What is Torah? A translation of the mind of God

To think that God descended to Sinai to give us a history lesson or dictate laws is to minimize Torah and to miss the real meaning of it.

 WRITING A Sefer Torah in Safed. (photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)
WRITING A Sefer Torah in Safed.
(photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Last week, Jews around the world stayed up all night learning Torah as part of the Shavuot celebrations which mark the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once wrote that while some people have a notion of Torah from heaven, we Jews believe the Torah is heaven itself.

I saw a great quote on Twitter attributed to Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz explaining why it is that Jews stay up all night learning Torah: “Because when you’re in love, you do crazy things.” I think Rabbi Berkowitz has summed it up perfectly.

But what do we mean by Torah? What is Torah? In its narrowest definition, it refers to the Hebrew Pentateuch. In its broadest sense, it refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf throughout the millennia. But that still doesn’t answer the question. It does not speak to the essence of what we mean when we say “Torah.”

To think that God descended to Sinai to give us a history lesson or dictate laws is to minimize Torah and to miss the real meaning of it.

Perhaps it is best to start with what Torah is not. It is not a history book nor a biology textbook. Sure, there is some history to be learned, but it completely fails to teach anything we would remotely call “science” today. What makes the miracles described in the Bible “miraculous” is how they go against the laws of nature. But even if it is not a book of facts, that does not mean that it is not a book of knowledge. Torah teaches us knowledge of God.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The best understanding of Torah is to think of it as a translation of the mind of God. By conceptualizing Torah like this, you rescue it from the narrow confines of time, space, and province, liberating your own mind while connecting it to the infinite divine.

The rabbis have always maintained that “the Torah speaks in the language of man.” They could have only said that if they understood that the Torah is really something else entirely and is merely clothed in the language of man for us to understand and access it.

And if the Torah is a translation of the mind of God into the language of man, we must understand that the language of man is not referring to the Hebrew language alone but to the very way human beings speak. We speak both precisely and hyperbolically, we speak in earnestness and humor, in facts and in exaggeration. Thus Torah too must be these things as well. Only more so.

GOD HAD a problem. How does He communicate all of his divinity to mere human beings? Is there a shared language in which they can seamlessly exchange ideas? Of course not! The gulf between us and God is larger than between us and an ant. Just as there can be no real “meeting of the minds” with an ant, how can we assume that there can be a true commune with God?

The Kabbalists have a field day grappling with this question. The idea of the Torah as a translation of the mind of God is just one of a myriad of solutions they have come up with to try to wrap their heads around this conundrum.

This idea imagines God’s dilemma as having to either remain silent because of the impossibility of any equal communication, or God can restrict Himself in order to create a space for man to exist in His presence. God chose the latter and translated his mind into human language.

God’s choice of Hebrew was simple because it was only the Hebrews who were listening to Him. Had the ancient Chinese or Aztecs sought out God, God would have appeared to them in their language, using the geography and environment in which they lived in order to give over the Torah.

In other words, God did not choose us, we chose God. This paradigm sees Israel not as the chosen people but the “choosing people.” We have chosen God and therefore God has in turn chosen us. And in choosing us, we are the bearers of His message not just to Israel but to mankind.

In order for the translation to be understood, it needs to be not a literal translation which would miss the nuance and flavor of language, but one that would use the idioms, poetry, and metaphors that make language interesting and alive.

Those who, in the name of frumkeit (religious observance) take the Torah literally, fail to understand its true nature and not only rob the Torah of its real essence but make it small in the eyes of others and thus accomplish the opposite of their intended goals. To believe that the word of God can ever be contained by the two-dimensional letters on the scroll is blasphemy. The Kabbalists teach us that we must look into the negative, white spaces of the letters written on the parchment to begin to truly understand what is written.

In this idea, Moses ascends to heaven to receive the Torah and is surrounded by white fire representing the mind of God as Torah. Moses reacts incredulously and says, “I can’t take this down to the people!”

So a black fire comes in the form of the name of God. Still, this is unintelligible to Moses. The black fire keeps breaking up into smaller and smaller names of God, taking the form of Hebrew letters, until finally we reach the letters of the Torah as we have them today, forming the words of the Hebrew text.

This way sees the real Torah as being the white parchment representing the essence of God’s mind and the black fire as holding back some of the white, acting like sunglasses of a sort. And while we read the black letters to form the words we know today, the real story is in the white spaces in between the letters. Unfortunately, we can never truly understand God, so we require these shades as a means of having any relationship with God.

These are but a few ways for us to understand Torah and help us appreciate what we mean when we say that the Torah was a precious gift bestowed upon the people of Israel. ■

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.