Sermon: Choosing our Creation story

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 October 2015

“B’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’n’keivah bara otam”
Or, maybe not. Maybe, instead:
“Va-yitzer Adonai Elohim et ha-adam afar min ha-adamah” then “e’eseh lo ezer k’negdo”

It’s very rare that we see so starkly the difference between these two verses like we did this morning. Two very different versions of how humanity came to be:

Version 1: B’tzelem elohim bara oto
“Elohim created humanity in the divine image; male and female, God created them” – Man and woman created together, both in the divine image, both springing from the same moment of creation.

Version 2: Va-yitzer Adonai Elohim et ha-adam
“And Adonai Elohim formed man from the dust of the earth”… Man, a single entity, made from the dust of the earth, later to be joined by woman, that ezer k’negdo – a helpmeet, taken from the rib of the first man.

Two ancient versions of how the world came to be. Two differently named versions of God. Two different understandings of human origin – are we divine or dust? Two different views of the fundamental, ideal nature of the world – for it is that which any creation story articulates – and of the role of men and women in that world.

If our starting point as Reform Jews for thinking about our lives is the text how do we hold these two versions side by side? What do we do with this difference?

The first thing, probably, is to learn from it.
To learn about creation myths: that they are not intended to tell us how the world was made. That is not their purpose. Those who read them as such – either as believers or as rejecters; those who read it as such are misusing the text. The fact that our foundational story includes two versions of creation tells us that they are understood to be expressions of ideas, not descriptions of history. Certainly, that is how the early rabbis read Creation – and so should we.

We can learn from this juxtaposition about Torah, too – that it is not a unity. The inclusion of two contradictory – or at least, different but complementary – stories is just one of many examples of the Torah as a composite text, made up of multiple documents – often with different theologies, different names for God, and different values.

Ultimately, though, the Jewish relationship with Torah is about more than merely studying the text, but in some way living through it. If a creation myth articulates something about the fundamental nature of the world, an ideal state, then we have to do something more difficult than merely learn from the presence of different stories – ultimately, we have to choose between them. We have to be willing to say which of these visions is our ideal? Which story, which set of values represents our view, our commitment about the world that we build?

This was certainly true of the Sages, the rabbis of midrash and Talmud.
They understood that even when they were creatively trying to reconcile the two stories, they had to make a choice. Which one was theirs? Was woman created alongside man, equals in God’s image, or second as a help to an initial, dominant man.
It will not surprise you to hear, they chose the second.

The predominant view in rabbinic literature is that first came adam rishon, the first man, created singly. A single creation of a single man, and woman came along later.
Despite it being pretty straightforwardly there in the text we just read, zachar u’n’keivah bara otam – male and female God created them, the Talmud states pretty unequivocally: d’culei alma chadah y’tzirah – “The whole world agrees that there was only one formation” – that of a single man.

This matters more than one can imagine. It was not merely a matter of biblical interpretation, but of defining how society should look. To ignore, downplay, reduce that first dual creation moment in our text was an ideological act; one that reflected, and shaped, the normative rabbinic Judaism that we see around us in our community.

As the scholar Judith Baskin writes, the belief in the initial creation of a single man was to be:
“The theoretical basis for rabbinic Judaism’s conviction that men shared in the divine image in ways that women did not and that men should therefore be privileged in ways that women were not… Only men were created in God’s likeness with all the implications of potency, dominance and generativity which followed from this analogy. Conversely, the secondary nature of women’s creation… affirmed her subordinate position in marriage, in reproduction, and in the public aspects of rabbinic society.”

To put it another way, by choosing to privilege the second story – by in fact, almost ignoring the first – the Sages transformed a human decision, to reserve the public sphere and the religious sphere for men, into the divine blueprint for Creation. Male control over relationships and sexuality is not about human power, this says, but God’s will for the world.

Of course, the statement in the Talmud is also wrong. It is not true that the whole world agrees there was only one creation. There is, in fact, another voice in rabbinic literature itself. One that is perhaps even more difficult. This is the view that the two accounts refer to two different women. The first a woman created as man’s equal, the second as an ezer k’negdo.

This is a very minor voice in rabbinic literature, but in the Middle Ages it becomes something significant, and quite pernicious. Beginning with a work known as the Alphabet of Ben Sira, dating to somewhere between the 8th and 10th Centuries, the idea of a first woman comes together with ancient legends about a terrifying female demon – Lilith. In this imagination, the first woman – the one who is created alongside man – refuses to submit to the will of Adam, arguing that they were created together and should be equals to one another. And so another, acquiescent Eve must be created. The message is that the first, equal, woman should be understood as some kind of aberration, the second the ideal. The equality represented by the first Creation story, this myth states, is threatening. The right kind of woman is the non-equal woman. May all our women be Eves not Liliths.

When we look at these traditions, we must understand them for what they are – a choice that our predecessors made. There was nothing inevitable about the way Judaism would turn out, the stories they told, the values from Torah that they chose to live. In their endeavour to live from the text, the Sages built societies and religious constructs which reflected their choices. They chose the Creation story that they wanted, they told the stories they needed, to shape the world they wished to create.

And so can, so must, we.
I have spoken many times about our ownership our texts – about rejecting the concept of yeridat hadorot – the decline of the generations – the idea that somehow earlier authorities were better than us, had more right than us to shape Judaism, to be radical, to create law, to choose and tell stories. In every generation – we have the right, and the obligation, to make the choice for ourselves.

And the choice on this Shabbat Bereshit is this: which Creation story do we choose?
Do we believe that equality is an aberration, that the equal woman is a demon? That only men were created in the divine image.
Or do we believe that “zachar u’n’keivah bara otam”? Do we choose to privilege the statement that the Sages neglected. Male and female God created them – the powerful metaphor of a single act of equal creation, in which gender equality is the ideal, the natural state of the world, the reflection of divine will.

And if it is true that the choice of an initial creation of a single man – or the view that the first woman was deeply flawed – served as the basis for a vision of Jewish life: that men shared in the divine image in ways that women did not, and therefore men should be privileged in ways that women were not.
If this is the case, then what would it look like to build a Jewish world on the conviction that man and women were created as equals, both in the divine image – indeed, the belief that all of us, beyond the binary gender labels that limit Torah, are privileged as we are created b’tzelem elohim – with equality the divine blueprint for humanity.

Ultimately we need to choose
“Zachar u’n’keivah bara otam”
Or “Va-yitzer Adonai Elohim et ha-adam afar min ha-adamah”
Which, to us, represents the ideal, the sacred, the divine?

And then, having made our choice, the responsibility falls on us: to build our religious life to match.