Howard Adelman

“Bereshit” in the Torah means, “In the beginning.” This past Saturday we began the cycle of once again reading through the whole of Torah. The previous Saturday we had ended Deuteronomy with a discussion of the relationship between nature and nurture couched in terms of nature and spirit. The study text in Deuteronomy was posed indirectly by means of an essay by Jeremy Bernstein, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Hebrew University. The essay was entitled, “Nature vs. Torah” and began with a quote by a second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Ya’akov, who viewed the appreciation of nature as a distraction from Torah study. One knew immediately that this was a foil towards a very different position because Jeremy Bernstein was well-known as an environmentalist.

In his survey of a number of different positions on interpreting a piece of text discussing the relationship of nature and spirit, it became clear that Bernstein was also not in favour of the very opposite interpretation to the one expressed by Rabbi Ya’akov, a position often part of Zionist thought that also saw nature and religion as oppositional. That Zionsim favoured nature over spirit, physical labour on the earth in opposition to eyes directed towards heaven via detailed study of text. That position is akin to the underpinning of the bulletins I receive on “Environment and Climate in the Middle East” that can be found at For example, a recent study warned that the Mediterranean was warming fast with the consequence that one could forecast deserts spreading in Europe. Ignoring nature for the study of Torah may not only be an erroneous interpretation of Torah, but it could have drastic consequences.

Jeremy clearly wanted to adapt a both/and position rather than an either/or one of either pole. One of my former graduate students who lives in Michigan and serves as a spiritual leader in the U.S. engaged in the understanding of “what it means to co-create heaven and earth” is a strong advocate for one variation of Jeremy’s position of both/and as she tries to educate a broader audience on the responsibilities of becoming a global citizen. Thus, the positions are divided into three main groups: 1) spirit rules over nature; 2) nature has priority on our attention [1 & 2 both read text as dictating either/or positions], and 3) a both/and approach that tries to give due credence and attention to both spheres. For religious Jews, the premises of one’s interpretation depend on how we read the metaphysical foundations of Judaism that are compacted and read in Bereshit (Genesis 1.1 – 6.8), the first reading of Torah which was read this past Saturday.

[I intended to write a commentary prior to that date, but I was, and remain, very busy in my new position as a nurse’s aide.]

Bereshit is called Bereshit because it means, “In the beginning” and it is the first word in the Torah. The argument among Jews and others interpreting text begins over the words that immediately follow, בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים, variously translated with the first word “bereshit” as, In the beginning, God created…,“ or “When God began to create…,” or, thirdly, “In the beginning of God’s creating…,” or fourthly, and most literally, but also most radically, “In the beginning of created Elohim.” There is no dispute that what is being created is heaven and earth, however differently those two terms may be translated and interpreted, but the different interpretations of the verb, the action and the agent are crucial, not only to understanding this piece of text, but the foundation of the whole Torah.

If the text is translated as, “In the beginning, God created…,” as it is in the King James version of the Bible and many, if not most, Christian Protestant biblical texts, then it means that creation began at a certain point in time, an assertion which can be taken back to the Big Bang, but that would take away from the usual meaning that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo, or to a date just over five thousand years ago that ends up being contradicted by the discovery of evolution. Martin Luther – this is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting his ninety-five theses on the large door of the cathedral, a specific date used to mark the beginning of the Reformation – in his lectures on Genesis: Chapter 1-5, interpreted the text “literally” as he read it to mean that Genesis recorded the beginning of day one (not the first day) of six days in which God created the world in all its perfection. Similarly, in John Calvin’s version of the text, “In principio creavit Deus…,” the text is seen to read, “In the beginning, God created…” This interpretation of text was radically different than Saint Augustine’s allegorical treatment of the creation story in his least allegorical treatment in his volume, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, but these Protestant interpretations are consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas’s version, “In the beginning God created…” and his premise that God created the first principle from which all else that exists emanated.

However, if the second or third translations above are accepted – which are both truer to the Hebrew and which are used in both Chabad and Reform translations – the process of creation is already underway. There is no discussion of a beginning point to all that has come into being, but rather a discussion of God’s role in becoming. In the fourth and most radical interpretation, it is the story of God or Elohim becoming. God develops in partnership with man; it is not a one way revelation. In any of these other three versions, there is no trouble with 1:2 where it is stated that earth was unformed with the clear implication that God’s role was to give form to the chaos of a material world that already existed. We enter the story at the beginning of that process of giving form and order. Genesis does not start with cosmology, but with the creation of order in the world.

