If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy? – Rosh Hashanah 5780

What is today’s date?

{The second of Tishrei.}

What happened on this day that we are commemorating?

{The world was created.}

It is actually a bit more nuanced than this.  For creation was not a one day event.  It took seven: six days for God to bring into existence everything that is, and a seventh day for God to cease working and rest.

As the chronology goes, this week-long creation began on the 25th day of Elul—last month.  This means that the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which we observed yesterday, corresponded to the 6th day, the day on which God created humanity. Today, then, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the seventh and final day of Creation, when God rested.

But is this true?

Let me get something out of the way.  The world is not 5,780 years old.  Do not look to the Torah for either a scientific or historical account of how the universe came into being.  That is not the Torah’s purpose.  Classic commentators tell us: The Torah is written in language that human beings can comprehend.  Do not think that we can understand anything about how God created the world.

In our Mahzor, we declare Hayom harat olam.  “Today the world is conceived.”  But, nowhere in the Bible is there a direct indication that today is the birthday of the world.

As late as the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a), rabbis were arguing about when the world was created.  Go figure.  Rabbi Eliezer says it was in Tishrei.  But Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was in Nisan, in the Spring.  Each of them bring biblical verses to try to prove their points, and the Talmud raises objections to both. Our observance today clearly follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.  

But how can either of them know when the world was created, or when the new year should begin?  For that matter, why does the week have seven days?  Is there something inherently special about the number 7?

The ancient Romans had an 8 day week.  The Aztecs and Mayans used a 13 day week.  During the French Revolution, there was an attempt to change over to a ten day week, which was seen as more modern and scientific.  It failed after nine and a half years.

Is there something inherently special about Tishrei vs. Nisan, or about a week that lasts 7 days, as opposed to 8, 10, or 13? Are these numbers independently meaningful, or are they significant because we decided to make them so?  If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

This is the theological equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”

Our sages have answers to these questions.  They draw a distinction between the counting of the days of the week and the determination of when the months and the years are supposed to begin. The responsibility and authority for setting the calendar is granted to human beings.  In ancient times, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon.

When the Sanhedrin was satisfied, they would declare: M’kudash M’kudash.  Sanctified!  Sanctified  That day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.  The correct observance of holidays depended on the decision that the Sanhedrin made. They knew exactly when the moon was supposed to appear.  They understood the astronomy quite well, probably better than most of us in the room.

But, if it happened to be a cloudy night, or if the there was a problem with the witnesses, too bad.  The declaration would have to be put off until the next day.  This meant that the month sometimes began on the “wrong day.”  

When the Sanhedrin stopped meeting, the rabbis implemented the fixed calendar which we still use today.  They decided that Rosh Hashanah should never occur on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Why?  To prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday,  or Hoshanah Rabah falling on Shabbat, which would be really inconvenient.

Whenever the new moon appears on one of those days, Rosh Hashanah has to be delayed.  On particular occasions, it has to be pushed off by up to two days.

This goes against what the Torah says very plainly in today’s maftir:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion.” (Numbers 29:1)  According to the Torah, our holiday should begin when the moon first appears.  Period.

This year, the new moon made its first appearance Sunday morning, at 5:50 am.  But, we cannot observe Rosh Hashanah on a Sunday, so we artificially pushed it off until the following day.

Does it seem strange that human beings would manipulate the calendar so brazenly?  What gave our ancestors the right, and why do we keep listening to them?

According to ancient teachings, in fact, permission and responsibility to set the calendar is granted to people. That is why, when we recite the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, we say m’kadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron.  Praised are You God, who sanctifies the people Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

Israel is mentioned first.  Why?  Because we are the ones who determine the day on which the holiday is going to be observed.  Don’t worry, everyone.  It’s all kosher.  We’ve got permission.

When it comes to Shabbat, however, there is absolutely no astronomical significance to a seven day week.  The blessing for kiddush is simply m’kadesh haShabbat.  Praise are you God, who sanctifies the Shabbat.  Human beings have no say in the matter.

