The Torah

Traditionally, the Torah has been seen either as a document that was entirely revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai (along with the whole of the Oral Torah, i.e. the Mishnah and other works of Rabbinic literature which build upon the written Torah) or that Moses completed the Torah during the trek through the wilderness (including what was revealed on Mount Sinai). Historians and literary critics, noting historical inaccuracies and duplications that indicate a composite text have suggested that the Torah includes sources from the period of King David and King Solomon (around 1000 BCE), from the seventh century BCE during the reign of King Josiah, and from the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile.

For Jews, the concept of “Torah ” is much broader than the books themselves, the delimited concept of the Torah. “Torah” can refer to all of traditional Jewish learning, but “the Torah” usually refers to the Torah she’bi’ktav, the written Torah, also known as the chumash (the five volumes or Pentateuch, sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses).

The Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) collectively make up The Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). The Bible is often referred to by the Hebrew acronym TaNaKh (usually spelled Tanakh, or Tanach ). Numerous editions and translations of the Bible and the Chumash (the text of the Torah) can be purchased online. However, you can also read (and search) the entire Bible (along with many other major Jewish texts) in Hebrew and English translation free of charge on Sefaria.

Readings from the Torah, which are divided into 54 weekly Torah portions are the centerpiece of the Sabbath morning service. During the Torah service, the Torah scroll is taken out and the weekly portion chanted or read aloud. The Torah scroll, also known as a sefer Torah, is hand-written on parchment according to numerous specifications by a sofer (scribe), a specially trained individual.

The Torah’s stories, laws and poetry stand at the center of Jewish culture. They chronicle God’s creation of the world, the selection and growth of the family of Abraham and Sarah in relationship to God in the land of Canaan, the exile and redemption from Egypt of that “family-become-nation” known as Israel, and their travels through the desert until they return to the land of Canaan. Along the way, Israel enters into a covenanted relationship with God, and God reveals many of the rules for governing a just society and for establishing appropriate worship.

The English names for each of the Torah’s five book are actually Greek, and like the Rabbinic names for the books, they describe the contents. The common names for the books come from a significant word in the beginning verses of the book. The following are the names of the five books and a brief summary of each:

Genesis (“Origins”)/Bereishit (“In the Beginning”)

Genesis tells the story of creation, Noah and the flood, and the selection of Abraham and Sarah and their family as the bearers of God’s covenant. Stories of sibling conflict and the long narratives of Jacob and his favorite son Joseph conclude with the family dwelling in Egypt.

Exodus (“The Road Out”)/Shemot (“Names”)

Exodus tells of how the family of Jacob grew and then was enslaved in Egypt. The baby Moses, born of Israelites but adopted by Pharaoh, becomes God’s prophet who, after bringing 10 plagues down upon Egypt, leads the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom and to the revelation at Mount Sinai. The story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, which follows soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai, is almost obscured by lengthy materials on the building of a sanctuary (tabernacle) in the wilderness.

Leviticus (“Laws of the Levites”)/Vayikra (“And God Called”)

Leviticus deals mostly with laws of Israelite sacrificial worship. Related rules include the basis for Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and issues of purity and impurity. The holiness code, which describes a sanctified communal life, is a highlight of the book.

Numbers (“The Census”)/Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”)

Numbers begins with a census of the Israelites and the tribe of Levi. A group of Israelites spy out the land of Canaan; their discouraging report sends them back into the desert for an additional 38 years, during which the Israelites continue to behave badly, rebelling against the authority of Moses and his brother Aaron, and having illicit relations with Moabite women.

Deuteronomy (“Second Law”)/Devarim (“Words”)

Deuteronomy is Moses’ final message to the people of Israel before they cross over the Jordan River into Israel. Moses reminds the people of how God has redeemed the people from Egypt and of the details of the covenant between Israel and God. In stark language, Moses describes the rewards for observance of the laws of the covenant and the punishment for disobedience. Finally, Moses passes along his authority to Joshua who will lead the people into the land.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Unearthing the Bible, myjewishlearning.com, Chabad.org

American Conservative Judaism

The Conservative movement is the second largest of the three main religious denominations within American Judaism, claiming 18 percent of American Jews, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. Historically it has occupied a sort of middle ground between Reform and Orthodox, maintaining (unlike Reform) that Jewish law remains binding on modern Jews, but affording far greater leeway than Orthodoxy in adapting those laws to reflect modern realities.

• The movement tolerates a range of religious practice in its commitment to halachic pluralism — the idea that multiple (and opposing) opinions concerning the requirements of Jewish law can be considered equally legitimate.

• Most (but not all) Conservative synagogues are egalitarian on gender issues, and the movement has endorsed religious rulings both in favor of and opposed to same-sex marriage.

• While its rabbis are not permitted to officiate at interfaith weddings, the movement has in recent years made a greater effort to welcome interfaith couples and families into its congregations. One of its mottos has been “Tradition and Change.”

• In the mid-20th century, the Conservative movement was the dominant stream of American Judaism. In some years in the 1950s, the movement was adding 100 new affiliate congregations annually. But by the end of the century, the movement was in serious decline, with some fretting openly that Conservative Judaism was on the road to oblivion.

The movement began as an effort to “conserve” traditional Judaism in the face of the liberalizing tendencies of Reform leaders in the late 19th century. One critical moment of division is often said to be the Reform movement’s famous 1883 “trefa banquet,” when non-kosher foods were served at a dinner honoring the first rabbis ordained through the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which would become the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, was founded in 1886 — one year after Reform adopted its Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which explicitly rejected Jewish practices it viewed as inconsistent with modern ideas.

