A Comment on Commentary

A Comment on Commentary


Howard Adelman

This past shabat we began again in the annual cycle of re-reading Torah. So we begin at the beginning which is about beginning. But it is an odd beginning because it is a repetition of what happened last year and the year before that and for over two millennia previously. To prove that, we discussed commentators from the last two millennia.

We could have discussed whether God created everything or just every thing, that is gave identity to that which was created, gave order. Genesis is not about the coming-into-being of the universe or even possibly many universes, but bringing order, understanding and even purpose, especially purpose to that material universe. So the issue is not about the material universe, that out of which something is created, but what was the motive or purpose or intent (each with slightly different meanings) of that creative activity. If the explicit question is about purpose, the implicit question is according to what principles or norms? For in articulating a focus on purpose, the emphasis is being placed on the normative rather than descriptive order of the universe, therefore “our” universe”, the universe experienced by man and in accordance with which humans lead their lives. Further, given an interpretation of that purpose and some understanding of those norms and principles, what can be anticipated?

Rabbi Splansky discussed a number of midrashim explicating possible understandings of that creation, in particular, why God suddenly refers to the plural, “Let us create earthlings …” In the Torah study group, the gentleman to rabbi’s right introduced another midrash, namely, that when God said, “Let us create man…” in the first use of the plural, the reference was not to his group of assistants – the angels – nor to a royal we, but to God and Man. God was addressing the being he was bringing into being as a partner in creation. Splansky had opined the evening before that man was the junior partner. So, in this interpretation, the “us” then is man plus the creature created who shall henceforth have some responsibility for creation.

In what sense is man the partner of God in creation? It is clearly a question that exercised most commentators. The answers varied, but no commentator takes seriously the option that creation did not have a purpose. In fact, Berkovits argues that, by definition creation entails purpose. Science is about causality, not creation. Science is about knowing and understanding the laws and causes in terms of which a previous state is transformed into a new state. Creation is, by definition, about purpose. So the disagreements among commentators are about those different purposes.

The Gaon, after dismissing arbitrariness as both contrary to the whole exercise and our understanding of Torah, defines two alternative purposes:

  1. sharing in God’s wisdom and thereby sharing in an appreciation of the mighty acts, the glory and the majesty of God’s kingdom with the consequence of inspiring awe in mortals;
  2. creating an incentive to obey God via an appeal to self-interest that can also serve a higher purpose; the emphasis then is on deeds rather than thoughts, on what humans can and should do versus the implied passivity of standing before God in awe.

This does not mean that if one chooses understanding creation in terms of purpose, the role of standing in awe before the wonders of creation itself is ruled out. It only means that the primary focus of the text is about figuring out the norms in accordance with which we are to govern our conduct and our lives. Moses Chaim Luzzatto, an eighteenth century member of an extended famous family of Italian Talmudists and himself a famous poet and dramatist, and, as well, a student of Kabala, also stressed that the purpose of creation was ethical, but ethics was defined as the search for perfection, very much in the Greek and Christian mould. The root of and the route for gaining perfection is service to God, defined as the only true good. The sole purpose of life is to rejoice in God’s perfection and to derive pleasure from God’s presence. The consequence of this surrender will be serenity in this world and entry into the world to come. But again deeds not just awe are involved, for to stand in awe before God’s perfection entails dedicating oneself to creating mitzvoth. The enemy to that quest for perfection and doing good deeds are desires which we must struggle to overcome. If this sounds akin somewhat to being born again in the blood of Christ, it is no accident.

Kaufmann Kohler, in contrast, is a rationalist and one of the early nineteenth century leaders of Reform Judaism. This is very evident in the selection from his works which begins with man rather than God. The stress is on self-determination and choosing one’s own destiny rather than following in the footsteps of God towards perfection or aligning one’s self interest with God’s purpose à la Gaon. The ideal is not a given, not planted in our nature, but that which must be discovered and defined by our actions. The voice of God is in our implanted conscience. There are no mystical visitations or hearing God directly. God is simply the ideal and we are commanded to walk with God who is righteous and just. But each individual has the responsibility of determining what God expects of him or her and how a self-chosen destiny is to be realized and enhanced.

