Genesis Chapter 4

The book of Genesis continues its history of the way the world works with the story of Cain and Abel. The foreshadowing begins right away when we realize that Abel’s name in Hebrew (Hevel) means “nothingness”. This is not a man who will go far in life.
The jealousy between the two brothers seems to be a feud that American historians should know well. The farmer, Cain is envious of his brother the rancher. God seems to approve of the herder rather than the gift of the farmer. Verses 6 and 7 have a cryptic oracle from God to Cain that seems to warn the man about his state of mind when Cain’s offering is not accepted. The oracle seems to indicate that if you do wrong, you should strive to do better, because if you don’t, then sin is waiting to pounce on you to rule over your life. You can overcome sin but the implication is that you should not tangle with sin at all. Cain pays no heed to this oracle and in a truncated verse 8, where it is unclear the situation that caused the two brothers to be together, Cain kills his brother.
God immediately calls Cain to task for killing Abel but we have to pause here for a moment. What exactly is Cain’s crime? Since no person in the world had died yet, there is no reason to think that Cain understood what “killing” was all about. How can Cain commit murder if death was unknown in his world? Still God needs to do something about this taking of a life. After all, Abel’s blood “cries out to Me from the ground.”
There are Bible critics who wonder why God asks Cain about the whereabouts of his brother. After all, doesn’t God know everything? God knows what Cain has done. Why does he ask Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” As I have said many times, when the Bible asks a question like this, it is also asking us, the readers, to answer this question. We can say that this question is one of the central questions in the Book of Genesis. Over and over, the stories of this book deal with the relationship between brothers. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. We can also see that, since this particular story is about the first brothers, that the question can be as broad as “Where is your brother human being?” Cain’s famous answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has an obvious and direct answer, “Yes” we are responsible for each other. Not just in our family but in the family of human beings.
The punishment of Cain is that he will never settle down but wander his whole life. This is a serious punishment for a farmer. What follows is a genealogy of Cain, one that includes the first city, the first man to take two wives, the first nomadic herder, the creation of musical instruments, the inventor of copper and iron tools, and the first man to kill another in a fight. This genealogy indicates that Cain’s line is a “dead end” for humanity. There will be a new genealogy beginning with Cain’s younger brother that will lead to the great heroes of the Bible.
Bible critics also fault this chapter when Cain and his family marry women; the question asked is where do these wives come from? Adam and Eve have only three children. Cain, Abel (who dies) and now Seth. If God created Adam and Eve as the first human beings, where does Cain find a wife for himself and for his son? The Bible has no answer for this question because it is not interested in being a history of the world. It is a chronicle of the moral education of humanity. There is much that goes unanswered in the Bible because the explanations are not important to moving along the themes that the Bible wants to teach. Cain’s killing of his brother leads to more killing. That is a dead end for humanity. The chapter then rewinds and goes back to Adam and Eve who give birth to another son, and this one’s lineage will hold out hope for humanity in a way that Cain’s lineage does not. The birth of Seth’s son, Enosh marks the beginning of religion in the world as “men began to invoke the Lord by name.” The name they start to use, interestingly, is the four letter unpronounceable name of God.

