Torah Study: Themes and Theology

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In portraying God as a student of Torah, the rabbis imply that they, who devote their lives to studying Torah, are modeling their own lives of learning on the Divine--and perhaps even place their own conclusions on par, as it were, with God's. As depicted in a famous talmudic story in which the rabbis overrule a divine pronouncement, God’s interpretation of Torah does not necessarily supercede human interpretation. Quoting Deuteronomy, they say of the Torah that it is "not in heaven" (BT Bava Metzia 59b).

Several rabbinic texts portray the creation of the world as conditional on the Jews' ultimate acceptance of Torah. According to these texts, if the Jews had refused to accept the Torah, God would have returned the world to its pre-creation state. One midrash or interpretation depicts the world trembling on the day of revelation, lest the Jews refuse Torah and thus restore primordial chaos (Midrash Tehillim 75:1.)

torah studyIn the rabbinic mind, the preservation of the world is not guaranteed by the one-time acceptance of Torah, but must constantly be maintained through talmud Torah. One who studies Torah is thus considered to be holding up the entire world (Midrash Mishlei 9:1). In some parts of the contemporary Orthodox world, communal support of full-time students of Torah is justified by reference to this belief that Torah scholars sustain the world.

The term “talmud torah” does not necessarily (or even usually) refer specifically to the study of the Torah itself--that is, of the Five Books of Moses.  Rather, talmud Torah may include the study of rabbinic texts, medieval commentaries, and later legal and ethical writings. The rabbis of the Talmud, in some places, prescribe devoting one third of one’s life each to Bible, Mishnah and Talmud (see, for example, BT Kiddushin 30a) and, in some places, privilege the study of Mishnah and Talmud. (See, for example, BT Bava Metzia 33a).

Since early medieval times, the curricula of yeshivot (institutions of traditional Jewish learning) have focused primarily on the study of Talmud and halakha (Jewish law), rather than on the biblical text.  This emphasis on post-biblical material indicates the extent to which rabbinic interpretation has in some sense assumed a more authoritative position than even the biblical text, believed to be a manifestation of the unmediated divine voice.

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