Parashat Bereshit: Harmony and conflict in Genesis

Should the first words of the Torah be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”? 

 WAS THE world created out of nothing or from pre-existing matter? (photo credit: cdd20/Unsplash)
WAS THE world created out of nothing or from pre-existing matter?
(photo credit: cdd20/Unsplash)

Introducing Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, who will be contributing future parasha columns. 

Like the opening notes of a symphony, the first line of the Torah, “Be’resheet bara elohim et ha’shamayim ve’et ha’aretz,” creates a signature for the underlying tune that will compose the rest of the Torah

Commenting on those words, Rabbi Art Green teaches: The “readers/hearers of Genesis 1... know of another account of creation [from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures], one of conflict, slaughter and victory, ‘the survival of the fittest’ among the gods. What is striking about this account is precisely the absence of those elements of conflict: Genesis 1 offers a purely harmonistic version of the origin of creatures, one where everything has its place as the willed creation of the single Deity and all conflict has mysteriously been forgotten.”

What a marvelous basis and start for our world – the Torah seems to say harmony without conflict is its cornerstone. And yet, those very first words of the Torah come with a disagreement. To put it simply, there is a dispute about what those first words of the Torah actually mean. Should they be understood as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth”? 

What does the Torah mean?

The difference is subtle but vast in implications. The problem arises from a number of Hebrew grammatical rules that crash into each other, making a clear translation complicated. Those different translations in turn change our understanding of a key theological concept – was the world created ex nihilo/out of nothing or from pre-existing matter? The first translation, as understood by Rabban Gamliel, Saadya Gaon and Nahmanides, favors ex nihilo, while the latter, as understood by Philo, Ibn Ezra and Gersonides, favors from pre-existing matter. 

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

The question of ex nihilo goes to the heart of God’s relationship to the world and, by extension, us. If God created the world ex nihilo, then it says God is “the cause of all that exists” (Maimonides’s “Thirteen Principles of Faith”) and has sovereignty over everything. The Kabbalists will extend that belief to say, “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else” (Moses Cordovero, Shi’ur Qomah, 206b). 

While on the other hand, those who hold that the world was created from pre-existing matter elevate that matter and, by extension, human beings – allowing, for example, humanism to emerge as an existential understanding of who we are.  

It was perhaps best said by Rashi: “This verse says nothing, but darshani/clarify me!” (Genesis 1:1). That is to say, the opening line of the Torah is not clear, and it demands that we struggle to understand to the best of our abilities. That opening verse, by not being clear, sets the stage for our timeless wrestling with the text. 

Related, there is the question of why did the Torah start with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and not alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are many answers to this question. Rabbi Danielle Stillman teaches, “Remembering that we read Hebrew from right to left, if you look at the bet, you will see that it is closed on the top, bottom, and right side, but the side that is facing left — toward the rest of the Torah text, is open. The interpretation of this visual effect is that one is moving forward with the words of the Torah.” And the way we move forward is by encountering a multiplicity of analysis and meaning – the minimum of multiplicity is two, as symbolized by the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. 

The beginning of the Torah contains another profound conflict as well. The first and second chapters of the Book of Genesis present two vastly different creation stories side by side. They each contain different names of God, different orders of the creation story, different descriptions of God’s actions and the words used to describe how God creates, and diametrically distinctive explanations of the human relationship to the environment.

Some look at these differences and see four different authors throughout the Torah whose different versions were woven together by a redactor sometime in the fifth century BCE. Others, such as Rav Soloveitchik, who believe in the sole authorship by Moses of the Torah, see those differences but come to a different conclusion. For the Rav, those two accounts of creation can be understood as typologies of different aspects of what it means to be a human being – what he describes as homo actus and homo passum, aggressive and passive human, with far-reaching implications for self-understanding.

All of these conflicts within the text point to a paradox of self-contradictions expressing truth. The Latin roots “para” means “beyond,” and “dox” means “opinion” or “thought.” That is to say, paradox is something beyond opinion or thought, something that is beyond explanation. “Paradox” has the same ending as “orthodox.” “Ortho,” “correct,” combined with the suffix “dox” gives us the word “orthodox,” which means correct thought or the correct way to think about things. We usually associate the word “orthodox” with religion, such as an Orthodox Jew, a Jew who thinks in the correct way. This then implies that those Jews who are not Orthodox do not think in the correct way.

One could argue that we should not aspire to be Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews but rather to be Paradox Jews. To be a Jew (or any religious person, for that matter) is to understand that we cannot explain everything. To be religious is in part to search for meaning and understanding while at the same time know that may not always be possible.

It is only when we have such an understanding that we can then embrace the paradox, the mysterious, by not relying on the immutable and not turn the tablets, the land, the nation, the mitzvot, denominations, into idols. As we have seen, the Torah opens with a contradiction of harmony and conflict. Conflict cannot be avoided in our lives and the world – our challenge is how do we address conflict. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that in string and percussion instruments, the music arises out of the tension in the string and the drum. The opening of the Torah reminds us of the need, when possible, to harmonize the different voices of conflict.  ■

The writer, a reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.