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

The Holiness Code

The Holiness Code – Parshah Kedoshim Leviticus 19 and 20


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow on shabat we read one of the most important sections of the Torah, Leviticus 19-20, or the core verses of the Holiness Code which includes verses and chapters from last week’s portion (17 and 18) as well as those from the following week. (For reference, I have included chapters 19&20 as a separate blog.) Many of the core commandments of the 613 commandments governing Jewish conduct are included in this week’s portion. Any one of them is worthy of an extended commentary. It is virtually impossible to discuss all the injunctions contained in this one reading in a single blog for they are articulated so succinctly and briefly that reading these verses is akin to unpacking a box literally stuffed to the gills with moral injunctions. I want to examine more than one, however, not to analyze a single commandment, but to offer the flavour of the Holiness Code with a view to obtaining a glimpse of what it means to be holy. I will discuss the portion under four headings as follows:

I. Sex and Speech
II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers
III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge
IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

I. Sex and Speech

Why start with sex when discussing holiness? Why probe all the injunctions against misuse of a servant girl by a male boss (19:20), ban adultery (20:10) especially with your brother’s wife (20:21) or incest (20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 20), castigate homosexuality (20:13) and sodomy (20:15&16) almost in the same breath, and then forbid having sex with a woman while she is menstruating (20:18)? Many of these are reiterations of injunctions in chapter 18. Bans on homosexuality seem totally misplaced for most of us with a modern sensibility. Adultery is not so good, but putting someone to death for such an act seems quite disproportionate to say the least. Sodomy seems more distasteful than deserving of such a harsh reprimand and saying that a servant girl should not be put to death when abused by a superior seems to perpetuate putting the blame on the female, though easing the punishment. And why is there an injunction against sex when your female partner is menstruating?

In other words, if sexual prohibitions are at once so basic and at the same time so deformed and misplaced, how can one suggest that obeying such extreme puritanical injunctions provides a path to holiness? I do not think it does. Further, the various penalties – from death to ostracism – do not seem to comport with our contemporary views of such actions or misdeeds. One predominant interpretation is that these injunctions against certain sexual conduct, allegedly profuse among the Canaanites and Egyptians, were intended to define the Hebrews as a pure and holy people in imitation of God, what Roman Catholics designate as imatio Dei. After all, they all seem to be placed in a context of being “clean,” where cleanliness is next to Godliness. And one characteristic of God is that (s)he is disembodied, does not have sex and inherently cannot be dirty.

This is the basic paradox. Humans are embodied. They have sexual drives. God is disembodied and does not need or desire to have sex. But God gave Adam a companion, Eve, precisely because Adam was a nerd and did not even recognize he had a body and needed to love and be loved. So does God want us to have sex and propagate the species? Clearly, the answer is yes. But God also commands that boundaries be placed around sexual behaviour. The reasons to me seem obvious and they are not about imitating God where holiness in the highest realm is defined as asexual. Rather, it is very practical and down to earth.

Yesterday I heard two more stories about young couples with very young children who, contrary to everyone’s expectations, broke up and are headed towards the divorce court. The epidemic – and it is an epidemic – of divided couples and marriages has to be a major concern. Adultery was involved. One partner “fell in love” with someone else. Or in another tale from the day before, one partner felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled in the marriage. I am not suggesting that couples when they discover they are incompatible should remain married. On the other hand, the marriage commitment and bond should mean much more than simply abandoning a pledge because of an attraction to another or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s path of self-realization.

That is why the sexual injunctions need not be considered as absolute puritanical injunctions, but as basic and profound guides about how a couple can realize holiness while engaging in sex and also bearing children. In other words, if we want to understand the sexual prohibitions, it will not be because we pay attention to the literalness of the commandments, but because we pay attention to their purpose related to the pursuit of holiness. And in my understanding of the Jewish religion, it is not because we envision holiness as equivalent to puritanical behaviour or asexuality, but, guides for embodied humans, thereby recognizing embodiment and how embodied sexual beings become holy.

So how is speech related to sexuality? Because it is through speech that men and women archetypically (men and men in cases of homosexual relations) initially have intercourse with one another. Recall that the use of speech was Adam’s hang up. He thought that words were all about naming and classifying and, in imitation of God, bringing something into existence by the speech act of naming and classifying. But a speech act is only asexual as a scientific enterprise. It is thoroughly sexual as a human enterprise.

Leviticus 19 verse 11 commands that you not “deny falsely” (Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman) or lie. The two injunctions are different. Bill did not precisely lie, for he meant by sexual relations intercourse not fellatio. But he did deny falsely for his assertion was completely misleading. The same verse commands that humans should also not lie. Why is truth-telling the most basic injunction in human intercourse. Because truth-telling is a requisite of trust. And trust is basic to human relations.

Have I lied? More precisely, have I lied to my partner? I have. And each time that I did it was because I was a coward and did not trust my wife to respond in the way I wanted. But that is not trust. Trust entails respect and talking to another and addressing their highest natures. It is not based on fearing reprimands and scolding. Speech in intercourse must be honest, direct and based on trust. Every time I fail to follow this understanding, I betray myself, my partner or children or friend and, mostly, fail myself. Implicitly, I “swear falsely” and profane the name of God. So healthy sex and healthy honest talk are interdependent and foundational for holiness.

II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers

If guidelines and injunctions about physical and verbal intercourse, about how to cultivate a healthy sex life and an honest dialogue between those with whom we are intimately related, are the foundation stones for a holy life, the second level of commandments address those with whom we are least intimate – strangers, particularly strangers who do not belong to our own tribe. And we all know, or should know, that the most repeated commandment in the Torah addresses how to treat strangers and then how to treat acquaintances or neighbours.

With respect to strangers, you cannot tease or belittle them and certainly not characterize them as “rapists” and “thieves.” You shall not taunt the stranger (19:33). More than that, you are required to treat the stranger as if he were a member of your own tribe. “You shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34) On the other hand, you must also reject and ostracize strangers who cavort with Moloch, Ov or Yid’oni and even put to death any who give their children to Molech.