How do we know that the day we think is Shabbat actually is Shabbat?  How confident are we that human beings have been counting to 7 consistently for the past 5,780 years? Is there anything special about the seventh day, or is it completely arbitrary?

An ancient midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 11:5; Pesikta Rabbati 23) poses that exact question in a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Governor of Judea, Quintus Tineius Rufus.  The midrash names him Turnusrufus HaRasha.  Tyranus Rufus the Wicked.  He governed Judah during the 120’s and early 130’s, CE, during the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.

A number of legends describe the confrontations between these two figures.  Usually, Akiva comes out on top after the Roman tries to lay a rhetorical trap for him. It was Tineius Rufus who ordered the execution of Rabbi Akiva, when he refused to obey the decree banning the teaching of Torah.  But in a reversal from one particularly dramatic tale, (BT Avodah Zarah 20a) Rufus’ wife divorces him, converts to Judaism, and then marries Akiva.

In this story (Genesis Rabbah 11:5), the wicked Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva: “Why does this day differ from all other days?”  [Sound familiar?]

Akiva has a quick comeback, “Why does this man differ from all other men?”

Tinneus Rufus is already confused.  “What did I ask you and what did you answer me?’  He does not understand his own question, much less Akiva’s response.

So Akiva breaks it down for him.  “You asked me, ‘why is the Sabbath different from all other days?’ and I answered you, ‘Why is Rufus different from all other men?'”

“That’s easy,” laughs the Roman proudly.  “The emperor wanted to honor him.”

Akiva responds.  “It’s the same with Shabbat.  The Holy One wished to honor it.”

Rufus is not going to be swayed so easily.  “Prove it!” he tells Akiva.  In other words, he is asking if there is anything at all that is different about the seventh day; in the physical or even in the metaphysical world.  It’s a good question.  The rabbis often put good questions which might border on being heretical in the mouths of Romans.

“Let the River Sambatyon prove it!” Akiva declares.  The Sambatyon is a mythical river, the location of which is unknown.  He continues, “The Sambatyon flows along, carrying stones in its current for the whole week, but on the Sabbath, it stops flowing, allowing the stones to rest.”  

Rufus will have none of that.  “You are avoiding the question.”

“Fine,” Akiva says.  “Then let this necromancer prove it.  For every day, he summons the dead to rise up from Gehenna, but not on the Sabbath.  Go check it out with your father.”

So Rufus goes to test Akiva’s theory.  He has his own father summoned from the grave.  Every single day, his father comes up, but when the Sabbath arrives, he is a no-show.  Just to be sure, Rufus summons his father again on the following day, Sunday.  His father’s spirit is there, right on time.

So Rufus asks him, “Father!  Are you suddenly shomer shabbos?! Did you become Jewish after you died?  Did you convert?  Why did you come every day of the week but not on the Sabbath?” 

The father explains.  “Those who do not rest on the sabbath of their own free will while they are alive are forced to observe it here, against their will.”

“But what work is there from which you need to rest?” his son asks.

“Every day we are subjected to judgment and punishment,” Rufus’ father responds.  “But on Shabbat we get a break.”

So Rufus returns to Akiva.  “If it is as you say, that the Holy One observes the Sabbath, then then let Him not cause the winds to blow on that day, or cause the rains to fall, or make the plants grow?” 

This, of course, is the real question.  The earth keeps spinning, the plants keep growing, paying no heed to the Sabbath.  If everything happens according to God’s will, why is there no evidence of the sabbath whatsoever in the natural world?  We are asked to rest on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day.  So how come nature doesn’t get a break?

Here, Akiva gets frustrated, “Let this man’s breath depart from him,” he mutters.  Then he answers with a particularly legalistic explanation.

First, let me explain.  On the Sabbath, there is a prohibition against carrying things outside of one’s private domain.  You may have heard of an eruv.  It is a technical way of combining lots of individual private domains into one giant, shared private space.  This enables observant Jews to carry things outside of their homes on the sabbath.  

