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What is Torah?
What actually is Torah? Rationalist and mystics have fundamentally different views regarding this question.
Rationalists consider the Torah to be the divine instruction book for life—teaching us concepts that improve our minds, character and society.
Mystics, on the other hand, believe the Torah to be the genetic blueprint of creation, possessing all kinds of metaphysical qualities, which only on its most superficial level is an instructional text.
The concept that Torah is the “blueprint” of creation, found in a small number of passages in the Midrash, later became central to mystical thought. It supports the notion that one can derive knowledge about the universe from the Torah, and it supports the notion that studying Torah provides energy to sustain the universe.
Today, the mystical view that Torah is the blueprint of creation is so thoroughly embedded in Judaism that most people consider it axiomatic to Jewish thought. Yet the fact is that some of the greatest Rabbinic scholars did not accept it. The concept that Torah is the blueprint of creation is open to multiple interpretations, and the sense in which it is taken today is certainly not what was understood by many early rabbinic authorities.
The notion that the Torah is the blueprint of the universe presupposes that Torah precedes the universe. Such a statement is found explicitly in some early texts. Midrash Bereishis Rabbah speaks about Torah preceding creation by 2000 years. There is also a list of seven things that existed before the creation of the universe, including Torah:
There were seven things created before the universe: the Torah, Gehinnom, Gan Eden, the Throne of Glory, the Beit HaMikdash, repentance, and the name of the Messiah. (Midrash Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 3; Talmud, Pesachim 54a)
Yet many thinkers, including Rav Saadia Gaon and even R. Yehudah HaLevi, referenced this account but did not take it literally. Some explained such statements to refer to the Ten Commandments preceding creation, or to the Torah being the goal of creation. Rambam consciously rejected the notion that Torah preceded the universe.
Rambam’s rejection of this was due to two reasons. First, Rambam’s view of God’s uniqueness and unity leads him to states that the notion of anything existing before creation, alongside God, is heretical. Second, it did not fit with his view that many of the commandments were issued as a response to historical circumstances, and thus could not have preceded these circumstances. Indeed, Judaism itself, in Rambam’s view, is a consequence of Avraham’s initiative in seeking out his Creator, and thus did not exist before Avraham.
(This is an extract from my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought, which is very nearly complete.)
 A series of books that I wrote around two decades ago, “The Torah Universe,” was fundamentally based on the mystical understanding of this concept!
 Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 8:2.
 Rav Saadiah’s comments are cited by R. Yehudah Barzilay, Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah (Berlin 1885, Halberstam edition) p. 92.
 Kuzari 3:73.
 See Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 85–113.
 Mabit, Beis Elokim.
 Ibn Ezra, introduction to his commentary to the Torah. See Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations (New York: Continuum Books 2007), chapter 17, for a discussion of further sources that do not take this statement at face value.
 For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner, “Rashi and Maimonides on the Relationship Between Torah and the Cosmos,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Thought, Literature and Exegesis, ed. Ephraim Kanarfogel and Moshe Sokolow (Jersey City, NJ, 2010) pp. 23–58; idem, “Kadma Torah Le-Olam? – Iyun BeRambam,” Daat 61 (Summer 5767) pp. 83-96.
 See Guide for the Perplexed 1:9 and 2:26, and the extensive discussion in Kellner, ibid.