The first step in creating that order involves four entities plus God as Elohim:
1. An unformed and “void” earth – וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ; Earth
2. Darkness;
3. The deep which has a surface or face – a primordial ocean or Nun Water
4. A wind or ruach, God’s spirit which swept over the face of the water. Air

What is missing of the four ancient elements is fire that brings light into the darkness of the world.

In a dominant Protestant tradition, that of Restitution theory, the chaos and void were not what followed God’s creation, which is inherently perfect, but the actions of Satan, the fallen angel, who ruined God’s original and perfect creation. However, in the dynamic interpretation wherein the text is about Becoming and not about Being, what is described is God’s intervention in a barren world in which there were waters but nowhere to view one’s reflection because darkness prevailed. When God’s spirit swept over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light, there was light as well as darkness, light by which the barrenness of the earth could be observed as well the coming to be of self-consciousness. Only with light could one see the face of God reflected. And so the text can also be read as a process of God’s self-development as God reflects on what He has wrought. The Torah then can be read as a history of the development of self-consciousness.

Clearly, this interpretation, ironically much closer to the literal Hebrew freed up from the imposition of Greek philosophy, is far closer to the allegorical interpretive tradition. As Rashi and many others have said, the text is not about cosmology but about a philosophical framework for the constitutional development of the Hebrew nation. After light arrives, enlightenment arrives and disjunctions arrive, the disjunction of heaven and earth and the disjunction of light and darkness. We have Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk even before we have the sun and the moon that make possible the morning and the evening. But the sun and the moon are both lights, the light that rules the day, consciousness, and the lesser light that rules the night, the unconscious, viewed as the fourth stage of creation.

What happens next after you have the creation of light in the midst of darkness and after the creation of two different realms from which enlightenment emerges? In 1.6, an expanse is created in the midst of the water that separates the water above and the water below, an expanse called heaven. This is a key stage in God’s creating heaven and earth. But what is that heaven? In Rabbi Plaut’s commentary, the expanse is considered the vault of the sky in which the lights of the sky, the stars, were implanted. On the other side lived the divine entities. Thus, the passage is simply an adaptation of pagan mythology.

But that does it an injustice. For the issue is not where an idea originated, but what the division means. In Greek mythology, the souls of the dead were ferried to another realm across the dark waters of the River Styx that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. In that mental framework, if the dead cross back over the River Styx, if the dead become the living dead of zombies, we have one kind of horror movie.

But in the Torah, the tension is not between the living and the dead, between humans and zombies, but between the pure fresh water, Apsu in Babylonian myth, the fresh clear water that brings rebirth, and Tiamat, salt water, the water that characterizes tears and grief. Heaven or the expanse is not above both but between them, between the strife and troubles on earth and the aspirations of purity that exist beyond the heavens that water the earth and bring forth the vegetation that supports life. So the conflict is not between the living and the dead, but between two forms of life, one open to growth and renewal and being showered by the pure waters coming from the other side of the vault of heaven, and the salt water tears of our grief and struggle on this earth. Ideals, aspirations, hope for renewal are necessary to watering life, but do not constitute the characteristics of life itself on this earth which itself is divided between the salt waters of the sea and the fresh water that falls and is needed to bring forth vegetation on the land.

The sixth day of creation is most interesting, for on that day after animate life arose, animate life proliferated into a plethora of species, but one stood out, humans made in the image of Elohim, God the creator. Humans, both men and women, also exist on earth to create. Accompanying that creativity will be the responsibility of ruling over both the world man inherits, nature (and which in turn and in some sense rule mankind as distinct from the self-legislated laws of the Torah), and the artifacts man brings into creation. God had finished His work and created the fundamental parameters for humans to continue the process of creation, a creation that was not just declared good, but very good.

Frameworks are dry and detached, formal and impersonal Now the more interesting part, the creation of the much more personal and human world and one which rewrites the story with humans at the centre even before there was vegetation, even when there was no rain falling from the heavens from the waters beyond the firmament, a firmament created and not something simply given form by God when He pronounces and says, “There is.” Man is created as a living being from the dust of the earth and God’s spirit that blew over the darkness and face of the waters is now blown into the nostrils of the human creature He has created. And the human as a man is planted in a garden called Eden where plants are provided for food except for two, the Tree of Life at the centre of the garden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, which is not given a locale but is somewhere in the midst of the garden.