Genesis Chapter 3

This chapter is another one of those chapters that everyone thinks they understand but, when we reflect on the story, we find one enigma after another. Christians teach the concept of “original sin” from this chapter, using the story of Adam, Eve, the snake and the “apple” to explain where “sin” comes from and why human beings are sinful from the start. But a close reading makes that “traditional” reading suspect.
To begin with, there is no indication that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an apple. The reference is only to a fruit. Second, as Harold Kushner notes in his commentary on the story for Etz Hayim, “if they gained a knowledge of good and evil by eating the forbidden fruit, does that mean they did not know good from evil before that? If so, how could they be held accountable for doing wrong?” We may understand that God has our good in mind when God commands us; but to Adam and Eve, it can’t be wrong to disobey because they don’t know what “wrong” is!
The story is pretty straightforward. The snake convinces Eve that the fruit of the tree is not dangerous; Eve eats the fruit and gives some to Adam. They don’t really know what to expect from eating from the tree. The snake indicates that it will make them “like God” but all they experience after eating the fruit is embarrassment, shame and guilt. God discovers their disobedience and punishes all three players; the snake will become the enemy of humanity, the woman will give birth with pain, her husband “shall rule over you” and man will have to do hard labor to produce food to eat. (There seems to be a veiled reference to dying as well but since nobody has ever died it is hard to know what Adam and Eve would make of this “threat”).
The story ends with God making clothing of “skins” for Adam and Eve and, because they now know what it means to disobey rules, God exiles the couple from Eden lest they eat from the “Tree of Life” and live forever (even though death seems to have been part of the punishment).
One big question that remains is the purpose of God for placing humans in Eden at all. Why would God put them in a place where such disobedience is possible? As much as God punishes the two, God also loves them enough to make them real clothing (and not just large leaves). The language used seems to be one of harsh justice meted out by God. Yet there are suggestions in the text that perhaps the entire incident was all part of God’s plan for humans. Without this knowledge of Good and Evil, how can the humans have free choice in any meaningful way? We can see this story as the beginning of human beings having a conscience. Humans were never designed to be forever in Eden; we needed Eden to be able to meet the challenges of the real world, the world we are “exiled” into, as a child must eventually grow into the real world in which we live. We can not always live a sheltered life. We have to learn to face the challenges, the joys and sorrows, that make up life in this world.
I see Eve as the real heroine of this story. She is the one to boldly cross from innocence to understanding with all the pain and uncertainty that this entails. Her “punishment” seems very severe. It is hard enough to raise children with ones values not knowing how they will turn out in the end, without seeingchildbearing as punishment. The issue of the husband ruling over the wife has a long and sordid history. Later rabbis tried to make the relationship between husband and wife more equal but there is much that they left undone that has pushed women into a second class status in all of western civilization as well as in “traditional” Judaism. I believe one of the most important changes in modern Jewish life is the ongoing effort to make Halacha (Jewish Law) more egalitarian.

Genesis Chapter Two

Shabbat is the pinnacle of Creation. The final day that is given over to rest. God rests and we are to rest as well. This final created item is not good, but “holy”, that is, set apart from all the other days. It is interesting, given the lunar nature of the Jewish calendar, that the first holiday is set according to “solar” time.
There is a radical shift that takes place beginning in verse four. The point of view now changes from God to humanity. From now on, the Bible will always be from the human viewpoint. We now have another creation story, a different one. Biblical commentators have tried for centuries to try and reconcile this story with the story in chapter one. Modern scholars of the Bible understand that this part of chapter two is a second, different, creation story; it is told in a different order, it describes the world differently and human beings are not created male and female, but male (Adam) only. The woman will be created later. Humans are created from dust/dirt/clay. The male is placed in a garden near Eden with instructions to tend the garden and not eat from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad”. The penalty for eating from the tree will be death. It is unclear if Adam even understands what “death” means.
Adam gets lonely and, after naming all the animals, realizes that there is no other animal quite like him. Naming animals is a way of ruling over them, another task the Adam is given, to be the steward, the caretaker of all creation and all creatures. It is “not good” that the man is alone so God creates a woman, perhaps from Adam’s rib, or perhaps the description of “his side” is a way of saying that Adam “gave birth” to the woman. She is declared to be a “fitting helper” to Adam.
Note that with the poem at the end of the chapter, recited by Adam, the woman is not in any way “subservient” to the man. She is his equal. They are to become “one flesh.” There is an anachronism at the very end of the chapter. So far we do not have any mothers or fathers in the world (do you think Adam and Eve had belly buttons?) so what does it really mean here that a man and woman leave their mother and father and become one flesh. It seems to imply that a sexual relationship is a part of maturation in human beings.
So what is the moral lesson in chapter two? This second creation story, told from the human perspective, spells out the relationship between humanity and God. We are given the mission to tend to the world, to oversee the daily transactions in nature and to listen to God. This last command will be the subject of the new chapter.

