Judaism is very old. Orthodox Judaism in particular claims loyalty to that which God revealed to the Jews and to Moses at Mt. Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. And yet, despite its age, worldwide Orthodoxy is currently a growing movement able to boast millions of active, observant, and devoted followers-people who live full and fulfilling lives while straddling both sides of the secular--religious "divide."
What gives Judaism this vigor? While there is some dispute among Jews as to exactly what the Torah is, all agree that Jewish nationhood and faith are defined by Torah. Torah is the name sometimes given to the Five Books of Moses (also called Chumash, or Pentateuch). The five books are a faithful and exact record of the word of God to His prophet, Moses. These books describe the creation and social development of the world; the origins of the family that was to become the Jewish people, and their exile and slavery in Egypt; redemption; the revelation at Mt. Sinai; and some very limited details of Torah law.
Torah sometimes also refers to the whole Bible (Old Testament, Tanach). This collection includes the Five Books of Moses, 8 books of the prophets and 11 books of "writings" ("Ketuvim"). These 24 books (according to the traditional way of counting them) form the Scriptures (the part of Jewish literature that had always been written, as opposed to literature, as described below, that was originally oral). There are also times when the word Torah is used to cover the entire huge body of Jewish teaching. This includes the Tanach, the Mishna, the Talmud (the core of the "oral law" that began to appear in written form soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), and tens of thousands of other books written as commentaries and analyses.
Finally, there is Torah a word used without reference to any specific book but to the sum of all the knowledge that is to be found in all of these works together. How to apply the principles of the Torah to a world forever changing has been the work of every generation's greatest scholars. The fruit of the untiring labor of these thousands of dedicated leaders is the Torah in its largest meaning, that is, one of the world's great libraries.
How has Torah life survived through millennia of exile, cruel persecution, drastically different social conditions, and the wondrous diversity of the human experience? It's been a combination of adherence to the Torah's morality, lifestyle, and study.
Judaism teaches that right and wrong are firm, permanent qualities that lie well within the reach of humans. The Torah is believed to be the inspired teaching of God; its values and laws are both true and eternal. However, as Torah literature is vast and complex, the trick is to figure out what that eternal truth actually is. Uncovering the truth is not such a simple process. In fact, there may be no document in all the world's libraries that has been the victim of such extremes of interpretation, misrepresentation, and critical abuse as the Bible. Even deeply religious people sometimes find themselves struggling with difficult Torah passages. There are two ways to seek the Torah's moral message: approach the text with an agenda, that is, with a preexisting notion of what will be found, or leave the mind open for whatever the text might deliver. The second approach is the one much more likely to yield the Torah's true meaning. Since, however, this approach requires a high level of honesty and humility, success typically only follows constant and often painful self-analysis. In achieving these goals, experience has revealed no shortcuts. There would seem to be no alternative to intense, decades-long Torah study coupled with serious character development.
TORAH AS LIFESTYLE
There's no denying that Torah Judaism is a most demanding system. The sheer range of its commandments- addressing nearly every daily encounter and endeavor-requires a Jew to fundamentally adjust his work, family, and leisure life. The kosher laws can sometimes restrict her access to food, restaurants, and events such as professional conferences. Sabbath restrictions can hamper extensive travel, and limit the kinds of careers from which he can choose. Laws concerning honesty in business dealings make it all but impossible for an observant Jew to compete in certain fields. Tough restrictions on slander and needless criticism can severely restrict conversation. Some might find all that intimidating or even oppressive while others feel empowered, fulfilled, and elevated by these commandments. This is part of the eternal relevance of Torah life. For all the restrictions it may impose, decency is its own reward.
Let's examine, by way of example, the Sabbath laws. According to Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, working at any of the 39 categories of forbidden Sabbath activity demonstrates your feelings of dominance over the physical world by manipulating its resources (e.g., taking a tree, converting it first to paper, and then to a surface on which to store notes, or taking nuclear energy and converting it to an electrical current to power your telephone). In truth, this is a dominance that we have been allowed 6 days a week, but which we must relinquish to the world's true owner on that 7th day so as not to forget that it is really his world and we are only guests upon it.
By resting on Sabbath, therefore, one acknowledges (to himself or herself and to the rest of the world) both that God created this world (as in reciting "in memory of the creation") and that He is its active manager ("in memory of the exodus from Egypt"). Thus, by refraining from manipulative labor and celebrating the many joys of the Sabbath, one may develop a healthy humility in the face of the vastness of creation and intelligently internalize some of the most basic Jewish beliefs.