So Akiva says to Rufus, “The entire world is God’s private domain, therefore it is permissible for God to cause all of these things to continue on the sabbath.”

And that is the end of the midrash.

With no disrespect to Rabbi Akiva, this is not a particularly convincing answer.  Certainly not one that Rufus would accept, or even understand.  God moving the winds and making the rain fall is the equivalent of a person carrying an object around the yard?!  Come on.  To come up with this answer, Akiva has to utilize a loophole developed by the rabbis, a legal invention that is nowhere in the Torah.

What matters to Tineius Rufus?  The power that he wields over Akiva and other men.  The honor given to him by the King.  He is a nihilist.  There is nothing more than the power and honor that a person can grab in their lifetime.

Akiva struggles to explain that there is something deeper, something that can only be appreciated by acknowledging the power of something that cannot be seen.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

We ask the same question about all sorts of things, not just Shabbat.  Is there any inherent meaning to the particular rituals and practices of Judaism?

All of this is really about the sacredness of time.  I would argue that there is, in fact, no inherent holiness from one moment to the next.  It takes people to make time sacred.

This requires from us a leap of faith.  To treat time as sacred is to stand in awe of Creation; to be aware simultaneously of how small and insignificant we are are and of how special and blessed we are.

We embrace a day as holy, knowing full well that the selection of this particular day is arbitrary, that the concept of holiness itself has no physical reality whatsoever.  By embracing the holiness of the day anyways, we relinquish the power to make time sacred to something greater than us.

This is the paradox inherent in ritual.  Ritual is just a series of symbolic actions.  But those rituals have the capacity to free us and make our lives infinitely meaningful.  But only if we take a leap.

What are the rituals of Rosh Hashanah?  What are the stories that we tell about this day that express its holiness and give it meaning?

Hayom.  On this day, we celebrate God’s creation of the world.  Earth is one year older.  It is a party.  A time for joy.

On this day, we sound the shofar.  It rings like a trumpet, announcing the King’s enthronement.  The blast recalls God’s mercy in accepting a ram for sacrifice instead of Isaac.  It wakens us to teshuvah.  The cry of the shofar evokes our own cries as we realize our mistakes.

On this day, God, the King, stands in Judgment.  Our deeds from the past year are weighed, and our destiny for the year ahead is determined.  But we have within us the ability to avert the severity of the decree through our actions: repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.

From this day until Yom Kippur, we can appeal the verdict.  We hope to push God up from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy.  We know that we are imperfect, but we try our best, and we believe that we can be better, that personal transformation can and does happen.

So to all of us, on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which God rested after six days of work, the 5,780th birthday of the world, may this year be filled with blessings.  May our lives be enriched by the love of our family, friends, and community.  May this be a year of personal growth as we engage in learning and in working on our midot, our characters.  May God grant us peace: here at home, in Israel, and around the world.  May we and our loved ones be blessed with health, and with strength to face the challenges that will inevitably come.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techatemu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

The Ship of Theseus – Rosh Hashanah 5779

You may recall the stories of the ancient Greek hero, Thesesus.  He is the legendary founder of Athens.  Among his many adventures, Theseus’ most famous exploit is his defeat of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast that dwelled in the labyrinth created by Daedalus on the Isle of Crete.  

He returned home with the rescued youth of Athens on a ship with thirty oars.  The people of Athens, to commemorate Theseus’ great victory, preserved the ship in the Athenian harbor to serve as a memorial.

According to the ancient Greek and Roman historian, Plutarch, the ship was maintained for several centuries.  As we all know, things age, especially ships kept in the salty water, and humid air of the Mediterranean.  Over times, the wooden planks of Theseus’ ship began to rot.  They were replaced, as needed.  This went on for years, then decades, and then centuries.

Eventually, Plutarch explains, the ship gave rise to a question posed by the philosophers: If every single plank, oar, rudder, and piece of rigging from Theseus’ original ship has been replaced, can it still be considered to be Theseus’ ship?

This question came to be known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Let’s extend the paradox to rock and roll.