Genesis Chapter 1 part 2

It has always fascinated me how the Torah looks at the creation of the world. Of course it is a primitive story; the bible has no concept of evolution or prehistoric time. One of the great problems of the text is the entire issue of time; not just the length of a day, but how the entire concept of time is derived. Jewish time begins with creation. The current Jewish year is calculated by scholars who try to derive the date of creation by working back through the centuries and through the Torah to discover how long ago the world was created. We know of course that the almost 5800 years of the Jewish calendar does not include prehistoric time that includes the rise of life in the oceans, the rise of plant life and then animal life on the land, the age of reptiles/dinosaurs and the early ages of mammals. The calendar really only figures the historical time of civilization in the Middle East. As with the historical accounts of all peoples and civilizations, the “authors” of the Torah see themselves as the center of the universe. To look for something here beyond what was known in the “civilized” world of ancient Mesopotamia, is to go beyond the boundaries of what the Torah is about.
Another issue is the idea that God created the world (something) from nothing. The opening lines of the Torah tell us that there was “tehome” called “the deep” and apparently water. There also seems to be some kind of atmosphere where God’s spirit can “hover” in the wind. It seems to be a dark chaotic ball of water that is first illuminated and then split in half. Where the upper and lower parts meet, God introduces a bubble of air and in that bubble will the world be created. The first three days mirror the second three days. The first three days set the scene for what will be created on the final three days. The creation of human beings is thus the pinnacle of creation, the last and greatest of God’s creative acts.
It is also a point of some discussion about how human beings were created. The text of chapter one indicates that there was just one person created and that one individual was both male and female. I am not sure if this was one body with two sets of genitalia or if one side was male and the other side female. I know that there is a different story about this creation in the next chapter but I will wait until we get there to address that concern.
More importantly for Judaism, the human, whatever the gender, is created in the “image” of God. This is a real issue because Judaism believes that God has no image. This means that if we want to “see” God, we need to really “see” our fellow human beings. No matter how many different faces, colors, styles and genders, every single human being has this “image” of God and therefore all human life is holy.
Notice also that humanity is instructed to eat only a vegetarian diet. Permission to eat animals will come much later in our text. Humanity is also given a job to do. Human beings are to populate the world and serve as stewards for all the other animals, helping them live their lives and keeping them in their divine place in the world that God has created.
Finally, we note that the seventh day is not part of the creation story, but the opening lines of chapter two. I want to teach from the very start that the Torah, as passed down through the generations from one Jewish community to another, never had any chapters at all. The only divisions were the parshiot,the list of weekly readings for synagogue use every week. The chapters were introduced by Christian scholars in the middle ages and the Jewish community eventually adopted this chapter/verse configuration in order to be able to talk to Christians about the text. If you look at where the Shabbat aliyot break up the text, you see the first reading does include the verses on Shabbat as part of the creation story.

