Sep 12, 1997 - 10:17 -
"Torah" literally means "Instruction".
However, it can't really be translated properly with a single English word. Western thought would require several related ideas to encompass what is one concept in traditional Jewish thought. (Other examples would be "commandment" and "good deed", "to be" and "to rectify", "worship" and "work", "justice" and "alms-giving", etc.)
In its most limited sense, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, the oldest and most authoritative part of Jewish Scripture. Traditionally, the Torah is thought of as the blueprint for building a utopian society, and as the revelation of divine will. The Giving of the Torah is regarded as an incredible act of divine lovingkindness, and as the central transforming event in human history.
The Torah functions as the national constitution of the Jewish People, and is also viewed as an early history of the nation. The Torah evidences the "election" of Israel by God. It is thought of as a negotiated, mutually agreed-upon contract establishing a mutually-dependent partnership between Jews and God, binding on both parties. The contract is commonly called "The Covenant".
The Torah is also viwed as a legal code that is the basis for evolving practical law. The Torah contains 613 commandments, from which the details of the legal system are derived. Viewed this way, the Torah includes an explanation of the origins of the law, plus examples of the results of adherance and non-adherance.
The Torah is thought of as a delight and a precious gift. It is the "Tree of Life" that enables humans to harness their evil inclinations to the service of their good inclinations, so as to fulfil the intent of Creation. Torah-study is the utopian menas of achieving moral inspiration and repentance. The Torah facilitates atonemnet. Good conduct and devotion to Torah are the same thing.
"Torah" also refers to the process by which the revelation at Sinai continues and by which Jewish tradition lives, and therefore to the totality of Jewish civilization. "This is (or is not) Torah" means that some statement, behavior, or condition is (or is not) consistent with traditional Jewish ideals, culture, values, ethics, or law.
"Torah" also denotes a way of life, or condition of being. Our lives are expected to be demonstrations of the Torah's ability to produce utopian behavior, thereby "sanctifying God's Name" in the world. Behavior is the touchstone of Torah scholarship.
--- adapted from material in "The Synagogue Survival Kit"