Judaism 101: Creation Stories

How do Jews today understand the dual creation stories in the first and second chapters of Genesis, and how have they understood these stories in the past? What significance do these stories hold? How do Jewish understandings compare to Christian understandings like young earth creationism or theistic evolution? 

Welcome to the first post in Judaism 101! This series involves ten Jewish readers of my blog answering questions about Judaism in a panel format. (I introduced this project and provided bios of each panelist here.) Feel free to ask questions or ask for clarification, but remember that the goal here is to learn more about other faith traditions and understand differing points of view, not to score points or argue about who is right or wrong on this or that issue. This week the panelists will be talking about creation stories.

———

Ki Sarita

The traditional commentaries were generally quick to spot discrepancies between different chapters of the Bible and invested lots of effort into creating explanations to resolve them. The most well known commentator’s is Rashi, who explains discrepancies by tying a MIDRASH into the text. A Midrash is an expanded sort of behind the scenes, imaginative innovative biblical tale written by the Talmudic Rabbis. In the Orthodox community,  most pupils learn Bible with Rashi’s commentary and most cannot really identify where the biblical text ends and the commentary and midrash begin. This is true for the 2 Genesis versions. Young earth creationism is considered the only acceptable view in the Orthodoxy that I grew up with. There are a minority of voices who support theistic evolution. The creationist belief among Orthodox Jews doesn’t translate into a creationist movement—they send their kids to private schools and don’t really care what public schools teach.

The effect of Genesis tree of knowledge: I think the effect does have a detrimental psychological effect on girls as it blames women for being the downfall of men; and states that the punishment is for her to be subservient to men. However in my experience this was less focused on and folks preferred to focus on the “righteous women in whose merit our forefathers were saved from Egypt, and whose merit will save us in the future.” There’s also a limited sort of freedom available for people to come up with their own novel explanations of the bible, as long as they can find some past Rabbi who they can base it on. So it’s all a matter of focus, but this particular handy weapon to keep women in their place every now and then, is still easily available. I guess what I am saying at the end is that the Adam Eve story, while generally understood with anti-feminist implications, doesn’t really hold center stage in Judaism.

I fear you may be stepping into a mistake that occurs quite often in majority-minority interdialogues. The majority, in this case Christian, attempts to find out more about the minority by taking elements of their world, and asking how it is expressed in the other’s world. This could present a skewed picture because it assumes that all the elements are the same and parallel. With regard to Judaism, the most important influence on Judaism is something that does not have a parallel in Christianity, and that is the Talmud.

———

Rachel

As I am an academic at heart—more accurately, a pedant—I will be including for reference the Chumash texts found here and here. (I frequently don’t agree with Chabad, but I like that they make Jewish texts available.)

I’m betting every single person on this panel has a different explanation for the dual creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and the fun thing is—everyone will be right. Or, to be more precise, every person’s explanation will be valid. The thing about Judaism is that there is no singular explanation for everything in the Torah. The fundamentalist view of the Torah is that every word of it is correct and comes from Hashem (the Jewish name for God when not used in prayer)—not that every word has a singular, literal meaning. In fact, every word of the Torah has multiple meanings found in it, and multiple lessons to teach, and—and this is the fun part for me—every person finds different meanings in it appropriate to their time and place.

One of the big differences I’ve found between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Judaism is that Christians don’t ever seem to read the text with commentaries, whereas religious Jews always read with commentaries. We believe that the Torah, as it is, has a Written and an Oral component: the Written Law is the scroll itself, while the Oral Law was originally passed down from teacher to student, and has since been collected in multiple books of commentaries. (The Talmud, the Midrash, the books of commentary by Rashi and Rambam, etc.)

When I went to Orthodox day school, we were handed chumashim, texts of the Torah printed in book form, which contained a commentary on every verse—sometimes every word!—written by Rashi, one of the greatest rabbis of the medieval period, who we were taught was divinely inspired when he wrote his commentaries. And we learned how to decipher Rashi script along with the text of the Torah, and read them in tandem. And when we would often be confused by the literal meaning of the text, we’d be asked, “what does Rashi say about this?” And Rashi would have an answer. And we would sometimes be tested on what Rashi said, not the literal meaning of the text itself.

So, the Rashi explanation for the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—why 2:7-23 seems to repeat the story already told in 1:26-27—is that first the Torah tells us the general sense of the story of creation, and then it tells us the specific sense of the creation of humankind, which is, of course, the most important of the creations. (The Rachel commentary on Rashi’s commentary, which is my own spin and not his, is that the Torah focuses so much on the creation of humans because it’s intended to be read and understood by humans. If the Torah had been given to cows, it probably would have spent less time on the creation of humans and more time on the different types of grass that were grown, and the best ways to sit up while sleeping, and how to be a perfect sacrifice…)

I was also told in this Orthodox day school that there was no contradiction between evolution and the story of creation—the “six days of creation” may have been mere days to Hashem, but they were eons from the human perspective, so we needn’t worry about any potential contradiction there. In fact, the evolutionary record backs up the story of creation, because first the earth was formed, then plants and trees grew, then there were fish and fowl, and eventually animals that lived on the ground, and then human beings! (We’re going to ignore day 4 for now.) So, there’s really no need to see it as a problem: instead, Hashem clearly used evolution as a mechanism for creation, so you talk about creation in Torah study and evolution in biology class, and there’s no conflict. It took me until college to understand that intelligent design wasn’t generally interpreted as “Hashem set up a universe that operates according to laws of physics, mathematics, and biology, and then let the universe run,” or that believing in the story of Creation was seen as a sign of naivety. For me—still—it’s a matter of belief, and runs on a parallel track to science. I still don’t see why they must contradict, or why Christians have made it into such a controversy—into its own shibboleth.

———

Ki Sarita

I mention the freedom to interpret in my previous post . . . but neglected to mention that in my stream, men definitely have more freedom of interpretation than women, are allowed to be more innovative and daring than women—women have to have a rabbi to cite much more closely than men.

———

Alexis

The story I grew up with as an explanation for the discrepancies in Genesis is the story of Adam’s first wife, Lilith: She was created at the same time as he was, then kicked out of Eden because Adam couldn’t handle not always being the dominant one in the relationship. (Of course I was also taught that this story and others like it were relics from a previous time when women weren’t equal, and that in the modern day women were equal because society had adapted to that way of thinking, and that was a good thing.) After, God created another companion for Adam from his side to ensure that companion would be submissive to him. So Eve was second-best.

Now when it comes to creationism vs. evolution, I learned two things: a) that the word ‘day’ in Genesis meant something more akin to an eon or age, and b) that the Torah wasn’t meant to be interpreted literally, anyway. In my community I was always encouraged to analyze and create my own interpretations of the Torah. So I developed the understanding that Genesis meant God had started the process of evolution, which had then taken over on its own.

In terms of the questions you asked, Libby, I think there’s one thing that’s crucial to keep in mind. Many Jews are espoused to the same ideas and beliefs and practices, no matter where they live. But it’s difficult to speak for ‘Jews today’ or ‘Jewish understandings’ because there’s a culture of debate and discussion inherent to Judaism. We tend to feel that no two people will always have the same understanding of the same thing. I mean, some of our greatest stories are of the debates between our earliest Rabbis, like the litany of points that Hillel and Shammai disagreed on.

So when I write these answers it’s always with the caveat that this is the conclusion I came to as a result of what I learned growing up. And that other Jewish people (even if we learned the exact same thing) may well disagree with me.

———

Hilary

Ki Sarita—That would drive me nuts, not being allowed the same amount of freedom to interpret text as men. Rachel—In some ways I’m envious of you, that you have so much more Jewish education then I do. I was in public schools K-12, and the religious school my temple growing up wasn’t very good back then, there was a lot of turnover and other issues, although it’s better now.  So a lot of what I know is self-taught as an adult.  But on the other hand, to not have the same intellectual respect and freedom as the boys would have driven me to either challenge it head on, or leave for a place where that wasn’t an issue.

As far as Genesis, evolution and science, I’m very much in the camp of theistic evolution—I have no problem accepting evolution and the scientific understanding of the universe, and that science is what God used to make everything. Which is good because I graduated from college in ’02 as an undergrad with a biology major and a chemistry minor, and I’ve worked for 10 years in a biotech manufacturing company.  I purify cytokines and E. coli derived antigens by column chromatography—and I get to wear the white lab coat with cool geek safety glasses.  I think evolution is fascinating, and if/when I ever go back to school I’ve considered a graduate degree in Evolutionary studies.

Bresheet (Genesis) is a creation myth, a variation on the Mesopotamian creation myths in general. But it’s our creation myth, and it’s interesting how many different meanings people read into it.

 ———

AztecQueen

There is really very little consensus.  Some thinkers, such as Maimonides, understood the stories to be pure allegory.  Others, especially today, understand them as fact with very little interpretation.  There is one instance, however, in the Midrash, where the interpretation of the creation of man is as follows:  The first man was a self-reproducing hermaphrodite.  When G-d discovered that he/she/it was alone, G-d put this miraculous creature to sleep and literally tore it in two, thus creating two separate gendered beings. This Midrash stresses the importance of marriage, as the two parties are literally searching for their other halves.

Finally, in my community, there are a number of people who literally believe that the earth is 6,000 years old and fossils are G-d’s means of testing our faith!

 ———

Hilary

These are really five different questions, each one of which is worth time and consideration.  Each question is worth considering in light of traditional beliefs with conflicting answers from different rabbis, modern understandings, again with multiple opinions from different sources, our personal beliefs views, and the biblical/historical/linguistic analysis of the text itself.  Since you have 10 Jewish women answering, each of us with anywhere between 1-3 opinions per question . . . I’m making some popcorn, tea, coffee, and cookies to share.  Here’s my take on the first question:

“How do Jews today understand the dual creation stories in the first and second chapters of Genesis?”