Genesis Chapter 1 : Part 1

I think that this chapter is so difficult that it alone is responsible for more people ignoring the Torah than almost any other chapter. At the beginning of almost every Bible class I teach there are some present that tell me that they tried to read the Torah from the beginning and got so confused from the creation story that they put down the book in disgust. How could they take seriously a book that begins with a story that clearly has no relationship to the reality of the world?
In a different way, this question has been asked for thousands of years, even before there was a Darwin and a theory of evolution. The first question Rashi, the great 12thcentury commentator asks is “Why does the Torah begin here rather than with Exodus Chapter 12?” The real issue that underlies all the questions is: Just what is the purpose of the Torah? Why was it “written” at all? What is it supposed to do? If we don’t understand what this book is about, then how can we ever understand what it contains. If we are reading a novel, we understand what a novel is so we know what to expect. If we are reading an astronomy textbook, we have an understanding of what we will find inside. If we are reading a history book, we assume that it is about interpreting the historical facts that have come down to us. The reason Rashi asks his question is because, for most Jews, the Torah is a law book. It contains the fundamentals of Jewish law. But if that is the only thing that the Torah is about, then it would indeed have started with Exodus chapter 12, the place where the mitzvot, the commandments, the laws really begin to be stated and explained.
Since the Torah begins with Genesis, chapter 1, then there must be another purpose for Torah. There are some who think that it is a science text; that it is teaching us the real history of the world. These people think that Genesis is opposed to the theory of evolution, rather chapter 1 is the factual account of how the world was created.There certainly are many fundamentalists who believe this is the purpose of the story. It is hard for me to agree with them. The story of creation is way too muddled to call it a history of the creation of this world. It is, first of all, very hard to know how long it took to create the world. The text tells us the world was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested. How are we supposed to define what a “day” is when the sun and moon are not created until day four! I am sure that there are many who believe that if this is what the Bible says, then this is what it means. I am not one of them. If you are a person who takes the Bible at face value and hold whatever it says as “true” then this commentary of the Torah is not for you. I am not going to try and change your mind so you don’t have to try and change my mind. We can agree to disagree and you can follow some other blog on the Bible.
If you are trying to come to some understanding of the Torah and a fundamentalist approach is not for you then I hope you will continue to participate in this study. If the Torah is not a law book; if the Torah is not a science text; if the Torah is not a history of the world, then what is it?
My take on the Torah is that this book is a morality text. The creation story is a story about the beginning of morality. God creates a world. It does not exist forever. Only God is forever. The creation story is to prove that God is the only real power in the universe. Each of the items that God creates should be considered as if the item is a proper name, the name of a pagan god. I believe the creation story is a story about how God created even the things that other nations called “god” to show that all the other “gods” were really the creation of the one God. The creation story was never meant to be a history of the world; it was meant to explain why the one God was the true creator and the other gods were false. If you want to hold the theory of evolution, the Torah is not contradicting you. If you want to hold that the universe was created with a big bang and is billions of years old, there is nothing here to contradict you. If you want to believe that “light and darkness” the “sun and moon” or any of the animals are really gods, then the Torah is here to tell you that you are wrong. However all these things got here, it was not because they are separate powers in the universe. They are all parts of the natural world and thus “created” by the one God. That is why I think this story is here, to declare the mythology of other pagan religions as false.
Now that we have put that issue to rest, let us take up the text and examine some of the other textual issues it raises…