Who is Molech? A god of the Canaanites, a god that required child sacrifice. A holy people, immigrants and refugees, sacrifice themselves for their children. Followers of Molech sacrifice their children for themselves. That is why when we are married, have children and run into trouble, as most marriages do, the primary consideration must be not to sacrifice one’s children for the pursuit of one’s own self-fulfillment or gratification of one’s own physical desires. Now it is a rarity these days to follow that injunction. God knows, I have personally failed. But that does not detract from the value of the principle. In fact, it raises the principle to a higher value.

There is an intimate connection between the dedication to raising your children and to respecting and loving strangers, for giving of yourself for your children and giving of yourself for refugees. But not all so-called refugees. Not “refugees” who victimize children, who engage in terrorism or who exploit others. But why the demonization of those who worship Ov and Yid’oni as well as Molech? (20:6) Ov is a medium who claims direct access to the divine or nether world. Yid’oni is an oracle who claims to be a spokesperson for the nether world or the divine voice. Followers of Ov and Yid’oni are as despicable as those who follow Molech, those who follow the path of using and abusing children, sacrificing children for one’s own purposes rather than sacrificing oneself for one’s children.

What connection is there between denouncing mediums and oracles and the respect and love for children? Mediums and oracles for a holy people spout vapid nonsense. One should not follow a demagogue who promises he can lead you to the Promised Land. Only the Holy One can do that. Oracles who say “trust me” and “I know how to make a deal better than anyone” are not to be trusted. And anyone who follows that oracle because that oracle has accumulated a following also becomes suspect. There is NO privileged access to the nether world or to the future. And there should be no surprise that such oracles and mediums so often scapegoat strangers. By displacing hatred onto others and using the oracular voice, they would bewitch you into trusting them instead of yourself and your inner voice, surrendering yourself for a leader who believes in strength rather than holiness, betting on charms and omens rather than evidence and behaviour over the long run that builds trust. The pursuit of holiness does not depend upon trickery, but upon a consistent effort at honesty and truthfulness and a respect for others especially if they are strangers. The devil may not be Molech, but the devil may be Ov or Yid’oni.

III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge

If trust is basic, enhanced through the use of honest language and intimate physical attachment to another, if loving the stranger and evading the enchantment of those who would use and abuse children for their own pleasure, those who pretend to be mediums or oracles, on the next level of building blocks for a healthy and holy home, we locate the concept of respect. It is the first window of the second story of that home. And the most basic form of respect is that accorded one’s parents. Parents are enjoined to sacrifice themselves for their children and not sacrifice their children for themselves. In turn, children are enjoined to render parents respect and honour.

But respect extends beyond the family. You must respect not oppress the other. (19:13), neither robbing no exploiting him or her. Nor shall you curse another who is physically deaf or is out of range of your voice and cannot hear you. (19:14) You shall not diss another, whether cursing another driver who cannot hear you; in so doing, you demean yourself. If you belittle and insult another, another propensity of those who scapegoat others and put themselves forward as oracles, you undercut respect both for others and for oneself. You shall not engage in favouritism (19:15) and give greater respect to the rich than the poor, for all humans must be respected (19:16), but you certainly must respect the venerable and the elderly. (19:32)

But respect is not enough. You must go deeper and evacuate your soul of hatred. Hatred eats like an acid at your soul and is a sure guarantee preventing one from becoming holy. (19:17) And if you do not express that hatred, but feel it deeply inside, it is even worse. Better to vent than stew, but venting as a relief valve can be almost as poisonous. This does not mean you do not confront and rebuke another for their failings, for their dishonesty, for their demagoguery, for their dogmatism and for their lack of respect for others. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (19:17)

Failure to rebuke, failure to confront, failure to express when you feel hurt by the actions of another, means that the weight of their sins will be borne by you and you will be weighed down by the inability to express what you honestly think and feel. But expressing those feelings and thoughts must be done in a context of respect for the other. Finally, if you fail to rebuke, fail to confront, if you carry a grudge and build up a store of hatred within and then seek relief through revenge, that is the final straw in betraying the commandment to be honest and respect another.

IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

The culmination of these failures is idolatry. Making a molten figure into an idol is simply a metaphor for worshiping a material entity as if it were holy. The best sign of idolatry is when a leader ensures his picture appears everywhere or when a leader seeks to stamp everything with his own name. Whether one worships an idol or tries to become an idol oneself, perhaps the greatest failing of our age of celebrity worship, we indicate by such behaviour that we have betrayed the pursuit of holiness.

Let me give one perhaps trivial example, the current fad of tattooing one’s body, of making “cuts in your flesh”. For “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself.” (19:28) Why not? What harm results? Enormous harm. For etching a tattoo into one’s flesh is an effort at make a fleeting feeling of the moment permanent and failing to recognize that things of the flesh can never be permanent. It is not because the body is God’s creation, for our bodies are made of the dust of the earth. It is not because we are enjoined not to mutilate God’s handiwork, for we are commanded as Jews to circumcise a male baby when only 8 days old. Rather, tattooing is related to idolatry, to deifying what should not be regarded as worthy in an effort to get in touch with the permanent, with the eternal.

It is clear in the Torah and it is a fear at a time of celebrating the day of Israeli independence, that Israel itself can be turned into an idol, worshiped in itself as the exceptional and the holy in total disregard of the behaviour of its politicians and its people. On the other hand, God has said to his people, “You shall possess their land, and I shall give it to you to possess it a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, Who has distinguished you from the peoples.” Jews are commanded to be a holy nation, a nation that gives witness to the highest values. This does not mean that other nations cannot express that role or aspire to holiness. Quite the contrary. But it is an overriding injunction for Jews as a people.

And that is what it means to be holy. It means being both intimate and honest with one’s partner, making one’s best effort at telling the truth, especially telling the truth to power, not sacrificing the lives of children for oneself but sacrificing oneself for your children, loving the stranger as oneself but never being so naïve as to fall into the bewitchment of a Molech, a medium or an oracle, not disrespecting or insulting the other, but being willing to rebuke that other when he or she offends, not building up resentments into a hateful cauldron or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worshiping another as an idol or trying to embed in one’s own flesh a sense of permanence for the impermanent.

