What is Torah

By Rabbi Mordechai Levin

The evening of June 1, 2019 will mark the beginning of Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai 32 centuries ago. The holiday is called Z’man Matan Toratenu, the season of the giving of the Torah.

The term Torah is derived from the Hebrew root yrh which means “to teach,” like the Hebrew word: morah or moreh, teacher. The meaning of the word is therefore “teaching,” “doctrine,” or “instruction.”

The term Torah has commonly been translated into English as “law,” a word that gives a wrong impression. The Septuagint, the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which translated Torah as nomos (law), was responsible for narrowing the meaning of Torah to the aspect of “law.” The New Jewish Publication Society 1985 translation of the Hebrew Bible translated Torah more accurately as “teaching, instructions.”

Torah is the instruction or guidance for living a good life. Through it, God provides us guidance for a good life. It is said to be given as an inheritance to the congregation of Israel (Deuteronomy 33:4).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that we can use three metaphors to describe our relationship with God.

The first one is God as a parent and we as His children. Torah is God’s letter to us. His way of saying: while there may be times when our paths may diverge, read this letter I have written you and then I will be there with you. That is how Jews survived for 2000 years in exile; wherever they were, when they read Torah they heard the voice of God and they knew they were together.

The second metaphor is husband and wife. Marriage for Judaism is the supreme example of a relationship which binds us to somebody else; it is a covenant of love. The Torah is equivalent to a wedding ring. So long as we have it, God is bound to us and we are bound to Him.

The third one is that the Torah is to the Jewish people what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of America are to the United States. The Torah is a constitutional document, establishing us as citizens of the Republic of Faith.

In summary, the Torah is like a letter from a father to a child, the wedding ring between husband and wife, and the constitution which forms Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God. The three metaphors describe the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

What is Torah? The basic definition is that the Torah consists of the five books of Moses. But there is more than this. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “Torah is the world we enter when, through an act of active listening, we hear the voice of God. To encounter Torah as a covenantal document is not to read a book. It is to be addressed. To be called. To be summoned. To listen. And to listen within those words to the voice of God, reaching us from the vastness of space and through 4000 years of history, the voice that we hear – if only we have the courage to listen.”

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Rabbi Levin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Munster, IN. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for his years of dedicated service to the Conservative movement and the Jewish community...Full bio