It is the scripture upon which Jews base their entire system of law. The Talmud and Mishnah are commentaries on Torah, the forums in which law was created by the rabbis. Social power was held by rabbis of the past, who created this voluminous system of law. Admittedly, this is a modern view, since the traditional view holds that the Talmud is the "Oral Torah," given at Sinai along with the written Torah. A more liberal view can allow for both the sanctity of these laws and the historical view that they were developed over time by humans. Looking at it in the latter way, one can theorize that the rabbis who developed the halakhah, or systems of law, transposed some of their own views onto the law--in particular, laws concerning women.
Many of the laws in the written Torah have to do with the temple. Since the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Torah study and prayer have replaced animal sacrifice as the main religious performances of Judaism. This also means that perhaps many of the temple regulations concerning women are no longer applicable. For instance, although a menstruating woman was not allowed in the temple itself, there is no reason she should not be allowed in the synagogue, which is not a sacred space as much as it is a social space.
Personae from the Torah are used as archetypal symbols for Jewish society. For example, Abraham is seen as the archetype of a good man, his wife Sarah as the archetype of a good woman. There are good people and bad people, bad rulers and good rulers. As Robert Bagg wrote, "men will tend to perceive and to act out their destinies within the myths of one or more divinities."1 Thus the Torah is imbued with a kind of mythological power which can shape Jewish society. It provides a framework for understanding, an transposition of myth.
In modern Jewish services, the Torah scroll is a ritual object treated with great reverence. It is clothed with embroidered fabric (Askenazic) or cases (Sephardic) and kept in a special cabinet called an ark. This ark has a curtain which separates it from the rest of the synagogue. [ashkenazi only--explain sephardi?] When it is time for the Torah reading, the scroll is carefully removed from the cabinet and paraded around the synagogue by the rabbi and accompanied by members of the congregation who will be reading from the Torah on that day. Members of the congregation touch the exterior wrapping of the Torah with their siddurim (prayer books) or tzitzit (fringes of the tallit, or ritual prayer shawl) and then kiss the object which has touched the Torah. Songs are sung as the procession winds through the congregation. When the Torah scroll makes its way back to the ark, it is then unwrapped and laid on the bima (podium) where it is read. There are various readers and officials standing nearby. The reader uses a hand-shaped pointer called a yad (which means "hand" in Hebrew), since it is forbidden to touch the actual lettering. After the readings are completed, the torah is lifted up (hagbah) and then rolled up and bound again (gelilah). There are several passages read during the service, although the actual count depends on what day of the week it is--Shabbat or a weekday--and whether or not it is a holiday. Many synagogues have more than one Torah scroll for this reason, since some services call for reading two or three sections from different parts of the Torah, and rolling the scroll takes a while. The entire Torah is read in one liturgical year, and the beginning of the yearly cycle is celebrated with the holiday Simchat Torah, or "joy of the Torah." The special reverence with which the Torah is treated is evidence that it holds a special, ritual power for practicing Jews. An excellent introduction to the Jewish liturgy may be found at http://www.jewfaq.org/liturgy.htm.
There are differences between Azhkenazic and Sephardic services, as well as between Orthodox and liberal services. The setting described above is most likely to be found in a liberal Ashkenazic synagogue. Orthodox synagogues differ in layout--the bima is in the center of the seating area, and not in front, stage-style. Also, men and women are seated separately in Orthodox synagogues. Women sit behind a partition, or mechitzah. This is sometimes a balcony.
To visit the home pages of different Sephardic synagogues on the web, click here.
Additionally, great care is taken in the creation of a Torah scroll. Torah scribes purify themselves through immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath) before writing a single letter.
Bagg, Robert. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford, 1973.
Dosick, Wayne. Living Judaism. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.