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Genesis and Jewish Thought
By Chaim Navon KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 Chaim Navon
All right reserved.
God and the World
"In the Beginning ..."
The biblical commentators disagree about the meaning and function of the opening verse of Scripture. Rashi understands the words Bereishit bara Elohim to mean "At the beginning of God's creation." These words function as a heading, setting the time framework for what follows. Ibn Ezra implies that the next verse is also a subordinate clause, serving to describe the state of the world at the beginning of time: "And the earth was without form and void." The actual description of the creation of the world begins only in the third verse: "And God said, Let there be light." Nachmanides, on the other hand, understands the first verse as standing on its own: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," that is to say, heaven and earth were created first.
In addition to the textual problem ("in the beginning" of what?), both interpretations raise serious difficulties: According to Rashi, it seems that the world already existed before the initial act of creation - "let there be light." According to Nachmanides, it appears that the heaven was created at the very beginning of creation, but a later verse states explicitly that the heaven was only created on the second day.
In any event,the plain sense of the verse supports the interpretation proposed by Nachmanides that the opening verse of the Torah is a description of the primal act of creation: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. It follows from this that the next verse describes the state of the world following the primal creation. We are now presented with a difficult problem: If the heaven was created first, what exactly happened on day two? This, however, is only one of the many difficulties in understanding the order of creation and the relationship between the various things that were created. For example, what does it mean that light was created on the first day when the lights of the firmament - the sun and the moon - were created on the fourth day? Moreover, what is the meaning of "and there was evening and there was morning" before there was a sun and a moon? All that we can do is accept our inability to understand the particulars of how the world was created.
God Is Not Nature
There is also a conceptual reason for preferring Nachmanides' interpretation. It would be somewhat disappointing for Scripture to begin with a verse that merely indicates the time and background of what follows. If, however, we understand the first verse as a sharp and unequivocal proclamation, it has special intensity. This is what Hermann Gunkel, one of the more prominent non-Jewish biblical scholars, had to say:
The verse can be best taken as a main clause "in the beginning God created heaven and earth" - a powerful statement! Simply and powerfully, the author first establishes the doctrine that God created the world. No statement in the cosmogonies of other peoples approaches this first statement in the Bible. Everything that follows has the goal, then, of illustrating this clause. (Gunkel, Genesis, p. 103) Gunkel is certainly not one of our authorities; but it is interesting and instructive to see the impression made by this verse on a gentile who was not known for excessive love of the Jewish people. We sometimes miss the force of certain scriptural passages precisely because they are so familiar to us from our earliest childhood. In such cases, the musings of an outsider can be very illuminating.
What is so unique about the first verse in the Torah? Let us compare it to the opening lines of one of the ancient Babylonian creation myth:
When in the height heaven was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and the primeval Apsu, who begat them, and chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both - their waters were mingled together. (Enuma Elish)
The Enuma Elish opens with a description of a world consisting solely of Tiamut, the primal sea, and her mate, Apsu, the sweet waters. As their waters mingled together, they gave rise to the gods, this being the beginning of the history of the world.
What is the most striking difference between our Bible and the Enuma Elish, between the word of God and the vanities of man? One point stands out: the distinction and gap between God and the world. According to ancient Near Eastern myth, there is no clear demarcation between the gods and the world. The gods are part of the world. Tiamut and Apsu are the two primordial seas, and it is they who give rise to the gods, as well as to the forces of nature.
Generally speaking, the world of idolatry did not distinguish between the gods and nature. On the one hand, the forces of nature were identified with individual gods: "the god of thunder," "the god of the sea," "the god of fertility," and the like. On the other hand, the gods were occasionally depicted as subject to the forces of nature. In Greek mythology, we find gods who fight with one another, are wounded, and act treacherously, gods who belong to the natural order. They resemble living creatures, only they are more powerful.