Quiet Riot is a heavy metal band from my childhood.  I remember listening to their 1983 hit, Bang Your Head, on the school bus with my friend Brian when I was in second grade.  We would bank our heads against the padded seat in front of us whenever they got to the chorus.

When Quiet Riot plays Bang Your Head today, they sound just like I remembered them, even though the only band member that was with them in 1983 is the drummer, and even he was not part of the founding lineup.  Are they still Quiet Riot?

It is a deep philosophical quandary.

Let’s shift the question to the human body.  We each are made up of about ten trillion cells.  It is often claimed that it takes seven years for every cell in the human body to regenerate itself.

It turns out, that is not quite true.  Our cells die and are regenerated at different rates.  The cells of the stomach lining, for example, are replaced every couple of weeks.  The same is true of our skin.  The liver takes about two years.  Bones take about ten years to regenerate.  Cardiomyocytes, in the heart, regenerate at about 1% per year, but the rate slows as we age.  A seventy five year old person would still have more than half of the heart cells that he had at birth.  For some parts of our body -Tooth enamel, the cells on the inner lens of the eye, and the neurons of the cerebral cortex–the cells we are born with have to last our entire lives.

On average, though, we could say that we are approximately eleven to fifteen years old.

I am in my 40’s.  Does that mean I am on my third life, or does who I am transcend the physical parts of which I am comprised? 

These are really questions about the nature of identity.  Am I the collected sum my parts?  If so, perhaps the gradual replacement of those parts transforms me into a new person.  Or maybe, since the same DNA directs the regeneration of each of my cells, I remain the same person.  My DNA is the genetic algorithm that defines me.

Or, perhaps identity has nothing to do with the physical body.  Perhaps identity is rooted in consciousness, summarized succinctly by Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.”

Although still in the realm of science fiction, we could imagine the future possibility that a person’s consciousness could be uploaded into a computer, or into an artificial body.  Would this be the same person?

Might consciousness have something to do with the soul?

Maybe each moment in a person’s life is a distinct slice of existence, a solitary point in space-time, with no two slices being the same.  We are constantly changing and reforming into new entities.

Or, we could go four-dimensional, and imagine a series of slices stacked together, forming a river through time in which each individual slice is distinct from a three dimensional perspective, but identical from a four-dimensional perspective.

It is enough to make you want to “bang your head.”

Our Jewish tradition asks a similar question.  Am I the same person, year after year, throughout my life?  The answer: it is up to me.

The great medieval Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides, suggests a number of practices that those who are truly serious about teshuvah, repentance, might undertake.  Those practices include: crying out loud to God with real tears, going out of one’s way to avoid situations in one has earlier sinned, and even possibly going so far as to pick up and move to a new city.  Finally, Maimonides suggests that a would-be-penitent might change his or her name, as if to say, “I am a different person.  I am no longer the one who perpetrated those misdeeds.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:4)

This is kind of the opposite of the Ship of Theseus.  The person’s physical body has remained exactly the same, but the identity is new.

These practices that Maimonides mentions are really just superficial changes.  Real teshuvah, he explains in detail, involves a much deeper transformation.

In 1944, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote a book called Halakhic Man.  In it, he connects a human being’s capacity to create to teshuvah.  He says that repentance is itself an act of self-creation.

The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ and the creation of a new ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals—this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve over the future. (110)

In short, a person who achieves teshuvah creates herself as a new individual.

Imagine a sinner.  In other words, every one of us.  That person is characterized by the term rasha – wicked.  What does it take for that person to no longer be a rasha?  Two things: regret and resolve.  The first step, regret, is about the past.  It is when I recognize and feel shame about something I have done.  

The action itself cannot be erased.  The question is: what does the action mean in the story of my life?