Today? It depends on how any particular Jew views the Torah, and how much they’ve studied it.  For myself, why are there two creation stories? Well, why not? Both stories were probably in circulation for several hundred years as oral traditions, folklore, tribal myths and teachings before the Torah was written down and codified.  So when there was more then one version in circulation, both stories were written rather then choose between the two.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some politics involved, like one tribe had one version of a biblical story and another tribe had a different version, so rather picking one tribe over another both tribal versions were included.

I’ve got a copy of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary which is the first 5 books, the Hebrew and English side by side, and the traditional commentary, but the rest of the commentary is completely by women of all denominations.  All the essays, side notes, interpretations, and a page of poetry for each parashah (section)—all women writers engaging the text from a woman’s POV.  It’s really cool, and I highly recommend it to any Jewish or Christian feminist for bible study.  Regarding the creation in Genesis, they point out that Genesis 1 is about the creation of the world, but Genesis 2-3 is about the creation of patriarchy.  In Genesis 1, everything that is created is good, just for its own sake, and men and women are created equally.  In Genesis 2-3, what is created is good to use, the rivers are named and have places, there is not just plants and animals but mineral resources to be mined.  Man names the animals, defining them, and God creates a woman out of a man. Adam names her woman, but we don’t learn what she named herself.

Also, in the first story, adam just means human.  God created a human being, an adam, out of the earth, the adamah. Even in the second story, the Hebrew is ha-adam, the adam, and it isn’t until verse 23 that there is a gendered difference between man, ish, and woman, ishah. Another commentary mentions that if you just read the story of Genesis 2-3 without ANY patriarchal background, it’s the story of the creation of a partnership.  It’s not good for the adam to be alone, and since the adam is inferior to God but super to the animals, neither God nor animals work as an equal companion. Only an equal from the same source material as himself, both ‘other’ and ‘alike’ will be a good partner for ha-adam.

And for a proper Hebrew lessen on ‘ezer k’negdo,’ i.e. helpmate, this shouldn’t be translated as an inferior. According to the notes I have in front of me, ‘ezer’ just means helper, and is used to refer to God that way.  ‘Negdo’ means ‘opposite him/it, like a spatial or metaphorical otherness, someone whom one confronts.  The comment references Psalm 16:8 that has God in this position.  Checking the verse in my JPS Tanakh* Psalm 16:8 is “I am ever mindfull of the Lord’s presence; He is at my right hand, I shall never be shaken.”  Checking the verse in Hebrew, as best I can read it the “Lord’s presence” is “YHVH l’negdi” The ‘l’ or ‘k’ would be part of the grammar of the word, but the rest of it is the same – nun – gimel – dalet, N-G-D.  It’s the same word in Genesis 2:18 and Psalm 16:8.

The same word used to describe God’s position next to King David is used to describe Eve’s position next to Adam. I didn’t know that until checking the commentary and comparing the verses just now, but that verse in Genesis looks really different to me now.  Maybe somebody should tell the Pearls this, with a 2 x 4.

There’s a learning process for God here as well, since it takes some trial and error to get the right partner for the adam. I think a lot of Genesis is God trying to figure out what to do, humans trying to figure out how to survive, neither side of that partnership having every perfect answer. I rather like the idea that after creation, life is so complicated that even God has to figure things out the hard way sometimes.

*Jewish Publican Society.  A Tanakh is the Torah + Nevi’im/Prophets + Ketuvim/writings, the entire Old Testament.  As opposed to a Torah commentary, which is just the five books of Moses + commentary.  My Tanakh has Hebrew on the right hand side of each page, and English on the left, but no commentary.  I was really surprised when my mother in law gave me a New International Version Bible and New King James Version bible that there was only English, no Greek or Hebrew side by side with the English, and no series of essays and commentary after each chapter. I asked her for the Bibles so I could study the New Testament.  She’s a retired UCC minister and has been great about having a Jewish DIL.

 ———

Anat

Thanks to Rachel for the link to Chabad’s version, it’s been some decades since I read Rashi. I use the Tanakh version of Mechon Mamre, where the English is based on the work of the JPS (Jewish Publication Society).

To our non-Jewish readers, just to clarify, the first creation story starts at Genesis 1:1 and ends on Genesis 2:3, the second starts at Genesis 2:4 and ends at Genesis 3:24. Sorry, Archbishop Stephen Langton (13th century) could have paid more attention.

I’ll describe how these are taught in the Israeli state educational system (which is separate and different from the state-religious system, itself different from the ‘independent’ religious system).

Typically the stories of creation and other stories from Genesis are first taught in kindergartens, during the Friday noon storytime. Kids read and learn Genesis from a somewhat abridged (and illustrated) version of the Hebrew Bible in 2nd grade and directly from the Hebrew Bible in high school. In kindergarten and 2nd grade they are taught a naive reading, whereas in high school Genesis is read critically. I was taught that the two creation stories were independent accounts, composed by different people who lived in different environments. The first account was composed by someone who lived in a flood-prone place (Babylonia) whereas the author of the second account lived in a drought-prone place (the Levant). This difference is reflected in how the primordial state of the earth is described in the two accounts.

The authors of the two accounts had a different perception of the character of God and how he interacted with his creation (also the order of creation is reversed, and in the second account creation takes place within a single day). Both accounts were influenced by Near East mythologies, primarily the Babylonian, but also Levantine myths. However, especially the first account deliberately diverges from the Babylonian one by emphasizing the harmony of creation—there is no battle between factions of gods, nor between the creator and sea monsters, but instead God commands, things happen according to his command, and he acknowledges the goodness of the outcome (the opponents of the creator are preserved in Tehom—Tiamat and in Tohu and Bohu—representing the primordial chaos).

In Israel those who have even basic scientific knowledge do not take either creation story literally, even if they believe in God. They include a broad spectrum, from out atheists to modern Orthodox Jews. However Haredi schools hardly provide any secular education and as a result their students are ignorant of non-religious explanations of the origin of the world and humankind.

Non-literal reading of Genesis goes back a long way before modern science, at least as far back as Philo of Alexandria. Some sources claimed the days of creation represent much longer time periods, others say the earth underwent many epochs of creation and extinction and Torah merely refers to the most recent one. More modern sources sometimes reconcile science and Torah by identifying Adam with the founder of the first literate human civilization. Then there are people like Yeshayahu Leibowitz who saw the Torah creation account as compatible with any view of the cosmos—whether created or always existing, because the purpose of Torah isn’t to describe, nor explain the natural world. He said that one can understand the priorities of the Torah narrative by comparing how little was devoted to the creation of the entire cosmos vs how much Torah dedicates to the instructions and description of the making of the Tabernacle.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most learned ancients read Genesis allegorically, as a story explaining humankind’s place in the universe and the shared humanity of all people, and that literal readings arose for the most part in reaction to secular narratives of human origins.

———

Hilary

Anat—That’s really interesting, that one story came from Babylon and the other from the Levant.  It makes a lot of sense too, that separating the water from land and sky would be important to those living in between the flooding Tigris and Euphrates but in the more desert environment of the Levant, (Israel, Canaan, that area), the soil would be bare until there was someone to till it.  I’ve also heard the comparison between God just making the world, separating the waters, creating light, creating land, and the Babylonian myth about a primordial battle between gods, and Tiamat’s body used to create the land.  That Tihom—the deep—is connected to Tiamat—the monster of the deep.

IIRC the Protestant fundamentalist position of making a literal reading of Genesis as a non-negotiable part of their belief was in reaction to secular science.  Fundamentalism in general seems to be a reaction to the world changing too fast, and the people feeling like it’s either all or nothing.  Either their system is 100% literally true, or there is nothing but chaos, relativism, and moral confusion.

 ———

Rachel

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my upbringing—there was definitely a glass ceiling for women when it came to being able to study along with the boys, and I hit it pretty hard when I hit puberty. My mom is very much a feminist who broke boundaries in our Conservative synagogue in having women lead services and read from the Torah and being counted in the minyan, but I still internalized her saying, “our synagogue would never accept a female rabbi.” The first time I met a female Conservative rabbi, it was really overwhelming for me emotionally, because this was a role that I had always thought would be barred to me.

Anat, were you actually taught the documentary hypothesis? I didn’t run into it until college, and it’s always struck me as an incredibly complicated way of resolving some of the issues with the text of the Torah. (I say this as though Rashi’s commentaries are a completely straightforward method…) It’s like, if the Torah was put together entirely by a redactor, why would that redactor be so incompetent? You’re insulting the integrity of the text and our basic common sense at the same time!

Hilary, that’s a really interesting point about the reactionary nature of the Protestant fundamentalism. I feel as though I can see that happening with the current generation of Orthodox Jews: From my reading in the Jewish blogosphere, it seems like there’s a generation of people who, a few decades ago, would have resolved an issue by looking at what Rambam or Ibn Ezra said, but now have aligned themselves with this very literal tradition, that ends up excluding so much of the richness of Judaism’s history and culture, in order to give people a strict role and a sense of stasis.

 ———

Hilary

I’ve got two quotes that touch on the creation stories in Genesis to share.  One is about the misuse of Genesis and science:

“Not everything mentioned in the Torah concerning the Account of the Beginning is to be taken in its external sense as the vulgar [common people] imagine. For if the matter were such, the men of knowledge would not have been chary [cautious] of divulging knowledge with regard to it, and the Sages would not have expatiated [written at length] on its being kept secret and on preventing the talk about it in the presence of the vulgar….The correct thing to do is to refrain, if one lacks all knowledge of the sciences, from considering these texts merely with the imagination. One should not act like the wretched preachers and commentators who think that a knowledge of the interpretation of words is science and in whose opinion wordiness and length of speech add to perfection. On the other hand it is obligatory to consider them with what is truly the intellect after one has acquired perfection in the demonstrative sciences and knowledge of the secrets of the prophets.”

Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam), 12th century Spain, The Guide of the Perplexed II, chapter 29, pp. 346-7 in Shlomo Pines’ translation.

On evolution weekend Rabbi Adam had a great sermon about evolution and Judaism, and included this quote.  My favorite line was about not acting like wretched preachers who think knowledge of words is science—that was great.  So even in the 12th centurey there were issues regarding not being an idiot interpreting what you don’t understand.

