Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Introduction to Textual Analysis of Torah
How old is the Universe?
“Bereshis barah Elokim”
A preview of History
“It is not good that man should remain alone”
Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
Understanding the Adam and Eve story
Kayin and Hevel
Kayin never accepts responsibility for his actions
The mark of Kayin
Universal psychological realities
Creation of universe in six days; on the seventh day God rested
Creation of Man and Woman (Adam and Eve)
Establishment of Garden of Eden including the “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”
A talking, scheming Serpent; Eve’s decision to eat fruit from the prohibited “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”; guilt and punishment
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Kayin and Hevel saga of sibling rivalry, jealousy, fratricide and guilt
Generations of Man
Growing moral corruption of Man
Birth of Noah
Meditations on Torat Emet, Torah as Truth
Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel
“The Torah is true, i.e. a divinely inspired document. Since God is true, God’s message to us via the Torah reflects divine truth. In what sense/s, though, are we to understand “truth?” The following six criteria’s shape our understanding of Torah as Truth:
1. Truth does not mean literal understanding of the Torah text.
Rabbinic tradition rejected literalism in its presentation of halachot, Jewish law. Instead, the Oral Torah provides interpretations and hermeneutical rules that produce interpretations that frequently defy literal understanding of the text, but form the basis of rabbinic halacha.
We don’t necessarily read all the narrative material literally either. At least since the days of Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204), most commentators do not interpret the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic texts in a literal way; indeed, in Rambam’s view, it is heretical to read these passages as being literally true.
2. Truth does not mean one and only one valid answer/interpretation.
Chazal, the classical rabbis, understood that Torah interpretation provides a range of “correct” answers. There is not one, and only one, correct answer/interpretation to every verse/question. Shiv’im panim laTorah--literally means the Torah has seventy faces, but the point is that there are multiple legitimate “true” interpretations. But, as Nechama Leibowitz wisely reminded us in many of her lectures: there are 70 faces to Torah—not 71! There is a wide range of interpretation, but not an unlimited range. Even in halakhic matters, the Sages recognized that there are 49 ways of permitting and 49 ways of forbidding i.e., truth is not limited to one and only one answer; there is a legitimate range of “true” answers (j. San. 4:2, Lev. Rab. “Emor” 26:2).
3. Truth may be derived from a literary/aesthetic approach to the text.
Rabbi Yishmael taught that the Torah speaks in the language of humans, i.e., its words often need to be understood in a literary fashion. While this statement generally restricts interpretations based on “extra” words or letters in the text, it more broadly provides a way of reading Torah in a literary/aesthetic framework. We need to read the Torah’s narratives with the literary sensitivity to detect when the text is using dramatic language or when it provides seemingly trivial details. While this does not open the gates to any and all interpretations of the text, it provides a wider range of understanding the truth of Torah.
4. Truth of Torah must work with scientific/rational/philosophical accuracy.
Rambam made clear throughout his Guide of the Perplexed that the Torah and science/reason/philosophy cannot be in conflict with Torah. Since God is the Author of both science and Torah, there must be one truth that underlies both. If philosophy and reason conclude that God has no physical or emotional attributes, then the Torah must be interpreted based on this knowledge. If science has proven something to be true, the Torah cannot be interpreted in a way that violates that truth.
For example, if science has demonstrated that the universe is billions of years old, then passages in the Torah that seem to conflict with this truth need to be reinterpreted. Thus, the six “days” of creation are more properly understood to be six “phases” of creation, with each “phase” being of extensive duration. If evolution is proven to be true, then God’s creation of Adam from the dust of the earth can be understood as the beginning of an evolutionary process that took place over vast amounts of time. It is foolish and wrong to interpret the Torah in a way that makes Torah conflict with the unequivocal truths of science and reason.
