Torah, as its Hebrew root implies, is a form of הוראה – teaching. It teaches us the path we should follow, and is indeed a guide to fulfilling the commandments within it. Yet it is also far more than that. It is a comprehensive guide to life, the expression of Judaism’s conception of everything in the world, whether the subject is concrete and practical or abstract and spiritual, whether it expresses an immediate and living need or is entirely theoretical and without practical application
Establishing halakha (practical law) and providing guidance in fulfilling the commandments are only part of Torah. Torah seeks the essence of all things, in every area of life. It embraces the entire world and what lies beyond it. The ultimate purpose of Torah is not, then, only to scrutinize the commandments and reach practical conclusions regarding them; it is, rather, to provide a comprehensive worldview, bringing out both the essential relationship of Torah to every subject and also the subjects’ connection with each other.
It cannot be required of every person to learn all of the Torah or even to understand all of what is learned.
All that can be required is that whatever one does learn should be correct truth – not more or less or probably truth – but the kind of truth that will enable a person to be sure about which buttons she has to press and those she has to avoid in an incompletely comprehended world.
It is not a matter of how much one knows but of how reliable and integral the knowledge is, no matter on what level.
Still, just to be a reasonably literate Jew one must learn an enormous amount. A beginning has to be made somewhere, and once a basis has been acquired it can be built on.
The larger body of Jewish knowledge is objectively defined, but each person must approach it in his or her own way. As the Sages put it: “Just as their faces are all different, so are their minds all different.” Subject matter in which one person finds the answers to all his deepest questions can leave another cold.
The basic aspects that comprise Torah include Bible, Talmud and Kabbalah.
It is very important to know the Bible or Tanakh (which includes the five books of Moses, the prophets and additional “Writings” such as Proverbs and Psalms), if possible in its entirety. What is essential is the knowledge, not of obscure details, but of the overall contents of the various books, the themes and stories. And it should be kept in mind that, while the study of the Bible can be a lifelong task, every literate person is capable of reading it through several times, with or without the help of translations or commentaries, and acquiring a basic mastery in a relatively short time.
The Talmud and its commentaries represent another significant area of learning. Here, the differences between people at various levels of knowledge reflect not only the different amounts of time that have been devoted to study, but also different degrees of ability. Some people quickly discover in themselves an affinity for the Talmud and plunge into it with enthusiasm, while others never develop much interest. Nevertheless, the importance of the Talmud as a basic Text for all aspects of Judaism is inestimable. A certain knowledge (even if it be minimal) of the Talmud constitutes a basis for almost all the other fields of Judaism, as all of them are directly or indirectly connected with it and continuously nurtured by it.
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is or at least has been for the last 500 years, the official theology of the Jewish People. It is actually not a separate area of Torah knowledge, but rather the hidden, spiritual dimension of the aspects of Torah revealed in the Written and Oral Torah.
The study of Kabbalah presents a special problem. It is very important to recognize that, unlike other mystical doctrines, the Kabbalah is not a discipline unto itself but is closely linked to mainstream religious practice. It is in a sense a commentary on both the written and oral Torah.
There are relatively few places where Kabbalah can be studied properly, and the secondary literature available on the subject tends to be superficial, un-Jewish or even anti-Jewish. It is advisable to avoid getting into mysticism in an unbalanced way.
One drawn to Judaism along the mystical path should thus take special pains to study halakha as well, particularly the Talmud and its commentaries, both in order to better understand Kabbalah itself and in order to keep one’s balance.
Finally, there is the study of Jewish thought in all its many facets. The various schools differ more in their modes of expression than in their underlying ideas, which the student is likely to find repeated from one system to another. But, particularly for one just starting out, it is advisable to stay with a single approach as long as it answers one’s questions and meets one’s needs.