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Parashat Hashavua Bereshit 2004 / 5765 - The Creation Story and Science

04.10.2004 by

This Thursday, in Israel, we will celebrate Simchat Torah, the completion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah (in the Diaspora it's on Friday). We read Zot Ha'bracha, the last portion of Deuteronomy, and, to symbolize that it's never over, we read the beginning of the first portion of Genesis. On Shabbat, we will actually start the yearly cycle again, with the full reading of the first portion of Genesis, Bereshit. I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss something that I am asked about all the time. I am referring to the whole Six-Days-of-Creation versus Darwin and the theory of evolution question. For some reason, this seems to still interest and trouble people, and is seen as some sort of litmus test about the way we think about things: if you are "religious" you believe in the creation story, and if you are not, you believe in Darwinism, the evidence that the earth is billions of years old, and all that other scientific stuff. I would like, once and for all, to lay this whole silly issue to rest, OK? In these little missives of mine about the parsha, I often refer to Rashi, the eleventh century French/Ashkenazi commentator on the Bible and Talmud. He is the most basic of the classic commentators; almost every summary of traditional Biblical commentary on a given verse or section starts with what Rashi says, and moves on from there, just as almost every explanation of a passage of Talmud does the same. It's not that Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) is necessarily more authoritative than the other commentaries (though he is authoritative); it's just that he wrote a very good, clear, basic explanation to both the Bible and the Talmud, which is universally respected, and which functions as a good place to begin a discussion on whatever piece is in question. Rashi spends a good deal of time on the first verse of the Bible, classically translated as "In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Rashi does not agree with this translation. He feels that the first word of the Torah - "Bereshit" - is a possessive form, and doesn't mean "In the beginning" but, rather, "In the beginning of". The question then is, in the beginning of what?

The King James version implicitly means "In the beginning of everything" or "In the beginning of time". Rashi, however, explains it this way: "...this is how you should understand it: 'In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the earth was void and without form, and there was darkness [on the face of the deep and the spirit of God was hovering above the water],and God said Let there be light'. And the scripture has not come to teach us the order of the creation, to say that these things came first, for if that were the case, it should have said 'First God created the heavens, etc.'... And if you try to say that the text does come to teach us that these things were created first, and the explanation should be 'In the beginning of everything God created these things'... then you should be astounded at yourself! For, behold, the water was already there, as it says 'and the spirit of God was hovering above the water', and yet the text has not yet revealed, in the order of early and later things, anything at all about the creation of water. So we learn from this that water predated the earth. And furthermore, the heavens are made up of the elements of fire and water [whose creation is not mentioned].

You must admit, therefore, that the Biblical text teaches us nothing at all about what came first and what came later." Rashi here rejects the classic "In the beginning [of everything] God created the heavens and the earth" for the simple reason that there are things that seem to predate the ostensible "beginning"; fire and water, for example, which clearly exist but whose creation is never mentioned. He therefore makes the remarkable claim that the Torah teaches us "nothing" (!) about the order of creation. Rather, it simply describes some early (but not opening) stage of the world's existence - heaven, earth, water, fire, darkness - without going into the details of what happened exactly when. The first discreet act mentioned is the Divine command "Let there be light." Before that, we are simply given a general description of the universe at some early stage. It would probably be correct to assume that Rashi's insistence that the Torah does not supply a step-by-step record of the early stages of creation implies that what follows during the subsequent seven days is also not necessarily scientifically precise or comprehensive. It is important to bear in mind that Rashi wrote this in the eleventh century, in Christian Europe. Darwin would not be born for more than another 700 years. The entire non-Jewish world in which Rashi lived believed in a literal reading of the Bible, and thought that the world was just under 5000 years old. He was not, therefore, an apologist for the Biblical text, as no one was attacking it.

There were no geologists, paleontologists, or astro-physicists. It was not in response to a scientific challenge to the literal Biblical creation narrative that Rashi was writing. Rather, he felt that a careful reading of the Torah's text indicated that what we have in Genesis is NOT a detailed, chronological, scientifically accurate blow-by-blow description of how God created the world. Rather, it is some sort of approximation, so sketchy and imprecise that it leaves out the creation of two of the four elements which Rashi, like everyone else in his time, believed made up the world; fire and water. Whatever the point of the Creation story is (and Rashi actually prefers a moral-ethical reading which emphasizes the 'why' and 'what for' of the creation as the real message of the story), it is NOT scientific or historical. Seven hundred and fifty years before Darwin sailed on the Beagle, while the non-Jewish world was reading Genesis literally, Rashi gave us a tradition which tells us that this text is NOT a scientific description of the way the earth, and life on it, came into being.

When Darwin first publicized his theory, the Jewish people had no reason to be troubled or challenged; thanks to Rashi - and others like him - we never understood the Creation story as a clinical description, to be taken literally as science. Rather, we saw it, if we were Cabbalists, as a mystical parable for the way God created and continues to interact with the world, or, if we were philosophers, as a series of moral, ethical, and philosophical lessons about the world and our place in it. So that's settled, right?

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Shimon Felix

The question then is, in the beginning of what?Rabbi Shimon

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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