Obviously as we trace through the positions of the commentators, they are all founded on understanding God’s behaviour as a well intended effort to lead a willing embodied partner on a righteous path. Ibn Gabirol was an eleventh century Spanish commentator and a poet like Luzzatto, but unlike him, he was on the side of rationalists. Rationalist moral thinkers saw the path of success through thinking rather than mystical revelation. For Ibn Gabriol, knowledge continued in the soul even after one died.

So in the ways of popular learning in the twenty-first century, those who wanted to study Torah are offered a smorgasbord of commentators to choose one’s own preference according to one’s taste. There was no effort to distil a set of coherent rules of interpretation of the Torah itself. For example, even though two of the commentators offered as food for thought were poets, there was no effort to uncover the poetic structure of the section. Instead, we are presented with a number of choices, but presented at random rather than in an organized offering. All commentators seemed to agree that creation was about purpose, was about finding meaning in existence. But what was the state of mind that best brought that about – rigorous study of minutiae or opening oneself to inspiration directly from God? Was the wisdom available for the improvement of man or simply to have a servant to give witness to God’s glory, to give God pleasure in the surrender of one’s will and in publicizing God’s role in the world.

Given that this was a Reform congregation and not a Hasidic study group, the latter option was unlikely to be taken up by anyone. In any case, the manner of study was unlikely to induce accepting such a purpose. Rather, like Berkowits, the inclination was likely to stress finding meaning and purpose in an otherwise material world of natural laws and probabilities so that even in defining that purpose, humans are partners of God. Holy Blossomers are hardly likely to surrender their secular faith in absolute self-determination, though quite willing to invert the master-servant relationship and assign God the role of a tour guide in a moral minefield. In that case, meaning itself is not found but intended and willed. As in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, we will ends in accordance with transcendental ethical laws, but ones which we find and create rather than ones that are the universal condition of having any morality whatsoever. The world of meaning is one in which we find meaning in our actions that are about the realization of a lofty goal.

It’s possible. But is that what the first two chapters of Genesis suggest?First, we begin with a paradox. The Hebrew suggests not a point of beginning – “In the beginning, God created…” nor even, as translated by Gunther Plaut, a reference to the moment before creation – “In the beginning as God was about to create…,” but as a progressive effort: “In the beginning of God’s creating.” We enter not at the very beginning point but into an action already in progress. The progress was about creating the world of heaven and the world of earth. And we are first told little about this fundamental dichotomy and the nature of heaven. The earth, we read, was however both empty and lacked any form. There was water but no light. The spirit of God hovered over the waters.

Now one can take this as a literal interpretation of the making of the material universe, as evangelical Christians usually interpret the text, or as about the nature of creativity itself and about the normative rather than the material world. Heaven is not the trillions of solar systems, the billions of galaxies with multiple solar systems, or even about the possibility of multiple universes. The heavens are not about the sun and the stars and the moon, but about that which is above, that to which we aspire, that associated with the basic character of air as opposed to earth and water. The heavens are about spiritual vitality. The first act of creation is allowing light to permeate the darkness over the face of the deep, not as a replacement for darkness, but as an alternate to it. So the first day of understanding creation is to comprehend the difference between day and night, light and darkness. It is to understand that the objective of creation if for humanity to lead an earth-bound life and to be a vehicle for God to live in the lower realm.

Is this a cognitive difference between knowledge and ignorance, between enlightenment and superstition? Or is it a differentiation between the act of discovery when one sees the light, when one breaks through a blindness and a blockage when mindblindness turns into insight? Or it a reference to both. At the very least there is the suggestion that knowledge, even if insufficient, will be a necessary foundation for what follows. Further, this knowledge is given a moral quality. If knowledge is good then ignorance is not bliss but is bad.

