The Profundity of Genesis

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 1, 1994 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The Torah’s story of creation is not intended as a scientific treatise, worthy of equal time with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the curriculum of our public schools. The notes it strikes in its sparse and majestic narrative offer us an orientation to the Torah’s entire religious worldview and value system. Creation is taken up first not because the subject has chronological priority but rather to ground basic religious beliefs in the very nature of things. And I would argue that their power is quite independent of the scientific context in which they were first enunciated.

I would like to dwell on but three of the large theological topics alluded to in this brief prelude. There are others of equal gravity. Rarely has so much profundity been packed into such a simple narrative.

The first and most obvious is the faith assertion of radical monotheism. The biblical account of creation, especially chapter one, posits only a single source of existence as we know it. The grandeur, diversity and complexity of both the macro- and microcosms are not attributed to multiple and competing realms of power. Though the text may still bear traces of its polytheistic surroundings (for example, the Hebrew word for deep, tehom, deriving from the name of the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, or the plural ending of the word “Elohim,” the generic Hebrew term for God), it has wholly stripped the heavens of their former divine inhabitants and discarded the entertaining mythological tales which recounted their unruly lives. Nor is there even a hint about the pre-cosmic existence of God or what God might look like.

This singular and bodiless conception of God anticipates the Torah’s later abhorrence of all forms of idolatry, representations of God, and magic. God is beyond human imaging and control. Monotheism is a brave step toward imbuing existence with a measure of order and predictability that is rational and moral; what Max Weber, the German sociologist, strikingly called “the disenchantment of the universe.”

The second far-reaching topic relates to Shabbat. I have long felt that one of the reasons the Torah opens with a seven-day version of creation is to anchor an unprecedented religious practice in the natural order. Shabbat corresponds to nothing either in antiquity or in nature. As late as the first century C.E., the day made little sense to Roman intellectuals like Seneca, who ridiculed the idea of giving up one-seventh of one’s life to sheer idleness. Linking Shabbat to the design of creation lends it precisely the supreme sanction it needs. Ironically, the imageless narrative of chapter one culminates with a picture of God choosing to rest after a six-day work week and blessing the seventh day for eternity. Though the commandment to rest will only come much later, the justification is already in place.

As to the purpose of Shabbat, the present context suggests to me that it reins in our human desire to dominate the world in which we live. Granted that humanity is the pinnacle of sentient beings with a special divine mandate to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it (Genesis 1:28),” there are still limits to our presumption. Shabbat recalls our status as tenants. The world we inhabit was not made by us and we have a responsibility to preserve and transmit it in good working order. At this early and ideal stage, humans are not yet permitted to eat meat (Genesis 1:29-30). Through cessation from work we renew the contract with our Landlord, even as we renew ourselves. Each week as Jews intone the kiddush on Friday evening and Saturday, we reaffirm the “naturalness” of Shabbat, though its importance to Judaism’s ability to transcend the natural world can hardly be overstated.

The third topic deals with principles which ought to govern human relationships and eventually become the foundation of our American political system. According to the Mishna, the legal code edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince in Palestine around the year 200 C.E., witnesses about to testify in a capital case were first admonished as to the gravity of the proceedings by sermonic reference to the opening chapters of Genesis. The Mishna’s inspired use of the material vastly expands its meaning.

Human life is a matter of ultimate value. To take one life usually involves bringing to an end a chain of beings that would have sprung from it. Hence God accuses Cain of killing not only Abel but also all of his offspring. “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood (in the plural) cries out to Me from the ground (Genesis 4:10)?” To deepen the point, the Mishna goes on to assert that this is the reason that the world began with the creation of a single man, who carried the seed of all future humanity within him. “Thus anyone who destroys a single life is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed the whole world and conversely anyone who saves a single life is regarded as if he saved the whole world.”

Put differently, all human beings are also of equal value. And the Mishna claims that this is yet another reason why the Torah begins the human odyssey with the creation of a single man. “No one can say to another, `My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.'” Sharing a common origin gives rise to a vision of human equality.

Finally, the Mishna concludes with a tribute to the ingenuity of the creator. Unlike human artisans who mint identical coins from a single mold, God has filled the world with an endlessly diverse stream of humanity from but one mold. The unique individuality of each one of us entitles us all to declare that “for my sake was the world created.”

In a few bold strokes the Mishna has turned the creation narrative into a political discourse worthy of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, much of the Torah is implicit in this magnificent prelude.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’reishit are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.