If I do not change, I will continue on my course as the same person, as the same rasha.  My past behaviors, personality traits, and desires will continue to direct me.  It is as if I have lost my free will.  I will continue to sin, and my sins will accumulate and become harder and harder to shed.  Rav Soloveitchik describes this person “as the random example of the biological species.”  (127)

The second step in teshuvah is resolve.  Resolve is about the future.  It is “an absolute decision of the will and intellect together” to “terminate [a person’s] past identity and assume a new identity for the future.”  (112)

With resolve, something miraculous occurs.  The future changes the past.  That sin, which prompted such feelings of regret, no longer continues, through inertia, to its inevitable conclusion.  I am no longer trapped in destructive patterns of behavior.  “Such a man is no longer a prisoner of time but is his own master.”  (127)  He creates a new universe.

My regret for the sin I have committed has become the catalyst for self-transformation.  The ability to change meaning of the sin in my past through teshuvah, says Rav Soloveitchik, is the essence of human free will.

Now, when I tell my story, I look to that low point as my wake-up call to change my ways.  My sin becomes a merit.  This is what the Talmud means when it teaches: “Great is repentance, for it causes deliberate sins to be accounted to [a person] as meritorious deeds.”  (BT Yoma 86b)

Think about this from a parent’s perspective.  We have to allow our children to make mistakes.  We have to recognize their need to test limits, even if we want to throw them out the window.  It is an essential part of their development.  We even need to allow them to behave in ways that can be harmful to other people.  

We also have to make sure that our kids face the consequences of their actions.  That is the only way for them to mature into resilient human beings with a solid ethical foundation.  If we shield our children from errors, they will grow into weak adults, unable to take charge of their destiny.

It is only by making mistakes that we have the opportunity to grow.  The Talmud teaches “in the place where repentant sinners stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand.”  (BT Berakhot 34b)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:4) teaches that, even before the creation of the physical world, God created teshuvah.  It is built-in to human identity.  Rav Soloveitchik adds that teshuvah is the key to a human’s ability to create as a partner with God.

A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception.  When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner.  Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.”  (113)

This sounds great.  But is it true?  Can we really stop the inertia of destructive behavior and transform ourselves? ?

If I look at my resolutions from previous High Holidays, can I honestly say that I have succeeded?  Am I a new person from the person I was one year ago, five years ago?  Have I created a new “I?”

Every night, the Hassidic Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would examine his heart.  He would review the day, considering everything he had done, every interaction, every moment.  As he was only human, he would inevitably discover a flaw of some sort.  Then he would announce out loud: “Levi Yitzchak will not do this again!”

Then he would pause and reflect: “Levi Yitzchak said exactly the same thing yesterday!”

To which he would add: “Yesterday Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth, but he does speak the truth today.”  (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. I, p. 218)

This sounds a little more realistic.

The first instance of teshuvah in the Torah occurs between brothers.  Joseph is the Viceroy of Egypt, tasked with guiding the nation through seven years of famine.  He is in disguise when his brothers come begging for food.

To test them, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies and throws them in jail for three days.  Then he keeps Simeon as a hostage, and sends the others back to their father in the Land of Canaan.  “Do not return,” he says, “unless you bring your youngest brother, Benjamin, with you!”

When they eventually come back for more food, Benjamin in tow, Joseph continues the test.  He plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain and has them arrested.  “Return to your father in peace,” he orders, “but Benjamin must remain here in Egypt as my prisoner!”

Joseph has reproduced the exact circumstances from twenty years earlier when they returned home to their father without their brother.

You will recall that it was Judah who devised the plan to sell Joseph into slavery.  Now, it is again Judah who steps forward.  “Take me as your prisoner and slave, and let Benjamin return to our father.  For I cannot bear to return to him without the boy.”

Maimonides defines teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, in the following way:  When a person is found in the same circumstances, able to commit the same crime, and yet does not–that is complete repentance.

Judah has become a new man.  He, along with the other brothers, are not the same people that they were twenty years earlier.  Perhaps that is why Joseph, after revealing himself, says “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  (Genesis 45:8)

Regret leads the brothers to resolve to change.  They rewrite the meaning of their earlier mistreatment of Joseph in their own narratives.  They are not the same siblings who banished their brother.  Since these are different men standing before him, Joseph cannot hold them accountable.  He forgives them. 

