Chaos and creation, from Genesis to today

December 7, 2016

You might not expect it, but the very first words of the Torah explain how social change works.

The most familiar English rendering is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s a literal translation of Genesis 1:1: Be reshit bara Elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz. The Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 English-language edition of the Tanakh used it. It suggests that God created the universe “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. That’s the traditional understanding of the text.

Zev Farber, editor of TheTorah.com, points out in a recent article that alternative translations make a lot of difference.

He notes Rashi’s argument that “be reishit” is better translated as “In the beginning of …”. In that case, Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth.” That doesn’t imply creation out of nothing. Similarly, the Targum Yerushalmi notes that the root of “reishit” is “rosh,” which means head or mind. That yields a more informative gloss on God’s act of creation: “With wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Neither interpretation assumes that God created the world out of nothing. And the strongest evidence for both interpretations is not textual, but contextual.

First, Genesis describes the primordial world as unformed and void, as containing “darkness” and “the deep.” An alternative translation of “unformed and void” (tohu ve bohu) is “welter and waste,” which connotes emptiness and futility. All of those things symbolized evil to cultures in the time and place of the ancient Israelites. God removed that evil with His creative acts.

Second, the idea of pre-existing chaos on which God imposed order is found in other creation stories from that time and place, such as the Enuma Elish, of which the Biblical writers knew. To the ancients, imposing order meant both to separate things from each other (for example, “God separated the light from the darkness”) and to name them (“God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night”). Naming things was also an aspect of creating them: “In the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”

If God created the world by imposing order on chaos, then what can it tell us about social change?

In 1955, Rosa Parks lived in a Montgomery, Alabama social order that systematically discriminated against African-Americans. That order had existed for a long time, and even people who thought it was wrong didn’t believe they had any way to change it.

Order in itself is not a bad thing: it is, as Simone Weil wrote, “the first need of all.” But as long as order remains undisturbed and in place, it’s very hard to change.

To change an existing order, you need chaos. Small changes require only a little chaos. Big changes require a lot.

Riding a bus home from her job at a local department store, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. By that act, she became an agent of chaos.

She wasn’t alone in her struggle, but her courage helped spark the chaos that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a result, African-Americans were granted equal legal rights and were freed of many gratuitous humiliations and disadvantages.

Whether the chaos was good or bad, inspiring or ugly, depended on your viewpoint.

Many ordinary people felt that they benefited from the old order. They saw marches, protests, and occasional riots as leading to nothing but more chaos and destruction. African-Americans who were disadvantaged by the old order naturally saw the chaos as a good thing, as leading to the creation of a fairer and more just society. A few far-sighted people, including many Jews, shared the vision of a new order that would arise from the chaos. Some even gave their lives in support of it.

The pattern is plain. When an old order prevents needed changes, a little chaos can shake it loose. That opens up the possibility of change.

Not all change is good change. That’s what makes chaos scary, apart from the fact that it’s inherently destructive. Will the destruction be followed by more positive construction? During the chaos, we don’t know.

In the best case, chaos results in constructive change that is – as Genesis 1:31 says – “very good.”

Today, we also face a certain amount of chaos. Will it be destructive or constructive? Whether he is a hero, a villain, or neither, Donald Trump is an agent of chaos. His electoral victory over opposition by almost the entire government, political, and media establishment proves that democracy can still work in America.

And that means something very important: what happens now depends at least partly on us. If we can accept our fellow Americans as legitimate partners in the democratic process, set aside bitterness, and care more about what’s good for the country than about making sure “our side” wins every dispute, then we can – “with wisdom” – help create a new order that is very good.

It’s not guaranteed. But if it’s going to happen, it’s up to us.

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