That is the core of the holiness code.

My Promised Land.XII.Deri and Drugs

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


XII      Deri and Drugs: Religious and Secular

In chapters 11 and 12, Ari gets away from the world of serial begats and begins to explore offshoots of his promised land that have blossomed in the twenty-first century. Chapter eleven entitled “J’Accuse 1999” offers a fascinating portrait of Aryeh Machluf Deri who was almost solely responsible for the eruption and growth of the Shas political party on the Israeli political scene. The book is worth buying for this chapter alone. After providing some historical background to the fall from grace of a well-established and successful Moroccan Jewish family in its transition to Israel following the 1967 war, the vignette traces Deri’s transition through a series of Yeshivas as a young chosen genius that paralleled his own family’s decline from plenitude and honour to dependency and shame. Against this background, Deri succeeds in persuading Sephardic rabbi Yosef and Ashkenazi super-rabbi Elazar Shach to co-sponsor a new Sephardic religious party.

Ari traces the rise and fall of that party alongside the perceptions fostered of Deri as someone who skirts rules and takes bribes while showing how effective Deri was in building an educational and welfare system for the Sephardic poor to replace the disintegrating welfare systems of the Israeli state. In the face of all this criticism and opposition, in joining the coalition government as Minister of the Interior, he is portrayed as being the architect also of a relatively highly successful Russian immigrant integration program. Further, by enlisting the help of a mystical rabbi, he was able to stave off all the criticisms and attacks and secure 10 seats for Shas in the 1996 election in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

After the elections, a new wave of attacks came at Deri as the Attorney General’s office in 1997 decided to indict Deri on suspicion of persuading Prime Minister Netanyahu to appoint a pliant attorney general presumably so that attorney general would end the corruption charges against Deri. Finally, in 1999, Deri was charged with taking $155,000 in bribes. In the June 1999 elections, Shas went from ten to seventeen seats in the Knesset. His appeal is rejected by the Supreme Court in 2000 and Deri goes to prison for four years.

However, Deri rises from the ashes like a Phoenix and Ari paints a rather sympathetic portrait of a man who arose from nowhere as a “root out of dry ground” to become a prophet in his own time because he understood in great depth the personal mortification and humiliation process of the resettlement in Israel for those who lost their status and their material possessions in moving to Israel. Further, unmoored from their traditions, they came to a country which was largely spiritually bankrupt.  In the portrait offered and in the absence of the evidence against him, one is almost convinced that Dere was politically lynched. And the purpose is evident. Ari too in this book and this chapter uses it to indict the state for its callousness and the Sabra elites for denying the Holocaust, denying the Nakba, denying the Diaspora and, in this chapter, denying the Orient, The Sephardim were culturally castrated. The tale of the rise and fall of Deri is told as a story of the rise and fall of the Oriental Jew in Israel.

Chapter Twelve is entitled “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition, 2000.” I am familiar with the night life and the club scene of Israel because in my twelve years hosting and producing the television show Israel Today, we made one show on the wild nightclub scene of Israel. It is the only show we made that we never broadcast. It was unsuitable for the evangelical Christian station on which Israel Today was aired. I recall that making that show almost deafened me.

Ari features Itzik Nini, a dancer at Club Allenby in Tel Aviv and his ascription of radical change in Israel to drugs. “They make everyone happy. They liberate you. They open things up, especially Ecstasy…It doesn’t remove you from reality, but makes you feel better within reality.” I have never taken drugs of any kind. I witnessed what the drug culture did to RochdaleCollege in the sixties. I have no sympathy with the drug culture or its claims even when my children, and now grandchildren, accuse me of being close-minded and cut off from an important dimension of existence. I just see it associated with decadence and not the music of the Beatles, though it is certainly an offshoot of the sixties revolution. This part passed me by entirely..

In the contemporary club scene in Israel, Deri is not god. God is the DJ as Ari contends. It is a scene in which gays are the leaders and may be the reason that Putin is so anti-gay. In my world, I do not associate the liberation of gays with drugs. My gay friends were not into drugs in any significant way. Ari may be correct that drugs are associated with the liberation of club culture and, hence, gay culture, as its leading edge for “the gays have totality”. “Gays are the very total people, that’s what makes the parties so over the top. If it’s costumes, then it’s costumes all the way. And if it’s drugs, then it’s drugs all the way. And if it’s sex, then it’s sex all the way.” (201).

Michal Nadel is another spokesperson for this Israeli tribe, for in its beats, in its all-night dancing, in its throbbing music that prevents the mind from thinking at all, in its forging hundreds of sweating and dancing bodies into a single organism, this is truly a tribal culture. Ori Starck and Ravid Zilberman are two others. Ravid says, “”You enter something that is not quite real, a dream that makes your head spin. And all your barriers fall away. All your inhibitions. You are transformed..” (304) All because of sex and drugs.

Have these young Israelis never read about the cult of Dionysus! This is nothing new. This decadent escapism may be portrayed in its excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, but all it is is excess. All it is is decadence. All it is is escapism, self-indulgence and excess. To present the eternal need for stimuli and pleasure and excitement, to present the dervish worship of the golden cow as a sacred calling where there is no inhibitions, where there are “No more poses, no more pretenses” (307) is the biggest pretence of all. Aas Ari records the apologists, “The sound system is so loud you can’t even talk.” (307) And you can’t even think let alone think critically. For there is also “no embrace, no affection, no tenderness.” (307) Merely copulation dressed up as sex. In the wild pursuit of pleasure and fun one can recognize what Moses had to deal with

Why is Ari so overwhelmingly judgmental about everything else in israeli life but in this chapter brackets any sense of judgment. “They are very good looking, these youngsters. Here is an Israeli success story few write about.” The combination of sex and sun and markedly different gene pools has created a unique sensual beauty here.” (308) Ari is saying, ‘I am a real liberal. I do not sit in judgment of these young people who are only having fun. You repressed uptight liberals are the problem because you do not own up to your own violent history. I do. You don’t.’

