Excellent question! That is akin to asking why the Mormons study the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price. Those scriptures are central to Mormonism, just as the Torah (teaching) is central to Judaism and has been since the fall of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. The New Testament is not a part of Jewish scripture.
To a believing Jew, Torah is God’s exclusive address. Twice daily the Shema is recited: Shema Yisroel, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. The fall of Jerusalem, the removal of Jews into and out of captivity, their dispersion:
The Great Diaspora – also called the “galut” or exile (the scattering or migration of the Hebrew people) during the 8th–6th century BCE conquests of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It can also mean the destruction of the First Temple (c.586 BCE), and expulsion of the population. The Diaspora is also associated with the destruction of the Second Temple and aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt during the Roman occupation of Judea in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
How was God to be worshipped without the framework of the Temple, required by biblical law? How could Jews maintain their identity in alien environments? Could they survive as a nation? What would continue to bind them? How would they worship? They began to evolve into a religion of the book. Oral tradition was part of Torah, but because the Jews now lived in other lands, there needed to be more writings, more laws that counseled the scattered Jews how to worship without a central authority. Hence the invention of rabbinic interpretations.These led to the publication of Talmud, a collection of tractates of laws and discussions by rabbinic scholars on many aspects of Jewish life. Torah and Talmud are different books.
Torah is Jewish (Hebrew Bible) and is sometimes at odds with the Old Testament as regards Christian interpretations. Sometimes called TaNaKH, the Hebrew acronym for the three sections of the text: Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvi’im (Writings).
The word Torah has several meanings: The first 5 books are regarded as an individual teaching. Torah can also mean the entire Pentateuch or the word “torah” can refer to the entire Bible and the Oral Torah (the words of Moses from God Himself – “thus sayeth God”, that was given to the Sanhedrin to interpret as necessary and that eventually became the Talmud).
Torah can include even all subsequent Jewish thought.The Hebrew Bible incorporates a lifestyle. It is a foundation text because it documents and discusses the religious aspects of the Jews over a 3,000 year period of history. It identifies the history, the people, the land, the covenants, the prophets of Israel. Most of it was written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic. Until the 17th century Torah scripture was deemed a divine document. It needs to be read deeply for meaning.
Torah is considered by Jews to be perfect because it is a sacred text – overseen by God. It has no misspellings or contradictions or gender problems. It is relevant to each life, forever according to the Jews and is complete within itself. There are some important things to note:
· The names of God are different in the two stories. In Genesis 1 we read “God”. In Genesis 2 and 3 there is only “Lord God”.
· The creation stories are of no great significance within the Hebrew Bible, especially the Garden of Eden (Gan Eden) tale.
· Pauline Christianity understands that human disobedience in the Garden stains all future generations of humans. Jews do not believe that.
· Jews consider Cain and Abel stories to be of more importance than the Garden of Eden story because it teaches that humans can overcome our evil tendencies through free will. The Hebrew Bible does not recognize original sin, but Christians believe that our disobedience stained us all and only Jesus can free us. Jews do not believe in Jesus or that any Messiah has come to earth.
· Rabbinic Judaism believes the day begins with moonrise the evening prior. In Christianity, day begins with sunrise.
There are 24 books in Torah to correspond with the 5 books of Moses, the Prophets and Writings. They are listed here.
- Shemoth (Exodus)
- Vayiqra (Leviticus)
- Bamidbar (Numbers)
- Devarim (Deuteronomy)
NEVI’IM (The Prophets):
- Yehoshua (Joshua)
- Shoftim (Judges)
- Shmuel (I &II Samuel)
- Melakhim (I & II Kings)
- Yeshayah (Isaiah)
- Yirmyah (Jeremiah)
- Yechezqel (Ezekiel)
- The Twelve (treated as one book)
- Hoshea (Hosea)
- Yoel (Joel)
- Ovadyah (Obadiah)
- Yonah (Jonah)
- Mikhah (Micah)
- Chavaqquq (Habbakkuk)
- Tzefanyah (Zephaniah)
- Zekharyah (Zechariah)
KETHUVIM (The Writings):
- Tehillim (Psalms)
- Mishlei (Proverbs)
- Iyov (Job)
- Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs)
- Eikhah (Lamentations)
- Qoheleth (the author’s name) (Ecclesiastes)
- Ezra & Nechemyah (Nehemiah) (treated as one book)
- Divrei Ha-Yamim (The words of the days) (Chronicles)
Torah scrolls are parchment, made of animal skins and written upon in Hebrew. They are always hand written but they cannot contain any errors. No one can touch them because they are holy. It is believed they can be defiled by human touch. Those who read Torah scrolls do so with a pointer in the shape of a hand, called a “yad”. The scrolls are covered with fabric, often ornamented with silver crowns and breastplate and are kept in a cabinet in every synagogue. The cabinet is called an “ark”, for the “ark of the covenant”.
Devout Jews believe: Torah counsels mankind how to live in accordance with divine will and that the daily reading of this book prevents the world from returning to chaos. It is a transformative endeavor. Moreover, in a world where God is no longer accessed through priests at the Temple of Jerusalem, Torah potentially allows everyone constant access to the divine presence. Reading Torah became a function of discipline, not of pedigree. Torah stands on three things: itself – worship – deeds of loving kindness.
When I was a girl I read Torah in Hebrew and English. The letters of Hebrew have many meanings, not only what is generally thought of or expressed in today’s society. The words of Hebrew relate to philosophical truths as well as the stories contained within the five books.
Now, it would be reasonable to think that if Jews spend all their time studying Torah, they don’t have time to actually follow the commandments within it. But that is far from true. In fact, one esteemed rabbi wrote “He who engages exclusively in Talmud Torah is as one who has no God.” Leviticus 19 is perhaps the greatest principle of Torah. It says: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. This is part of the Holiness Code, a set of mitzvoth – commandments that is both legislative and ritual. Jews have a mandate: they must do concrete deeds of loving kindness, called in Hebrew g’milut chasadim, often translated as charity.
When I converted and became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I began reading the book of Mormon and other Mormon texts and quickly realized that in order to obtain all the meanings of the words I had to use the references given as well. English words do not lend themselves to multiple interpretations and symbolic understandings the way that Hebrew does, so I had to ponder and meditate upon what I was reading to get more than the topical, simple meanings of the words in the stories. Reading Hebrew, it was a joy to find profound truth in the multiple meanings of many words and sentences. Mormons can also gather deep meaning from their scriptures by looking up references and by using the other helps provided: the Index and Topical Guide sections of their scriptures to round out their understanding of the texts.
Shalom Aleichem. May peace be with you always! Questions? Please write me!
Marlena Tanya Muchnick