Teaching or instruction
Either the first five books of the Hebrew bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) or a more generalized sense of Jewish learning. Biblically, Torah generally refers to God’s instructions for Israel and is often translated as “Law”.
The word “Torah” comes from the Hebrew root meaning ‘to direct’ or ‘to teach’. In its broadest sense, Torah refers to the canon of Jewish learning. This usage can be seen in the phrase talmud torah, the study of Torah, which refers to the ethic of study within the Jewish tradition, not specifically to the study of the Pentateuch. There are sometimes two types of Torah referred to, the Written Torah, comprising the Hebrew Bible, and the Oral Torah, which includes all commentary and halakhic (Jewish legalistic) writings, e.g. Mishnah, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh.
Torah in a specific sense is the name of the Pentateuch, although in common parlance it is often used to refer to the entire tanakh (the name derived from the Hebrew acronym for torah, nevi’im, k’tuvim, Torah, Prophets and Writings, the three sections of the Hebrew bible).
A commonly asked question about Reform Judaism is what relationship there is to the Torah. For Reform Judaism, the Torah is the foundation document of Jewish belief and peoplehood.
Reform Judaism holds the belief that the Torah is a human document created with divine inspiration. We do not believe that the Torah, the Scroll, the Five Books of Moses were literally dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai – that the Torah is ‘inerrant’, ‘extra-historical’ or ‘other’ or any of the other more sophisticated terms that are now used for the same belief. The Torah contains stories and other material that were first told and then written down by our ancestors. It is therefore their experience of God – and, in that sense, Torah min haShamayim, Torah from Heaven – but not something that simply materialised from another reality without any human involvement.
The Torah is, therefore, still our ‘tree of life’. We read from it in synagogue every Shabbat, elevate it in front of the congregation and parade it round the shul. It brings us closer to God and God’s will for us. It provides us with a glimpse of eternity. From it we learn that human beings are able to go beyond considering our own individual needs. We are able to turn outward to recognise the needs of others, that is, to behave ethically. It is our link with the divine and the values of holiness. We are not forced, however, to believe that God wanted the Caananites exterminated, stubborn and rebellious children stoned, or slavery accepted. God is much more subtle and elusive. The Torah records the experience of God of fallible human beings like us. We find this view of Torah, as containing both timeless insights and time-bound conclusions, liberating.
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.