Here’s another use of human creation in Genesis that has nothing to do with evolution or science, but it’s a good example of how multiple viewpoints are recorded, and the development of ethics in the Talmud:

Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev 19:18), this is the great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai says: “‘This is the book of generations of Adam . . . God made them in the divine image’ (Gen 5:1). This is an even greater principle, for then you cannot say, ‘Since I despise myself, I can despise another as well; since I curse myself, let the other be accursed as well.’”

Rabbi Tanchuma said: “Ben Azzai is right, for if you do thus, know that the one you are despising God made in the divine image.”

So here we’ve got two different opinions, and a third person determining which opinion is better, but both are recorded as valid. Their conversation touches on the moral concept of B’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, that each person is uniquely created in the divine image and must be respected as such. This is a quote from the Jerusalem Talmud, I’ve got a copy of the passage in “Pirke Avot, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages” c. 1997 by Chaim Stern. I love this copy of the Avot because it has a lot of historical information, parts of the Mishna and Talmud, and modern commentary as well as the actual Avot in Hebrew and English.  It’s one of my favorite Jewish reference books.

(For non-Jewish readers, the Pirke Avot is part of the Mishna, which is the oldest part of the Talmud. The Mishna was written down about 200-220 CE, so it is the Jewish text that covers about the same time as when the New Testament was being written. The Pirke Avot specifically deals with ethics, and the sayings of the Pharisees/Rabbis of that time.  It’s kind of at the transition point from Pharisees to Rabbis.  It’s also really popular, most Jews know at least one or two sayings from the Avot.  I’ve seen several different spellings, and it’s pronounced PEER—kay ah—VOTE, which means ‘Ethics of the Fathers.’  I like studying the Avot, there is a lot of wisdom in it. I just wish there was a Pirke Imahot, ‘Ethics of the Mothers’ that recorded women’s words and wisdom from back then.)

———

Anat

Rachel, we weren’t taught Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis in detail, but we were taught about critical approaches to the Tanakh and some of the methods used to examine whether a particular text was from a single source or multiple sources. In later years I read a bit on my own and for a while participated in web-fora where people who were active in relevant research participated, so I got to see a broader range of opinions. I also read a bit about the relevant archaeology.

Whether the redactor(s) was competent or not depends on what his goal was. If the purpose was to create a seamless text without contradictions then the fact that we even think he may have existed means he failed. But I think that wasn’t the goal. I think what the redactors, each in their own times, were trying to do was create a shared national epic that was inclusive of any group and faction that was considered legitimate. Which meant including stories that repeated the same theme with different details, or weaving together accounts that differed in details into a composite story. If they left anyone out there was the risk that faction would break away like the Samaritans.

One problem with the traditional commentary is that the rabbis had no knowledge of the history from non-Tanakh sources, nor were they versed in literature of other, nearby cultures, or anthropology or archaeology and many other areas of study. So although they can be insightful, there are places where they simply lack the tools to understand the context. While I doubt Wellhausen’s original model, I have no doubt that the text of Torah is the composite work of multiple authors with multiple agenda.

 ———

Rachel

Anat, I think differently—instead of multiple authors with multiple agendas redacting together the text of the Torah, I find it somewhat more likely that there was at one point a singular text (whether or not originating from Hashem being a question of faith, not history), and that it has been changed over time by multiple people with multiple agendas—many deliberate, some of them possibly accidental.

A rabbi once told me that this is the defining distinction between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews: the Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given from Hashem and has remained unchanged over time, the Conservative Jews believe that the Torah was given from Hashem but has been changed in the hands of men, and Reform Jews believe the Torah was created by man. (This rabbi was Conservative, and showed where he thought several grammatical changes had occurred in the Hebrew. It was persuasive.)

I like how we went from discussing the stories of creation in the Torah to discussing the creation of the Torah…;) Then again, maybe all the interpretations we have are wrong. Another Conservative rabbi once asked me to really look at the first three words of the Torah. “Beraishit, barah Elokim,” I said obediently. “In the beginning, Hashem created.” “Really?” he replied. “Do we change word order like that in Hebrew? If you read the text, it says, ‘The beginning created Hashem!’”

Hilary, I love that you’re quoting Rambam/Maimonides. Are you familiar with Abraham Ibn Ezra? I think you’d like him—poet, philosopher, and scientist who often used grammar to draw inferences about the meaning of the text. (To connect this to Anat, he was one of the earliest voices suggesting that Moses was not the author of the Torah.) You note that the Israelites lack female voices, but think about it historically: what other contemporary nation would have allowed women as much of a voice as they have? Though there’s no Pirkei Imahot, there is a rich tradition of females playing important roles. One of my favorite texts to recommend to women interested in learning more about Judaism is the Five Books Of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, which has lots of different female interpretations (and is constructed as a roundtable of women’s opinions!)

Sidebar: has anyone else heard the theory that Queen Michal, daughter of King Saul and the first wife of King David, was the author of the books of Samuel and Kings? The theory as I’ve heard it is that it focuses on the domestic goings-on at the palace, doesn’t describe the battles in much detail, and portrays a deeply complicated portrait of David in both his virtues and flaws.

———

Barbra

As far as the creation story goes, in my Conservative upbringing, I was taught it pretty much the same way as Alexis. It’s a story about the process, not to be taken too literally as far as the time descriptions go. When I was a believer, I always understood it as a way to teach that God had created the universe and that the way he did it was evolution. In my experience, most mainstream Jews (Humanistic, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, and Conservative) believe in evolution. I’ve never met one who took the 7 day creation story literally. In my experiences with Modern Orthodox Jews (who have pretty much all been my cousins), some believe in evolution, just with more of a belief in God’s hand in it.

In my Conservative synagogue, a non-literal reading of the creation story is standard. Our Rabbi has even espoused it from the bimah. I think that secular education has been very important in the non-fundamentalist Jewish community for a while now, and most mainstream Jews understand and respect science.

I also am glad that some of the other participants mentioned the importance of debate and discussion in Judaism and how there is never just one easy answer. That’s part of why I like being Jewish so much.

And Rachel, I was taught the same thing when I was younger about the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. But as time has gone on, I feel like I’ve heard more and more Conservative Jews believing that the Torah was written by man (with maybe direction from God). That is probably more reflective of the changes in Conservative Judaism, which is probably a discussion for another time (and something I could discuss endlessly).

———

Hilary

One way the first creation story dominates Jewish life is how we use it organize time.  “There was evening, and there was morning,”  is why our day starts at sunset.  So shabbat starts sundown Friday, we light candles on the first night of Hanukah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services start in the evening, then continue the next day.  I’m taking the day off to help my mom get ready for her seder on the first night of Passover.  Even on some secular calenders the Jewish holidays are marked “First night of Hanukah” “Passover starts at sundown.”  I didn’t even think about it at first because I’m so used to it.  The only Christian and secular equivalent I can think of is Christmas Eve and New Years Eve.

And Shabbat—”On the seventh day God rested.”  I don’t know if it is possible to overstate what Shabbat means to Judaism.  Or for that matter the impact of this story to anybody in the world who uses a seven-day work week.

Also, about human creation and ethics—I remember this quote: “How amazing is our God!  A man can use one template to make multiple coins each with an identifical image, but our God can use one template to make humanity, and yet each one of us is unique.”  I like the general concept that we are all decended from the same lineage, decended from ha-adam, yet each a unique person. I know another rabbinic commentary states that all of us decend from one person is so that nobody can lord it over another that their lineage is higher or more important – from begger to king we are all decended from the same Adam and Eve.

To me this reinforces, and is reinforced by, evolution—we are all created by the same forces of science* and evolution, decended from the same evolutionary lineage of our species, and yet each human life unique from every other human who ever existed, or ever will exist. These two principles of human creation and evolution balance each other, like the yin-yang symbol. For me this is part of why each person deserves a baseline amount of respect for the unique person they are. Each child is a unique creation both spiritually and scientifically, not a blank slate of biological material to be beaten – literally – into a uniform standard of the parents choosing.  Children should be respected for who they are even as babies.

*As someone who earns a paycheck using a science degree, and works in a protein biochemistry lab, one of the biggest forces of science is the Harvard Law of Biology: Under identically controlled conditions of heat, light, nutrients, gravity, and all other variables, the organism will do as it damned well pleases.  This is a gold standard scientific truth for anybody who works with living organisms, systems, or material.

———

Alexis

This quote from Hilary:

“For me this is part of why each person deserves a baseline amount of respect for the unique person they are.”

YES! I liken it to the moment in the Passover seder (ritualized meal) where we’re instructed to remove a drop of wine from our glasses for each plague the Egyptians suffered as a way of acknowledging that despite the fact they were our oppressors  they were still humans created in the image of the Hashem, and we should not rejoice in another’s pain.

———

Hilary 

Rachel—I’ve heard of Ibn Ezra, but I’m not familiar with him.  I’ve not read Rambam’s “Guide to the perplexed” either, although I might at some point.  The Rambam quote was on the pamphlet cover on that Shabbat and I kept it for my files since it was so cool, and I knew we’d be talking about creation and evolution on this panel.  Also, Rabbi Adam mentioned this organization, which is really cool to learn about: The Clergy Letter Project.

It’s interesting that every atheist seems to know who Ken Ham is, but here’s an organization that has 12,849 Christian clergy signing letters to the gov’t to teach real science and accurate evolution in science classes. And 503 rabbis, one of which is my Rabbi Adam.

I think your explanation of how the three different denominations understand the Torah is a good one.  It is cool how we went from creation in the Torah to the creation of the Torah.  As Reform I’m definitely in the ‘human document’ camp, and from what I’ve read and studied in it and about it, I think it is a composition of multiple voices, stories, histories, and narratives that got edited into one document.  But even if I can’t see it as perfectly divinely written, it’s our story, history, and narrative, and the record of the start of our covenant with God.  As my grandmother said, it’s just the beginning of our covenant.  I’ve explained to friends that Judaism isn’t the Torah, Judaism is how we live with the Torah from one generation to the next. Living with the Torah does not mean a surface reading as literal directions, we reinterpret and renegotiate that covenant as needed.

