The World as Liminal: Genesis and the Incompleteness of Creation
Part of the series “The Space In Between: Thresholds and Borders in Jewish Life and Thought”
With Dr. Benjamin Sommer, professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, JTS
The story of creation in the first chapter of the Torah is one of the most familiar but least understood texts in the Bible. When viewed within its historical context it is a very strange story, because it lacks the expected ending. We will look for the proper ending of the story elsewhere in the Torah. Finding it will allow us to understand a core aspect of biblical theology: that the world God created is incomplete. Poised between chaos and perfection, creation itself is designed to be liminal. That aspect of biblical theology, surprisingly enough, will remind us of a famous idea articulated more than two millennia later in kabbalistic literature.
- If we look at the opening verses of Genesis 1 in the context of other ancient near eastern creation stories, we see a significant difference: while those stories culminate in God/gods creating a temple to dwell in, Genesis 1 does not (our creation story ends with Shabbat, not with a structure).
- Instead, we have (later on, in Exodus) the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert through which God dwells among the people. The Mishkan is built by people, not by God/gods—and ordinary people, not leaders/priests/etc. Furthermore, it’s portable and therefore necessarily temporary; it needs to be rebuilt every time the people move. The completion of the world is therefore something that human beings are engaged in on a regular basis.
- What might seem like a new (medieval/modern) idea—people partnering with God to repair/perfect/complete the world—is actually a very ancient one. The liminal, unfinished state of the world in Genesis 1 becomes the ongoing and defining nature of our fundamental role/task as human beings in Exodus, and remains our permanent condition, until, together, we succeed in building a perfect world.
About the Series
We are living in an undefined time: our daily existence is no longer dominated by the pandemic, yet neither have we settled into a new normal. This sense of being in transition—neither here nor there— can feel destabilizing; but is the time in between really temporary, or are we always living in between moments, identities, and phases of life?
In this series, JTS scholars will delve into the idea of liminality—the time or space in between—which we encounter often in Jewish ritual, identity, law, and life. Join us to consider what these many manifestations of “in-between-ness” can teach us about ourselves and about Judaism, and to explore how we might find strength and meaning in an orientation not of “either/or” but of “both/and.”
We will explore themes of borders, thresholds and transitions as they pertain to the story of Creation, gender, conversion, birth and death, the duality of living as a Jew in America, and more.
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