5. Truth=Divine guidance in the moral realm.
The Torah provides Divine wisdom that explains how we are to conduct our lives morally. Yet, the Sages have already pointed out that the Torah’s moral lessons are not always valid and applicable for all times. Rambam indicated that certain laws, such as those relating to animal sacrifices, were given in the context of what the Israelites of those times could best understand (Guide of the Perplexed III:32). Chazal formulated rules that negated or mitigated literal application of texts dealing with capital punishment and slavery. In select cases, Chazal even interpreted laws out of existence, such as they did with the wayward son, בן סורר ומורה, of Deut 21:18-21 who is supposed to be executed, and the idolatrous city (עיר הנדחת) of Deut 13:13-19, which must be destroyed—declaring that they never occurred, and could never occur (see b. San. 71a).
6. Truth=our best effort to apply the Divine guidance of Torah to our own lives.
God gave us the Torah, and also gave us the human capacity to apply divine wisdom to actual life. The Torah is “true” in the sense that it contains divine wisdom and instruction; but its “truth” is subject to human understanding and interpretation. This is not to grant free reign to human reason to make Torah fit into our personal intellectual and moral predilections; but such an understanding should also not categorically limit the possibility of reasonable human interpretation and application.
Truth needs to be extracted from the rich mine of Torah. It requires human wisdom to properly interface with the divine wisdom of Torah. It requires a deep analysis of text, a knowledge of the teachings and approaches of the Oral Torah, a sophisticated literary tact, a commitment to the truths of science and reason, and a highly developed moral sense. Above all, it requires an abiding faith in the ultimate Wisdom and Goodness of the Almighty God, Giver of the Torah.”
An Introduction to Textual Analysis of the Torah
I. Torah is a book of Nevu’a (prophecy), explains Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, and not a book of history, or philosophy or science or architecture. The root word (niv=lips) relates to speech and spokesmen. The Torah presents a message from God to Man, delivered by His spokesman, the prophet. But the message is often not explicitly stated and requires a critical reading of the text; an understanding of rules of analysis; and the tools to determine and define the flow of themes.
One important way that the Torah conveys its message is through the structure of paragraphs (“Parshios”). There are two types of Parshios:
P’tuchot (open) when a gap of blank spaces exists to the end of the column on the final line of the paragraph. The next paragraph starts at the beginning of the next line.
S’tumot (closed) when there is a gap of at least nine spaces after which the next Parsha starts on the same line.
A P’tucha indicates a major change of topic while a S’tumah suggests a subtler change.
II. Building on the shoulders of their predecessors, modern scholars use expanded and new tools including…
• Archaeology/history /secular ideas
• Continued emphasis on words and their location, recurrence, juxtaposition and multiple meanings
• Thematic analysis
• Translations using modern concepts (e.g., “lama naflu panecha”, literally means “why has your face fallen?” but is translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan as “why are you depressed?”)
• Leitwort [a term introduced by Martin Buber], meaning a repetition of a root-word in a section that points to the theme of that section
III. How to Approach Learning Torah
One must clear one’s mind of previous notions and read it as if it is the first time. (Unfortunately, notes Rabbi Leibtag, too often it is!)
While there is a need to learn the Torah in depth, this approach brings with it the danger of stagnation, of being tied to an interpretation that has been repeated so often that it does not seem to leave room for an alternate, fresh understanding. “The call for new interpretations, and not just repeating what we or others have said, is fundamental to genuine Torah learning” writes Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, citing Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) who understood the verse “And not with you alone did I establish a Covenant” to mean that “each one of us, our children and grandchildren, until the conclusion of all generations…are duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah on our own…Just as our forebears did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them…it is valuable for us…to investigate the meaning of the Torah in accordance with our own mind’s understanding”.
Recognize that Torah is poetry to be read aloud to appreciate the imagery and soaring emotions that the words can evoke. Poetry (from the ancient Greek word “to create”) is an art of rhythmical composition that through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language evokes pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differing interpretations, or to evoke emotive responses.
To achieve musical effects, poetry employs…
Assonance [repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences]
Alliteration [repetition of a consonant in any syllables that, according to the poem's meter, are stressed]
Onomatopoeia [formation of a word, as cuckoo, meow, honk, or boom, by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent]
Rhythm [… is expressed through stressed and unstressed syllables]
Use of metaphor and simile create a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin ["the Netziv," 1816-1893), dean of the eminent Volozhin yeshiva and author of Ha'amek Davar (A Matter Profound)] thinks that the Torah possesses "both the nature and singularity of poetry [shira], which is to speak in lyrical language". Because the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness--a kind of symbolic language -- the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning! Nechama Leibowitz elaborates that “poetry is essential symbolic and requires constant reading over to taste its full significance. It has many levels of meaning.”
