Bereshit - On Jews disagreeing from "the beginning," on Eve's subservience and subversion, and on worldly beauty and ugliness.

Thanks for returning to my blog! We are at the start of the Torah portion (parshah) cycle for this year. See last week's post for my view on the what and why of Humanistic Jews reading the Torah. Each week, you'll see my reflections on the Torah portion of the week, from my view as a rabbi and as an individual. Let's begin at the beginning with "in the beginning"... The common joke about Jewish dissonance and disagreement is that if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions. How fitting, then, that the very first line of the Torah has given way to a multitude of meanings, which arise out of a translation issue (the first of many in the Torah). The first line could be translated as. “When God began to create heaven and earth.” The same line can also be understood to say “in the beginning of God's creation.” The two mean vastly different things. In the former, God pre-exists the earth; in the latter, there appears to be a vastness and a void that God fills; God creates himself along with the world. The question arising from the two meanings is a well-known theological problem. for those who believe God created the world, who created God? This is the perfect entry point for Humanistic Jews. We can see that the Torah does not offer one consistent theological position, but rather it opens up questions and demands that individuals and communities rise to the task of answering them. In addition to the confusion around how to translate the opening of the Tanakh, we are presented immediately with a contradiction between the first and second chapters. Both tell creation stories and they differ significantly. In chapter 1 we have an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days. It is not, however, the only story we get. The story that immediately follows is of the creation of Adam and the Garden of Eden. These stories get sewn together in most translations and, it is true, they are not mutually exclusive. Nonetheless the story of Adam and Eve could exist without chapter 1 and many scholars comment that the two stories likely existed separately. What we can learn from this as Humanistic Jews is that our insistence that we can question the world, assert our own ideas about it, and argue about that which we don't know for sure, is a long-held part of Jewish tradition. Disagreements even about creation make their way into our foundational text, highlighting the diversity of thought that has always been crucial to Jewish culture and humanity more broadly. There are still further competing narratives in the same story. In addition to varying theories on how the world was created, the text posits two competing stories for the creation of woman. In chapter one the text says: “And God created man in is image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. In chapter two, the creation of Adam and Eve, we find that Adam, lacking a “fitting helper”, was made to sleep so that God could “fashion” Eve into a woman from Adam’s rib. In the first chapter, man and woman are created at the same time and as equals. They are both created in God’s image and they are exist side by side. The Adam and Eve creation story is more narratively interesting. It is written as a story, as opposed to a factual record. Through the narrative, we glean attitudes about women at the time. Eve is created just after Adam has named all of the animals, thus establishing his dominion over the living things. Eve is created to be Adam’s helper in administering to these things but, given that she is named along with the animals Adam tends, and given that she comes out of his body, the text implies that she is to be subservient to him. Perhaps her supposed subservience makes her subversion of eating the forbidden fruit all the more shocking. To be fair to Eve, she is not present when God commands Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for this warning comes prior to her creation. However, we know that she knows about the commandment because she relates it to the serpent. Still, though, commentators rarely mark that Eve did not hear the command herself and this may have contributed to her disobedience. Nonetheless, she provides an interesting figure for woman as temptress. She is one of many women in the bible who are act sinfully due to either weakness or ambition. Others include Lot's wife, Delilah, and many more. Many feminist scholars note that Eve does not deserve the bad reputation she gets through the story. She is not the only one who eats of the apple (Adam does too), yet she receives most of the blame. When the God-character questions Adam about it he says that “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (3.12). Adam plainly and clearly throws Eve under the bus. So much for masculine courage and control. A humanistic reading of this text can see Eve in feminist terms; we celebrate defiant and strong-willed women; we celebrate the quest for knowledge and power; we believe in questioning authority. The text also begs for a feminist interpretation of the punishment of Eve. The God-character says: “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3.16). The writers of this story were very clearly trying to put women in their place; they showed that women are not to be trusted, and are inherently defiant, and thus must be controlled. Beyond the feminist interpretations of the passage, Eve reminds us that we value knowledge over faith. We do not wish to follow commandments without the knowledge of why they may lead to good. Eve may be responsible for the “fall” but she is also responsible for our capacity to think and criticize, to be fully engaged with our world. She is, therefore, a heroine of Humanistic Judaism. As the Torah portion continues, we get the story of Cain and Abel. These are the first pair of brothers to know jealousy and to fight. The Torah begins with stories of both creation and destruction. The world we have been given is beautiful, yet through our choices we make it ugly. The expulsion from Eden is one example, and brothers killing brothers is another. This is a reminder that regardless of how we believe the world got here, we have a responsibility to protect it and to protect each other. Life is precious, and it is the folly of humanity that we sometimes forget our humanity. The first portion of the Torah asks us to pause and wonder at the marvel of our own existence and, simultaneously, to be careful not to squander the wonderful gift that is life.