Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 21, 2006

In the beginning

This week we begin the cycle of Torah reading again, starting with the account of the creation in Parshat Bereishit. These few sentences are obviously the basis of the manifesto of Creationism, but Jewish thought for the most part does not advocate a literal (or fundamentalist) reading of the text. Of course, that Hashem was the prime mover in creation is not even a matter open to discussion for most believing Jews, and more conservative elements believe that the text cannot be interpreted to accommodate evolution or posit an older age for the world’s existence than 6,000 years. Still, there is general consensus that the verses are not designed as statement of scientific fact. The text itself indicates that a literal reading is ill-advised. Since the sun and the moon that are central to our understanding of the passage of time (particularly for the first readers of the Torah) were only created on the fourth day, the logic does not flow that the nights and days of the account are specific measures that correspond to our understanding. In the broader terms of accepted practices of interpretation and commentary, both Ramban and Rambam cite a verse from the Midrash that states because the actual mechanics of creation are beyond human comprehension, the account is written in vague terms. And in general, if a concept is expressed in simplistic terms, the Torah is in fact indicating its enormous complexity. Rambam, it should be noted believed that the creation account was not incompatible with the “natural sciences”, but equally that is the perspective of a twelth-century philosopher with the state intention of reconciling Judaism with reason and logic. Ramban used the opportunity to explicate his version of ‘creatio ex nihilo’ in his commentary on the verse based on the gloss of the word ‘bara’, drawing a distinction between the Platonic view of a primal substance and the creation as the product of a single creative will

So what is the purpose then of including this account? Rashi, the most accessible and noted of the medieval commentators quotes Rabbi Yitzchak who asks why does the Torah (variously translated as law or teaching) begin with the Genesis account and not the first laws in the Torah? Ramban adds that the text of the ten commandments points out that the creation is the underlying rationale for making Shabbat the seventh of the week, further making the Genesis account superfluous. The assumptions underlying this question are themselves part of the answer. Firstly, the nature of the Torah is not a scientific text — it is a collection of laws and ethical practices aimed at a creating a just and holy society, comprised of socially responsible and spiritually aware individuals; secondly, it points out that creation account is not central to the theology of Judaism; thirdly, that the Torah was created for humanity, not only the Jews.

Rashi’s answer to the question posed by Rabbi Yitzchak is somewhat unsatisfying. He answers that in order to justify the claim to the Land of Israel, Jews must first establish it was Hashem who created the world. While on the first blush, this may seem simplistic, it also hints at the belief that possession of the land is subject to meeting the terms and conditions laid out in the Torah, not to temporal authorities (although I’d like to believe that the UN resolution in favor of the establishment of the State of Israel is binding to some degree). Nonetheless, the thrust of the question is that the account is to prompt discussion of why and not how the world was created.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks provides an ethical interpretation of the first verses. Since Jews are instructed to emulate Hashem, these verses are a challenge to create, and specifically light – looking for the goodness in others, and encouraging it.

In the doctrine of the Kabbalah, the ten sefirot were “emanated” from the Ein Sof — Hashem’s ineffable essence – before any physical, tangible elements were created. For the Kabbalists, the account is crucial to establish the primacy of the Torah as the defining animus of creation — nothing exists outside of God, and all matter is subject to divine realm. The use of the word ‘bara’ or ‘create’ in the first verse is to illustrate the depth of Hashem’s infinite potential as well as underline the absolute uniqueness of the Godhead and the Ein Sof, whose nature is unyielding to any description in human language. While this may seem like an esoteric speculation, the next step in the Kabbalistic interpretation is far more interesting. The question is this: why, if the Ein Sof exists on such an elevated plane, why would it descend into the physical realm? What purpose would it serve to put the Torah into the hands of such imperfect entities such as human beings, who like Adam and Eve, cannot be trusted to responsibly exercise their free will. The Talmud notes that the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years on whether:

“It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created”; and these said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.”

In other words – how does human existence serve the divine purpose? By simply following the word of Hashem because the nature of his will and the motivation for creation are ultimately unfathomable, or understand the act of creation as an expression of the divine will to spiritualize the physical – “the descent for the sake of ascent” as expressed in Lurianic Kabbalah? Surely, by encapsulating the soul in a corporeal shell, it subjects the spiritual to the degrading impulses of the physical? Shammai’s position is that by constant negation of the physical and the ego and by elevating the mundane as well as the mitzvoth, Hashem’s potential is made manifest. Hillel’s position is that is by harnessing the ego to perform mitzvot we serve the divine will. By recognized our weaknesses and fallibilities but striving for perfection we honor the initial impetus of creation.

As an aside, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan notes that: Rabbi Isaac of Akko who lived between 1250-1350 C.E., wrote in Ozar HaHayyim, since 6 cycles existed before the creation of Adam, their chronology must be measured in “Divine years,” not in “human years.” How do we measure a “Divine year”? According to Psalm 90:4, there is a hint at the manner of measuring a Divine year: “For a thousand years in Your sight are as a day.”

Therefore, according to Rabbi Isaac, the universe would be 42,000 divine years (i.e.. the six preceding cycles of 7,000 year each) x 365,250 human years (365.25 days in a year, with each divine day =1,000 “human years”). This equals 15,340,500,000. Modern science has concluded from calculations based on the expanding universe and cosmological observations, that the universe is 15 billion years old.



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