———

Anat

Rachel—Obviously for an atheist or Humanist Jew the only option is that the Torah is a human creation, though when it was composed, by whom and for what purpose are questions open to evidence and discussion. And it is not just a matter of idle speculation, at least to some degree there are ways to investigate this topic. On the one hand, there is the analysis of the text itself – writing style, vocabulary, topics, areas of interest. On the other there are entire forms of evidence that are external to the text. Dating of archaeological sites. Inscriptions. Texts of other cultures. For instance, the well in Beersheba and the earliest settlements there are from the Iron Age, which means the stories about Abraham and Isaac in Beersheba must have been composed at a much later period than the time in which the Patriarchs were supposed to have lived. My understanding is that one important goal of the Patriarchs narrative in Genesis is to provide justification for reverence of holy sites at much later periods, or to justify territorial claims. The Joseph cycle is about the rivalry between Judah and Ephraim – whether during the time of the Judges or monarchic times, or even later. But perhaps the story had a completely different form initially because the trope of ‘young man sent as prisoner to the royal court, becomes successful at the palace, especially at deciphering dreams’ is the story of Daniel, which is likely Hellenic.

Are you familiar with Israel Finkelstein’s ‘David and Solomon’? Finkelstein uses geographical information in Samuel and Kings to date the various parts of the story. The stories about David hiding from Saul in the desert are the only part that is consistent with being from the 11th-10th century BCE.

Hilary—The Babylonians used a seven-day week, a day for each of the visible-to-the-naked-eye planets, plus the sun and the moon. What I do not know is whether they had regular days of rest, and if so when. They had a ‘yom shapatu’ or something similar, but I think the term referred to one of the phases of the moon.

———

Hilary

Anat—Sometimes I think Judaism is as much a creation of Babylon as a creation of Israel. The seven day week, the first creation story, the flood story and the tower of babal, these are all from Babylon.  I read a footnote in a Torah commentary that the Hebrew names of the months we use now come from Babylon.  It was during the first Babylonian exile that the beginnings of a portable culture based on communal texts instead of priestly sacrifice started, and usually when we refer to the Talmud we’re talking about the bavli, the Babylonian Talmud that was created in Babylon in the first centuries of the common era, after the defeat by the Romans.

———

Anat

When I said I find it believable that ancient people did not necessarily take the creation accounts literally this is where I was coming from: People who want to poke holes in the first creation account ask questions like—how could there have been light before the creation of the sun? But looking at the structure of the story one sees it is structured as 2 halves—days 1-3, days 4-6, followed by the completion on day 7. Days 1-3 are days of partition or compartmentalization—day 1 in time, day 2 in the vertical axis and day 3 in the horizontal axis. In days 4-6 the compartments that were set apart in days 1-3 get populated, and in the same order. That structure is why I called the account ‘poetic in intent’ in my previous response to Rachel. And poetry really can’t be taken as a literal listing of facts. I think ancients, at least learned ones, knew that much about literature.

———

Penny

Although I grew up Christian, I did not grow up with a young earth creationist, or even a traditionalist interpretation of Genesis in the sense of a condemnation of humanity as inherently sinful. I don’t think the Earth was literally created in six days or woman created from the rib of man. The stories I learned from my parents, viewed retrospectively, are astonishingly ‘Jewish’ in flavor. The focus was much more on the power of naming, and growing up, rather than punishment for disobedience. I grew up with a very liberal, feminist view of what is usually interpreted as a very sexist text. Let me be clear, I believe evolution is a real, powerful force in the ongoing development of our world. I do not believe in evolution. For me, there is a world of difference contained in that one small word. I am a theist, I reserve belief in for my relationship with God, and do not consider the Bible a biology textbook. I think that two stories of creation are recorded precisely to avoid having a single “right” story.

But if I don’t take it literally, why read it at all, why not just start with the Exodus? Because, for me, Genesis isn’t about how Earth and humans were created, it’s about why. It’s about what it means to be human, and part of why I like the Hebrew name for the book better, B’reishit, in the beginning. It forms the foundation of my ethics, and my decision to live my life as a Jew. Adam is a partner in the creation by participating in the naming of the newly created animals. Eve is created to be his ezer kenegdo, traditionally translated as a helper fit for him, but modern commentator David Freedman has a different interpretation that, I think, fits better with the rest of the story. Eve is created, not as a subordinate to Adam, but as an equal power with him.

This concept of equal partners, parallels the other creation story more closely, and shifts the focus away from the hierarchy and toward relationships. It starts with a deceptively simple concept, b’tzelem elohim, created in the image of God.  The name for God used, Elohim, is plural, not singular, not any of the many other names for God used throughout the Torah. The documentary hypothesis uses the different names for God as part of the rationale for the assertion that multiple authors wrote the Torah. For me, this distinct, unified plural, serves a different purpose. It underlines the fact that beyond the distinctions of Jew, Christian, or any other label we create, we are human, and we share this world, this creation.

———

Petticoat Philosopher

As you may recall, I was not raised going to a temple or synagogue. My Jewish community was my extended maternal family, so it’s hard to say exactly what denomination I am. When I want to give a short answer, I say ‘Reform” because that’s how my mom and aunts were raised and so much of how I was raised was taken from Reform tradition. But these days, I sample from many of the liberal, egalitarian denominations besides Reform and the members and leaders of a given Jewish community itself tend to make more of a difference in how at home I feel in it then the denomination.

That being said, I was raised thoroughly in the “The Torah is human-made and the product of many authors with different agendas” camp and that’s still where I am. That being the case, our response to the dual creation stories was pretty much *shrug.* Why not? If it’s the product of many different minds, there’s nothing surprising about there being contradictions or inconsistencies or variations on a single theme. If anything, the dual creation stories were brought up most often to highlight the absurdity of trying to take the bible “literally”–as if such a thing were even possible to do with such an ambiguous and poetic text. As for evolution, yes I accept it and was raised to accept it, although it’s probably not very accurate to say that I believe in “theistic evolution.” Partly this is because I am unsure of where I stand in relation to theism (more on this some other time because it would take a while!) and partly because, since I don’t see the Torah as divine (and nor does my family that raised me), I never felt any particular need to try to square evolution with the account of creation in Genesis, although I think the ways in which other members of the panel here have are interesting and beautiful. To me, the Torah is an important cultural document, and the value of studying it—which I do affirm—is in developing a deeper understanding of the complicated ways in which it has informed that culture for thousands of years and continues to do so. 

 

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Hilary

    Libby

    If you don’t mind me asking, what did you think of our discussion? Was there anything familiar, anything really surprising? What did you enjoy the most, and what was the most different from how you learned Genesis?

    Hilary

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I really enjoyed seeing the amount of disagreement that is allowed within Judaism, or rather, the acceptance of the validity of a variety of interpretations. I also hadn’t expected to see so much about being able to sort of argue with God. I guess I grew up with this idea that the God of the Old Testament was strict and authoritarian, and you weren’t supposed to question or challenge him. Noting the differences between the Christian Old Testament God and the Jewish God is fascinating. I also enjoyed hearing some of the different stories from the midrash. Oh, and I’m fascinated by how much of what is formative in Judaism appears to come from after the first century A.D. Anyway, those are some of my basic reactions.

      • Amanda

        Nothing connected to me to my Jewish identity more than the realization that I was permitted to argue with God. I know someone has already quoted the Talmud story with the “my children have defeated me punchline,” but for me the thing that really brought it home was the Torah portion that was my Bat Mitzvah portion, the first third of the chapter we call “Vayera.” (Vayera =Genesis 18:1 – 22:24, the portion we read would have been roughly 18:1-33). That section ends with the discussion between Abraham and God over Sodom and Gomorrah. When our rabbi discussed the portion, he emphasized that confrontation between God and Abraham as deeply important, not because of what it said about Sodom and Gomorrah, but because of what it said about God’s relationship to Abraham. Abraham not only literally bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, he actually argues with God over his plan in the first place. Even more than that, he holds God to a moral standard: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Our (Reconstructionist) rabbi viewed this not as a curiosity or exception, but as exemplifying both the Jewish relationship with the divine and our relationship with the world.

      • Hilary

        If I could put the Abrahamic three on a bumper sticker –
        Muslims submit to God
        Christians are saved by God
        Jews argue with God

        I made it up a while back to explain the differences quickly

  • Bugmaster

    FWIW, in our middle school in Israel, we were taught that both of the creation accounts are metaphorical, and that they both have important moral, spiritual, and theological lessons to teach us — but pedestrian matters such as the physical age of the Earth are best left to science.

  • Tracy

    Wow, guys, this was a very interesting read. Thanks for taking the time to participate. I was raised as a fairly liberal Christian so I can relate to the metaphorical interpretations of the text so much more readily than I can to the literal interpretations. And although I am an atheist due to inability to accept supernaturalism or taking things “on faith”, the decision might have been a lot harder if my religious background contained more of the debate/discussion/interpretation aspects that you have presented here as being somewhat common to Judaism.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Well, lots of Jews are also atheists and, although I’m not sure right now if that’s what I would classify myself as, I don’t really take things “on faith” either. That’s not really how I engage with Judaism. These are topics I expect we’ll get to later!

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      Tracy — To add to what Petticoat Philosopher says —

      1. Lots of Jews are atheists — I’d argue that principled atheism is one of the Jewish contributions to Western thought. (Thinking of Spinoza here, although it’s hard to say if he was an atheist, exactly. He clearly did NOT believe in any sort of supernatural god, though.)

      2. Faith is not a central concern of Judaism. In fact, Christianity is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in its emphasis on creeds, to the point where it seems as if being a Christian is about believing certain things. By contrast, a Jewish atheist is still a Jew. And a Jewish atheist who practiced Jewish law punctiliously would be a righteous Jew.

