A simple definition of Torah is, by definition, inadequate. A non-exhaustive list would include the interface of the infinite and the finite, a description of all reality compressed through untold levels into relatively few words; it’s Revelation, it’s a spiritual path, it’s a way of life.
Most simply stated, as taught by the Ramchal and others, God created the world in order for His dominant characteristic, love, to fully manifest by flowing to another. To bestow that infinite goodness, a being, Man, was created to receive it. In order that this Divine goodness be at its highest level, Man is given an opportunity to finish creating and then to earn it. The ultimate good being God himself (Hebrew isn’t a gender-neutral language, but God’s essential infinitude transcends the concept of gender while different aspects of how God relates to the world is characterized by gender in much the same way a sub-atomic particle is characterized by charge), our ultimate good is directly related to our success in aligning ourself to God. Thus joining God in creating, in rectifying and refining, in putting the finishing touches, as it were, on creation, we not only create good ourselves, we also become creators.
The Torah often relates an individual to all of creation by referring to both as an “olam”, a world, either large (the universe) or small (each uniquely individual person). Our self-fulfilling task is just that, self-fulfilling. We’re charged to simultaneously refine ourselves and the world at large, to repair damage and, if possible, to create new connections within ourselves and between ourselves, other people and the world. We call this “Tikun Olam”, fixing the world.
The Torah also manifests itself as a guide to this adventure. It lays out the goals, including a just and peaceful society as well as loving, secure, mature, fully-developed, generous and courageous individuals. It also presents us with a multi-pathed approach, halacha, a “going” to help reach these goals. Thus, when understood properly, the system of rituals and regulations and disciplines, rather than an externally-imposed burden to rail against, is are best aid in achieving the goals we already want for ourselves.
A big problem, however, is determining just all of this really means. Are we merely supposed to mimic the rituals of previous generations (assuming that they merely mimic the rituals and those before them) or are we supposed to try to analyze these messages from the past to develop for ourselves, as they did, each generation for itself, the refinements needed to approach the universal and timeless goals we share. Is paralysis our goal or is God? We’re taught that the Torah is given “in the language of man”. However, the written Torah is more than 3,000 years old and much of the oral tradition is at least 2,000 years old. Although we can literally translate the words, I think that the largest part of the message is left untouched, either lost in ignorance or avoided from misplaced fear.
The written Torah, which contains deep within it all wisdom and knowledge, presents it in language immediately relevant to the newly-freed slaves, just in the process of becoming a nation. People living in a specific time and place. The eternal truths within the Torah were first publicly revealed in a form understandable to them. From that time on, the Torah-sh’b’al Peh, the oral Torah, took over explaining and re-explaining, finding newly-appropriate insights and newly-needed language to maintain the life of our tradition and our people, to keep us focused on and ever-approaching our goals.
The challenge is, and always has been trying to re-translate and re-explain the poetry, and by that I mean the multiple layers of meaning within the text and the previous translations and explanations. To understand and to state in our languages and in metaphors of our lives and experiences in order than we truly integrate the meaning into our lives rather than merely pay it lip-service. At the same time, we must avoid trivializing it into a feel-good pop-psychology complacence since that also evades the goals.
Taken literally, fundamentalistly, the Bible is meaningless, at best an inaccurate and fanciful historical tale, even though there are elements of historical import within it. The real value of the Torah is in it’s literal name, The Teaching, the techniques we need to learn and employ to achieve our highest human goals, as well as the portal itself to our goals.
The Torah, the Jewish tradition, is a unique spiritual path. Whether it’s the only one, the best one and other chauvinistic issues are completely trivial, since it mandates love and respect to all of creation. If we’re involved with it, it is our reality.
We need to study our texts and traditions with all our gifts, each of us in our uniqueness of strengths, experiences, tastes, interests, loves as well as our shortcomings and fears. One field of desperately-needed research is to analyze individual halachot to determine, as best we can, how they work individually and as part of an organic whole. A path, a halacha, is determined by three things: 1) the goal, 2) the starting point and 3) the terrain between the two. While the goal, in its essence, remains timeless, the other two features necessarily change from person to person, from place to place and from time to time. Halacha always has and always must be constantly re-aimed and re-focused. Otherwise it becomes irrelevant at best and dangerously counter-productive at worst. To worship a model which no longer works is, like any form of avoda zora, a deflection from our goal.
We need to see Talmud as more than a primitive rule book, but as a text on logic and thought. So far removed historically from the time of the talmud, it’s easy to misread it. For example, while on the surface Shabbat may be discussing the laws of Shabbat observance and Brachot the structures and timings of prayers, the real topics are the abstract logic skills needed to understand the world and our way of working within it. Shabbat and Prayer were taken as givens in that world–they provided a set of familiar and common experience in order to illustrate the concepts, much as apples and oranges do in the “story problems” of a contemporary mathematics textbook (which, obviously, is not about apples or oranges). Once again, Torah speaks the language of man in order to teach.
So yes, Shabbat and Brachot and civil laws and religious laws are all important, but they were also part of environment. I doubt if the early sages really worried about the situations they talk about really occurring so much as they employ each example as a new lens, a new perspective to add to understanding the world in all its depths.
It’s a journey of discovery, of communal effort both across place and across the generations of time. Every unique point-of-view and insight is an essential part of the whole. There is also a synergy which incorporates the mere fact of the combining of outlooks, views, backgrounds and experiences. This is, perhaps, an underlying meaning of talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is balanced with everyone.
Harry Zeitlin, September 1998