The reality is that the historical and intellectual world Ari has created is as much an escape from reality as that of these drugged out youngsters, only Ari is drugged out on his own shrill judgments while in this chapter boasting that he does not stand in judgment at all. It is hypocrisy of the worst order. When he writes that, “Without uttering a word, they make a statement through their liberation, through their sexual openness and their rhythmic ritual. They make it in trying to create a space of their own that is ritualistic, lustful and fun.” (308) Jews who came to the land of Palestine and worked hard to create a space of their own that was not ritualistic, that was not egoistically lustful but with a lust for creating a new life, are guilty of disposssessing the Palestinians. But those engaged in egostic self-indulgent hedonistic lust who surrender all effort to think and have the least time and concern for Palestinians in refugee camps, these worshippers of Baal, are viewed as the truly liberated. Baccanalia is NOT freedom. If the Torah taught us anything, it taught us that.

Let us live. Let us live for the moment. Let us seize the day. To present the worship of Baal as the worship of freedom, liberation as the breaking of every taboo, and to celebrate it, is to put one’s critical faculties into a deep freeze. Ari presents this tribe as the only authentic one that rises up against Israel’s fate and Israel’s condition when the fate he has portrayed is the one he himself constructed in his own intellectual deterministic universe,

What hogwash!!!! 

Reflections on Venus in Fur

Reflections on Venus in Fur


Howard Adelman


[Note: I have not written a review of this play deliberately. I did refer to a New Yorker review that I had read but could not recall or find. Georgia Klass in Winnipeg took note and found it for me. The review, “The Whip Comes Down” was written by Hilton Als, not Robert Risk as I indicated yesterday, and published in the 8 February 2010 issue of The New Yorker. It is a superb review for a superb play.]

In David Ides play, Venus in Fur, we have only one Venus and one fur in a singular semblance of an inversion of a representation – or so it seems. In actuality, we have multiple layers. There is the Western literary heritage of Greek drama and biblical writing in which the play is wrapped like a Christmas present. There is Sacher-Masoch’s’ life itself in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There is the representation of that life in  the character of Severin and Wanda in his novella. There is the adaptation of the novella for the stage and the re-presentation of those same characters in a very different medium and, hence, a very different way in the draft script. There is the audition for the adaptation which, in the process, transforms Severin and Wanda once again. Then there is the dynamic between the playwright/director and the actor who auditions that becomes the main source of tension in the play. Finally, all this is enacted with perfect timing, execution and virtuousity encompassing every one of these levels with instantaneous shape-shifting in the context of references to a life for both performers outside the rehearsal hall, lives that are being continually sacrificed to the dynamic between the writer/director and the actress in the audition that becomes a re-enactment of the play but on terms more and more set by the actor being auditioned, and all this in the context of a vague and ambiguous sense of a political context that is both absolutely irrelevant and precisely relevant to what is taking place on stage. If simply describing that is an accomplishment, think about what an achievement it is to turn this into a work of art.

Unlike Severin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s novella, who is inexperienced in the ways of love, a romantic envisioning as his ideal a woman physically treating him cruelly, the director/playwright, Thomas Novachek (Rick Miller) begins as the master of the situation as in all auditions where the actor appears as a mere supplicant. Thus, although there is the reference in Sacher-Masoch’s novella to and obsession with Severin’s aunt who wore furs when she held Sacher-Masoch down as a youth and beat him (a creation of his own youthful imagination or an actual episode?), the reference serves only a dramatic effect but does nothing to explicate the psychological drama acted out on stage let alone any political dimension. What Severin and Thomas have in common is that they are both aesthetes in search of perfection, Thomas on stage in the arena of representation and Severin as the protagonist in his own life as the main character in a novella presumably as an alter-ego of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch begin as radical contrasts.

A passionate and saucy New Yorker with a filthy mouth, Vanda Jordan rather than Wanda (played with absolute brilliance by Carly Street), enters and makes Barbra Streisand who plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl look like a demure retiring flower. She is late for the audition. Everyone has left except the playwright-director who is frustrated after a day of unsuccessful auditions and he is anxious to get home to his fiancé. Thunder claps accompany Vanda’s tumultuous soaking wet entrance with a broken umbrella.

Only later when they recur will the thunder and lightning of The Bacchae throw light on what is taking place and only later will we understand that this is Semelê, daughter of Cadmus and mother of Pentheus being brought back to life in a new form on stage. Only then will we recall that Vanda’s swearing at the gods for her misfortune in the opening, that her cussing, has some depth of meaning. Vanda,, of course, true to type, at the beginning appears absolutely unsuited to the part of a sophisticated young and beautiful rich nineteenth century aristocratic widow. However, she turns out to have the acting skills and the hauteur of Maggie Smith. So the actress, Vanda, who auditions to play Wanda, a character common to a genre of Broadway and Hollywood comedies, is the very opposite of Wanda yet has to carry a huge weight of historical baggage as someone who misspeaks with a New Jersey or Brooklyn accent as she forces you both to forget and recall over twenty-five hundred years of art. As Severin says to the goddess Venus: “You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me forget two thousand years.”

The play is very different from Leopold von Sacho-Masoch’s book in a number of other respects, such as the relationship between the two main characters. Though there is playing at masochism, there is no real cruel and intensely physical beating ever. The play is NOT about masochism and an exploration of physical cruelty as the essence of love and of the male/female relationship more generally. (Severin as quoted in the play: “I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”)

The focus has shifted entirely to the  master-slave relationship rather than its expression through sado-masochistic infliction of physical pain. What is left is the phenomenology of the experience rather than the experience itself as the playwright/director and the auditioning actress inventively and continuously switch roles from playing themselves to playing the roles in the play and from who is in charge to who is following orders. And the switch between them takes place subtly but directly as the profane and earthy actress auditioning for the part asks to switch off the glaring lights above and, without waiting for permission, simply does so. The impertinent and brash actress takes more and more responsibility for directing and even writing the play and becoming the guiding spirit to realize the director/playwright’s vision. It becomes the story of a muse who comes to life just as Severin’s marble statue took on a real life form.