      • Rachel

        InsanityRanch -

        Well, some groups of Jews would argue that you need certain principles of faith to be an observant Jew, and you can be considered a heretic for espousing certain things (helloooo, Spinoza!). Basically, you can believe or not believe a lot of things and still be a Jew. Until you believe in the divinity of Jesus: then you’re a Christian.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        “Faith is not a central concern of Judaism.”

        Yes! This is why I don’t even really like calling Judaism a “faith”or using the words “faith” and “religion” interchangeably, as people tend to in America. You are right, the huge emphasis on faith is a Christian thing. Faith is not what defines Judaism and, in fact, this is true of a lot of other religions as well. (Buddhism isn’t really much about “faith” either.)

      • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

        Rachel — You touch on another difference between Jews and Christians, I think. Christians apparently believe that people are basically damned unless someone takes action that allows them to be saved. Tr. Sanhedrin seems to take the opposite tack — to paraphrase, the default position seems to be that people “have a portion in the world to come”, unless they are wicked (with the standard of wickedness being somewhat more stringent for Jews than for the nations.) I also agree with you about the so-called “Messianic Jews” … but obviously, they disagree with your and my position. I have no idea where most Christians come down on their status.

        Petticoat Philosopher — I’m a practicing Buddhist — though obviously, of Jewish background. I second your comment that Buddhism isn’t “about ‘faith’”. In fact, one of the reasons that Christianity is an impossible religion for me to accept, or even, really, to understand, is this insistence on accepting certain assertions about reality in order to belong.

        In some sense, this gets to the question of what a religion is, or does. To ME, a religion is first and foremost a practice. A practice is a way of giving significance to daily actions, and also of clarifying correct choices (because daily actions ARE significant.) I also prefer that religion have a text to examine critically, and I have managed to transfer my scholarly interest from the Torah (in the broad sense of the word) to the Pali Canon — another vast text that is read with commentary and in community, lol!

  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    Excellent discussion! I found this both invigorating and enlightening. I have a few follow up questions (I apologize if I’m asking too many):

    1. Anat’s explanation reflects the liberal Christian understanding of the creation stories, which is the Documentary Hypothesis. Our explanation would be that the reason for its “incompetence” is that the texts were compiled by simply asking if it reflected spiritual truth about God. In other words, both creation stories reflect spiritual truth, so both were put in. Rachel, is there tension among Orthodox Jews regarding the Documentary Hypothesis?

    2. Evangelical Christians believe that the creation stories confirm the Trinity. What is the Jewish explanation for the plural pronoun in Genesis 1: 26 (Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,) and 3:22 (And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil)?

    3. Some of you already touched on this, but a huge part of the debate with Christian fundamentalists about the creation stories centers on what form of writing they are. In other words, fundamentalists believe that the creation stories are intended as scientific because they do not have a poetic or allegorical structure, while liberal Christians believe the opposite.(Even though they would insist it is all one story, I’ll set that aside since we’re discussing the Jewish/liberal perspective that there are two) What were you taught?

    (Again I know that this was already touched on a bit. I’m looking for a concise answer so it’s easier to follow each of your answers and the reasoning behind it.)

    • Rachel

      Christian Vagabond –

      1) Uh, there is no tension that I know of among the Orthodox Jews regarding the documentary hypothesis, because as far as I know, they are not aware of it. It’s actual heresy. (I once was talking to an Orthodox rabbi about some issues I was having with Judaism, I mentioned the documentary hypothesis, and he looked completely blank and asked me what it was. I quickly changed track, as I don’t know if he could have handled it.)

      2) Yeah, these are the classic “gotcha” moments. ;) For traditional Jews, this isn’t problematic at all anymore. It’s one of the things that, as Ki Sarita said, people learn in the midrash along with the Torah and can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. I just moved, so I don’t have all of my books sorted yet, and can’t find extra commentaries, so I’m just going to quote Chabad’s translation of Rashi directly, but as you may have guessed from the above conversation, there are other opinions.

      http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165:
      1:26 – “Let us make man: From here we learn the humility of the Holy One, blessed be He. Since man was created in the likeness of the angels, and they would envy him, He consulted them. And when He judges kings, He consults with His Heavenly household, for so we find regarding Ahab, that Micah said to him, (I Kings 22:19): “I saw the Lord seated on His throne, and all the host of heaven were standing by Him, on His right and on His left.” Now do “left” or “right” apply to Him ?! But rather, [the passage means that] these [angels] were standing on the right to defend, and these [angels] were standing on the left to prosecute. Likewise, (Dan. 4:14): “By the decree of the destructive angels is the matter, and by the word of the holy ones is the edict.” Here too, He took counsel with His heavenly household. He said to them, “Among the heavenly beings, there are some in My likeness. If there are none in My likeness among the earthly beings, there will be envy among the creatures of the Creation. ” – [from Tanchuma, Shemoth 18; Gen. Rabbah 8:11, 14:13]”
      Let us make man: Even though they [the angels] did not assist Him in His creation, and there is an opportunity for the heretics to rebel (to misconstrue the plural as a basis for their heresies), Scripture did not hesitate to teach proper conduct and the trait of humility, that a great person should consult with and receive permission from a smaller one. Had it been written: “I shall make man,” we would not have learned that He was speaking with His tribunal, but to Himself. And the refutation to the heretics is written alongside it [i. e., in the following verse:]“And God created (וַיִּבְרָא) ,” and it does not say,“and they created וַיִּבְרְאוּ.” – [from Gen. Rabbah 8:9]

      3:22 – “has become like one of us, having the ability: He is unique among the earthly beings, just as I am unique among the heavenly beings, and what is his uniqueness? To know good and evil, unlike the cattle and the beasts. — [from Targum Jonathan, Gen. Rabbah 21:5]”

      3) The division you’re implying here simply doesn’t make any sense to me. Jews do not say, “here, here is the Torah where it’s literal, here’s where it’s figurative.” There’s no strict scientific/allegory binary. Why can’t it be both, and more? People can decide for themselves which meaning to focus on at any given moment.

    • kisarita

      Agreed Rachel. In my Orthodox upbringing, I never heard of the Documentary Hypothesis or other critical theories. The traditional commentaries and midrash were where it was at. We were actually encouraged to look for textual discrepancies as a springboard leading to those interpretations.
      Regarding the “let us make man” this is the way I remember the midrash from my youth: At first Moses refused to write down those words, saying God! You are opening the door for heresy! God however insisted that he write it down to teach the people humility. Furthermore God said “who ever wants to err, will go ahead and err.”
      Unfortunately this attitude prevailed against those whose questions went too far, who challenged the theological underpinnigns of the Torah study- they were willful errants.

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    ["There is one instance, however, in the Midrash, where the interpretation of the creation of man is as follows: The first man was a self-reproducing hermaphrodite. When G-d discovered that he/she/it was alone, G-d put this miraculous creature to sleep and literally tore it in two, thus creating two separate gendered beings. This Midrash stresses the importance of marriage, as the two parties are literally searching for their other halves."]

    See also Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s “Symposium”:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4paSMqKYXtY

  • Hilary

    CV – I’m glad you enjoyed reading this, I enjoyed working on it. I thought someone would ask about Gen 1:16, so I have some commentaries ready. But as you can see from our discussion, it’s not a big deal or a very important part of the story for us. And, obviously, we don’t see it as a foreshadowing of the trinity. To me that is the difference betwen the Torah and the Old Testament. The Torah/Tanakh is whole unto itself, written in Hebrew, and it has nothing to do with Jesus. The Old Testament is the Christian interpretation reading Jesus backward into the text and translations. But we will be getting to that later. Libby has a whole list of questions for us, so this series is just begining.

    There’s a classical Midrash from the Talmud: When Moses was writing the story of creation, he reached this sentence (Gen 1:26) “And God said: Let us make a being in our image, in our likeness . . .” He said, “God, why do you give heretics a talking point? I don’t understand!” God answered, “Son of Amram, write, and let those who choose go astray!”
    God then added, “Do not both the great and humble descend from Adam, My creation? Therefore, when the exalted have occasion to consult with a lesser, let them not say, ‘Why bother seeking the views of one beneith me?’ Rather, let them learn from their Maker, the Creator of the heights and depths. Though supreme over all, I consulted the ministering angels before the creation of humankind.”

    I think this story comes from the 3rd century so it may very well be a reference to the early Christians claim of the plural ‘Elohim’ as a prooftext for the trinity, given the reference to heretics.

    My thought is that if the first creation story comes from Babylon as Anat said, then the Jews there would have seen the great courts of the Babylonian kings, complete with courtiers and nobles. Certainly there would be the experience of the kings of Israel, complete with a ruling class. So if God is indeed the King of Kings, melech melechai, then of course God would also have a court as well, in this case a court of angels. And yes there is a whole realm of stories and folklore about angels and demons is Judaism.

    • Hilary

      I just double checked Rachels answer – my story also comes from Genesis Rabbah 8, which is part of the Talmud that comes from 3rd century Palestine.

      I got my verson from my copy of the Pirke Avot, which has a lot of extra information on different topics on it.
      Another commentary – you did ask, and there will always be more than one answer – is that ‘Elohim’ is used as a magestic plural, like the royal ‘we.’ The explanation I like best is from Nachmanidies: The human was to be fashioned from physical matter (like all other creatures), but was also to have a soul (like no other creature). “Let us” is therefore to be understood as if God were addressing the earth in the uniquely cooperative act of creation. Nachmanides was 13th cen. Spanish philosopher

      My last thought on this that it’s not ‘Let us’ but ‘lettuce’ ie ‘Lettuce create humans in our image’ and we are all created in the dual image of God and vegetation, and thus should become vegan. ;-).

    • Rachel

      Hilary – Well, one thing to keep in mind is that Judaism came into being during an age of polytheism, where everyone had multiple gods for all their earthly needs. Judaism only having one god was damn weird. So people would point to the “Let us” and the “Elokim” to be all, “hah-hah, you guys are polytheists, just like us!” It may not actually be in response to Christianity, which I was raised to believe was a polytheistic religion (because…it functionally is…).