The first verse of the Torah rejects this idolatrous outlook: God is not nature, and nature is not God. The biblical scholar Ezekiel Kaufmann notes the fundamental importance of this principle:
The Israelite religion overcame the doctrine of the corporeality of God in a fundamental and decisive manner: it imagined God as being totally unconnected to the matter of the world.... God is "spirit and not flesh," He is not a "body." And furthermore, it imagined Him above and beyond any connection to the laws of the universe, to nature, to fate. This is the point that distinguishes it from idolatry; it is from here that it rose to its own unique sphere. Its God is super-mythological and supernatural - this is its fundamental idea. (Kaufmann, History of the Religion of Israel, vol. 1, p. 227)
This idea finds expression in many parts of the Torah. For example, consider this passage from the book of Deuteronomy:
Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Chorev out of the midst of the fire. Lest you become corrupt, and make a carved idol, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of any thing that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth. And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)
King Solomon's prayer offered at the dedication of the Temple is a perfect example of the repudiation of idolatry and the rejection of the identification of God with nature:
For will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house which I have built. Have consideration therefore to the prayer of Your servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to hearken to the cry and to the prayer that Your servant prays before You today; that Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which You have said, My name shall be here; that You may hearken to the prayer which Your servant shall make toward this place. And hearken You to the supplication of Your servant, and of Your people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear You in heaven, Your dwelling place; and when You hear, forgive. (1 Kings 8:27-30)
Solomon asserts that God is "found" nowhere, at least in the plain sense of the term, not even in the Temple. The Temple was not built as a "house" for God; it was intended to serve as a center for the worship and prayer of the Jewish people.
We repeatedly find that the Sages reject creeds that identify God with particular forces or parts of the world:
Rabbi Yose says: The Shekhina never descended to the world, and Moses and Eliyahu never ascended to heaven, as the verse states: "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but He has given the earth to the children of men" (Psalms 115:16). (Sukka 5a)
The Midrash certainly does not mean to describe the whereabouts of God. It is trying to teach us an important principle: there will always be a great separation between heaven and earth: "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but He has given the earth to the children of men." Man cannot climb up to God, and God is not found in nature. We have here a forceful rejection of idolatry's approach to God and the world.
In philosophical terms, two different religious approaches are commonly spoken of: the "immanent" approach, which perceives the presence of God as pervading the world, and the "transcendent" approach, which views God as elevated above and beyond the universe, and external to it. We are speaking here of transcendent motifs in Judaism. There were thinkers who argued that this is the primary teaching of the first verse in the Torah:
An expression of the liberation of God from subjugation to fate, to nature, to myth and to magic, is found in the first verse of the Torah: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" - God on the one side, and heaven and earth on the other." (Levinger, Bein Shigra le-Chiddush, p. 22) God's relationship to the world: He is the Creator, He says and does, He stands above the world. Surely there are other religious attitudes: the god of pantheism is in the world. He is supreme unity, the powers of which fill the world.... Judaism's God of ethics has a different relationship to the world. He is perforce separate from the world, He gives direction, He provides the world with an objective, but He is not part of the world. This is the secret of the greatness of Genesis 1. (Guttmann, Dat u-Mada, p. 265) It is impossible to attribute to the first verse in the Torah any meaning other than a grand proclamation regarding the state of the world before God.... We, perforce, must understand "In the beginning, God created" as a great call directed at man to recognize the insignificance of the heaven and the earth - "For fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty" (Isaiah 2:10): the world ("the heaven and the earth") is not God! A great negation of the essence of idolatry, pantheism, and atheism. (Leibowitz, Yahadut, Am Yehudi, u-Medinat Yisra'el, p. 321)
Guttmann and Leibowitz understand that the Torah rejects not only idolatrous ancient concepts but also certain modern philosophical ideas. They are referring, first and foremost, to Spinoza. The Jewish philosopher Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza developed a philosophical system whose total focus is pantheism, that is, the identification of God with nature. Spinoza said: God is nature. According to Spinoza, God is not a distinct, independent, and autonomous Being. When Spinoza speaks of God, he means the totality of beings and forces that exist in the world, both the physical and the mental world. The entirety of being, including you, me, our thoughts, flies and stones - everything together constitutes God. Spinoza's world view has been enormously influential, both philosophically and also existentially.
