In the Beginning….

As an inveterate – my wife would say obsessive – participant in on-line discussions, list-servs, Facebook, and blogs, I was interested to learn in a recent thread on iWorship that not all Reform congregations follow the Torah reading protocol for Rosh Hashanah set forth in Gates of Repentance (Chapter 22 of Genesis, the binding of Isaac, in Service 1, and Chapter 1, the creation story, in Service 2).    Some congregations that observe only one day choose the creation story for that day, and some that observe two days go along with their Orthodox and Conservative neighbors, and read Genesis Chapter 21, dealing with the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael, on the first day, reserving Chapter 22, the Akedah, , for the second day.

My frequent admonition on the URJ list-servs is that it’s not enough for contributors to tell us what their congregations do, we need to know why.  One diligent list member explained that his congregation reads Chapters 21 and 22 on the two days, because, were they to read Genesis Chapter 1 on the second day , they would soon suffer B’reishit fatigue, from  reading it so soon again on Simchat Torah, and then a week later on Shabbat B’reishit.

While a piece of me finds that reasoning credible, another piece rejects it.  This parasha is too rich and varied in its content for B’reishit fatigue ever to set in.  How can we tire of the story of creation, the institution of Shabbat, the orthopedic surgery that brings Woman into being, the saga of Eve and the serpent and the apple, the origin of the garment industry, the  expulsion from the Garden, the confrontation between Cain and Abel, and the exemption of Noah from God’s decision to start over?

With all those narrative riches, the challenge for the darshan, the explicator, is not to forestall boredom or fatigue, but to limit the discussion to a manageable number of issues.  My manageable number today will be three, each expressed in just two words.  While these six words encapsulate the Torah’s message, the depth in each pair raises more questions than I have answers, so I challenge my fellow bloggers to tax  the comments capacity of this blog.

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Reform Judaism, through its two-hundred year history, has been characterized by the tension between its universalism and its particularism.  The first two parshiyot in the Torah are universalistic, dealing with the origins of the world and of humankind; only after the Flood do we get into the particularistic family saga of the children of Israel.  So the first word-pair, universalism-particularism, while it does not appear in the text, nonetheless sets the stage for God’s relationship with humankind and with the children of Israel.

The next two pairs, b’tselem elohim and ezer k’negdo,  provide universalistic guidelines, the first for the relationship between humankind and God, and the second for the relationship beyn adam l’chavero,  between one human being and another.  Only after these universal principles have been articulated do we arrive at the particularism of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

So you don’t have to be Jewish to be made b’tselem elohim, in the image of God, just human.

And God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. …And God created humanity in the divine image, creating him in the image of God, creating them male and female.

Note that singular-plural confusions abound – creating him in the image of God, creating them male and female.   And when God says, “Let us make humanity in our image,” what are we to make of that “us?”  Is this the royal or editorial We, or was God talking to someone?   Rashi explains this as God consulting with the “heavenly council” because humanity was to be made in the likeness of the angels.  However, the angels do not appear in the parasha, although they will appear peripherally later in this drash.

Having been schooled in gender sensitivity, I have supplied the translation humanity for adam, or ha-adam. Some recent translations use humankind, while older renderings use man consistently.  The new URJ translation, as used in the revised Plaut and in the WRJ Women’s Commentary, tries to translate according to the context, and in this instance concedes that ha-adam means the man.

Contemporary commentators have been at pains to explain, especially in the face of the two slightly differing creation stories, that the human being created in the first story on the sixth day already contained both male and female elements,  which were then unbundled in the second story.

Rabbi Akiba taught in Pirkei Avot that humanity is blessed not only by being made in the image of God, but even more so by God’s having made it known to us that we were made in the divine  image.   And Ben Azzai, in the Jerusalem Talmud, takes our being made in the image of God as the very essence of the Torah.

This leaves us to determine what it means to be made in the image of God.  Assuming that God could have chosen to make us in any way, what is the significance of the choice to make us in the divine likeness?  What are God’s attributes, which Godly qualities are possible for humankind, and what human qualities are we likely to attribute to God?  How should knowing we are made in the image of God affect the way we live?  Might it be, given our difficulties in imagining an incorporeal, genderless, invisible deity, that we tend to create, or at least envision, God in our own image?

