Monday, May 21, 2012

What is the Torah?

On the festival of Shavuos we celebrate the event of Matan Torah - the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This was the foundational event of Judaism, from which all else follows. It was at Sinai that God made the Jewish people into His nation, and gave us His Torah.

But what, exactly, is the Torah? By this, I am not asking about the simple definition of the Torah - i.e. the five books of Moses - or even the broader definition of the complete corpus of the Written and Oral Law. I am asking, what kind of "book" is the Torah? Specifically, what kind of information did God intend to reveal to us through the Torah and what kinds of expectations can we reasonably have when studying it?

To clarify, in order to productively read a book, we need to have a reasonably good idea as to what the author is attempting to do. If our understanding of the author's intent is significantly flawed, then our ability to understand and use the book will be, at best, equally flawed. Our understanding of the author's intent causes us to have specific expectations from the book and it is the author's success in satisfying those expectations that we use in assessing the quality of the book. Thus, we have very different expectations from a history book than we have from a cookbook, or a book on car repair, or a medical textbook, or a dictionary.

The same is true for the Torah. In order for us to properly study the Torah, we first need to clarify what the Author of the Torah is trying to accomplish. What is the intended function of the Torah? Thankfully, the Torah itself is fairly clear on what its purpose is; the function of the Torah is to instruct, i.e. to tell us what to do with our lives. As the Torah (Exodus 24:12) says, "And Hashem said to Moses: 'Come up to Me, to the mountain, and stay there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment, which I have written to instruct them.'" One of the most basic themes throughout the Torah is the absolute importance of obeying God's commands, as given to us in the Torah.

Everything in the Torah is there for the purpose of instruction. This is true not only for the mitzvos, but even for the stories found in the Torah.  The stories in the Torah are intended to teach us lessons, and are presented in the manner that best serve God's educational purposes. They are not there for our entertainment, or even to teach us history, but, like the mitzvos, to teach us how to properly live our lives.

This is an important principle, because it tells us two critical concepts:
  • There is nothing extraneous in the Torah. Everything, down to the details of every story, is there to teach us something or it would not have been included.
  • The Torah does not include information that is unrelated to its purpose. While there is historical information in the Torah, it is usually vague at best. The Torah is not a history book, or a science book, or even a philosophical work. (It also isn't a cookbook or a book on how to manage your money. But you already knew that.) It is book of Divine instruction.

Much to the disappointment of many a yeshiva student, God did not give us the Torah so that we wouldn't have to study history, or science, or math (or any other area of human study). The Torah is intended to answer questions that we can't really answer for ourselves: What are we here for? How do we fulfill our purpose?

Sometimes people ask why God didn't include scientific or medical information in the Torah, or why He didn't provide more precise historical information. Such questions are no more reasonable with regard to the Torah than they would be with regard to a cookbook (which is also a book of instruction). When we study the Torah, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what we are supposed to learn from a given story, or even a specific detail within the story. It is not legitimate to ask why God omitted the cure for cancer or the Grand Unified Theory for physics.

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