Torah Study: Themes and Theology
The Torah presents itself as the source of the commandments governing Jewish practice. One might, assume, then, that the primary goal of studying Torah would be the explication of these commandments and the creation of a system for their implementation.
Within the rabbinic world, however, the wide-ranging enterprise called talmud Torah (Torah study, not to be confused with either the body of rabbinic literature known as the Talmud, or the Torah itself) also became a desired end on its own, rather than simply a means of determining law and practice. The rabbinic expression "v'talmud torah k'neged kulam"--usually translated as "…and Torah study is equivalent to all of [the other mitzvot]"--attests to the importance Jewish tradition assigns to learning.
In the period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, talmud Torah (along with liturgical prayer) replaced sacrifices as the primary means of worship. The rabbis even declared talmud Torah to be greater than the daily sacrificial offering and greater even than building the Temple. Rather than a less desirable replacement for a lost system, talmud Torah becomes a preferred means of divine worship (Babylonian Talmud (BT), Eruvin 63b).
In the rabbinic mind, Torah takes precedence over all else--even, in some cases, over God's independent will. In a particularly bold theological statement, the rabbis suggest that the Torah predates the creation of the world, and that God uses the Torah as a blueprint for creation (Midrash Tanhuma, Bereishit 1:1). Similarly, the Talmud depicts God as spending the first three hours of every day studying Torah (BT Avodah Zarah 3b).