We are now reading a record of a male dream that can be viewed literally as a night mare, of a vision of creation that comes in the night as opposed to the story that comes with the creation of light. The key clue is that man alone is created, and not in the image of God, but formed solely out of the dust of the earth. The male is created as a creature formed entirely out of nature without the spirit of God. Creativity, in a male’s consciousness, brings forth from his own flesh a living creature. Creativity in a context of womb envy does not require women. In fact, women will be regarded as an objectification of and for man, but this in a minute.

First, we must deal with the four rivers that water Eden and flow forth into four branches, Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Only the latter two refer to real rivers. There have been many attempts to locate the Pishon and Gihon rivers as geographical locales as well. Josephus claimed the Pishon was the Ganges. Others say it is the Indus. Rashi claimed it was the Nile. Other scholars claimed it to be a cluster of springs (פוץ, after all, means overflowing) and still others the long wadi running from the Hijaz mountains to Kuwait.

But there is no known river to which the Pishon (פִּישׁוֹן‎‎ Pîšōn) can be connected. In the Torah (2.11), the Pishon encircles the golden land of Havilah. Further,פִּישׁ means to be scattered in the sense of being distributed to the four corners of the earth, to being cast out and exiled, one version of the exile. Pishon is the imaginative river which will take us in exile from Eden into the four corners of the earth, for Pishon is the river which circles the earth. In contrast, Gihon or, more properly, Giħôn, גיחון means bursting forth or gushing forth. Gihon is the river that encircles just Cush, but all of Cush. Like the Pishon, there have been a plethora of efforts to link the Gihon with various different rivers, but it too is best viewed as an allegorical river, like the River Styx.

On the other hand, the land of Cush itself is real and the people of Cush are generally thought of as Ethiopian Jews or as the Tutsi of the Great Lakes region of Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo and Uganda. Without concerning ourselves at this point with any precise correspondence, two alternative visions are adumbrated for leaving Eden – forced into exile and scattered to the far ends of the earth, presumably for being wicked and giving way to temptation. But where do we go but to Trumpland, a place of precious metals. Alternatively, the exodus from Eden can be conceived as a gushing forth and relocation to a specific locale where one can shepherd cattle and goats. The emphasis is not on either place as the Promised Land, but on the process. One is a forced dispersion. The second is a gushing forth and a welcome relocation. The first is a story of refugees. The second is a story of immigrants.

However, both the Pishon and the Gihon flow south-west. In the Torah going west is equated with escaping family and social responsibilities, with the frontier, with innovation, but also with encounters with enormous challenges. In contrast to this romanticism, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow south-east from the mountains of Turkey, the latter from the confluence of the Murat Su and Kara Su Rivers in eastern Turkey before the Euphrates joins the over one thousand mile long Tigris River that has on its banks the city of Mosul, so much in the news these days, through to Baghdad to form the Shatt al-Arab and flow into the Persian Gulf. Nineveh, the great Assyrian city to which Jonah was instructed to travel to rescue civilization from its immorality, was also located in Upper Mesopotamia in modern Iraq on the east back of the Tigris River. The two rivers make the areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria into the fertile crescent, the cradle of civilization where both animal domestication and agriculture, writing and the wheel, were all invented.

With the cosmology and geography of the imagination set, the drama now begins with Act II in chapter 2 of Genesis. Verse 2.5 describes the situation very differently than the one left at the end of chapter 1. There are no trees or herbs growing. Chapter 2.5 does not describe a fertile crescent, for the earth was barren and there was neither rain to bring growth nor humans to till the soil and bring forth crops. Water came first as a mist and man came formed out of the dust. God blew air into the nostrils of man to make him a living soul. (2.7) So water, earth and air came together to form man. Where was the fire? Where was light? In this version of creation, there is no light. It is a dream.

We now know we are reading of the creation of man in the male imagination, for man does not spring forth from woman. In the male imagination, man comes prior to woman as an independent being. In the east, God planted the Garden of Eden and placed man in that garden where man was given responsibility for working it (who said that there was no labour required to maintain the garden?) and to protect or guard that garden. (2.15) [From what???] But there were two trees planted in the garden, the Tree of Life in the centre, the vision of possessing divine immortality (which man made in the image of God believed he already possessed), and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the other core foundation for the imagination and human life, but grounded in the flesh rather than in fantasy, grounded in sex and, hence, procreation. Man was instructed NOT to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil lest he die.