Introduction to the Study of Torah
There is nothing more basic in Judaism than the study of Torah. Torah is the beginning of all other religious texts. It is the record of communication between God and Humanity. It stands above all other texts because it records what God expects from us. Since all texts can be connected to Torah, this is why the study of any Jewish text is also called “Torah”.
While almost every Jewish text can be called “Torah” because it derives its legitimacy from its connection to the the original scrolls, in its minimalist incarnation, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses: Berayshit (known also by its English name – Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy). It is the first of the three divisions of the Jewish Bible [called Tanach, an anacronym for Torah, Neviim (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings)]. Torah is considered the oldest of the three and the most holy although all three parts are considered holy books. As a legal text, Torah is comparable to the Constitution of the United States; it is the basic document of law that all subsequent laws must be able to have a direct line of connection to its words. The difference, of course, is the Constitution is a document written by human beings and therefore can be amended or rescinded. The Torah represents the word of God. To amend it or to rescind it would be to say that God made a mistake; a theological proposition that not only undermines the source of authority for the law, but calls into question the very foundation of Judaism. We don’t say that God is wrong. God is right; the Torah is right and when we follow its laws, we are right too.
But as a law code, the Torah is woefully incomplete. For example there are many married people in the Torah but there is almost nothing about a marriage ceremony. The Torah provides for divorce by having a “sefer keritut” a document of separation prepared but it never spells out what that document should say. There is no good definition provided to ascertain the meaning of the word “Shabbat”. We are told that we cannot do “Melacha” on Shabbat, but melacha is not defined anywhere either. The usual word for “work” is “avoda;” what is the difference between avoda and melacha? The Torah gives us no clue. Laws in Shemot are repeated in Devarim but there are significant differences in the way the laws are written. What do the differences imply? Why are they different? What do we learn from these differences?
As a history book, the Torah is not much better. Some stories are clearly not told in chronological order. Were there two times Moses struck the rock to bring water to the people or are they really just one story? How many times does Moses go up and down Mt. Sinai before the Ten Commandments are given? What are we to make of the seven days of creation in the light of the billions of years of history on this planet? Why is there no other historical record anywhere of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan? Are the stories of the Torah religious mythology or historical facts? How can we know for sure? How can we separate the fact from the myth?
If the Torah is not a law book or a historical record, then what is the purpose of this document? I look at it as a moral text. A text that teaches us what we are supposed to do at the many crossroads we encounter in our lives. Remember the story of George Washington and the cherry tree? Is that story historically true? Who knows? But the purpose of the story is to teach us that real leaders don’t lie; a moral lesson not wasted on our children. The lives of the personalities in the Torah all point out lessons in how we should live our lives. The stories are true in the sense that they teach us truths about our world. Is the rest of the Torah historically true? Who knows? This does not mean that the Torah is misleading us. What it means is that we need to be careful not to make the Torah our guide for things that the Torah was never designed to teach. There may be some historical notes in the text and that the Torah gives us laws is undisputed. The purpose of these five books, however, to me seems to be more about moral lessons than about any specific aspect in the life of Jacob or Moses. It does not bother me that the Torah says the world was created in seven days and geology tells me something different. The Torah does not really care how many days creation took, what matters is what we learn from the creation story about how God acts in this world and what those actions mean for us.
There are anomalies in the text that point to a deeper issue. There are passages in the text that seem to indicate that the Torah is not one document. Scholars tell us that there may be four major documents that make up the text of Torah as it has been handed to us today. These documents were not created at the same time but in very different time periods in Jewish history. For some people this idea of different documents borders on heresy. This “documentary hypothesis” sees the text of the Torah more as the work of humanity and not a text that God handed to us on Mt. Sinai. This hypothesis has been around for centuries but only in the twentieth century were scholars able to speak about it without worrying about religious censors. It is unfortunate that the early scholars of this hypothesis were anti-Semites looking for a way to de-legitimize the Jewish bible. The evidence today is pretty clear about the fact of the different documents, but scholars still argue over which passages are to be included in one document or the other. An extraordinary introduction to this hypothesis can be found in the first chapter of the book, “Who Wrote The Bible” by Richard Freedman.
So can the Bible still be divine if it was written by human beings? I think so, but we will have to be a bit more particular about what we mean by a divine text. What does it mean to have a divine text? What inspired human beings to write these texts? Where does creativity come from? What guided the hand of the “redactor” who put the different documents into the five books we have today? Just how would an infinite God put pen to parchment to write a book? What could be better than human hands following divine instructions? I may not know how God got into these “books” but I do know that God is in there and that is why I study the Torah so diligently.
I am not the first one to comment on Torah, nor am I the last. The study of Torah is what I call “The longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world.” My comment is designed for everyone to add their own comments. This blog is a discussion not a lecture. So feel free to challenge me, question me and argue with me. Let me just share with you some of my Torah learning resources.
The Torah has its origins in Hebrew. The more biblical Hebrew you know, the deeper you will understand the text. The best modern Hebrew texts are from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and Koren Publications in Israel. You will need a Hebrew text from time to time to see the words in the Hebrew; I can only hint at the issues when I am writing in English.
The best English translation I believe is the JPS translation. Shocken Books also has a translation that is good, that was translated by Everett Fox. There are two JPS translations, one that dates back to 1919 and the other from the 1960’s. The newer one is called the “new” JPS translation and that is the one I use (sometimes it is noted as NJPS).
Jews NEVER just read the text of the Torah. There are centuries of commentary on the Torah and that too is now part of the “text” of Torah. Different commentaries have different agendas. Scholarly commentaries focus on literary style, historical comparisons and cross references to other books, Jewish and non-Jewish. JPS has a five volume commentary. Soncino has a one volume that is a survey of the classic Jewish commentators. JPS also has a “Jewish Study Bible” that is used in college courses. All of these are good resources. JPS and the Rabbinical Assembly put out a one volume commentary called Etz Hayim that includes not only a survey of the JPS commentary but other modern commentaries that speak to the moral and legal issues the text raises. It includes extensive essays in the back that cover other aspects of the Bible and Jewish life. This is one of the best commentaries of the 21st century.

