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According to classical Jewish thought, even this is only part of the story. The Torah's commandments are actually means to a greater end. The 17th-century Italian thinker Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (in his brief, inspiring work, "The Path of the Just"), summarizes the message of Jewish tradition on man's ultimate goal. The greatest pleasure in God's universe, Luzzato writes, is "warming" oneself in the radiance of God's presence. God, who created humans with pure kindness, could have made the world in such a way that we would be immediately born to this radiance. But that would have been a hollow pleasure, a pleasure unearned (the "bread of shame"). Rather, continues Luzzato, humans were placed in this finite world with the task of refining ourselves so that, when we do depart for the next world, our souls will be pure and unblemished, receptive to Divine radiance. The tools needed to affect this refinement are the Torah's commandments. Each of us, standing alone before God, is responsible for our own perfection. No one else can do it for us.
The seminal 19th-century German philosopher Rabbi S. R. Hirsch made this general observation about Torah: Man's purpose in this world is not to strive to see God, but to strive to see the world through God's eyes. God, in Hirsch's view, expects us to build homes, communities, and nations, where every act and function reflects His program of justice, kindness, and cheerful, uplifting spirituality. To achieve that harmonious goal, God gave a most complex and engaging Torah and the commandment to study it. This Torah, then, is the curriculum that will develop men and women whose eyes see things God's way. Both the content and the process of Torah study are singularly suited for personal and communal transformation (or, as some have phrased it, "up reach").
WHAT DO JEWS STUDY?
The Bible, in the Orthodox tradition, is nearly meaningless without its oral companion (which, according to the same tradition, was revealed side by side with the written text). Mishna and Talmud are the oral law's main components. The Mishna can be characterized as a highly focused outline of the oral law's principles, and the Talmud (also known as the Gemara) as the more accessible details and resolutions to countless apparent contradictions. Line by line, word by word, the rabbis of the Talmud analyze the Mishna and explain its intentions with the ultimate goal of arriving at the correct ruling (the halacha). The language (a flowing blend of Aramaic and Hebrew) is concise and technical, but somehow lively and very nearly musical. It is not just legal discussion that fills the Talmud. The Talmud is a living portrait of a living nation. The diligent student is rewarded with a satisfying peek into the private lives of unusually great people. We see their brilliant minds, their pain, their struggles, their relationships and even their jokes. We also see the ordinary Jew of those centuries; his cares, problems, and often remarkable dedication to Torah. This glimpse at the very real people of that distant time guides readers to intelligently seek their own places within Jewish history.
There is purpose in every word of the Talmud. Every story contains an invaluable lesson on how to live as a Jew-how every aspect of Jewish life and not just the halachic, must be in service of God: How much money should a man spend on the "frivolous" needs of his wife? How should someone deal with bad-tempered kids? What kind of profit margin should he aim for in his business? It is all there-there is no area of the human condition left untouched by the words of the Talmud.
Torah study on all levels is very much alive and well in the 21st century. There are distinguished academies of Torah learning on five continents in which many thousands of students devote themselves to the goal of mastering Talmudic literature. Very few, despite eventually leaving the walls of their schools for other professional pursuits, ever consider themselves graduated.
In fact, intense Torah study remains a major life focus for countless thousands of Orthodox professionals. The worldwide synchronized study of the Talmud, one difficult and demanding two-sided page every day (called "Daf Yomi"), completes the entire Babylonian Talmud every seven and a half years. The completion of the latest cycle (in March 2005) was marked by celebrations involving more than 70,000 people linked by satellite hookup to sports stadiums and concert halls around the world.