On the second day when the water below is divided from the water above, what can the metaphor mean, assuming we are all in agreement to reading the text as a grand metaphor. It is one that is hard for contemporaries to grasp since the image of the sky as a vault is not part of our experience where water seeps from above through the vault to form clouds and rain to fall down on the earth and waters below. But as a statement of meaning rather than as a depiction of a natural phenomenon, what is the meaning of separating the waters above and below? Are the waters from above the source of God’s tears when He will cry and cry out at the waywardness of the humans created? This is suggested in the previous verse which describes God moving over the face of the waters, not simply a movement, but a slight trembling and fluttering (m’rahaphet).  But it also suggests a hovering as a mother does over a newborn when the foetus will be separated out from the waters within and live outside of water in the open air and on solid ground. God hovers in anticipation. The tears shed are then tears of pure joy. Tears of joy pour forth when there is a horizontal separation and humans themselves participate in the act of creation. Tears of despair flood the world from above when humans participate in destructive behaviour. Hasidim celebrate to bring joy to God. That joy may be needed to bring some relief to God’s pain. But on the third day, the horizontal separation occurs when an infant is born and leaves its dark watery habitat to prepare for his life on earth. The waters first break, then there is the pain and then a very different kind of joy. It is the pleasure of fertility, of flowers growing and trees bearing fruit. What about the reference to light, to knowledge? The light is then divided itself into lights that serve to mark the separation of day and night, of knowledge and ignorance, so that even darkness has a light lest we live in the blackness of depression where we cannot glimpse an exit. Those lights mark out sacred days, those days that commemorate momentous steps in our collective coming to self-realization.  On the fifth day, the world of plants and animals is created, the world of instinct and natural propensities. It is on the sixth day that God creates man. And instead of saying, let water teem, let the land produce, let there be lights in the sky, let there be light itself, let there be a vault, we leave the world of letting be and enter the human world: “let us make earthlings in our image…” What is that imitation? It is to take custody and to govern the world that has been made. To keep it, to maintain it, to improve it. God created men and women to assume the responsibility of governing the world. So humans are created with an ethical and political responsibility and not just to “let there be.”  Why “us”? I have already suggested that this was because it was a collective responsibility, one which belonged to both God and humans. What was the division of responsibility? Were humans only responsible as helpmeets of God. Or was God in the position of a guide to the perplexed? Or did God have a greater responsibility in providing leadership. But if God knew the way, in what sense did the followers have any responsibility?

In Rabbi Splansky’s sermon on the previous evening, she had offered a midrash on the debate between Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. Not the one over whether the earth or the heavens were primary in the order of creation. (One answer: heaven is first in the normative world; earth is first in the descriptive or scientific world.) The biggest moral question of all was over whether it was worth it at all to have created humankind. The school of Shammai said that, “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created.” The school of Hillel said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” After first getting over my confusion in thinking the question about how I would vote in the current Canadian election, when I thought about whether I think  it would have been preferable for humans not to have been created as the debaters concluded after two-and-a-half years of debate, I, at first flippantly, decided that asking one to choose between a critical and depressed view of the creation of humans and one with an agreement with God that the creation was not just good, but very good, I wanted initially to side with God and take Shammai to task for conflicting with God on this conclusion and with Hillel for being weak in defending the counter position. Except that I am of the school that finds that God, most of the time, has bad judgement. So I should agree with Shammai.

I don’t and I did not. For I found the question a foolish one. Speculation about possible worlds belongs to fiction, belongs to the imagination. However, in ethics the goal is to use facts and science in combination with norms and guides of responsibility to make specific choices. It is not to pronounce on the character of human creation in general. That is a question we not only cannot answer, but we should not try to answer unless we are writing fiction. God’s basic propensity is revealed in verse 1. He wants to make moral pronouncements first, about the natural world, and then about the world as a whole. But if creativity is a process, if it is about developing a sense of care and responsibility, then premature moral pronouncements are distinctly unhelpful if not actually bad and harmful. In the Netflix series, “The Happy Valley,” the leading character, the policewoman, tells her junior officer: the worst mistake in policing is to make moral judgements before you have collected the clues and analyzed the case. Humans made in the image of God have this propensity, to generalize when generalization is neither demanded nor required, to draw conclusions prematurely, to evaluate and offer opinions that are self-referential, revealing more about oneself than about the matter-at-hand. In reality, it is one of the most basic acts of ignorance and lack of proper discernment. And God is the first to demonstrate it.

All this is but a prolegomena.

Next Comment: Verse 2


One comment on “A Comment on Commentary

  1. Davidben says:

    Quick comments:
    1. The first word of Genesis, Bereshit could be interpreted : with intent as r- r sh means head or beginning – It could also be read as : the beginning has created God – One acceptable translation could be: In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, etc.
    2. Élohim is plural however the verb is singular. This leads to the interpretation that God can have many expressions, YHWH being the one for Israel as it is stated in the Shema’.
    3. Water, light, energy: they are all the same according to relativity theory. The creation would be a particular matter/energy/light transformation
    4. Waters below and above: note that all comets are covered with huge amount of ice.

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