is a wonderful lesson in Jewish continuity: Despite the horrible war being fought for the survival of Israel, it will soon be Shabbos and we will once again ready the Torah portion.
In fact, this Saturday is Shabbot Bereshit and Jewish people around the world will begin anew their annual cycle of reading and studying the Torah, also known as the Old Testament. Last year, around this time, my friend Mark was honored by our Synagogue as the Hatan Torah, the Groom of the Torah. He talked about his personal creation story, his evolution as a Jewish person. His speech became the genesis for me to study, rather than merely read, the Biblical Creation story.
I now realize that for the past 60 years, I have been reading the story of Creation incorrectly. There are two creation narratives; I have mistakenly thought that the second is an expansion of the first. I was wrong; there are two stories with different styles and different story lines.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said: “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, God speaks to me.” God is there, in the Torah, but He moves around. In the first Creation Story, God is Transcendent, beyond this world. In the second Creation Story, God is in this world or Immanent.
The first creation story begins with Genesis 1:1 “When God began to create Heaven and Earth…” and ends in Genesis 2:4 “such is the story of Heaven and Earth when they were created.” The repetition of Heaven and Earth form the bookends which frame this first narrative of creation. This story is tightly structured and very repetitive. Each day of creation is numbered, and God said that it was good on each of the days of creation. On the sixth day, God creates land animals, man, and woman in this order. In this narrative, God is called Elohim.
The second creation story commences in Genesis 2:4 with “When God made Earth and Heaven…” This story is not structured; it is meandering. Also, it lacks the repetitive phrasing of the first story. In this narrative, there are no days of creation and God creates man, animals, and woman in this order. In this story, the Garden of Eden is first mentioned, and God is called YHVH Elohim.
In the first story, God is majestic and transcendent. He is distant and beyond this world. He creates everything, ex nihilo, out of nothing, using the Divine Energy contained in His words. In the second story, God is down to Earth and immanent. He is approachable. He speaks to Adam and Eve; His footsteps can even be heard in the Garden of Eden.
So, there are two creation narratives, with different styles and different names for God. Was the Torah dictated by God to Moses, or is it a compilation of stories written by man and perhaps inspired by God? Is God transcendent and above this world or is He immanent and approachable in this world?
I grew up in the Coney Island Housing Projects in the 1950s and was Bar Mitzvah in 1964. My parents were not observant Jews but the Synagogue literally across the street was a Young Israel, an Orthodox Shul. The Rabbi there, Herschel Kurzrock, was a charismatic and inspiring teacher. He taught that Moses was a scribe to whom God dictated the Torah word for word. Thirty years later, in my early forties, I learned about the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits that the Torah was written by several different authors and redacted into the narrative that we read today.
Going from a Torah written by God to a Torah written by (divinely inspired) men is quite a leap! When I came home from my first adult education class at Park Avenue Synagogue entitled “Who wrote the Bible,” I was like a ship lost at sea. The notion that the Torah was not dictated to Moses by God Himself was disconcerting for me. If a bunch of “smart guys” wrote these stories, which were then edited into the current text, then I was…unmoored. Why go to Synagogue? Why keep Kosher? Why put on Tefillin? If God is telling me to do these things, that is one thing. If some “smart guys” are telling me to do these things, that is a different matter.
Over the next three decades, I struggled to find personal peace. Whether the Torah was from God Himself or from a bunch of “smart guys,” the narrative unites the Jewish people into community. It sets the rules for both the community and the individual. It requires Faith in the document itself. While each of us are alive, our talents and intellect are on loan to us from God. This partnership, between Human Agency and Divine Agency, has prolonged life and given us the miracles of organ transplants, vaccinations, and antibiotics just to name a few.
So, perhaps there are multiple authors with several narratives woven together into the text. God and the Jewish people vacillate between closeness and distance from each other. For me the authorship of the Torah no longer matters. Whether prayer, tefillin, and keeping kosher are commandments or traditions, they link me personally to the Jewish people through “l’dor v’dor” the generations that are past, present, and yet to come. I do these things because they feel “right” to me.
I was not always this person. As a child in Coney Island, I went to “Junior Congregation” on Saturday mornings. When I got home from Shul, my mother made me a special lunch: a Ham and Swiss Cheese sandwich. I would watch Roy Rogers, Fury, Sky King, and the Lone Ranger on TV. Clearly, I did not grow up in an observant home. In 1981, at age 30, I returned to Synagogue and began to keep a Kosher home. When I met my future wife, I told her early on that I kept Kosher; she agreed to join me on this path forward. For us both, this is the lane in which we drive on the superhighway of life. We are capable of change and growth even as we get older.
The letters and words that comprise the Torah cannot be altered. However, we Jews struggle to interpret the text through the conflicting lenses of the past and present. Divergence in the interpretation of the Laws in the Torah results in the different denominations of Judaism. In the Conservative movement, elasticity, derived from the interpretation of the text, helps keep the centrality of our religion in modernity. Faith fills the gap between believing and knowing. Faith, and the Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, guide me through my life, but not in a linear way. I have had many ups and downs in my own experience with God. Some days I wake up and know that God is nearby; other days I wake up and struggle to find my connection with Him. Go figure.