The adventure takes place in peeling back layers of an onion as we both weep and laugh at our tears, in the provocations of thought much more than physical bodily reactions, in the boldness of both conception and execution in spite of, in  fact, because of the minimalist but absolutely perfect stage and the restriction to only two actors in one uninterrupted 90-minute performance. The two milk the sensuality out of all this talk about sexuality in spite of what Jennifer Tarver, the director, may have thought she was creating with this excellent production. Like the writer/director in the play, what she created was something other than what she claims to have accomplished, and it, like the play within a play within a play within a play, etc.,  is an outstanding accomplishment. Indeed.  I long ago learned that a director, whether it was Leon Major in the planning of my play for the Crest Theatre over a half century ago, or Robert Gill who directed the play in the Hart House production, the director’s version need not coincide with the playwright’s idea nor with the audience’s actual experience once the play is performed. The play is more cerebral than carnal, more comic than crazy, more kooky than kinky, and more sensual than sexual in spite of all the talk about sex.

Unlike the novella which served as the inspiration, the play within a play avoids dream states and plays with the transition between fiction and imagination and the so-called reality of the audition simply through the imaginative acting skills of the performers. For the play, unlike the novella, is much more about the relationship of appearance and reality – in this Jennifer Tarver is dead on – for in Sacher-Masoch’s world there is only appearance. The imagined world is the only real world. In the play on stage, the imagined world re-imagines one imagined world and replaces it by another. The contract of perpetual slavery is re-enacted in the play but NOT the alternative deal, that if the signed agreement fails, the alternative is that Severin agrees to forfeit his life. The Hegelian dimension of the struggle between life as survival and desire in the novella is also missing from the play. Instead, we get a much more minimalist focus on lordship and bondage as existential states, of domination and submission. For in order to survive, an actor must audition and subjugate his or herself.

The novella is truly sensational in re-enacting mascochism, and never more so than, when, after a severe beating, Wanda leaves with her new lover. “Blood was already flowing under the whip. I wound like a worm that is trodden on, but he whipped on without mercy, and she continued to laugh without mercy.” In the play, this cruelty is referred to and performed as a kind of stylized dance, but there is none of the blood, the sheer evocation of cruelty, the fear and anticipation, the dread and the physical pain that we find in the novella. The psychological degradation becomes much more important. Most significantly, while Wanda leaves with her Greek lover at the end of the novella abandoning the whipped and tied-up Severin, the play ends with the playwright worshipping Aphrodite – Venus in Fur. The master of the script has become its slave.

The play is NOT about sado-masochism. Sado-masochism is a reference point and a way of costuming the play which is about gender relations and the issue of master and slave, lordship and bondage, behind and beneath the act of sado-masichism, but it is not about sado-masochism. Nor is it an erotic play though there is one quasi erotic moment when the playwright puts Wanda’s long leather boot on her legs slowly and evocatively zipping it up. But where does humour have a place in an erotic setting? It is like cracking a joke and laughing in the middle of sexual intercourse. So when Wanda asks Tom if he wants to put her boots on, he abjectly accepts and then she cracks: “On me, not on you,” or words to that effect. A great joke but hardly a foundation for an erotic scene. But that is as erotic as it gets – not much more than a glance at a Paris postcard with a joke on the side . If you want to experience eroticism and the suffering of a person enslaved by love, go see the movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour for a fictional representation of eroticism between two females as imagined through a male director’s eyes.

In Ives’ play there is a reference to the book of Judith in the apocryphal bible. Sacher-Masoch’s book begins with a quote from ch. xvi, verse 7 of that book: “But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” This is what the play takes as the real essence of the novella and re-enacts on stage, not erotic sado-masochism. Perhaps in some sense an actor has to be a masochist to endure the humiliations of repeated auditions and rejections and perhaps directors have to be sadists in some sense to put actors through such cruel experiences. But in staging the inversion of that relationship rather than the process of gradual and even worse submission in the novella, we can better understand Ives’ play as an allegory about master and slave, seduction and being seduced, about plays and audiences and the sado-masochism is merely a metaphor for this much larger topic. There is none of the fear and pain that comes so alive in the Sacher-Masoch novella. Further, and ironically, instead of the representation of a sacred personage coming to life, instead of an “aureole”, we find a fictional character in a play playing another fictional character who transforms herself into the sacred Venus cum Aphrodite. We are transported from Roman to Greek worship through the epitome of the Greek imagination, the play.

Thus, Euripedes’ The Bacchae, looms much larger in the play than in Sacher-Macho’s novella where it is merely referenced. This is where we might have an implied political message, though Euripedes, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, was rarely subtle about his didactic message. In Sacher-Masoch, the equation of the heroine, Wanda, with the all-powerful and cruel Catherine the Great is direct. If I am correct, the political reference in the play, if it is indeed there, is subtle. For The Bacchae was written when Athenian democracy was in disarray; rational and responsible government had become dysfunctional. Is there some connection between the theme of inversion and displacement of the master-slave relationship with the accelerating decline of America as both a world power and a dysfunctional polity? I would have to see the play again to make a determination, but you can keep this question in mind if you have seen or go to see the play.

In Euripides’ play set in Thebes, the connection between the rise in dysfunctional politics and the increase of hedonism in general and the cult of Dionysus is unequivocal. Sacho-Masoch’s novella was written as the empires of the old order were proving dysfunctional. Is Ives suggesting that the rise of aestheticism into prominence is symbolic of what is happening in the political life of America where the Boston tea party at the heart of American ideology is being re-enacted in terms of a totally reactionary agenda and as a virtual cult? There is the parallel between the end of the Peloponnesian War which Athens lost and the series of wars from the Vietnam conflict to even the wars that America and her allies ostensibly won that have all turned into defeats for America and its allies as America retreats as a world power. However, Euripides’ message is not reducible to a simplistic contemporary political commentary. Certainly, neither is Ives. But the theme of submission, of reversals in roles and the seeming futility but nevertheless magical enchantment with attempting to realize an envisioned ideal are all in the play. Even the theme of surrendering to a higher power seems to dictate that every powerful empire is doomed to decline may be implicitly connected with the rise of the feminine into power politics and the decline of males as macho men.

