Asking the right questions about Genesis

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By Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8.


Perhaps no Torah reading has sparked more controversy than Bereshit, the first portion in the Torah.

Naomi H. Rosenblatt, a religious psychotherapist who also teaches Bible, wrote a best seller on the psychological understanding of family relationships in Genesis, “Wrestling with Angels.”

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Another of the best books to appear on this subject is “Genesis — The Beginning of Desire,” by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.

In “Mitokh Ha-Ohel” (from inside the tent), a book of essays on all of the Five Books of Moses that from the rabbis and professors of Yeshiva University, I especially recommend the first essay on Bereshit by Rabbi David Fohrman. Let’s not forget the former chief rabbi of Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and his series Covenant & Conversation (also available on the Web).


Why so much interest in Genesis and why so much controversy? I believe it relates to mankind’s eternal quest to know the unknowable. Where we came from and how the world came into being. The Torah begins in the beginning with an account of the genesis of the world.

Many, in trying to answer the unanswerable, fall prey to less than reasonable solutions as to how the cosmos came to be. A world-renowned Israeli mathematician, Dr. David Gottlieb, once told me concerning this matter that improperly posed questions can never receive correct answers. One must know how to ask and what to ask.

I am convinced that many are not thinking through matters, thereby not asking the right questions and leading themselves down the wrong path. A close Christian colleague of mine, when discussing my ideas on the subject of Genesis and creation said, “Ask not ‘how’ but ‘why’ God chose to create the world.” I think he was right.

But this matter is, in truth, rooted in Jewish traditional interpretation, and if you look at Rashi (11th century, France), the father of all biblical interpretation, and how he explains the seven days of creation, his comment on the first day of creation, demonstrates that “light” appears before the luminary bodies — the sun, moon and stars were created on the fourth day of the creation.

Rashi says, “The scriptural verse does not intend to teach the sequence of creation — that these were created first…” He then proceeds to prove through examples in grammar and other scriptural verses that the Torah would have been written differently, if it desired to teach that lesson.

So where does this leave us? Does this mean we cannot or should not delve into the origin of the universe? No. It just means that the Torah is not a cosmology textbook.

My teacher in Israel, Professor José Faur, is fond of citing obscure sources. He pointed out in a lecture, that the word “Bereshit,” usually translated “In the beginning,” was understood by Rabbi Shem Tov Ibn R. Shem Tov (d. 1430, Spain), as an “axiom,” a beginning
not in time but a beginning of Jewish faith. It is a basic and fundamental assumption: “Bereshit.

Attention! God created the heavens and the earth.”

From this basic Jewish assumption that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, everything else in Torah flows.

Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a navy chaplain, with his last duty station the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

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