Whatever problems we may have with the concept tselem elohim, the p’shat, the simple meaning of the words, is clear.  The translation of ezer k’negdo, on the other hand, is problematical to say the least.  In checking out eight different translations, I found six different renderings:

The old JPS translation, which closely follows King James, uses help meet, the new JPS translation gives us a fitting helper, and the still newer URJ translation uses helpmate.  Although help meet and helpmate sound similar, their meanings are quite different.  Help meet is built on the now somewhat archaic meaning of meet as appropriate.  On the other hand, mate with its suggestion of joining seems just plain wrong, given that the story is one of unjoining.  Although I don’t always like the English wording in new JPS, its choice of a fitting helper seems appropriate – or should I say meet?  The Conservative Etz Hayim, which uses New JPS, explains a fitting helper as a helpmate equivalent to him, and Chabad translates ezer k’negdo as helpmate opposite him. This is not so far from the Art Scroll a helper corresponding to him, which is also the translation used by Everett Fox.  Taking a different tack, Robert Alter translates ezer k’negdo as sustainer.

Having looked at translations for the phrase, let’s backtrack and look at the individual words.  The commentators point out that ezer, helper, should not be read as signifying an auxiliary or subordinate helping function.  In most of its Biblical occurrences, it connotes active intervention and is most typically applied to God.  It’s the difference between a helper who makes it easier and a helper who makes it possible.

To the modernists,  ezer k’negdo is a status term signifying the equality of man and woman, especially if we read k’negdo not only as opposing (a perfectly valid translation) but also as facing or confronting.   In fact, Rashi comments:

“If the man is worthy, the woman will be a helper; if he is not worthy, she will be against him.”

The Orthodox Art Scroll commentary amplifies on this:

“Often it is the wife’s responsibility to oppose her husband and prevent him from acting rashly, or to help him achieve a common course by questioning, criticizing and discussing.  Thus the verse means literally that there are times a wife can best be a helper by being against him.”

The Women’s Commentary stresses the importance of the human having a companion who is equal and both other and alike, to provide the necessary dialogue.  In the original male-and-female creation, the two elements were combined in one being, and it was only later that God came to the realization that wasn’t going to work.  The belated insight that it was not good for the human being to be alone was corroborated when God gave ha-adam the task of naming the animals, and during the process, ha-adam did not find a creature with whom a relationship was possible.  If we accept that the creation of the woman was not about sex and procreation; but rather about companionship and cooperation, we can understand ezer k’negdo to signify humankind’s responsibility to help one another, to face one another, to confront one another, to be team-mates, and ultimately to build a world together.

As I have implied, how you interpret ezer k’negdo depends on how you translate it.  I for one see helpmate as subordinate, help meet as equivalent.   If Eve is an ezer k’negdo to Adam, what is he to her?  Is this a one-way or a two-way street? God having judged that it is not good for a person to be alone, what responsibilities do we take on through accepting helpers or sustainers who are equivalent to us?

Having placed ezer k’negdo in the realm of the universalistic, now let me float a particularistic reading:  Just as the human, ha-adam, was unable to find a fitting companion among the animals, God recognizes, twenty generations after creation, that neither the families of the earth nor the angels are providing fitting companions for God, leading to the forging of a special relationship with Abraham.  The covenant is introduced because God, too, needs an ezer k’negdo.

If all humans are made b’tselem Elohim and are given an ezer k’negdo, it follows that all are  subject to the responsibilities that pertain to those concepts, with no difference between their applicability to the families of the earth and to Jews.   But we must wonder how they impact those, Jewish or not, who do not believe in the God in whose image they are made.

B’reishit fatigue?  No, there is enough caffeine in just these few words of Beginning to keep us stimulated and talking until we encounter this text again, be it as soon as next Rosh Hashanah or as late as next Simchat Torah.  May the conversation begin.

The importance of b’tselem elohim was first articulated to me by my (now) rabbi, Peter S. Knobel, in 1995, and has more recently been reinforced by the Just Action web site of Panim, the Institute for Jewish Leadership & Values.  I also acknowledge the teachings of all the Torah commentaries cited in the drash.

Cross-posted to http://www.rj.org

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