But the cruelty and eroticism of Ives’ play lacks the graphic evocation of either the novella or the Greek play. If you have ever seen the Bacchae – I saw a very flawed production once – even if badly done, it is clear how important erotic and violent imagery are to the play. This is not the case in Venus in Fur. Perhaps this is because Ives’ play entertains and entrances more than it penetrates your soul. The unexpected is used to tease and enchant and turn the members of the audience themselves into mesmerized slavish witnesses to the turns and twists of the plot. That is why, at the end, you do not have the ecstatic moment of a Dionysian cultish service. Instead of arousing the audience to a pitch of sensuality, our intellects and imagination are excited.  

Commentary on the first six books of Genesis

Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1.2-6:8)


Howard Adelman

This week Jews (and some others) begin the annual re-reading of the Torah. And the beginning is my very favourite part. Why? Because it is about what we are given as gender beings and how that forms the foundation of our ethics. We are born equal, man and woman; God created men and women as equals. But not in man’s head. Man has the delusion that he was born first and that woman is but a physical extension of a man. While man does not take responsibility for his own penis and sexual drives, he presumes woman is merely an appendage and physical extension of himself to serve him. This inversion of how man regards his own body and how he regards a woman’s body are the foundation of ethics and what it means to say a man is born in sin. It not because he is sexually driven; rather, it is because he does not take responsibility for his sexual drives, for his embodiment. Further, he turns a woman, not into an object, but into an extension of his own agency and does not respect her as an agent in her own right.

Take the issue of revelation which supposedly divides the Orthodox – or, at least, most of them – from the non-Orthodox in a debate over whether the Torah as written is the word of God transcribed on the page or the collation of a number of writers over years when the importance of the Torah is that, as one reads and examines the text, the text reveals to us profound truths, beginning with the roots of sin and the need for ethical norms and their compass. The usual division of Bereshit starts with the first seven days (1:1-2:2) and then moves to the Garden of Eden Story (2:3-3:23), then to the story of Cain and Abel (4:1-4:26) and ends with the prelude to flood (5:1-6:8). I want to cover all four sections in one commentary.

Though the narrative begins in cosmology in the discussions of light emerging from darkness, the emergence of the sky, the earth and the heavenly bodies, and then the creation of the fish of the sea, the birds in the air and the animals on earth and finally, the relatively new species, human beings, the significance of the story has nothing to say about how the world was created. Rather, it is a set up. Nature is good. God says it over and over again. Then God created humans and, understandably, needed a day of rest.  

When we throw light on nature, when we separate the darkness and allow light to bathe over not only the earth but even the deep depths of the ocean floor, one has to be amazed. Just watch an episode of National Geographic or the BBC series on deep water exploration. What a fantastic place we live on! It is truly a wonder to behold. By the fourth day, we have a cosmos that gives us our days and nights, our weeks and our years, the rhythms of time in accordance with which we live. And even when monsters and wild beasts came into being; it was all perceived as good.

And then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (verse 27)  So begins the problem and the paradoxes. Man is created in God’s image even though God has no visible presence. But what is clear is that he created both male and female. (verse 28) And then we have the first blessing and the first commandment: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Being created in God’s image is not about physical appearances but about the human role as an agent – a creator AND a ruler. “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (verse 32) In ch.2:3, God rested and blessed the 7th day as He looked with satisfaction on what He created. 

But not for long! Then the dissolution set in. God discovers for the first time, and it will not be the last time, that He made a mistake. For what he thought of and pronounced as good was no such thing. Why? 

We then move onto the second segment and read the second story of man’s and woman’s creation, and in this story they are not created equal. For this is the story as the male imagines it. Man is the product, not of a virgin birth, but of a femaleless birth. He is made sui generis out of earth and water and air that is used to inflate him. And then God created the Garden of Eden with all kinds of trees, but two special trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a huge garden fed by four great rivers: the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon (where the wealth of the earth’s resources, especially gold and precious gems, can be found) and the Gibon (the Nile ?) that runs through the Cush. The Garden extends from Babylon or Iraq down through the Arabian Peninsula where Noah’s son, Shem, and his son, Joktan (the Ishmaelites) (Genesis 25:18) will settle, down into East Africa where Noah’s descendent, Cush, the son of Ham, will settle. 

God issues the second commandment, not to eat and enjoy, but rather not to eat, specifically not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If man eats thereof he will realize that, unlike God in whose image he is made, man will know that death is certain. Further, man in the Garden of Eden did not recognize he was lonely; God observes that. God pronounces that as not good. In the second imaginative version of creating woman, woman is fashioned out of Adam’s rib, but for a specific function, to be man’s helper and aide de camp. Rulership is perceived as extending over women. Third, man is given a job. He becomes a biological taxonomist giving names to the different species of animals and fish and birds and perhaps even the insects in the billions. Perhaps this was the reason he did not even recognize his emotional need for a woman – he was so caught up in his mental work of naming and imitating God as a creator. Finally, it was observed that man and woman were together and were naked and were not ashamed.

Chapter 3 tells the story of what is often called “The Fall”, on the supposition that until this moment Man and Woman lived in a state of grace. But if in man’s imagination he was born not from woman, that woman was created as a projection of himself, and in service to himself, then the seeds of trouble had already been planted. We are introduced to the Serpent, a new character in the story. Who is the Serpent? He is shrewd. He is a wild beast. He is erect. Unlike other animals, he speaks. He is masculine. And who does the Serpent talk to? Not man, but woman. And what does he say? He does not behave like man walking around the Garden as a biologist naming everything and therefore serving as a surrogate in bringing things into being in the realm of knowledge. Instead, he behave like Socrates sceptically asks a question. 

