Shabbat Bereishit: United We Stand

October 12, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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We will start reading the Torah from the beginning again this week.

The words of the Torah require interpretation which inevitably is both personal and relies on different traditions and perspectives.

The first Hebrew word, Bereishit, is commonly translated in English as “In the Beginning.” But it can just as well be translated as “When God began to create” or “Whenever this world began.”  It is also used in the Bible to describe “The start of a monarch’s reign.”

Many orthodox rabbis, even moderate ones, are reluctant to discuss fundamentalism and outwardly support the idea, as our Hebrew Calendar tells us, that this is 5784 years since creation. Certainly, this was the position of the Great Lubavitcher Rebbe, a man with a scientific background. Did he mean it literally or figuratively?

Given the information we now have of ages in the universe that previous generations did not, do we need to do this at face value? Any more than the Children of Israel built the pyramids because the pyramids were probably older than 5,000 years as well. And indeed, there is no command to believe how exactly or when exactly God created the world. Though medieval Jewish theologians were faced with the question of whether the universe was eternal, Aristotle’s position, or had been created out of nothing Creatio Ex Nihilo. Maimonides’s opinion, not to mention the church at that time.

The idea that a Divine, non-physical force created the world, has been making a comeback after hundreds of years of scepticism, precisely because there is still much that we do not know about the universe (not to mention human beings). Even if we were to accept that there must have been some original spark or creator as opposed to randomness, we still have no evidence as to what that force was. So that faith is crucial and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does not constitute evidence.

Taking the bible literally, still has many followers in many religions.
But does” The finger of God” mean Divine fingernails that need clipping or that the voice of when God speaks it requires vocal cords or that God’s anger raises the Divine blood pressure? Although Rabbi Abraham of Posquieres (1125-1198), the Raavad, seems to have liked the idea.

What then was a day before the Sun was put in position on the fourth day of creation? Was the light from the first day (days before the sun was created) some form of energy? Some think it was enlightenment. The Midrash says that God made worlds and destroyed them and made even more worlds and destroyed them too before finally settling on this one (Midrash Rabah 3:7).  So clearly, there was always room for creative interpretation.

Nowadays, literal creationism is still seriously in favour in many religions. Some Christian Fundamentalists in the Southern States of America have succeeded in getting Creationism taught as a parallel to Evolution. But whereas Evolution for all its faults and gaps is a scientific theory based on some at least demonstrable examples, Creationism is not scientific and is simply a matter of faith.

There’s nothing wrong with two alternative world outlooks. We can find the good in faith healing as much as in scientific medicine while agreeing that sometimes both have their uses.   Frankly, I like science and I like faith and I don’t think you need to reconcile them. I’m as opposed to a doctrinaire scientist who excludes spirit as much as to a spiritual man who thinks science has nothing to offer. But I don’t think you have to choose.

It is the practice that counts. And if one has difficulty believing certain things, it is not the end of the world. Unlike Christianity which makes the Credo the condition of membership. Although since Maimonides composed his Thirteen Principles of Faith it looks as though we do. Humans do not all think or experience in the same way. Halachically a Jew’s commitment is determined by how he or she or they behave.

We are hung up on apologetics. On trying to explain or justify. Rabbis, priests, imams, atheists, and those who couldn’t care less. However rational a point of view may be, to those who are not rational, it is like water off a duck’s back. We only hear what we want to hear. Endless, occasionally articulate books are written all the time by articulate and well-meaning rabbis to justify an orthodox point of view. And they have little impact on those outside the magic circle.

The Book of Genesis is concerned with the evolution of humanity’s encounter with a spiritual, non-material dimension. Just as the aesthetic is a different way of looking at the world that not everyone agrees with. Science in itself is neutral. Human beings are not.

We begin the new cycle by returning to the start of one of the most impactful and controversial documents in Human history. What a pleasure as well as a heritage. How one is Jewish practically can depend on where and how one lives. It is up to us to decide how we react to the Torah and if we are prepared to take it seriously or not.



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