The Befuddlements of B’reishit
We begin with befuddlement. Beginning again a new cycle of Torah reading with B’reishit, this week’s Torah portion, we immediately confront beautiful complications contained within our Torah. Exploring the contradictions and challenges inherent within our text often yields insights otherwise unseen. Such beauty exists in complicated things. “Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). There are, after all, seventy faces to Torah.
Beginning with the opening verses of the portion, we read, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). What follows is the story of the seven days of Creation. On the sixth day, God created nefesh chayai, all sorts of living creatures. Whereupon, God said, “Let us make a human in our image, with our likeness” (1:26).
The first befuddlement: Our biblical, unified God speaks in the plural. “Let us make a human.” Why not “Let me”? Rashi holds that God held court with the angels during the process of creation, and that it would have been hubristic of God to speak in the singular. God, as majestic Ruler, speaks in the plural because God is not alone in the process of creation. However, a further confusion—the unified God who speaks carries a name that also is in the plural. Here, we call God, Elohim. The God who is one, carries a name that is plural, and who speaks in the plural. Our tradition makes us scratch our heads.
“Let us make a human in our image, with our likeness,” we read of the sixth day. Here, now, is the birth of humanity. The first human is created in our image and with our likeness. Part of the grammatical confusion leads to a poetic reading of our tradition—God is unified in the plurality of humanity. Humanity is unified through the pluralism of the Divine. In this moment of creation, humanity is created categorically, but without categories. God does not make us male and female, black or white or any other color. God does not divide our languages or distinguish who or how we love one another. God makes us, “us,” in every possible form and fashion. In this beautiful, complicated moment, humanity is created universally, without particularity. Our pluralism is created, embodied in the first singular being of Adam. On the sixth day of Creation, humanity simply is.
If only we we had been allowed to stay in that moment. After God completed the sixth day, seeing that it was good, God rested, celebrating the first Shabbat. But then, as we begin to sketch a picture of God laying back in a cosmic hammock with a Good Book, we arrive at our second befuddlement:
“Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created. When the Eternal God made earth and heaven — when… there was no man to till the soil — the Eternal God formed man from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (2:4–7).
Seven days of Creation, only to lead us into an alternative Creation story. On the sixth day, God created humanity, on the eighth day, it seems, God creates humanity again. In this second rendition, Adam is created alone, as a man. God recognizes that it is not good for man to be alone, and creates Eve from Adam’s rib. In this second version, a binary is established from the very start.
Biblical scholars for generations have noticed these as two versions of the creation narrative. These competing narratives are read as evidence of the different traditions from which our biblical text was crafted. These, biblical scholars argue, were two texts, unified at some point. Our Bible is the recording of different sacred stories, without being self-conscience of the conflicts that creates for us, as readers. That conflict, though, is perhaps there to teach us something. Perhaps the befuddlements present us with opportunities for meaning making. Generations of thinkers have wrestled with these competing stories, without walking away from them. They have noticed that these stories can be seen separately, or, taken together, they can teach us something about the human condition.
What does the Torah teach here? I am drawn to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s interpretation in his book, Lonely Man of Faith. He identifies the two versions of Adam as two types. There are two ways of being. Adam HaRishon, the first Adam “is overwhelmed by one quest, namely, to harness and dominate the elemental natural forces and to put them at his disposal” (13). Like Ayn Rand’s selfish architect, Howard Roark, Adam HaRishon is someone dedicated to “dominating his environment and exercising control over it” (15). On the other hand, Adam HaSheini, the second Adam, confronts the mysteries of Being. “He wants to know: ‘Why is it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Who is it?’… He wants to understand the living, ‘given’ world into which he’s been cast” (20–21).
Adam HaRishon and Adam HaSheini are two different ways of being in our world. They are identifying markers of humanity, and both are contained within the first created human beings. We are not marked by a single identity. We are a plurality within ourselves as individuals, and within our community. At the same time, we categorize and we name. After her creation, Eve, walks through the Garden of Eden and offers different names to all of the plants and animals she encounters. For as much as we are unified, we distinguish ourselves from one another by defining different categories, by distinguishing differences. We live in the tension between pluralism and individuality, between universalism and particularism.
We are living with that tension more publicly than ever before. As Wesley Morris noted in his article this week in the New York Times,
we are “in the midst of a great cultural identity migration. Gender roles are merging. Races are being shed. In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are.”
The world we live in today is about identity. Our society now distinguishes us based on gender identification, religion, race, class, sexual orientation, level of education, and more. And as much as we cut and divide and segment the community along these different lines of identity, are pulled to see that we are not so different, that there is something universally true about our shared human experience. We find that there exists an in-between. We are round pegs and square holes, never quite conforming perfectly to the categories we fashion.
We can see this clearly in the shifting sands of gender roles. Seemingly prosaic, but equally profound, we still raise eyebrows at the stay-at-home-dad, confusing his role and his masculinity by calling him Mr. Mom. We are still struggling to see women in positions of leadership, identifying female aggressive behavior as uncouth, and attaching labels on them that I wouldn’t say on this bima, while boys are just being boys. Men get to just playing hardball.
And right along with the mergers and confusions around gender, we’re seeing the complicated nature of identity play out in race, as well. This past June, we witnessed the breaking down of our assumed categories over a scandal that made national news. Rachel Dolezal had just been appointed the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. It came out that she was not really black, regardless of how we saw her skin tone and hair color. Or was she actually black? Her husband was black; her children were black. But, her biological parents were both white. As Morris wrote in his piece this week, Dolezal “might not have been biologically black, but she seemed well past feeling spiritually white.” Some began to use the term transracial to describe her. What this scandal presented was a complication to our societal binary systems. We were communally befuddled, because our rules for how we categorize differences broke down.
Imposing categories also has ritual implications for us within the Jewish community. As the Jewish community transforms into an interfaith community more and more, who is in and who is out? What can someone who is not officially Jewish, but who considers the synagogue his or her spiritual home do here on the bima and within the congregation? Furthermore, gender identity is also in play on the bima. When we call individuals to the Torah, we do so with gendered language. The traditional Hebrew phrases that we use to call someone to the Torah, force us to identify that individual as a male or female. We say ya-amod or ta-amod l’aliyah haTorah, meaning “May so-and-so now please rise as he or she comes to the Torah.” Depending on the gender of the individual, we use a particular phrase. But what if we do not know that individual’s gender? What if that individual is what we now call gender-nonconforming? The Reform Rabbinate recently thought through this question (CCAR Responsum 5775.1). The most elegant solution comes from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in New York City. When they call individuals to the Torah, they use the phrase “Ekra l’Torah, I call to the Torah,” and then recite that individual’s name. This means that the service leaders do not have to determine an individual’s gender and call that individual out by it. No presumption is necessary. An elegant solution to a Hebrew language problem, otherwise not easily solved.
It was a solution that allowed the community to overcome the inherent problems in categorizing, which language forces upon us. It was a solution that did not transform language, but allowed us to navigate within it. In this week’s Torah portion, we see all sorts of befuddlements and contradictions. Do we identify as Adam HaRishon, the sort of person who wants to form and fashion his own world? Are we Adam HaSheini, seeking to understand the world as it has been gifted to us? Or are we some sort of pluralized identity, existing with both of those personalities within us? The Torah is not a perfected text; it is complicated. God is both plural and singular, and we, created in God’s image, continue to divide and merge who we are as our notions of identity evolve.
This week’s Torah portion is not supposed to be clean and clear. In the befuddlements of B’reishit we see the beautiful, complicated nature of both God and humanity.