Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Torah Portion, Genesis Verses 1-6 The B’reishit; The Creation

Each week in synagogue, the congregation reads a portion of the Torah, so that by the end of the year, we have read the first five books, yet again, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each person at his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah engages with the Torah portion for the week of his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And so my Torah portion is The B’reishit, the Beginning-- Genesis verses one through six. And this is my drash, a word meaning interpretation. A drash can also be a story that helps elucidate another story. My drash is some of each. 
In the beginning, God creates heaven and earth, and still all is darkness. Then, God calls for light, and as God speaks, our world forms, day and night, sea and grass, sun and moon. God calls creatures into existence, fish and birds, cattle and beasts. An finally God creates Adam, a human. In the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Publication Society edition of 1917, this verse reads: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him, male and female, created he them.”
We don’t usually hear this version of the story, a simultaneous creation of male and female. The story we usually hear is more vivid, and it occurs in verse two, chapter seven. Here, a key word changes. God becomes Lord. “The Lord formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Ah, yes, the man in the garden, God telling the man he can eat from every tree except from the Tree of Knowledge. Then, God saying the man should not be alone, so God creates a “help-meet” for the man. Help-meet, a word translated from the Hebrew meaning another corresponding to or equivalent to. Yet, most of us have learned to read this story in a hierarchical manner, that Eve, because she was created afterwards from Adam’s rib, is second to or less than.
Why has this story prevailed? The assumption is that an educated male elite prepared the bible for a male audience. Therefore, mostly male characters are in the foreground and mostly female characters are in the background, giving the impression of the subordination. And often the bible is taught this way. The question for women is: How can we more these women from background to foreground, from periphery to center?
If we look closely at the text we can see that in both stories, the earlier and the later, neither maleness nor femaleness exists before Eve’s creation. What prevails is the potential for both in the human. With Eve’s creation, God brings both maleness and femaleness into the world at the same time. This is a simultaneous creation.
Now, let’s consider Eve in the Garden. So much going on here, a talking serpent who deceives, Eve, who seeking knowledge, chooses to eat, then gives the fruit to her husband, who eats, too. They hear the voice of God walking in the Garden, and like children, they hide behind trees. God speaks first to Adam, asking if he ate from the tree. He blames Eve, telling God, “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.”
And Eve? She accepts blame, saying, “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”
Supposedly, this is Eve’s downfall, and traditional interpretations say she is responsible for the couple’s expulsion from the Garden. Well, who wants to live in Paradise, anyway? Paradise is bland and boring. I like Eve. No only does she act, she takes responsibility. You might say Eve gives us free will. She also gives us unpredictably, because always with choice we have unintended consequences. And so this story becomes a description of our world—good and evil, joy and suffering. A story of human life as we know it, grand and complex.
Engaging with this text is an essential part of Jewish life. I love teasing out these stories. Some may ask, Why bother? Because this text, in all its translations, has had and still has a powerful effect on Western culture, particularly on the way the culture views women—debates about social services, day care or no day care, debates about health care, coverage for pregnancy, abortion. And sadly, I still hear women and men excusing boys’ aggressive or inappropriate behavior, especially toward girls, saying, as a boy shoves a girl to the ground, “Boys will be boys.”
Years ago, wanting to set the record straight, I created a character I called Bessie and wrote a short story. Bessie is an older Jewish woman, widowed and struggling with a hip replacement. She takes a course on women in the bible, similar to one of the courses I took. Toward the end of the story, Bessie visits Lucy, her granddaughter who lives in California. Lucy is being raised Catholic. In this scene, Bessie, struggling with her new hip and with arthritis, has stayed in bed late. Lucy brings her breakfast.

Bessie places her fork on her plate. “You’re learning about Adam and eve?” she says to Lucy.
“My school has religion class. I’m supposed to go to church, too.”
Sunday morning.
Lucy sighs. “I think Eve’s a nerd, don’t you?”
Bessie tucks her napkin under the rim of her plate and motions. “You’ll put my tray on that desk. Then, you’ll come sit by me. I know a story that if you read it right makes …” Bessie pauses. “What did you say? Nerd?”
“Yeah, like jerk.”
“… a nerd into a smart cookie.”

The quotes from “Midrash,” by Sandell Morse, first published in the New England Review. Available at: