Balance between: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)


Readers long have been challenged by the blatant contradictions between the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter 1, the creation of animals precedes people; in chapter 2, the order is reversed. In chapter 1, a single, androgynous Adam came into being; in chapter 2, Adam and Eve.

More interesting is that the two chapters show different concerns about the human condition, which modern biblical scholars attribute to different schools of (human) authorship. Chapter 2 is from J, the Yahwist writers. It begins, “When the Lord God made earth and heaven — no shrub of the field being yet in the earth and no grains having yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil” (Genesis 2:4-5, JPS translation). J explores the origins of farming! The older of the two chapters, J’s account of creation reflects the agricultural vocation of most Israelites in the early days of the nation, and the outstanding, existential problem of the time: avoiding starvation.

Adam in chapter 2 is concerned primarily with his relationships — with God, the land and the creatures. God is the loving parent, and when Adam’s need for companionship cannot be met by the animals, Eve is created. His mission as a farmer is “to work and to protect” the land on which he depends (Genesis 2:15). 

Written later (during the Israelite monarchy), chapter 1 reflects the concerns and values of the Priests. The P writers were men of learning whose lives intertwined with the urban, merchant class. Fluent in the languages and traditions of the surrounding nations, their concern is nothing less than the place of Israel in the cosmos, and they begin with the creation of the world. Their narrative reshapes a well-known myth of the ancient Near East into a revolutionary account that reinforces Israelite distinctiveness by recognizing the one God as Creator rather than created.

P’s narrative is philosophical in style, making order out of chaos through ever-finer distinctions. Unlike chapter 2, it is hierarchal. Just as the priests serve as intermediaries below God and above the other Israelites, human beings are the intermediaries between God and the rest of creation. Humanity is charged to “fill the earth and master it, and rule…” (Genesis 1:28, JPS translation).

For me, the most perceptive commentator of these differences is the late leader of American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who did not need the notion of human authorship to account for the differences mentioned here. The Adam of the first chapter he calls Adam 1. This is the noble human being, who strives for knowledge and beauty. Adam 1 is the portrait of human initiative. He asserts control against the forces of nature and builds civilization, making order from chaos, so that people can grow and prosper. This is the human who can cure polio and land on the moon. This is the Adam of human dignity.

Adam 2, the Adam described in the second chapter, needs love and lives in community. He can work and protect the land, but can never control its fertility or bring the life-giving rains. This Adam, writes Soloveitchik in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” is vulnerable and dependent, relating to God as a parent rather than a king. This is the Adam of redemption, whose life is redeemed through communal responsibility, right relationship and love.

These descriptions of humanity are brief; they can be easily caricaturized. I hate it, but the thought immediately arises: Adam 1 is a Ryan Republican and Adam 2 is an Obama Democrat. The Torah, one might argue, is presenting us with two different and sometimes conflicting visions of our role in the world, and if this column were appearing on Fox News or MSNBC, one view would be the correct one.

Fortunately, one can suggest a Jewish Journal approach. Are not both chapters true? This is Soloveitchik’s point. In navigating the world, we humans take control as best we can, but we are still vulnerable and dependent. We need individual initiative and depend on technology, but we must care for our community and the planet that enables it. To do less is to belie our potential and fail our Covenant with God.

The challenge, then, is not to choose between Adam 1 and Adam 2, but to recognize that we humans are both. Wisdom is not in favoring one over the other, but in knowing the proper balance between them, and knowing when and how much to emphasize one over the other. In today’s ideological environment, the commentators are clever and the sound bites are compelling, but terribly misleading. Long before us, the ancient Israelites knew that our complex world reflects multiple viewpoints and conflicting yet valid truths. But they need not be viewed as the source of conflict. On the contrary, in diversity and contradiction lies the fruitful tension of human life. In the paradox, we learn from the opening chapters of the Torah, lies wholeness.

As long as we turn off cable news.


Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org) and the author of “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” and “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, makingprayerreal.com).

The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest


Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal’s award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from “I will” to “I do.” And we’re sure they’ll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, “If we ever get married, let’s just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don’t like lots of people staring at me, I don’t like inconveniencing people because it’s ‘my special day,’ and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do.”

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine’s Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don’t love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I’m a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I’m stealing your son? I couldn’t say, “I don’t” to a communal “I do.”

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, “Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900.” Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don’t drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again — for one day — in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that’s going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, “Man, she used to be a lot thinner.”

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel’s sister, into our ceremony.

It’s not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother’s wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it’s important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel’s eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn’t talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn’s wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn’t want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that’s how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn’t totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister’s gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I’ve now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I’ll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don’t care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don’t disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He’s wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t mine, maybe it was hers.

New commentary looks at Torah from woman’s point of view


How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?

Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.

“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.

“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” said Shelley Lindauer, WRJ’s executive director. “History has been written by men; men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”

The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ) Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007. However, the Reform movement will introduce a chapter from the book next month. During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, about 250 Reform congregations — approximately 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.

The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.

After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary, offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah or weekly portion. Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.

More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.

For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.

The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.

Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.

But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as he said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.

“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.

Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.

The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”

While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”

They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it is Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.

An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.

But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.

Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.

“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”