When the world was created, darkness and light were incomprehensible concepts. The separation between elements — sky and water, soul and sinew — were not yet formed from the void.
When God finally crafted the Human on the sixth day, the assumption for most students of the Bible is that Man was created first, and from him, Woman was created. This reading is widely accepted and has been taught for centuries, ignoring the other biblical version that they were created simultaneously and interconnected. While it is certainly true that a plain reading of these early biblical passages suggests that the dyad of man and woman was one of the most pertinent intentions of Creation, a closer textual analysis presents another more radical view: the view that identities of gender, sex, race, and ethnicity are not determined by nature but are largely developed as social constructs to make sense of the world. It would be blasphemous for one to apply one’s chosen construction of what is “normal” or “natural” to marginalize another. Doing so would be nothing short of challenging the full Divine potential of the first human who subsequently encapsulates all future human natures. Denying that any unique permutation was fully created in the image of God is akin to denying God.
The Hebrew term Adam is usually meant to express the idea of male, or male identity. But in the early passages of Genesis, the term is made more contextually ambiguous. To wit, Adam can be discerned as embodying a singular personal concept, or a universal one. Though this would seem contradictory prima facie, there is a relevant (though hidden) teaching embedded in the passage, namely that the harmonization of the seemingly contradictory creation of humanity is a sign of a Divine work in which all people are of equal status. Adam comes from adamah which simply means earth; all humans emerged from the universal substance of nature.
Thus, Adam and Eve are not only the first human beings, but also the archetypal configurations for ALL of humanity; the social consciousness lessons that emerge from the brief time we come to know these two figures in the Bible is staggering. Indeed, as it can be seen from our contemporary perspective, all descendants came from Adam and Eve, thus also all descendants were contained within them. The rabbis taught that the first person had both male and female sexual organs (Bereshit Rabbah 8:1). The diversity of humanity teaches us how complexly rounded Adam and Eve were when they were united as one being. The first human being was black and white, gay and straight, male and female, a citizen of the Garden of Eden and a stateless refugee from the garden, made from heaven and from earth. Each of us, in our own uniqueness, can find ourselves within the first person and thus within the Divine purpose of the creation of humanity.
The rabbis taught that God had a miraculous capacity for creating all humans as descendants from one and yet, concurrently, providing a holy uniqueness within each:
When a human being strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns, the Holy One, blessed be God, fashioned every person in the stamp of the first human, and yet not one of them resembles another. For this reason, every human being is obligated to say, “For my sake, the world was created,” (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:22).
This is not a trivial point. Shimon Ben Azzai, a second century Jewish explicator, taught that “‘This is the genealogy of Adam’ is the great principle of the Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:41). Understanding that a singular set of beings contained within them all the genetic complexity and spiritual DNA that would later emerge in various manifestations of humanity displays to us that the human dignity found within the first people is innate and infinite in every subsequent person, regardless of their composition or persuasion.
How all this biblical material relates to contemporary events is of the utmost importance. I fear that today, with the lingering effects of racism, xenophobia, and the stigmatization of gay and trans people, humanity is still needlessly looking for reasons to divide itself. While I may not understand or approve the underlying reasons why each person chooses their particular lifestyle, as a Modern Orthodox pluralistic rabbi guided by the Torah, I feel it is my obligation to seek out those who are most vulnerable and advocate on their behalf. It is not enough to tolerate differences, but to cherish and nurture individuals so that they have the fortitude to go out into the world to live an actualized life. The raison d’être of the Torah is to enhance human dignity and freedom and never, God forbid, to diminish it.
Diversity is not something to push back against in the name of human uniformity. Rather, one of the vital acts we can do is reach out to someone struggling with their identity and give them the space to flourish. Too often, societies have pushed away those who grapple with their inner selves, even cutting them off from the broader world. Our post-modern globalized systems of interaction necessitate that the connection between humans is now weaker than ever. We can bring much kindness and justice back into the world, if we embrace the opportunity, indeed imperative, to support those who are suffering from marginalization and shaming. Indeed, it stems from our ancient mandate of giving aid to the stranger, giving succor to the weak, and being kind to all. And in doing so, we embrace the notion that all of us were contained in God’s first human creation. This makes each of us all equal yet –paradoxically — completely unique.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America & The Forward named him one of “The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America.”