“I Believe” — An Introduction to Covenant & Conversation 5780
When I was Chief Rabbi, I had wonderful friendships with other religious leaders, not least the two Archbishops of Canterbury during my time. This was part of a profound healing that has taken place between Jews and Christians in the post-Holocaust era, after many centuries of estrangement and worse. We respected our differences, but we worked together on the things that mattered to both of us, from climate change to the alleviation of poverty.
On one occasion the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, made a curious request. “We are embarking on a year of Reading the Bible. Do you think you might do something similar within the Jewish community?” “Of course,” I replied. “We do it every year. There’s only one word we might find problematic.” “Which word is that?” he asked. “The word ‘reading,’” I said. “We never simply read the Bible. We study it, interpret it, interpret other interpretations, argue, question, debate. The verb ‘reading’ does not quite do justice to the way we interact with the Torah. It is usually more active than that.”
I might have added that even the phrase keriat ha-Torah, which is usually taken to mean, reading the Torah, probably does not mean that at all. Keriat ha-Torah, properly understood, is a performative act. It is a weekly recreation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is a covenant ratification ceremony like the one Moshe performed at Sinai: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people, and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Ex. 24: 7), and like the covenant renewal ceremony celebrated by Ezra after the return from Babylon, as described in Nehemiah 8-9. Keriah in this sense does not mean reading in the modern sense of sitting in an armchair with a book. It means declaring, proclaiming, establishing and making known the law. It is like what happens in the British Parliament when the bill gets its final ‘reading,’ that is, it’s ratification.
So the Torah isn’t something we merely read. It involves total engagement. And what has made that engagement possible is the rabbinic concept of Midrash. Midrash as I understand it (there are, of course, other ways) was the rabbinic response to the end of prophecy. So long as there were prophets – until the time of Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi – they brought the word of God to their generation. They heard it; they declared it; the Divine word lived within the currents and tides of history.
But there came a time when there were no more prophets. How then could Jews bridge the gap between the word then, and the historical situation now? It was an immense crisis, and different groups of Jews responded in different ways. The Sadducees, as far as we can tell, confined themselves to the literal text. For them Torah did not renew itself generation after generation. It had been given once and that was enough.
Other groups, including those we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, developed a kind of biblical exegesis known as Pesher. There is a surface meaning of the text but there is also a hidden meaning, that often has to do with events or people in the present, or the end of days, that were assumed to be coming soon.
The rabbis, however, developed the technique of midrash which by close reading could give us insight into specifics of Jewish law (midrash halakhah) or details of biblical narrative that are missing from the text (midrash Aggadah). So powerful was this form of engagement that the single greatest institution of rabbinic Judaism is named after it: the Beit Midrash, the ‘house’ or ‘home’ of midrash.
Essentially, midrash is the bridge across the abyss of time between the world of the original text, 30 to 40 centuries ago, and our world in the present of time and place. Midrash asks not “What did the text mean then?” but rather, “What does the text mean to me-here-now?” Behind midrash are three fundamental principles of faith.
First, the Torah is God’s word, and just as God transcends time so does His word. It would be absurd, for instance, to suppose some human being more than 3,000 years ago could have foreseen smart phones, social media, and being online, on-call, 24/7. Yet Shabbat speaks precisely to that phenomenon and to our need for a digital detox once a week. God speaks to us today in the unsuspected inflections of words he spoke 33 centuries ago.
Second, the covenant between God and our ancestors at Mount Sinai still holds today. It has survived the Babylonian exile, the Roman destruction, centuries of dispersion, and the Holocaust. The Torah is the text of that covenant, and it binds us still.
Third, the principles underlying the Torah have changed very little in the intervening centuries. To be sure, we no longer have a Temple or sacrifices. We no longer practice capital punishment. But the values that underlie the Torah are strikingly relevant to contemporary society and to our individual lives in the 21st-century secular time.
So, we don’t merely read the Torah. We bring to it our time, our lives, our most attentive listening, and our deepest existential commitments. My own beliefs have been formed in that ongoing conversation with the biblical text that is part of the Jewish mind and the Jewish week. Which is why, to emphasise this personal engagement, I’ve decided to call this year’s series of Covenant & Conversation, “I Believe,” as a way of saying: this is how I have come to see the world, having listened as attentively as I can to the Torah and its message for me-here-now.
The Torah is not a systematic treatise about beliefs but it is a unique way of seeing the world and responding to it. And in an age of moral darkness, its message still shines. So, at any rate, I believe. May it be a year of learning and growing for us all.
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The Genesis of Love – Bereishit 5780
In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik drew our attention to the fact that Bereishit contains two separate accounts of creation. The first is in Genesis 1, the second in Genesis 2-3, and they are significantly different.
In the first, God is called Elokim, in the second, Hashem Elokim. In the first, man and woman are created simultaneously: “male and female He created them.” In the second, they are created sequentially: first man, then woman. In the first, humans are commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In the second, the first human is placed in the garden “to serve it and preserve it.” In the first, humans are described as “in the image and likeness” of God. In the second, man is created from “the dust of the earth.”
The explanation, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is that the Torah is describing two aspects of our humanity that he calls respectively, “Majestic man” and “Covenantal man.” We are majestic masters of creation: that is the message of Genesis 1. But we also experience existential loneliness, we seek covenant and connection: that is the message of Genesis 2.
There is, though, another strange duality – a story told in two quite different ways – that has to do not with creation but with human relationships. There are two different accounts of the way the first man gives a name to the first woman. This is the first:
“This time – bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman’ [ishah]
for she was taken from man [ish].”