 “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” 2 The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3 It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, 5 but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who knows good and bad.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.


Why were they embarrassed? What were they ashamed of? They had disobeyed a commandment. But the disobedience had been very pleasurable. Further, they became wiser in some sense in taking pleasure from themselves as sexual beings. The serpent had been correct. They did not die from eating the fruit. Only their innocence died. They became ashamed of their bodies. Why? Because, commandments and ethics did not determine what they did; their bodily desires did. So they recognized who the serpent was. This erect figure, this male penis, was not an independent voice, but the voice of male desire for which the man did not take responsibility. Just as the woman was seen as an extension of his own body, the penis became an independent agency for which man did not take responsibility.


Both were internally conflicted, each torn inside and confused. When God sought them out, they hid. God clued in. He immediately knew that they had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God knew that they had the sexual relations, those relations that Bill Clinton denied he had had with Monica Lewis. God asked, “Did you eat of the fruit that I had forbidden you to eat? The gender wars were now on. The male said, “She did it. She put me up to it.” So really, God, it is not only her fault. It is Your fault. For you created her as company for me. The woman was not much better in refusing to take responsibility. The serpent, his penis, tricked me, she said. So God addressed the penis directly and said that henceforth, the penis would no longer stand erect but crawl on the belly of man. Henceforth, this now shrivelled and wrinkled piece of flesh would be the source of enmity between man and woman and the male and female children of man and woman that will spout from their loins. She will strike at the head of man, at man who attempts to rule over woman by guile and rational cleverness. Man will strike back, nip at her heel and forever undermine her as he attempts to seduce her and then rule over her. In spite of that, her desire will be directed towards him. As a result, she will have children, but bring them forth only in pain, and not simply physical pain.


As for man, no more would he simply be the biologist and taxonomist, but he would, like his scrawny shrivelled penis, be cursed and henceforth survive only through physical toil in an earth no longer bountiful but full of thorns and thistles. Man would have to become a farmer and a herdsman and work all his life by the sweat of his brow. You thought you were made from dust so to dust shall you be returned. And Man named his wife Eve – no longer a generic name but a particular name, but as a generic name in a different sense than as a class term, the mother of all of humanity and even of everything that lives. Woman would henceforth be Gaia. And man would henceforth not be allowed a life of leisure, simply living off the fruit of the land.


The third segment of Bereshit begins with Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel. For if the story of cosmology is a tale of awe and wonder and the beauty and bounty of nature, and if the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the story of the inner conflict within each between Desire and Life and between not only the two of them and between Desire and Life, but between Desire that envisions man as God living off the earth and ruling over that bounty and Desire for Woman and becoming one flesh, and between Life that aspires to immortality and Life that simply endures the hardship of survival, the story of Cain and Abel moves into a new struggle, the struggle for recognition between two alpha males and between two different ways of life bequeathed to humans who no longer live in the Garden of Eden. It is the story of emerging from the second stage of what began to be called in modern political theory, ‘the state of nature’.


Cain, the eldest was a farmer. Abel was a shepherd, a herdsman. But the cowboy and the farmer could not be friends. Each wanted exclusive recognition of his rights. For their ways of life were pretty incompatible. One needed fences. The other needed open pasture. One life meant being on the move. The other meant settled life. Each offered the best of what he produced as a sacrifice to seek recognition for his way of life at the same time demonstrating that they were still above the work of mere survival and wanted divine recognition. God gave it to the shepherd, not the farmer.


God had said that the farmer could do fine without recognition as the superior way of life, as the way of life worthy of divine sanction, but the farmer did not want to live on the margins of a pastureland, as in the pampas of Argentina, or to lose the status as God’s chosen imitator. It was not the man dedicated to domesticated animal husbandry who killed the farmer, as one might imagine, but the farmer who killed the peaceful shepherd. Farming became the dominant mode of earning a living and herding animals and sheep or camels was thrust off into the margins. Agriculture became the central route to building civilization and cities. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain, unlike his parents, did not seek to hide but replied equivocally: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”


Ironically, his smart-assed reply revealed the very core of the ethical code necessary to avoid murder and mayhem. As punishment, the man of the soil who only wanted to settle in one place, was made a nomad, driven to seeking more fertile soil always elsewhere. He became the unsettled settler, the migrant par excellence and not just a nomad. He went to live in the Land of Nod (ארץ נוד), East of Eden, the land of wanderers, for “nod” is the root of the Hebrew word, “to wander” ((לנדוד). Ironically, the desire and need to wander would become, not so much the source of agricultural settlements, but the foundation of cities where man lives uprooted from the soil as neither a farmer nor a herdsman.


What is the mark of Cain that God put on him to protect him from murder? Cain was made into a fugitive and wanderer alienated from nature and destined to live in cities. To live in a city, man requires protection. No more could a man be recognized for what he did and how he brought forth the means of survival by his labour. The mark of Cain is recognition that man must be a citizen of a polity to be protected; he can no longer rely on his own devices; he must have membership in a political collectivity. This is his mark of Cain. He can enjoy no freedom without such a membership. So in the fight for recognition of one way of life over another, neither wins. A new form of polity centred on the city and civilization comes into being where man must be recognized as a member of a people and ruled by a government in order to survive. Ironically, the mark of Cain is citizenship. It is the mark that means man has totally left the state of nature and entered into the world of polities. So Cain and His wife bore a son, Enoch, who founded a city. And another son born of Adam and Eve, Seth, gave birth to another line of humanity.


And so humanity grew and multiplied and settled the world until Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth came along. The fourth segment of Bereshit is told following the alienation from the wonder and awe of the beauty of nature, following the discovery of treachery and duplicity rooted in a failure to take responsibility for ourselves as embodied creatures, and then following the war between different ways of life and the search for recognition of the superiority of one over the other only to end up with murder and the emergence of a new way of life, living in cities and a polity where each carries a mark of identification, the artifact of citizenship, as the means of protection. But civilization will breed classes, those who sacrifice themselves for the future and develop their capacities and means of sustenance, and those who look sceptically upon the whole effort of service and duty to family and nation and country and simply want to get satisfaction from life.