God said that something still was not good – who said that God had created a perfect world after six days? Man was alone. He needed a help meet. What was man doing in the interim? He was engaged in taxonomy, in naming different classes of things, the foundation stone of science and objective knowledge. But all the naming did not help him find a help meet. In fact, man did not even recognize that he needed one so caught up was he in his nerdy existence. God put Adam to sleep and in Adam’s imagination, the creation of life is reversed and woman is made from man rather than man emerging from woman. Further, to demonstrate his detachment, man will leave his parents and cleave to his wife, “and they shall become one flesh.” They will have sex and become intimate.

But did not God command man not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Yes and no. God warned man that if he did eat of that tree, if he knew another being carnally, he would recognize that he would know that he would die, and, therefore, might want to eat of the Tree of Life to retain the immortality that he had. So if he had sex, he would have to leave the garden lest he really seek immortality, seek to become a God.

In chapter 3 we are presented with a man and a woman naked in the garden. A third agent is introduced – a snake, an erect snake, and a snake that speaks, and a snake that is cunning. Who is that snake? (וְהַנָּחָשׁ) Recall that Adam is a nerd who walks around thinking he is immortal and, like God, names things and, thereby, brings them into being in his cognitive consciousness. But he knows nothing about his body. He knows nothing about his feelings. He does not even know he feels lonely and needs someone else. God has to tell him. So when his penis becomes erect and has a non-cognitive voice of its own, Adam others it. Like teenagers in the locker room, the penis becomes Oscar or Peter or … – an independent being with its own voice.

The snake-penis queries Eve and Eve says God told then not only not to eat of the tree but not even to touch it. “You won’t die,” says the snake. But our eyes will be open and we will recognize what is good and what is evil. How prescient! And God is surely right for Adam and Eve are until then clueless. Eve agreed with the snake that sex was good so she ate and he ate. End of innocence. Both knew shame. It could have been written that then the man turned over and went back to sleep.

God then asked – where are you, not physically. What head space are you in now that you have had sex, now that you feel ashamed of what you did? After all, I warned you. I told you what would happen if you ate that fruit. And lo and behold, Adam says, “It wasn’t really me. She did it. She offered me the fruit.” Eve said, “I didn’t do it. It was the serpent. It was the snake that tempted me.” So the erection became limp and would henceforth be hidden and live a life in the dirt and the dust. Further, as much as lust will drive you towards woman, God will ensure that enmity will also exist between the two of you.
As far as Adam is concerned, the penis, the snake, will crush your head, will undermine you as a cognitive and thinking person and you, in turn, “will bite his heel,” his עָקֵב, will greet nightfall or twilight or the end of the day, the loss of light with fanged teeth. You will always be forced to turn backwards and tear apart the tracks that you have covered, to indulge in second-guessing. Women will bear children in pain and men will no longer merely work the garden and protect it, but will toil on earth with the sweat of their brow. And, in the subconscious account, the two were forced to leave the garden and travel to the River Pishon in search of their fortunes at the ends of the earth.

On a totally other level, Adam and Even gush forth from the garden, freed up from their ignorance and their repression to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh and what it means to take responsibility. No longer unaware, they can reflect on themselves and one another. The cost is great, but has it not been worth it? They go to Gush via the Gihon and escape the prison of innocence for a rich world of wonders, for the pleasures of nature and for self-reflection and responsibility for themselves and the world.

The implications:
1. The Garden of Eden is not an allegorical ideal but an infantilizing of humans.
2. Man has a consciousness of the world of objects and believes that is what it is like to be God, to name and order the world.
3. Man (not women) inherently constructs a division between mind and body, between spirit and nature.
4. Man initially does not take responsibility for the actions of his body.
5. Man objectifies his own body driven by passions and will also objectify women.
6. Man in his fantasy world sees woman as an extension of his body and, hence, without a thought of her own.
7. When woman responds to the attractions of the flesh, it is she who seduces him, not he her.
8. The beginning of self-consciousness starts with humans recognizing their actions BUT refusing to take responsibility for those actions.
9. The Torah story will be primarily about humans and the Israelites learning to assume that responsibility.
10. Finally, though God creates the opportunities to learn, God plays the role of the trickster that makes God appear as if He is on the side of holding men and women back. From the very initial story and onwards, God will play the role of the reactionary provocateur.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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