      The specific verse in 1:26 is one of the deliberate changes introduced in the miracle/curse of the Septuagint, as to keep things free from misunderstanding, like so. The Jewish side of the story of the Septuagint is really interesting, but I can never find the exact list of changes they introduced…this is roughly the story I remember: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/jewish/jhistory11.php3

      Also, that “lettuce” thing is going to be seized upon by my MIL to insist that we really should be vegans like her. ;)

      • Anat

        Monotheism wasn’t the original belief system of the Israelites and Judahites. They started out as henotheists, just like everyone else in the region – believing many gods exist and are powerful, but only one of them is the one they should worship. During the Iron Age it was commonly believed in the Levant that the creator god, El (or El Elyon) and his wife, Ashera, had 70 sons, each of which was the ruling god of a different nation – Baal in Canaan, Chemosh in Moab etc. There are hints in Tanakh that Yahweh originated as such a national god, one of many. For example Psalms 82 describes one god standing among a congregation of gods, rebuking them for injustices. The author of Kings must have believed in the power of the foreign gods to help their respective nations – for instance in 2 Kings 3: 26-27 the Moabite king sacrifices his son and heir to Chemosh, and this enables Moab to defeat Israel – it wasn’t Yahweh who intervened for the Moabites, but their own god. But the most interesting example is Deuteronomy 32:8. In the Masoretic version it says: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.” What is the relevance of ‘the number of children of Israel’ to assigning boundaries between nations? Well, the dead Sea Scrolls have a slightly different wording. There it says ‘according to the number of sons of El’ – referring exactly to the old belief that each of the 70 nations had a god who was a son of El. (The number of children of Israel who emigrated to Egypt was also 70, hence the logic of the substitution.)

        It is thought that monotheism emerged after the Babylonian exile, it was what enabled the worship of Yahweh to continue despite the exile. In a henotheistic worldview, Yahweh was a defeated god and it would have made sense for the exiles to abandon him in favor of the god of the victors. But if he is the only god then instead of seeing exile as the defeat of their god by the god of another nation, they began to see it as a message from their god about their improper actions.

      • Rachel

        Anat – Would you consider that henotheistic religion Judaism, though? Because the defining characteristic of Judaism is that it’s a monotheistic religion. Even within the canonical text, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that Israelites worshipped other gods, too — but those Israelites were not following Judaism, in the form we recognize as Judaism, but were following different sects.

        This is sort of a tricky area (and one I was going to bring up in our next thread): we like believing that we have this unbroken line going directly to Moses (or Abraham). That’s how our history is written, after all. But the truth is more complicated than that — we’ve sort of pruned off (or had snipped) a lot of the outgrowings.

      • Anat

        I’d say it was a proto-Judaism, and the people adhering to it were Israelites and Judahites, not yet Jews. AFAIK the term ‘yehudim’ (Jews) in the Bible is only used in books set in post-exilic times. I’d say we have little evidence that Judaism proper existed before the exile.

  • ScottInOH

    Thanks to all of you for your detailed, thoughtful comments.

    As one of the people who asked a version of this question, I wanted to explain what was motivating me (hopefully not sounding too defensive!). I’m not asking Jewish commenters how they think Jewish teachings express an element of the Christian world (to paraphrase kisarita) so much as I’m trying to figure out how Christians jumped from whatever it is that Judaism teaches about the biblical creation story(ies) to what Christianity teaches. Part of figuring that out is learning “whatever it is that Judaism teaches about the biblical creation story(ies),” and this seemed like a good opportunity to hear. Thanks again!

    • Rachel

      Scott – Glad you enjoyed it!

      I think you’ve hit upon a real issue here: obviously, you’re going to interpret things through your lens. That’s natural for you. We’re all primed to do that. Personally, I think wanting to look past your own priming is a really good way of getting past your privilege, and it’s something I’ve struggled with (and still struggle with!). It’s the difference between knowing your own opinion on an issue, and wanting to hear what others have to say, and knowing your own opinion, and asking other people to confirm it.

    • Hilary

      Scott –

      Genesis Rabbah is 3rd cen. Palestine, Saadia Gaon (he suggested the majestic plural) is 800′s Muslim Babylon, Rashi is 11th cen. France – he had a vinyard too – and I can’t remember if Nachmonides was 12th or 13th cen. Spain. So it’s not so much that there was a traditional Jewish interpretation then Christians changed it, so much as after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, then the failed revolution against Rome in 135 ce, what was left of the Israelite nationality and culture split apart. The Yeshuah followers became Christian, and the Pharisees – the only other denomination left – developed Rabbinic Judaism. This also is part of what Libby noted, most of what we do as Jews developed after both testiments where codified.

      On the line up, the next couple topics are denominations & religious texts, then Passover, then sin and the Fall. I’ve got a lot of notes for that last topic, because it really touches on the different theology between Jews and Christians. Stay tuned! Enjoy the show! We love your comments and questions!

      I recomend the book “Adam, Eve, and the Serpent” by Elaine Pagels to look at how the begining of Christianity used that story for it’s own understanding.

      http://www.amazon.com/Adam-Eve-Serpent-Politics-Christianity/dp/0679722327

      Hilary

      • kisarita

        I would disagree Hilary- according to scholars that I’ve read, relatively few Jews became Christian. Christianity split off from Judaism intentionally, with the intent of becoming a universal religion that would appeal to the Roman empire in specific.

      • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

        Hilary — I think the Pharisees were not the only sect that ended up comprising “Judaism”. The Karaites go a long way back, in opposition to the Pharisees. I wasn’t aware of this until I read a book recently called _The Aleppo Codex_ (which I wholeheartedly recommend, for reasons unrelated to this discussion.) It turns out that a form of Biblical literalism is an old part of (postexilic) Jewish thought, and, that, in fact, the Masoretic text owes a great deal to the efforts of adherents of this tradition. (The book, The Aleppo Codex, in case I can whet anyone’s interest, is a sort of modern-day, real-life mystery story about what happened to a particularly complete and important Biblical codex. This codex had been the prize of the Aleppo Jewish community for many hundreds of years, although it had earlier resided in Cairo, where it was consulted by Maimonides. After the Jews of Aleppo were driven out in the aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel, the codex disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I bring it up here because the (modern) book includes a short and new-to-me history of the Karaites and their important contributions to Jewish scholarship.)

    • ScottInOH

      Thanks, Rachel and Hilary. Like Libby Anne, I was struck by how many of the interpretations you discuss were developed more recently than I expected. I look forward to the next set of conversations!

      (I’ve ordered the book, Hilary, along with a couple of her other ones. Many thanks.)

  • Carys Birch

    I’d like to say more later when I’m not supposed to be asleep, but wow, I enjoyed that every bit as much as I expected to. Hilary, thank you for pointing out the one interpretation in which the second story recounts the beginning of patriarchy. Since I’ve left christianity behind, that’s a narrative I can relate to.

    I also really liked the idea that Torah is the beginning of the Jewish relationship with God, but not it’s endpoint, that out is a growing and evolving covenant. I wish fundamentalism was able to view things with that relational, organic view, instead of it’s rigid insistence that nothing has ever changed and it never will.

    Could someone, for the unenlightened, explain the difference between Talmud and commentaries? I realize this must be beyond basic but in my experience, “commentary” has been the word Christians use to define what the Talmud is to other Christians. You guys are not using the terms interchangeably, but I’m not certain of the distinction?

    Thanks for the perspective. As always highly enlightening!

    • Rachel

      The Talmud is both a compendium of the Oral Law (which is an explanation and sometimes-clarification of the laws in the Torah, or the Written Law) and an elucidation of the concepts and more obscure passages in the Tanakh. The contents of the Talmud were passed down orally until about 200 CE, when due to Roman persecution and the Diaspora, transmitting it orally was no longer practical. The Talmud was mostly finalized by about 500 CE. Commentaries didn’t stop then, though — commentaries on the Tanakh and the Talmud alike keep being written. Rashi, for example, wrote in the 11th century CE.

      So basically, the Talmud is not entirely commentary, and not all commentaries are in the Talmud, but much of the Talmud is commentary, and many commentaries are based in the Talmud.

    • kisarita

      The Talmud is a specific work, not just any commentary. It is a compilation of the sayings of centuries of Rabbis. It is the most decisive, authorative decisor of mainstream Jewish practice.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      Carys — The Talmud is actually a brilliant example of reading WITH COMMENTARY. (sorry to shout — it’s such an important concept for Jews.)

      If you look at a page of (Babylonian) Talmud, you’ll see one of the cleverest ways of integrating a text and commentary — it’s almost as convenient as hypertext linking. (Really!).

      In the center column are two texts, inter-printed. First will be a section from the Mishnah, the compliation of Jewish law made in Israel in about 200 CE. This is followed by the gemara, which is a record of what various rabbis (identified by name) had to say about that section of the Mishnah, in discussions that took place before about 500 CE in Babylonia. Sometimes arguments are recorded, and sometimes the winners of those arguments are adjudged.

      Around this central section are at least two additional comment streams, which are quite voluminous and printed in rather small print. On the inside (toward the binding) is the commentary of Rashi, who lived in 11th century France. (Yup, it’s the same Rashi whose commentary on the Torah is usually printed along with the Hebrew text of the Torah. He was an astonishing genius, no kidding. ) On the outside edge of the Mishnah / gemara “core” is a second set of commentaries by later scholars (including, notably, Rashi’s son-in-law), stretching up to about the sixteenth century. Some editions of the Talmud will have additional commentaries outside of these, bringing the commentary up to the present.

      So you see that when we say “the Talmud”, we are talking not about an unchanging work of scholarship but about a field of inquiry, or the core of a field of inquiry, in any case. It is not static. It is still growing, as evidenced by the fact that the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud is a major and influential new edition which contains commentary intended to clarify and explicate things for those whose first language is modern Hebrew.