One of the most important developments of physics in the twentieth century was quantum mechanics, which maintains that the laws of nature are statistical; there is a one in many billions chance that if you drop a vase it will not smash on the ground but rise in the air. Albert Einstein refused to accept the principle of chance in quantum mechanics. As he once famously commented, God does not play dice with the universe. This comment stemmed from a deep sense of the religious dimension in the laws of nature. The violation of the absoluteness of the laws of nature was an insult to Einstein's religious sensibility. Einstein was essentially a pantheist in the spirit of Spinoza. This approach gave rise to profoundly religious feeling. Thus, when a child asked him whether scientists pray, Einstein answered:
Anyone seriously involved in scientific investigation gradually becomes convinced that the laws of nature embody a spirit - a spirit immeasurably higher than that of man.... In this way, scientific investigation leads to a unique religious feeling, altogether different from the religiosity of one who is more naive.
My revered teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, found another shade of ancient idolatry in the modern world. He argues that idolatrous motifs that sanctify nature may be found in some of the ecological movements prevailing in our time. He notes that the emphasis of secular ecology is aesthetic:
It seems that it would not be wrong to suggest that what generally hovers over this movement is an idolatrous worship of the land, one of the oldest and also one of the newest forms of idolatry in the world. It is difficult not to hear echoes of the worship of the fertility gods of the ancient world. It is as if at any moment we expect to see those women who would cry over Tammuz in one season, and rejoice over his ascendancy at another time. ("Ha-Adam ve-ha-Teva," Hagut 4 )
In contrast, Halakha recognizes an obligation to preserve the wholeness of nature, but this obligation is merely one component of the more embracing prohibition of bal tashchit (wanton destruction):
The prohibition against wanton destruction does not come to bestow honor on nature in and of itself, but rather as a creation and possession of the Holy One, blessed be He.... A proof for this point: the very fact that the prohibition does not discriminate between divine and human creation, between one who tears clothing and one who seals a spring. We are not interested in preserving nature, but rather in maintaining reality. (Ibid.)
Environmentalist groups occasionally give expression not only to an honest concern about man's fate in a destroyed world, but also to a mystical-idolatrous attitude that relates to nature as an organic being, filled with vitality and holiness, which we are forbidden to violate. This is a modern version of ancient idolatry.
The Torah rejects these religious attitudes. When the Torah states, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," there is room for but one conclusion: God is not the heaven and the earth. God is the Creator; the heaven and the earth are included among the created beings.
Immanence in Judaism
Some streams in Judaism prefer not to sever completely God from the world. We find rabbinic statements that speak of a divine presence in the world. This, for example, is what follows from the midrash that asks why God revealed Himself to Moses in a small and lowly bush:
A certain gentile once asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, see fit to speak with Moses from a burning bush? He said to him: Had it been from a burning carob tree, or from a burning sycamore, you would have asked me the same thing. But to send you out empty-handed is impossible; why out of a burning bush? To teach you that there is no place void of the Shekhina, not even a bush. (Exodus Rabba 2)
The idea of God's immanence is found many times in the writings of the kabbalists and of those who came under kabbalistic influence. The kabbalistic world often inclines to the idea of immanence. We cite an example from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:
It is natural that the common perception, the understanding of God stemming from the monotheistic idea, which is also the more well-known perception, should sometimes cause sadness and weakness of spirit, as a result of the feebleness entering man's spirit when he imagines that he, being a weak and limited being, is so distant from the divine perfection which illuminates with the light of the majesty of its greatness ... (Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 1, p. 399)
Excerpted from Genesis and Jewish Thought by Chaim Navon Copyright © 2008 by Chaim Navon. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents
1. God and the World....................1
3. Torah and Science....................29
4. The Image of God....................43
5. The Torah and the Ancient Near East....................59
6. Man's Place in the World....................79
8. The Individual and Society....................111
9. The Sin of the Tree of Knowledge....................125
10. Guilt and Shame....................137
11. The Woman in Creation....................147
13. The Impulse of Man's Heart....................173
15. The Tower of Babel....................201
16. The Road to Faith....................213
17. Inborn Essence and Selection....................225
18. The Land of Israel....................245
19. Reasons for the Commandments....................259
20. The Problem of Evil....................297
21. Halakha and Morality....................311
22. The Binding of Isaac....................325
23. Is the World Moving Forward, or Is It in Decline?....................337