The Ship of Theseus paradox is not an analog for a human being.  The ship was placed in the Athenian Harbor to remind future generations of what Theseus once did.  Its meaning and memory is static.  Regardless of how much a philosopher bangs his head against the problem, those tasked with maintaining the ship do not want it to change.

We are the opposite.  Our bodies may remain basically the same from one moment to the next, but our purpose, as human beings fashioned in God’s image, is to be dynamic.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation.  While most of our liturgy focuses on God’s Creation of the World, there is another aspect of Creation which is at least as important.  We often describe human beings as partners with God in Creation.

This rolls off the tongue easily, and sounds inspiring.  But what does it really mean for a human being to create—to produce something out of nothing—to change the nature of reality?

That is what teshuvah can be.  An opportunity not only to create a new “I,” but to create a new world.  That is the aspect of  being human that is God-like.  It is the possibility to create.  But to be Creators, we must look at what we have done with open eyes and brutal honesty.

I note those moments when I could have been better.

I discern the patterns of repeated mistakes.

I feel regret.

Am I prepared to change?

Can I resolve to become a new “I”?

Am I ready to create a new world?

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

David P. Goldman, “The Jewish Idea of Freedom” in Ḥakirah 20, 2015 – (http://www.hakirah.org/Vol20Goldman.pdf)

Ilana Kurshan, If All the Seas Were Ink

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Birth of Forgiveness (Vayigash 5775) – (http://rabbisacks.org/birth-forgiveness-vayigash-5775/#_ftnref2)

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Know the Genre – Bereishit 5776

Imagine a space alien landing on earth and reading the headline of an article that I saw posted on Facebook earlier this week.  “Texas: 14-Year Old Virgin Falls Pregnant After Flu Shot.”  Our alien visitor, reading this article in an official sounding publication called World News Daily Report, might take it as accurate news reporting rather than satire.  A bit of digging would hopefully lead the alien to the truth.

One of the most important aspects that a reader must understand about what he or she is reading is its genre.  Usually, we understand genre inherently without needing to spend any time consciously considering the type of literature that we are reading.

If I open the front section of the newspaper, I know that I am reading current events articles about something going on right now in the world.  If I open up a book written by John Grisham, I know that I am probably reading a fictional novel that is in the sub-genre of legal thriller.  We run into trouble with genre sometimes online with fake news articles that are forwarded or posted on Facebook.  If I peruse an article published by the Onion, for example, hopefully I know that I am reading satire.  Otherwise, I could get into trouble.

Generally speaking, our brains know how to classify the various kinds of writing that we encounter on a daily basis.  We do this by comparing what we read to what is already familiar.

When we read literature from far away places and long ago times, however, we are at a similar, if not even a greater, disadvantage as our alien friend.

In high school, I had opportunity to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.  To properly understand these masterpieces, it is essential to be aware of their genre.  In the case of Thucydides, his book is one of the earliest examples of historical writing.  A political philosopher and general, he writes of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE.  He takes great effort to stick to facts, and his explanations do not include maneuverings and interventions by the gods in human affairs.  Someone who wants to learn about military history, or study that time period, must read this classic first-hand description.

In contrast, Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus are not historical accounts.  Rather, human beings are mere tools manipulated by the gods in their grand feuds and struggles.  The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems containing myth and legend.  One should not read them to find out “what happened,” but one should look to them to understand the beliefs and values of Ancient Greece, to understand something about the human condition, as well as enjoy two of the most beautiful epic poems ever written.

Which author’s works are more “true” – Thucydides are Homer?  It is an absurd question.  Both are true, but in different ways.  Understanding genre is essential for knowing this.

The same is true when we read our Sacred Texts.  Today, we begin our annual cycle of weekly Torah reading and study.  Parashat Bereishit – the beginning.  The beginning of what?  Let’s leave that question aside for now and say simply that it is the beginning of the Torah.

