Keeping it relevant in 5781


By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6.8.

In the beginning, ours was the human story. As the Talmud notes, all peoples descend from Adam, so none can claim “my ancestry is better than yours.”

Even before the human story, ours was the universal story. In Eden (Genesis 2), Adam came from Adamah, earth. We are earthlings, and humans, even before being Jews. This sacred Creation myth connects
everyone, and everything.

Most cultures have such myths: Mount Olympus, Turtle Island, Brahma. Science, too, is a myth of sorts, a “story” that explains things. Science’s characters are empirical data; its plot is testing hypotheses. The Big Bang was 13.8 billion years ago, and after many proofs it remains a “theory,” constantly being tweaked.

What’s true, then? Scientifically, cosmic background radiation secures the win for contemporary physics. But what of morality? Or meaning? Or the value of a good story?

Torah might be “mythically true,” or “morally fundamental,” despite reasonable doubts about its historical or empirical accuracy. In that spirit, let’s explore Torah’s opening.

Oversimplified: “Each day of Creation, God proclaimed ‘good,’ but He only called man ‘very good.’”

Genesis 1, right? Look again. Find the errors. First: Humans aren’t “good.”

The human arrives just after other mammals, late on day six. God had already declared those animals “good” (Genesis 1:25). So what sayeth God, right after creating and blessing our progenitors? Nothing. On humanity, the Divine jury is out.

What merits the superlative, then? “God looked at all that God had made” — kol asher asah — “and behold/wow, it was very good,” v’hinei tov me’od (Genesis 1:31).

The totality rocks. Humans alone are “meh.” Only the interconnected whole, in which people are just one species among millions, is “very good.” Simply put, we’re “better, together,” with the rest of creation, not above it. (Rashi conditions “dominion” by re-vocalizing Genesis 1:26: If humanity merits, through right relationships, “yirdu,” it will rule; otherwise, “yeradu,” it will fall.)

Second: women are no afterthought. “Humanity” is created, not “man.”

When we first encounter “Adam” (1:26), it’s clearly homo sapiens, writ large — because next, “in God’s image, God created it (oto); male and female, God created them (otam).” Simultaneous. Parallel. Equal.

Rashi calls this first human “two-faced,” di-partzufin, like conjoined twins; one side of its shared body appeared female, the other male. Later, you know Adam’s rib? “Sela” may better translate as “side.” When that first hermaphrodite human slept (Genesis 2:22), God divided it, one “side” becoming woman, the other man. Again, equality. Related: our third and final myth. God is no “He.”

Hebrew is a gendered language. Yet, despite mostly male metaphors, God is also genderless (“Rock,” “Fount,” “One”), even El Shaddai (“God of the breast”). The name Eheyeh, from the burning bush, connotes existence. So does Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, from “was,” “is,” “will be” (pronouncing it Adonai, “my lord,” is just common patriarchal convention). God is rachamim, merciful — from rechem, womb.

God is not essentially male. It’s proven in our parshah. Again, in Genesis 1:27, God made both “male and female,” b’tzelem Elohim, “in the Divine image.”

Reverse engineer it: If all resemble God, then God must be equally female and male. (And straight and queer, right and left, Black and White — if not altogether beyond our limited binaries.)

So yes, we can square Torah’s truths with modern truths like science, environmentalism and feminism. We should. Let’s look afresh at tradition, keeping it relevant and making it ours, in 5781.

Question for discussion

In what bookstore section/s might “Torah” belong?! Think far beyond “religion”: law; self-help; historical fiction; mythology; philosophy; literature … keep going!

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.

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