progress of the Jewish nation. Aḥad Ha-Am called for the Torah in the Heart to replace the Torah of Moses and of the rabbis, which having been written down, had, in his opinion, become rigid and ossified in the process of time.

Jewish philosophers of modern times have not concentrated on the question of the eternity or nonabrogability of the Torah. Nevertheless, it is not entirely untenable that the main distinction between Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox Judaism is that the latter rejects the literal interpretation of the ninth principle of Maimonides' Creed that there will be no change in the Torah.

[Warren Harvey]


S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (19602); C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (19602), index; G.G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), index; S.Y. Agnon, Attem Re'item (1959); A.J. Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim ba-Aspaklaryah shel ha-Dorot, 2 (1965); F.E. Urbach, Ḥazal Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), index.


views updated May 23 2018

Torah (Heb., ‘teaching’). The teachings of the Jewish religion. In the Pentateuch, the term ‘Torah’ can mean all the laws on a particular subject (e.g. Leviticus 7. 2) or the summation of all laws (e.g. Deuteronomy 4. 44). It is also used to refer to the Pentateuch in contrast to the Prophets and Hagiography (as in Tanach), and later a distinction was made between the written and the oral law. The purpose of Torah is to make Israel ‘a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ (Deuteronomy 33. 4). In a famous exchange Hillel summarized Torah in the maxim, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow’ (B. Shab. 31a), and Akiva maintained that its overriding principle was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19. 18). Maimonides laid down in his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith that Torah is immutable and that it was given in its entirety to Moses. The belief in the divine origin of both the written and oral Torah remains the touchstone of Orthodox Judaism. The Karaites accepted the written, but not the oral law, while the Progressive movements tend to distinguish between the moral and ritual law.


views updated Jun 11 2018


"Torah," from the Hebrew root YRH ("teach"), has had a variety of meanings in the history of Judaism. In biblical contexts, "torah" meant simply "the teaching/law of so-and-so" (e.g., see Joshua 24:26) or "the law of such-and-such" (as at Leviticus 14:2). Later Torah came to refer in particular to the Torah of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). But "Torah" had far broader meanings for certain Jewish groups, and for the rabbis, the term came to refer to any teaching accepted within the canonical rabbinic tradition. In fact, the rabbis claimed that two Torahs were revealed at Sinai—one written (the entire Hebrew Bible) and one "oral" (rabbinic teachings). When the rabbis spoke of the obligation to study Torah, they meant study of either.

In our age, "Torah" is used primarily to refer to the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch). Because this Torah is the first part of the Bible, Christian or Jewish, it is read and taught as scripture throughout the United States and beyond. However, in Christian tradition the Torah is part of the "Old Testament," yielding privilege of place to the New Testament. Furthermore, Paul's insistence on reading the commandments of the Torah allegorically, preferring their spiritual to their literal meanings, meant that, in Christianity, the extensive legal portions of the Torah are distinctly less significant. Hence, in Christianity the Torah has a secondary status. By contrast, in Judaism it is primary, and for many contemporary Jews, the Torah is the only part of the Hebrew Bible they have ever read.

In the late twentieth century, study of Torah among Jewish adults is an increasingly common phenomenon—an expression of renewed concern for Jewish continuity. For many Jews, though, the Torah scroll remains more a symbol than a source of instruction—an emblem of Jewish history, identity, and contributions to world culture.

See alsoBible; Judaism; Judeo-Christian Tradition.


Holtz, Barry, ed. BacktotheSources. 1984.

Neusner, Jacob. Torah:FromScroll to Symbolin FormativeJudaism. 1985.

David Kraemer


views updated May 21 2018

To·rah / ˈtōrə; ˈtô-; tôˈrä/ • n. (usu. the Torah) (in Judaism) the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pentateuch). ∎  a scroll containing this.ORIGIN: from Hebrew tōrāh ‘instruction, doctrine, law,’ from yārāh ‘show, direct, instruct.’


views updated May 29 2018

Torah in Judaism, the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pentateuch).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Torah (Hebrew, law) Hebrew name for the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. The Torah is the body of written Jewish laws contained within these five books. The Torah also describes the complete Jewish Bible.


views updated May 29 2018

Torah Mosaic law, Pentateuch. XVI. — Heb. tôrāh direction, instruction, doctrine, law.