So let’s talk about genre.  Our Bible, the Tanakh, is a huge, composite book composed over a span of about one thousand years by many people, with different life experiences, values, and concerns.  Within the Bible, and within the Torah specifically, there are many genres and sub-genres represented.  Let us name a few:

Law codes.  History.  Legend.  Satire.  Prophecy.  Poetry.  Prayer.  Theology.  Wisdom literature.  Mythology.  Propaganda.

If we are going to begin to understand our Bible, we have got to make an effort to understand what kind of literature it is that we are reading.

As our Sacred Scripture, we consider the text to be universal and timeless.  That does not mean that we can ignore the central questions about what the text is, or that we can ignore the cultural context in which it first appeared.

The first three chapters of the Torah tell the story of creation.  How does the Torah itself want us to read these stories?  How would someone living in the land of Israel nearly three thousand years ago have understood them?

A close reading of these three chapters reveals inconsistencies.  Chapter one through chapter two, verse 4a seems to tell one version of the creation story.  Chapter two, verse 4b through chapter three tells a different version.  The language in each version is different.  The character of God, as well as the nature of humanity and order of creation are also contradictory.  God even has a different name in these two narrativez.

Version one tells the story of six days of creation.  It is highly structured and organized.  God, referred to as Elohim, creates each element of the world at a specific time.  Human beings are created last, in the image of God, both male and female.  Then God rests on the seventh day.

In version two, God, referred to as Adonai Elohim, creates a man named Adam and then places him in the Garden of Eden.  Eventually, after lonely Adam cannot find a suitable companion amongst the animals, God removes one of Adam’s ribs and makes a woman.  Then, we read the story of the woman, the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The story results in humans being banished from the Garden of Eden and being forced to wander the earth, earning their living and bearing children through hard work and struggle.

Our interpretive tradition is typically uncomfortable with contradictions in the Sacred Text.  So it tries to find ways to settle those contradictions.  To explain what, on the surface, seems like alternative versions of creation, it describes the events in the Garden of Eden described in chapters two and three as all taking place on the sixth day.  But these explanations ignore many of the details.

In the twenty first century, many of us get stuck on what seems, on the surface, to be an incompatibility between Torah and science.  We are trained to be skeptical readers, to question the historical accuracy of what we hear, and to demand evidence and facts before we accept a proposition.

This comes up a lot for children, sometimes as early as second or third grade.  How do we respond to our kids when they say to us: “I don’t think that ever happened,” which sometimes leads to “I don’t want to be Jewish”?

First of all, I have no argument with someone who says that the Earth cannot have been created in six days.  I agree.  By the way, I do have an argument with someone who tries to fit the latest scientific theories of evolution or the Big Bang into the words of the Torah.  The Torah is not a science book.  We should not be tempted to turn it into one.

Just because it did not happen that way does not mean it is not true.  An answer, I believe, comes down to understanding the concept of genre.

This is not simply a postmodern approach to our Sacred Texts.  Although they used different terms, some of our greatest scholars understood the importance of recognizing genre and accepting the limitations of what the text is able to tell us.

The great thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, was a great Torah scholar, philosopher, legalist, and kabbalist.  He wrote a commentary on the Torah.  In his opening comment, he explains that the process of creation is a deep mystery that cannot be understood from the verses, and it can only be known through the oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it from God on Mt. Sinai.  Then he adds that those who know it are obligated to keep it secret.

Nachmanides goes on to explain that all of the descriptions of creation: day one, day two etc., as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the accounts of the generations leading up to the flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on – none of these events can actually be understood from the verses in the Torah.  Basically, he is saying that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not reporting historical facts.

What, therefore, is the Torah’s purpose in describing the six days of creation?  Nachmanides offers the same answer as Rashi, which is based on a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2).  According to the midrash, the Torah’s description of creation establishes the entire earth as belonging to God, its Creator.  Thus, God has the authority to grant land to one people, and then subsequently take it away and give it to another.

In reading Nachmanides’ commentary, we need to understand that he himself is writing in a particular time and place, with his own unique perspectives, assumptions, and interests.  His worldview does not necessarily align with our own, seven hundred years later.

