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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.