Many individuals have penned Bible commentaries that speak to the issues in their day. The classic commentary is by Rashi but there are others by Sforno, ibn Ezra and Abravanel that speak to the Jews of France, Spain and the Provence. The modern commentaries of S.R. Hirsch and Joseph Hertz speak to the needs of the Jewish community in the 19th and 20thcenturies. Those who are interested in modern Orthodox commentaries that do not include references to historical or documentary issues, can use the Stone commentary. It is a good idea to consider a number of commentaries before asking your own questions and trying to put together an answer. You don’t need to own all these books but finding a Jewish library with them in it will make your study easier and more fulfilling.
Finally, try not to come to the text armed only with what you remember from religious school years ago. Our minds may not remember the stories correctly, we may have learned them wrong or we may have learned them based on later commentators and not on what the text actually says. There are parts of the Bible that are considered too “racy” for young children and somehow we never get around to talking about the adult parts of the text. We will look at the text in Hebrew and English and try to understand it by getting past the usual explanations and stories that are mere excuses for serious difficulties in the text. The text itself has many levels of meaning and we will try to explore these texts on all of these levels.
Now we are ready to start at the “beginning”.

Hello Again

It has been a while since I last posted to this site. I have not forgotten which negative commandment comes next, nor have I abandoned the blog. These past months have  been a time of reassessing what I want to accomplish with this forum. For eight years now I have written about Liturgy, Halacha, Mishna and Mitzvot. There are still plenty of topics to cover but the world of Jewish education has changed over the years, and I have changed over the years as well. What started out as a new opportunity for me to teach a wider Jewish audience, is now in need of a facelift. I dedicated this forum to the memory of my father after his death and one of the many legacies he left me was never to be afraid to reinvent myself.
In 2003 blogging was new and exciting. Today we live in a world of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. In 2003 Jewish education was built around religious school and day school. Now we have Hebrew language charter schools, home schooling and private tutors. The world of Jewish education grapples with parents who are much older when they start having children and who don’t see themselves as part of the world of the synagogue anymore. If you are a follower of my other blog, “Jewish Common Sense” you know that even the very essence of the synagogue is changing. If the synagogue is the primary location of Jewish education, then how can these changes impact the way we deliver information about our faith?
I find myself grappling more and more with theology. What do we know about God? What difference does our understanding of God have in our lives? How does prayer, meditation and spirituality fit into this picture? I have been writing about Mitzvot for a long time but I never thought to talk about the whole notion of what it means to be commanded; a challenge made by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years ago and a topic I have been teaching as part of my adult studies seminars.
Now you see why I have not written for awhile. I have been contemplating not only this blog, but the very foundation of what I am trying to share with my students. Over the past months I have taught bible in a new way, spent ten days on a silent retreat, began to prepare for my first lessons in the field of mysticism and offered my synagogue students the chance to explore in a deeper manner, the latest discussions in understanding about what we mean when we talk about God.
In one way or the other, it all goes back to how we understand Torah. What is the nature of these five books? What did they mean to our ancestors and how do we learn from these words today? I hope to use this blog to travel, chapter by chapter through the Torah and share with you some of the insights I have learned from my teachers, colleagues and students.
Forgive me if I do not complete the study of Mitzvot. I hope to make this new venture a chance to go back to the source of all that is Jewish, to learn not only Mitzvot but the entire range of what Judaism has to offer us as individuals, as Jews and as human beings.
I hope you will find this new journey interesting and compelling and that you will want to share your ideas and comments as well.