And this, many verses later, is the second:
“And the man called his wife Eve [Chava]
because she was the mother of all life.
The differences between these two accounts are highly consequential.  In the first, the man names, not a person, but a class, a category. He uses not a name but a noun. The other person is, for him, simply “woman,” a type, not an individual. In the second, he gives his wife a proper name. She has become, for him, a person in her own right.
 In the first, he emphasises their similarities — she is “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” In the second, he emphasises the difference. She can give birth, he cannot. We can hear this in the very sound of the names. Ish and Ishah sound similar because they are similar. Adam and Chavah do not sound similar at all.
 In the first, it is the woman who is portrayed as dependent: “she was taken from man.” In the second, it is the other way around. Adam, from Adamah, represents mortality: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground (ha-adamah) since from it you were taken.” It is Chavah who redeems man from mortality by bringing new life into the world.
 The consequences of the two acts of naming are completely different. After the first comes the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, and the punishment: exile from Eden. After the second, however, we read that God made for the couple, “garments of skin” (“or” is spelled here with the letter ayin), and clothed them. This is a gesture of protection and love. In the school of Rabbi Meir, they read this phrase as “garments of light” (“or” with an aleph). God robed them with radiance.
Only after the man has given his wife a proper name do we find the Torah referring to God Himself by His proper name alone, namely Hashem (in Genesis 4). Until then He has been described as either Elokim or Hashem Elokim – Elokim being the impersonal aspect of God: God as law, God as power, God as justice. In other words, our relationship to God parallels our relationship to one another. Only when we respect and recognise the uniqueness of another person are we capable of respecting and recognising the uniqueness of God Himself.
Now let us return to the two creation accounts, this time not looking at what they tell us about humanity (as in Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith), but simply at what they tell us about creation.
In Genesis 1, God creates things — chemical elements, stars, planets, lifeforms, biological species. In Genesis 2-3, He creates people. In the first chapter, He creates systems, in the second chapter He creates relationships. It is fundamental to the Torah’s view of reality that these things belong to different worlds, distinct narratives, separate stories, alternative ways of seeing reality.
There are differences in tone as well. In the first, creation involves no effort on the part of God. He simply speaks. He says “Let there be,” and there was. In the second, He is actively engaged. When it comes to the creation of the first human, He does not merely say, “Let us make Man in our image according to our likeness.” He performs the creation Himself, like sculptor fashioning an image out of clay: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
In Genesis 1, God effortlessly summons the universe into being. In Genesis 2, He becomes a gardener: “Now the Lord God planted a garden …” We wonder why on earth God, who has just created the entire universe, should become a gardener. The Torah gives us the answer, and it is very moving: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” God wanted to give man the dignity of work, of being a creator, not just a creation. And in case the man should view such labour as undignified, God became a gardener Himself to show that this work too is Divine, and in performing it, man becomes God’s partner in the work of creation.
Then comes the extraordinarily poignant verse, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” God feels for the existential isolation of the first man. There was no such moment in the previous chapter. There, God simply creates. Here, God empathises. He enters into the human mind. He feels what we feel. There is no such moment in any other ancient religious literature. What is radical about biblical monotheism is not just that there is only one God, not just that He is the source of all that exists, but that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God knew the loneliness of the first man before the first man knew it of himself.
That is what the second creation account is telling us. Creation of things is relatively easy, creation of relationships is hard. Look at the tender concern God shows for the first human beings in Genesis 2-3. He wants man to have the dignity of work. He wants man to know that work itself is Divine. He gives man the capacity to name the animals. He cares when He senses the onset of loneliness. He creates the first woman. He watches, in exasperation, as the first human couple commit this first sin. Finally, when the man gives his wife a proper name, recognising for the first time that she is different from him and that she can do something he will never do, He clothes them both so that they will not go naked into the world. That is the God, not of creation (Elokim) but of love (Hashem).
That is what makes the dual account of the naming of the first woman so significant a parallel to the dual account of God’s creation of the universe. We have to create relationships before we encounter the God of relationship. We have to make space for the otherness of the human other to be able to make space for the otherness of the Divine other. We have to give love before we can receive love.
In Genesis 1, God creates the universe. Nothing vaster can be imagined, and we keep discovering that the universe is bigger than we thought. In 2016, a study based on three-dimensional modelling of images produced by the Hubble space telescope concluded that there were between 10 and 20 times as many galaxies as astronomers had previously thought. There are more than a hundred stars for every grain of sand on earth.
And yet, almost in the same breath as it speaks of the panoply of creation, the Torah tells us that God took time to breathe the breath of life into the first human, give him dignified work, enter his loneliness, make him a wife, and robe them both with garments of light when the time came for them to leave Eden and make their way in the world.
The Torah is telling us something very powerful. Never think of people as things. Never think of people as types: they are individuals. Never be content with creating systems: care also about relationships.
I believe that relationships are where our humanity is born and grows, flowers and flourishes. It is by loving people that we learn to love God and feel the fullness of His love for us.
To learn more from Rabbi Sacks, please visit his website www.RabbiSacks.org or follow him on social media @RabbiSacks. You can also join one of his WhatsApp groups or Telegram channel by visiting www.RabbiSacks.org/WhatsApp. Each week, the Office of Rabbi Sacks produces a Family Edition of Covenant & Conversation which is based on the main essay but makes the content more accessible for older children and teenagers and includes questions and talking points to enhance your Shabbat table discussions. You can also listen to his weekly commentary as an audio file on Soundcloud or Spotify.