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Torah study

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Torah study is the near-ritualistic dedication to studying religious texts that has evolved among the Jews over generations. In some circles, most notably the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, Torah study has become a way of life: in some communities, men forego work and spend their entire lives studying the Torah (intended to mean all the sacred writings and commentaries on the Bible, especially the Talmud).

The origins of this devotion to study are unclear, though it seems to have developed in the Hellenistic period, and may be a Jewish imitation of the Greek academies. Actually, Torah study per se is not a biblical mitzvah (commandment), and is only alluded to in the verse in (Deuteronomy 6:7): "And you shall teach it to your children." The Talmud comments on this that "Study is necessary in order to teach." The fact that study rose to such prominence rather quickly is attested to in another Talmudic discussion about which is preferred: study or action. The answer there, a seeming compromise, is "study that leads to action."

The theory that Torah study is essentially a Hellenistic innovation can be backed up by a study of other commandments closely related to Torah study. The most obvious of these is the Passover seder, where fathers are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus to their sons--another opportunity for study. The seder format in which this takes place is clearly structured along the lines of a Greek drinking festival.

Although the word Torah refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses, Jews also use the word to refer to Jewish Scripture in general; this includes the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

Torah Study by Orthodox Jews

In Yeshivas (schools of higher Jewish education), rabbinical schools and Kollels (adult-ed schools of higher Jewish education) the primary ways of studying Torah include study of (a) the weekly Torah portion, (b) works of the classic and modern day Meforshim (Biblical commentators), and (c) Talmud.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 6:7) states "And you shall teach it to your children." The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) comments on this verse, "And you shall teach - that the words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth so that if someone asks you something, you shall not fumble and then then tell it to him, rather you shall tell it to him immediately."

Orthodox Jews traditionally study the text of the Torah on four levels, (A) The Peshat, the surface meaning of the text, (B) Remez, looking for allusions or allegories in the text, (C) The derash, a rabbinic midrashic way of reading new lessons into the text, and (D) Sod, the hidden secret Kabbalistic reading of the Torah.

The initial letters of the words Peshat, Remez, Derash, Sod, forming together the Hebrew word Pardes, became the designation for the four-way method of studying Torah, in which the mystical sense given in the Kabbalah was the highest point. In later years this new method of studying Torah became erroneously believed to be ancient rabbinical method from the time of the Mishnah. This identification of new Kabbalistic teaching models with ancient Mishnaic modes of study developed on account of the expression "Pardes" (pleasure garden) in the Mishnah.

Torah Analysis by non-Orthodox Jews

Prior to The Enlightenment Jews believed that the first five books of the Bible were authored by God or Divinely inspired, and that they directly reflected God's intentions in human language. Since both Divine intentions and human language are complex, Scripture requires interpretation. Such interpretations were generally guided by the belief that the Torah as a whole provides all the elements necessary for the interpretation of any particular text. Such interpretations generally took any of four forms: an elucidation of the literal or plain meaning of the text; a homily applying the text to practical problems; a reading of the text as allegorical, and a mystical reading of the text.

After the Enlightenment many Jews began to participate in the wider European society, where they learned critical methods of textual study, the modern historical method, hermeneutics, and fields relevant to Bible study such as near-Eastern archaeology and linguistics. Many Jews found the findings of these disciplines compelling and considered them relevant. Most religious Jews held that such study was incompatible with Judaism, however, too many decided that such fields of scholarship were compatible with the religiouys study of Torah.

These areas of scholarship seemed to show that that the Bible was written by different people (who may have been divinely inspired) living at different times and in different societies. Consequently, one way to add more to Torah study would be to learn more about the intentions of these people, and the circumstances under which they lived. This type of study depended on evidence external to the text, especially archeological evidence and comparative literature. See the entries on Biblical Higher criticism and the Documentary hypothesis.

Today, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and some Modern Orthodox Rabbis draw on the lessons of critical scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Many Orthodox Rabbis, however, reject most or all critical scholarship.

Religious Jews of all denominations hold as a belief that one must constantly strive to engage in Torah study. Orthodox Jews still hold to this requirement more rigorously than most Jews in other denominations, although committed Jews of all denominations engage in regular study as well.

See also: Torah, Judaism


Conservative Rabbi Joel Roth on non-fundamentalist ways to study Torah and Talmud (http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/luminaries/chats/jroth022498)

Meeting God Face to Face: Conservative Judaism's historical form of Torah study (http://www.jtsa.edu/news/jtsmag/8.3/mgf.shtml)

Book review of the Conservative movement's official Torah commentary (http://www.jpost.com/Editions/2002/01/14/Books/Books.41622)

Articles on Torah and Historical Truth - Liberal Modern Orthodox views. (http://www.edah.org/backend/coldfusion/displayissue.cfm?volume=2&issue=1)

Introduction to Biblical criticism (http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_hcri.htm)

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