The movement has been defined by its official commitment to Jewish law (halacha ), even as it has staked out positions that entail substantial departures from what was long considered normative Jewish practice. In 1983, the movement began ordaining women rabbis, which prompted some JTS faculty to quit the school in protest. In 1998, the movement’s updated prayer book, Sim Shalom, contained an alternative Amidah text that included the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah alongside the names of the patriarchs. Some of the God language in the book replaced gendered language such as “King” and “Father” with more gender-neutral terms, like Sovereign and Guardian.

One of the movement’s most significant — some would say fateful — innovations was the 1950 ruling permitting worshippers to drive to synagogue (but nowhere else) on Shabbat. Amid the rapid suburbanization of postwar America, this change enabled many to attend synagogue who would otherwise be unable to get there on the Jewish Sabbath, when driving is traditionally prohibited. However, some critics would later point to this shift as undermining the movement’s stated commitment to Jewish law.

In the 21st century, the movement’s long-term viability has continued to be drawn into question. The percentage of Jewish households that identified as Conservative dropped by 10 points — from 43 to 33 percent — between 1990 and 2000, according to surveys of the American Jewish population conducted in those years. By 2013, a Pew survey found only 18 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative, roughly half the number that called themselves Reform. The movement’s synagogue umbrella group, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, also experienced a significant drop-off in affiliated congregations.

The decline is attributed to various factors, chief among them intermarriage. A majority of intermarried Jews who were raised Conservative no longer identify as such as adults, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen. At least some of those Jews have gravitated toward the Reform movement, which has traditionally been more welcoming of intermarried couples. Others have pointed to the movement’s liberalization over the years, which has turned off more traditionally minded Jews, as well as to the rise of independent minyans, which have attracted many graduates of Conservative day schools and summer camps. Still others have fingered geographic mobility as the culprit — the relocation of American Jews from areas where the Conservative movement historically had a strong presence (the northeast and the Midwest), to areas where Reform congregations predominated (the South and the West).

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But according to Cohen, there remain some encouraging signs for the movement in recent studies showing that among those who do identify as Conservative, metrics of Jewish engagement remain strong. “What Conservative institutions like camps and day schools have been doing is working to build a core group with relatively high levels of Jewish observance, engagement and literacy,” Cohen wrote in a 2015 op-ed for JTA. “If they keep doing so, the evidence suggests that while the overall number of Conservative Jews may still decline, this dedicated core will continue to sustain what was once America’s largest Jewish denomination.”

By 2017, a Pew survey found only 14 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative, roughly half the number (28 percent) that called themselves Reform. To understand that in a broader context thirty-seven percent identified as “just Jewish” with no formal affiliation with any of the big three denominations (big four if you consider reconstructionist).

Sources: Essential Judaism, myjewishlearning.com, Chabad.org

Shulkhan Arukh

The legal code known as the Shulkhan Arukh, compiled by the great Sephardic rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid­1500s, is still the standard legal code of Judaism. When rabbis, particularly if they are Orthodox, are asked to rule on a question of Jewish law, the first volume they consult generally is the Shulkhan Arukh. A major reason for its universal acceptance is that it was the first code to list the differing customs and laws of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry. (Maimonides’s earlier Mishneh Torah, for example, contained only the legal rulings of Sephardic Jewry, which differed in certain areas from European Jewry’s practices.)

This unique feature was not intended by Joseph Caro, but came about through a happy coincidence. At the very time that Caro was compiling his code, a similar undertaking was being planned by Rabbi Moses Isserles of Poland. Isserles, known in Jewish life as the Rama, was thrown into some despair when he first heard about Caro’s work, for he knew Caro to be a greater scholar than himself. Nonetheless, he soon realized that both Caro’s legal code and his own would not by themselves meet the needs of all Jews. Thus, the Shulkhan Arukh was published with Caro’s rulings listed first, and Isserles’s dissents and addenda included in italics.

The Shulkhan Arukh is divided into four volumes:

1. Orakh Hayyim-laws of prayer and of holidays. 

2. Yoreh Deah-diverse laws, including those governing charity (tzedaka), Torah study and the Jewish dietary laws. 

3. Even ha­Ezer-laws concerning Jewish marriage and divorce. 

4. Khoshen Mishpat-Jewish civil law.

To this day, rabbinic ordination (semikha) usually is given to a student only after he has been examined on the Shulkhan Arukh, particularly on those sections that deal with kashrut (dietary laws). More than rote knowledge of the Shulkhan Arukh’s rulings, however, is expected. A popular Jewish folktale tells of a young student who came to a prominent rabbi to be tested for ordination. The rabbi’s first question was “Name the five volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh.”

The student, thinking that the rabbi had made a slip of the tongue, named the four volumes, but the rabbi asked him to name the fifth. 

“There is no fifth volume,” the student said.

“There is indeed,” the rabbi said. “Common sense is the fifth volume, and if you don’t have it, all your rulings will be of no use, even if you know the other four volumes by heart.”

The Shulkhan Arukh’s exhaustive presentation of the details of Jewish law is suggested by the following, taken from the section listing the laws of Torah study, in which Caro gives directives to both teachers and pupils: 

“The rabbi should not be angry with his pupils if they do not understand but he should repeat the matter over and over again until they grasp the proper depth of the law. The pupil should not say that he understands when he does not but should ask over and over again. And if the rabbi is angry with him he should say, ‘Rabbi, it is the Torah and I want to know it, but my mind is inadequate”‘ (Yoreh Deah 246:10).

Source: Jewish Literacy