  • http://natehevens.wordpress.com Nathan Hevenstone

    This was fascinating! I had no idea this was being done, but now I intend to follow it closely.

    I’ve a Jewish background myself. My dad is actually the second Hazzan at Bnai Torah in Boca Raton, FL. I came out as an atheist (and, admittedly, a vocal anti-theist) when I was 21 (I should note, though, that I much less critical of Judaism than any other religion because I was brought up Jewish and, as far as I’m concerned, despite the issues I have with it, and faith, and the Torah, I can’t help but have respect for a religion that openly supports education and interpretation and critical thinking [as opposed to closing off thinking and following commands from the clergy]). However, I will always consider myself as part of the culture, which I find to be quite beautiful.

    My question rests on the difference between the so-called “literal reading” espoused by fanatic Christians and Jews (I’ve met Jews who believe the world is really 5774 years old, and reject science outright) and the “metaphorical reading” espoused by the more liberally religious. This is something I argue with myself over all the time.

    On the one hand, I get the ideas behind the metaphorical reading. “Yom” is an easy word to abuse the meaning of. The Bible does suggest that a day to God is like a million(? Or is it “thousand”?… I can’t remember, now), and even with surrounding context, we can’t be sure that it means “day” in the 24-hour sense in the the Creation accounts. And there is some legitimacy to the saying that it’s written in an epic way more akin to the myths like the Iliad and the Odyssey and so on than any factual text.

    However… why couldn’t the authors have themselves believed what would essentially be seen as Young-Earth Creationism? We know that any thought to the contrary was largely reserved for Greek and Roman philosophers and not exactly a mainstream thought at the time. Flat earth and Geocentrism were the dominating views at these time periods as well. Isn’t it entirely possible that the authors believed the literal truth of what they were writing in Genesis? That… at least as far how everything was created, they might have more in common with YEC Jews and Born-Again Christians than with more liberal-minded thinkers and scientists? Are we absolutely sure that they have considered it metaphorical, or isn’t it possible that they really did believe that the earth, and life on it, was all created in 6 literal, 24-hour days only a few thousand years before?

    And if the latter is even possible, what does that say about the (in)fallibility of the Bible, and the trust people put in it?

    I have a lot of questions concerning other issues in the Old Testament, but none of them have anything to do with Creation, so I’ll leave them alone for now.

    • Rachel

      Well, by saying that there are “authors of the text”, you’re already placing yourself firmly in a box of interpretation that is incongruous with what most Jews prior to the Enlightenment believed, so you’re being somewhat ahistorical here. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong to ask whether or not there were Jews who believe it’s literal, but it does mean that you have to frame the question a little differently: were there Jews that believed in it being a literal six days, and were there Jews who believed it was a metaphor?

      And the answer is, yes, there are certainly Jews who interpret it literally, and say that the world was created in seven days (because Hashem created something very important on the seventh day — rest!), and these days were 24-hour periods. These Jews who say this also believe that the author of the Torah is Hashem and Hashem alone, and there’s not really room for maneuverability there.

      Now, for Jews who don’t think that the Torah was given directly from Hashem, or at least not without some changes along the way, it’s hard to conceive of the intent of the passages there without the help of commentaries. Maimonides has argued for the non-literal translation, among others.

      It is also absolutely ahistorical to say that Greeks and Romans had a monopoly on philosophers or mathematics: many Jewish leaders were well-versed in the science and math of their time, and there was some interlearning between the groups (before it was forbidden under the fear it would lead to apostasy, which…it sometimes did.). Not everyone was fond of science as an explanation, and not everyone agreed about it (as they don’t know), but again, your question is imposing a framework that doesn’t quite match up with reality, because no one back then could have conceived of an author of the Torah who wasn’t God without being a heretic.

      • http://natehevens.wordpress.com Nathan Hevenstone

        I left out caveats for brevity and time. Obviously the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a monopoly on philosophers. Judaism has always been unique among religions for harboring some of the world’s most intelligent people. It’s amazing, really. (Also, I worded that poorly, but I’m not sure how to word it better… I don’t mean “harboring” in the usual sense of the word… I mean it in a more benign or even positive way.)

        As for my framework “authors of the text”, I’m using the only framework that, at least to me, makes any kind of sense. I mean, yes, it was very hard for those ancient Jews to claim the Torah was written by anyone other than God without being called a heretic, but I feel as if that’s irrelevant to my question, which is regarding the intent behind the writing.

        When it comes to the fight over “allegorical” vs “literal”, my interest is in knowing if it’s possible to get the answer from the text itself, without any outside commentary. Not that the commentary isn’t valuable; I think Maimonides’ commentary on the Torah is essential for anyone who wants to understand the framework for this whole discussion. But I don’t see how, in the question of what the authors themselves might have thought… as far as we can discern it, anyways (which is, admittedly, rather limited by the fact that we can’t interview those ancient Israelites, sadly… wow would that be amazing)… the outside commentaries can play a role in the answer.

        I just think it would be strange for the authors to have written it as allegory seeing as it has a history of being taken literally for as long as it’s been… I guess… published. Creationism isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The current crop of YEC Christians is, of course, but they pull their roots from a rich and quite ancient history, where the Biblical account of Creation was taken for granted for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. After all… it took Darwin to really change general consensus among scientists, and the consensus of the general public hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe (after all, 46% of US-Americans believe the world is only 6000-10000 years old*… a minority, yes, but a disturbingly huge minority, nonetheless).

        *http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/Hold-Creationist-View-Human-Origins.aspx

      • Rachel

        There’s a tension in your framing of the question that makes it very hard to answer you. You’re asking a question that can be answered in two ways: “what was the intent of the authors,” when there is disagreement on who the authors were or what purposes there are, and also “how was this understood.” We just can’t talk about authorial intent when talking about the ancient Israelites, or Jews before the Enlightenment: such a framing prejudices the terms in what makes sense to us, rather than what made sense to them. Authorial intent is an impossible question to answer here, alas.

        As for how was this understood, which is somewhat more answerable: Maimonides counsels people that the creation story is not supposed to be taken literally. This tells us that in the time of Maimonides, some Jews understood that the story was an allegory: it also tells us that some Jews did take it literally, and were confused by taking it literally, and had questions. I don’t have access to the Talmud to look up earlier opinions, unfortunately, so that’s as far back as I can get you here.

    • Anat

      Nathan, every sentence in Torah can be interpreted multiple ways. Traditionally the ‘simple’ interpretation is considered the least important one. So it isn’t a question of which part of Torah ‘should’ be read literally and which metaphorically – all parts are read literally and allegorically and mystically .

      • http://natehevens.wordpress.com Nathan Hevenstone

        What you say here: “all parts are read literally and allegorically and mystically” is actually what I was taught, but it leads to my confusion.

        I think my contention here lies with having participated (and argued for and against) all sides of this debate. I never was a Creationist, but I did go through a period, when I first started on the journey that eventually led me to atheism, of crediting the literalists (who I otherwise never respected) with having the most honest and straight-forward reading of Genesis. I’m not so sure abut that anymore, especially since I started really going back to look at the Jewish view.

        I think that contention is what makes the whole debate so tense. The literalists insist that nothing in the Bible (I’m including all the literalists from all three major religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism… and by “literalists” I do mean the Young-Earth Creationists… those who reject science out of hand) is to be taken as anything other than literal. Of course, this brings up a whole slew of problems, but then, when you have people (like Kent Hovind, for example) who publically and proudly admit to believing in the literal existence of talking snakes, unicorns, and fire-breathing dragons… and that the Flintstones is a documentary (that is… dinosaurs and humans lived together in the Garden of Eden and until the Flood)…

        Well…

        On the other hand, the question of which parts are metaphorical and which parts are allegories is, I think, a legitimate question to ask in the face of “all parts are read literally and allegorically and mystically”. How do we know what’s to be taken literally, if any of it, and if it’s all allegory, why do we hold it up to a level beyond that of, say, the ancient Greek Creation myth, which we rightfully see as a mythical tale with no more explanatory power beyond it being an insight into how the ancient Greeks thought?

        In other words, what makes Genesis different from all the other creation myths penned by the human species over time? Or, as we’re coming up on Passover, what makes Genesis different from all other… um… geneses?

        Also, I hope my questions are okay. Trying to reconcile the different viewpoints I’ve heard, most of which are fundamentally contradictory, is not an easy task. I don’t want to be critical of something without understanding all sides. All my questions come with respect, of course, largely because Judaism is pretty much the only religion I respect. As I said in my original post… it’s hard to feel negative about a culture that values education as much as Jews value education, and I do believe education is the most important thing in the world.

      • Hilary

        Nathan

        “What makes this creation story different from all other creation stories?” ;-)
        Mah nish’tenah ha’bresheit hazeh michol ha’bresheit?

        There is still a living culture attatched to it, a couple thousand years later.

        Yes, your questions are totally ok, I’m glad to see the continued conversation in this post.

        Hilary

  • Christine

    Since Hilary specifically asked for my input: I think it’s really cool the level of scholarship that seems to be the norm, at least in this panel. My father-in-law has one of the Bibles with the Greek & English inter-lined, but it’s not very useful unless you understand Greek, and you need to be doing university-level theological studies (as opposed to just taking a couple of courses from the university) before it’s going to be a tool you have. I don’t know anyone who really has any sort of theory as to why there are conflicting creation stories – there were two of them, so when they wrote the book they put two in. No one really bothers to think about why there would be two. The “why not” attitude is really what I’m used to. It makes sense that there would be, on an instinctive level, so no one questions it because it never seems to need it.

    I hadn’t known that the Torah was normally bundled with the Talmud – I had always been under the impression that only the serious scholars had the text and the discussion bundled together like that.

    I also found it really cool to hear the other stories – first man as a hermaphrodite, Lilith – that I had always heard and never known were Jewish. As a child I had wondered where those came from (because there wasn’t really space for them in the Bible as I learned to read it), but as an adult I had just assumed that it was people making up stories, never realising their source. I really appreciate that being shared.