What we call “science” today was not familiar to Nachmanides.  He did not know about the Big Bang Theory, evolution, or radio carbon dating.  We can only speculate how he would have reacted to those concepts, and how that knowledge might have affected his commentaries.  As someone who studied medicine and philosophy, he might have been open to science.  On the other hand, he opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides that downplayed the Torah’s descriptions of miracles by explaining them as metaphors, and he was a practicing kabbalist who accepted many of our tradition’s supernatural stories as historically true.

I find it reassuring to know that Nachmanides acknowledged that the Torah’s account of Creation is not science.  For him, the purpose is theological and political.  It justifies Israel’s claim to the land of Israel and counters charges by other nations that the Jews stole it unjustly.  (Sound familiar?)

While the secrets of how God actually created the universe are known to some, that knowledge is in the realm of mysticism, and is not intended for popular dissemination.  The concepts are either too esoteric, or difficult, or perhaps even dangerous to share with the general public, and so the Torah tells us nothing about how creation historically took place.

So let us take a step back and look at these stories with new eyes.  Or rather, let us try to look at them through the eyes of an Israelite nearly three thousand years ago.

What is the genre?  Both stories speak about origins.  The origin of the earth and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, plants and trees, sea and land animals, birds, insects, and humans.

In today’s terms, what would we call a text that speaks about the origins of these things?  We would call it science.  So there is an inclination when we read the Torah to think that we are reading a scientific, historical account of how the world and life came into existence.

But that is an incorrect reading.  In science, when there are contradictions in the evidence, it generally means that there is something wrong with the theory.  The problem with reading the Torah as science or even history is that the text is not internally consistent, and it is often not consistent with what we know from extrenal sources.  As science, and often as history, the Bible is terrible literature.

But the Torah is neither a science nor a history book.  Science and history, as we know them, did not even exist when the Torah was written.  That is the wrong genre.

A better term to describe these stories is “myth.”  Confusingly, “myth” has two main definitions which are diametrically opposed to one another.

For decades, a book has been published every few years called Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I do not bring it up to talk about politics, but to illustrate how, colloquially, the word “myth” means the opposite of facts.  If something is a myth, it is not true, and might even be a deliberate lie.

But that is not the definition of myth that is used by anthropologists and sociologists.  Quite the opposite, a myth conveys something that is of ultimate truth, even if it is not historically accurate.  One classicist writes that myth is “a traditional tale with […] reference to something of collective importance.”  (Walter Burkett, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, as quoted in Marc Zvi Bressler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, p. 39.)  Myths reveal the core beliefs of a people and help to explain the human condition.  Most cultures have a creation myth that explains how the world came into existence and how human beings fit into that existence.

Both of the Torah’s creation narratives fit that definition, although they convey different messages.

The first version is about God’s taming of the forces of chaos and evil.  In systematic fashion, God pushes aside the already-existing primordial waters to separate earth from sky, and land from water.  Each creative act of order is declared to be “good,” with humans, the final creation, described by God as “very good.”  Holding the forces of chaos at bay has been God’s preoccupation ever since.  The narrative ends with God observing Shabbat on the seventh day.

The second story has a different focus.  It is a far more anthropocentric story.  God first creates Adam and then makes the Garden of Eden, introducing plants and animals to serve the human.  As an origin story, it tells of the loss of human immortality and the gaining of sexual knowledge.  It describes the roles of men and women vis a vis each other in the ancient world.  It explains why it is so hard to earn a living, and why childbirth is so painful and dangerous.  Then, and now, these are some of the central aspects of human existence.

So while God did not create the earth in six days, and while two people named Adam and Eve never walked around naked in the Garden of Eden, each of these creation stories is true in a profound way.  Understanding how they are true makes them relevant and alive for us.

As we begin a new year of Torah study, let us come to these texts with open eyes and open hearts, with the presumption that Torah has something profound to teach us.  It is our task, through engaging with Torah, to discover what it is.