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).

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.”

P. F. Sloan: does he still believe we’re on the ‘Eve of Destruction’?


“Eve of Destruction,” the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn’t usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter.

It’s a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time — civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant “Red China.” It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right.

But the long-missing-in-action writer of “Eve of Destruction,” 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, “Sailover,” recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of “Eve” and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27.

After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan’s rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar.

“It is rare because you’re supposed to be 40 [to study],” Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. “My rabbi suspected I was an old soul.”

He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with “a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people.”

But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” as the Fantastic Baggys. His “P.F. Sloan” persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote several protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “The Sins of the Family” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released “Eve” on L.A.’s Dunhill Records — also Sloan’s label — and it became a hit.

Sloan feels the song was “directly attributable” to his kabbalah studies.
“The song was a divine gift,” he said. “I was given information about the history of the world through that song — not that that’s unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things.”

Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God.

“I say to God that ‘this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,’ and then God says to me, ‘But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'” he said.

“It’s an endless dance around this razor’s edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song,” Sloan explained. “He’s telling me, ‘Don’t believe we’re on the eve, I’m not going to allow it.’ And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he’s going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what’s going on.”

Sloan’s parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother’s arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to “Sloan” to avoid anti-Semitism.

Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn’t work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties.

And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care.

But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob.

“I’m now walking 1 1/2 miles a day,” Sloan said. “I have a huge amount of energy. It’s like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I’ve been reactivated.”

P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20.

For more information, call (323) 852-1073 or visit

+