Then who were the Nephilim, divine beings, the heroes of old, men of renown, who cohabited with the daughters of men and who made wickedness the prevailing mode of life on earth, and who made God regret that he had created life on earth altogether so that he wanted to start all over again to correct his mistake and decide to bring forth the flood? The Nephilim are neither those who achieve mastery over men and themselves nor those who are self indulgent. Why are these Nephilim equated with those who fell who are associated with wickedness, children of God and fallen angels, or, alternatively, those who cause others to fall, giant Samurai, heroic warriors of a bygone age worshipped in epic tales?


The Nephilim are both. They are the knights of the roundtable, chivalrous men whom women idolize. They are gods and God Himself becomes God si love. True love becomes amor where the new ethical basis is between the idealistic knights who dedicate their might to an abstract ideal and the ladies who worship those knights. Knights were not wicked in the sense of bestial, lewd beings in pursuit of the satisfaction of a night of passion. Rather, they were the epitome of courage and valour, of honesty and integrity, loyalty and fealty and dedicated in a totally pure way to the women to whom they gave their troth. Women were not perceived as physical extensions of man but as a source of inspiration. They are put on a pedestal and, in turn, appreciated as an ideal. Life itself becomes etherealized. And man is no longer in bondage to man but in bondage to a heaven-sent partnership that has nothing to do with the passions of the flesh and everything to do with mutual recognition, with grace, with mutual protection and mutual fulfillment in an ideal conception of life.


Why would God see this as wickedness? Why are heroic fearsome giants (Numbers 13:32-33) viewed as a source of distress and discomfort? Because in a land of heroes and romanticism, in a land built on the premise of romantic love as the source of ethics, in a land built on an ideal of purity and perfection as the fullest expression of life, that land devours its inhabitants. That is not a land rooted in the family and in children, but in ethereal passion and self-sacrifice for abstract ideals. These children of God become the real source of the virus of wickedness and repression. And ordinary humans are seen as grasshoppers or cockroaches, inyenzi, insects to be exterminated where the rule of law and of civilized men is sacrificed in service to an abstract ideal and dream of perfection.


So God will strike first and drown all but the select few.


So it is no surprise that the Haftorah reading comes from Isaiah, for Ashkenazim, Isaiah 42:5-43:10. God opts for nationhood and not heroism, for enlightenment and not self-repression in stark opposition to idolatry of any kind. God becomes dedicated to innovation and not nostalgia where the citizens of cities will lift up their voices. The warriors will not be knights of the roundtable but, rather, the Lord will go forth like a warrior, raising a war cry and prevailing against idolatry. And so we are given an apocalyptic vision of a God in labour giving birth to the new:


  הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי, מֵעוֹלָם–אַחֲרִישׁ, אֶתְאַפָּק; כַּיּוֹלֵדָה אֶפְעֶה, אֶשֹּׁם וְאֶשְׁאַף יָחַד.

14 I have long time held My peace, I have been still, and refrained Myself; now will I cry like a travailing woman, gasping and panting at once.

טו  אַחֲרִיב הָרִים וּגְבָעוֹת, וְכָל-עֶשְׂבָּם אוֹבִישׁ; וְשַׂמְתִּי נְהָרוֹת לָאִיִּים, וַאֲגַמִּים אוֹבִישׁ.

15 I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs; and I will make the rivers islands, and will dry up the pools.

טז  וְהוֹלַכְתִּי עִוְרִים, בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא יָדָעוּ–בִּנְתִיבוֹת לֹא-יָדְעוּ, אַדְרִיכֵם; אָשִׂים מַחְשָׁךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם לָאוֹר, וּמַעֲקַשִּׁים לְמִישׁוֹר–אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, עֲשִׂיתִם וְלֹא עֲזַבְתִּים.

16 And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, in paths that they knew not will I lead them; I will make darkness light before them, and rugged places plain. These things will I do, and I will not leave them undone.

יז  נָסֹגוּ אָחוֹר יֵבֹשׁוּ בֹשֶׁת, הַבֹּטְחִים בַּפָּסֶל; הָאֹמְרִים לְמַסֵּכָה, אַתֶּם אֱלֹהֵינוּ.  {פ}

17 They shall be turned back, greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, that say unto molten images: ‘Ye are our gods.’ {P}

יח  הַחֵרְשִׁים, שְׁמָעוּ; וְהַעִוְרִים, הַבִּיטוּ לִרְאוֹת.

18 Hear, ye deaf, and look, ye blind, that ye may see.

יט  מִי עִוֵּר כִּי אִם-עַבְדִּי, וְחֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח; מִי עִוֵּר כִּמְשֻׁלָּם, וְעִוֵּר כְּעֶבֶד יְהוָה.

19 Who is blind, but My servant? Or deaf, as My messenger that I send? Who is blind as he that is wholehearted, and blind as the LORD’S servant?

כ  ראית (רָאוֹת) רַבּוֹת, וְלֹא תִשְׁמֹר; פָּקוֹחַ אָזְנַיִם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמָע.

20 Seeing many things, thou observest not; opening the ears, he heareth not.

כא  יְהוָה חָפֵץ, לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ; יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה, וְיַאְדִּיר.

21 The LORD was pleased, for His righteousness’ sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.

כב  וְהוּא, עַם-בָּזוּז וְשָׁסוּי, הָפֵחַ בַּחוּרִים כֻּלָּם, וּבְבָתֵּי כְלָאִים הָחְבָּאוּ; הָיוּ לָבַז וְאֵין מַצִּיל, מְשִׁסָּה וְאֵין-אֹמֵר הָשַׁב.

22 But this is a people robbed and spoiled, they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison-houses; they are for a prey, and none delivereth, for a spoil, and   none saith: ‘Restore.’

(Hebrew-English Bible/Mechon-Mamre)


But they can and will be redeemed.