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Parashat Hashavua Bereshit 2002 / 5763 - Rashi and Creationism

05.10.2002 by

I would like to share with you something by Rashi, the foremost commentator on both the Bible and the Talmud. Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, who lived from 1040 to 1105 in France - his commentary is full of Old French translations of difficult words - and is traditionally the first commentary on the Bible that the student tends to look at. When studying the Talmud, Rashi's commentary is even more important, as he is often the only way to get through any number of seemingly impenetrable passages. In his commentary on the Bible, he is rarely original; the bulk of his comments are distilled from the entire library of Rabbinic literature.In the beginning of this week's parsha, Genesis, Rashi's makes a fascinating comment. He is discussing the meaning of the first words of the Bible - 'Bereshit bara Elohim' - usually translated into English as "In the beginning God created". Here is the classic, King James version of the first three verses:Genesis 11 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.In his explanation of the word Bereshit (In the beginning), Rashi begins with a 'drash' - a homiletical Rabbinical interpretation, which is not relevant to our discussion. He then says:"And if you come to explain this text literally, this is how you should explain it: 'In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was void and without form, and there was darkness...and God said, let there be light'. And thus the text does NOT come to tell us the order of the creation, what came first."The crucial thing here is that Rashi disagrees with the classic explanation, and refuses to read 'Bereshit bara Elohim' as meaning 'In the beginning God created', which would then mean that the first thing God did was to create the heavens and the earth. Rather, we are told that the Torah begins its narrative somewhere in the early stages of the creation process, when there already is, at least, a heaven, earth, and waters; it is at this point that the Biblical narrative picks up with the creation of light, the first actual act of creation recorded, according to Rashi, in the Torah. Rashi then goes on to argue that his 'pshat' (reading of the text) is correct. His first proof is linguistic - 'Bereshit bara Elohim' does not mean 'In the beginning God created', but means, rather, 'in the early stages of the process of God's creation of [heaven and earth]'. Bereshit cannot, therefore, refer to the very beginning of the creation of the world, but, rather, to some point within the process of creation, after God has already created such things as heaven, earth, and water. His second proof is very straightforward. If Bereshit means 'in the beginning', 'at the very start', and therefore the first things created were the heavens and the earth, then where did the water mentioned in verse 2 come from? When was that created? And what about fire, which, together with water, is, according to Aristotelian physics, what the heavens are made of ? When was fire created? Rashi, after bringing these two proofs, concludes by saying: "and so you must accept that the Biblical text teaches us absolutely nothing about the order of what was created before what." The Torah does not begin 'In the beginning, and does not describe the first moments of creation. I think that there is much to be learned from this wonderful Rashi. First of all, although Rashi, writing in the 11th century, was certainly under no pressure from Darwinians, geologists, physicists, cosmologists, paleontologists, and the like, he insists on rethinking the simple "in the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth" pshat, and does so in a way which 'responds' to the questions all those scientists would, in a few centuries, eventually ask, challenging what was widely read as a step-by-step Biblical description of the creation of the universe. 

Here we have an 11th century Rabbi clearly telling us NOT to look in the Torah for a precise, scientific, blow-by-blow description of the creation of the universe - "the Biblical text teaches us absolutely nothing of the order of what was created before what". The Torah, according to Rashi, is NOT a scientific text but, rather, is silent, has gaps, about some very basic elements of the creation story. One can not learn from it the details of the creation of the universe. Therefore, whatever information science does eventually presents us with about the history of the universe should not be seen as contradictory to the scientifically imprecise and incomplete Biblical narrative. I think we learn another crucial lesson from this Rashi: it is important to know what the Torah tells us and what it DOESN'T tell us. It is important to understand what the Torah, for whatever reasons, chooses to not deal with, to not put on its agenda. Rashi here is, I think, polemicising against a different Jewish literary tradition, one which insists that everything can be found in the Torah - it is all in there, you just need to know how to look for it. Rashi is insisting that, at least on the level of basic, exoteric reading, this is not the case. There are interesting and important things which the Torah simply does not deal with. If we want to find out about them, we must look elsewhere, they are not to be found in the Torah. It is tragic, I think, that many in the religious community feel that these first verses of Genesis, along with other, later, verses, in some way contradict the information gathered by those who have looked elsewhere and have come up with answers not supplied by the Torah to questions about what happened 'in the beginning'. They should read this Rashi a little more carefully.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Bereshit


Parashat Bereshit is the 1st weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading. It contains the Creation story, the story of Adam and Eve and their sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and information about the generations between Adam and Noach, whose birth we are told of towards the end of the parsha. The parsha concludes on an ominous note: the people of the world are evil, and God decides to destroy them.

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