    Another difference – since I don’t have theological training, no one would take me seriously if I came up with my own interpretation of a Bible story. If it didn’t contradict any big theological points then it would be fine, but given that I’m not a theologian, it wouldn’t really have any traction if it was controversial. The essays before each book in my Bible (and the mini-ones in the footnotes) tend to be very good about acknowledging that there are a variety of opinions, and this is an “approved” version – censor’s imprint and everything. But I am fairly sure that if I decided that I believe that Paul had written all the Pauline letters that I’d be given something of a hard time for it, even though I could quote theologians who believe that, because I can’t see anyone I know (definitely not my pastor, although he likely wouldn’t have time for a debate) thinking that just because I could cite sources for my absurd stance that they weren’t allowed to discuss it.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      Christine — love your comment! Just a little clarification, if I may? The Torah is not normally bundled with the Talmud. It’s usually bundled with commentary (often, Rashi and the Septuagint). The Talmud is kind of a separate area of Jewish scholarship, based, not on the Torah directly, but on the Mishnah, a code of law from early third century Israel.

      One thing that your comment made me realize is that Jews do not have to be great scholars to have a little Hebrew. (Granted, lots of American Jews don’t learn any Hebrew, but that is a different issue.) The thing is that learning Hebrew is a quite normal thing for Jews to do, in a way that studying Greek does not seem to be for Christians, if that makes sense.

      • Christine

        Thank you for the clarification – I had gotten several different explanations (not all of them from here) confused.

        I think I’m going to have to say that of the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity is by far the least scholarly. This is, of course, both cause and effect of the greater separation between the clergy and the laity. In my husband’s church there is more of an emphasis on education in general and on religious education in particular. (Pity the poor Mennonite professor having to deal with people whose get taken aback when, in a *university* level course it is mentioned that Paul didn’t write all the Pauline epistles). I think that this is a huge factor in why the sermons (not homilies…) tend to be more philosophical in general: not only is there a much larger chance that someone in the pews will be more of an expert on that part of the Bible than the pastor is, but there’s less need seen.

        Is there as much disagreement in the Jewish community as in the Christian community over what is and isn’t scripture? I know that the expanded version of Esther is considered canon by the Catholic church, but most Protestants wouldn’t consider the extra commentary to be part of the Bible.

      • Anat

        When you said It’s usually bundled with commentary (often, Rashi and the Septuagint). – I think you meant Targum Onqelos. The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Targum Onqelos is a translation of Torah into Aramaic. Onqelos’ translation is considered almost as holy as the Torah itself.

      • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

        Anat — Facepalm. You’re right.

  • Carys Birch

    Thank you your the clarification, Rachel and Kisarita. I’m still bemused by the idea a little bit, but I think it is, as Kisarita pointed out, because my thought was so molded by christianity and there is no direct analogue for the Talmud in christianity. So the idea is clearer but still foreign to me. Thank you for the expansion of my perceptions!

    Another thing that jumps out to me now that I’m slightly more conscious is how my philosophy degree handled Maimonides. At my (evangelical) undergrad program we covered him briefly as a Jewish thinker (in fact the only one we covered until the late modern period), but the religious perspective was lost entirely. I had no idea he was am author of commentaries or any of that. Our focus was always on how Jewish and Arabic philosophers preserved the Greek ideas that might otherwise have been lost. I’m wondering now how much of their own thought we might not have touched while praising them for preserving Aristotle for the big catholic thinkers later on (Aquinas).

    That is more or less unrelated to religious judaism, but rather damning to the philosophy training I got in the evangelical bubble. I knew our focus was too heavy on Christian thought to be well rounded, but the way we appropriated your great scholar as if he was just an assistant to ours… Struck me forcefully tonight.

    • Hilary

      Carys

      Evaneglical’s reapropriating other people’s great thinkers for their own benefit – like what else is new? But I’m glad you enjoyed this conversation. I hope that when we’re done, we can trade places. I’d love to learn about Pagan, Wiccan, various non-Abrahamic faiths like this.

      Earlier you asked me about how I felt regarding the phrase “Abrahamic relgions.” I’ve been thinking about it – as a statement of factual description it doesn’t bother me. It is accurate to a point, that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim Abraham as an ancestor. Judaism and Islam are strict monothiestic, and Christianity is kind of wishy washy about how monothiestic they consider the trinity. We all have a vested interest in one small piece of sea side middle eastern real estate, unfortunalty.

      What bothers me is when we’re lumped together like there is no difference. Even if you know nothing about what we believe, think its all bullshit, or that Yahway is the worst monster ever, just the simple fact that there are ~13.5 million Jews of all types in existance on the entire planet, compared to the billion plus Christians and Muslims should be a clue that the way history has shaped us is going to be starkly different.

      There’s more I’d like to say, about how much it bothers me when people curse the Old Testament for how Christians have used it, but I’m still not sure how to say exactly what I mean. It’s late, I’m tired, and I’m sure I’ll have a chance to revisit that topic later.

      I’m glad you liked this, I hope you follow the rest of the series. I look forward to your comments.

      Hilary

      • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

        Hilary — The one that nearly always offends me is “the Judeo-Christian tradition”. When I was younger, I used to ask Christians what they include in “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Their answers all seemed to boil down to 1) the Christian tradition plus 2) all the Jewish ideas that are part of the Christian tradition. Grrrrrrrrr. (lol)

    • kisarita

      Interesting Carys. In my community it was quite the opposite-, Maimonides was lionized as one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time, but we were only dimly aware that he was significant outside of the Jewish world as well.

  • Penny

    Kisarita-
    I want to clear up what I suspect is a misunderstanding, but please correct me if I’m mis-reading both you and Hilary. My understanding of her point about the timing of development in both Judaism and Christianity was not so much that lots of Jews became Christians, especially as there is ample evidence to the contrary, rather that both cultures did a substantial portion of their formative development side-by-side. Both had to deal with Greece and Rome and develop in ways that allowed them to survive in the larger cultural context. I find this an important thing to remember when the tendency is to assume Judaism was already ‘set’ while Christianity was being founded.

    Penny

  • http://spaceysteph.blogspot.com SpaceySteph

    An interpretation for the two creation stories given by my Chabad rabbi in a sermon was so humans could know their place.
    In the first story, humans come last. So if you get to thinking you’re so high and mighty, you should remember that you were the last thing God got around to- heck, you’re not even as good as the fish! In the second story, humans come first. So if you start to think you are nothing, you can remember that God created you to have dominion over all the other animals.

    In my conservative upbringing the idea that a day didn’t last a day and evolution need not contradict creation was fairly well covered. I formed this belief from that discussion: the idea that day 1 of creation was 24 hours is absurd. A 24 hour “day” is the time it takes for the sun to move across the sky, night to pass, and the sun to get back to it’s starting point. But the sun wasn’t created until day 4. Up until that point, a day has absolutely no prescribed meaning. So it seems reasonable to assume that “day” in the creation story could mean any amount of time and takes some poetic license, no matter whether God or man wrote it.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

    I cannot express how wonderful it is to see Jewish thought represented honestly (and even with diversity!) on a non-Jewish forum. Christians nearly always misrepresent Jews, first, because they somehow feel Judaism stopped developing in the first century (BCE or CE, take your pick!), and second because they mostly don’t thoroughly understand first century Jewish life in the first place! Great job, Libby Anne! I will now read the comment stream and perhaps comment internally.

  • saramaimon

    certainly the talmud has spawned and continues to spawn new commentaries but it remains a completed work. i doubt steinsaatz would tell ypu that his commentary om the talmid is actually part of the taid. aditionally no later commentary has near the authority of the talmud with regard to halacha (practice).

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      saramaimon — It’s a matter of perspective, and mine (I freely admit) is pretty heterodox. Still, there’s an interesting dynamic of authority regarding later and earlier commentary. The earlier commentary gets its authority by the fact that it is closer to the core document (in the case of the Talmud, that’s the Mishnah.) The later commentary, assuming one accepts it as authoritative, is often the one that determines practice, because it is closest to the specific situation in which one finds oneself. So, when the question of practice arises, one may go to a modern response from a rabbi, or to the Shulchan Aruch, rather than the Talmud, let alone the Mishnah or the Torah.

  • saramaimon

    btw rashis commentary draws mostly from the midrash. as for the septiagint i haven’t found it to be studied much except by academics. regarding the judaeo christian phrase, actualy i thing theologically judaism is closer to islam but no one talks about judaeo islam. i am not sure what was the historical intent of that phrase.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      I think you may be right about Judaism and Islam. Unfortunately, I know less than I would like to about Islam. For instance, I do not know whether the process of determining sharia is similar to the process by which Jews determine halachah. Wouldn’t it be great if some Mizrahi Jews decided to participate here?

  • saramaimon

    i believe the karaites began in the geonic period in babylonia, in a reactionary movement against the talmud. their jewish life,still appears to me to be coming from a talmudically based lifestyle. i see them as an offshoot of rabbinic judaism not as a movement that originated beforehand.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      Well, they themselves trace their ideas to the bnei tzedek in Israel in the very early centuries CE. But regardless of their origins, I was surprised to learn that they had a major role in shaping the Masoretic text. This may be a case of the winners (rabbinic Jews) writing history and mostly writing out the contributions of the losers.

      • Rachel

        Whether or not the Karaites “count” as Jews could be in its own discussion, one which I’m not knowledgeable enough to participate in. :)

  • saramaimon

    i am middle eastern jew ;)l

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com insanityranch

      That’s great! Can you comment further on the similarities between Judaism and Islam? It’s a really interesting topic, and one that isn’t discussed nearly often enough, or in enough depth!

  • saramaimon

    The word yehudi meana judean, ie from the kingdom of judah. like an american is from america. the word judean to refet to the language, appears in kings in the intetaction between hezekiah and ravshakay. of course the judaism tjat we know is more a product of second temple times.

  • saramaimon

    i do think the sabbath was practiced by the early israelites, there are enough references in the prophets.

  • Pingback: The Inaugural Patheos Atheists Blog Carnival!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X