Knowledge of trup and grammar facilitates feeling the rhythm, the drama, and the flow of the words
Make a conscious effort to analyze as one reads…
Is there a theme that connects seemingly disparate topics within the Parsha?
Is there any relevance to the preceding or following Parsha?
Torah is a unified entity. Words, root-words and phrases in other locations can shed light on the meaning of a word or phrase. For example, Rabbi Benno Jacob explains that in the phrase “ayen tachas ayen” (“an eye for an eye”), tachas can only mean something monetary that is a substitute for (or an approximation of) the value of the eye but not the eye itself based on the word’s use in other places in the Torah where it can only mean approximate, or substitute for. It never means an exact replacement. For example, during the Akeda story Avraham offers a ram “tachas b’no” not an identical, not an exact equivalent, but something that is “in place of” or “instead of” his son.
Chiasmic structure provides interpretation. Chiasm is a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and/or emphasis in which two or more clauses or sentences or ideas are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures to produce an artistic effect. A chiasm is a repetition of similar ideas in the reverse sequence. [For example, suppose that the first topic in a text is labeled by A, the second topic is labeled by B and the third topic is labeled by C. If the topics in the text appear in the order ABC…CBA so that the first concept that comes up is also the last, the second is the second to last, and so on, the text is said to have a chiastic structure.] The importance of the chiastic structure is found in its hidden emphasis.
IV. Some Recurring Themes and Ideas
The critical importance in our national and personal lives of the Mt. Sinai experience; Mishkan as a portable Sinai
Always remembering the Exodus experience
Having a homeland in which to observe our religion
Overwhelming and repeated warnings about the danger of idolatry. Its prohibition is manifest in both obvious and less obvious commandments
Mitzvos as educational tool
Mitzvos as embodiments of social ideals
Interrelationship between the multiple uses of the number seven:
o Yovayl and Sfira (7 X 7)
o Need for one seventh of our lives to be spent in introspection and self- development
Desert wandering necessary to build independence and self-confidence
Israelites’ rebellious nature in the desert reflected their slave mentality.
Kedusha is holiness or separation or designation--something being set aside for special purpose in our lives…
• in time: Shabbos/Festivals
• in place: Beit Hamikdash/ Eretz Yisroel
• in person: behavior towards others/avoidance of dead
Book of Vayikra is a “how to” manual to live a life of Kedusha
Festivals are times of…
o Recognition of God as the ultimate source of our prosperity
o Recognition of our common heritage
How Old is the Universe?
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, the noted physicist, helps us understand how the universe may be simultaneously young (according to Jewish tradition, 5700+ years and created in six days, as described in the Torah) and old (15 billion years, based on data from the Hubble telescope).
Words appearing in the Torah can have a multitude of meanings. The Talmud explains that the Hebrew word choshech usually means darkness (absence of light) but can also mean black fire, a kind of energy that is so powerful that one cannot see it. Maimonides notes that mayim, whose usual definition is water, can also refer to building blocks of the universe.
Ramban observes that the word erev, evening, also can mean mixture/disorder/lack of clarity and the word boker (morning) also is related to bikoret which means orderly and able to be discerned. Erev and boker are opposites, the former meaning chaos and the latter meaning order. “Vayehi Erev, Vayehi Boker Yom Echad” (“there was evening and there was morning day one”) means there was a cosmic change underway on Day One, a flow from disorder to order, that was precipitated by some form of guiding system(God) because without an exogenous force, order always degrades into chaos. Ramban further explained that on Day One, time itself was created—a theory that some 800 years later was validated by Albert Einstein in his Theory of Relativity.
Einstein postulated that time is a dimension and the flow of time is relative to location. A minute on the moon goes faster than a minute on the earth; a minute on the sun goes slower. Our biology is in synch with local time so on the moon our hearts would beat faster, and oranges would take a shorter time to ripen. Time on far off planets goes by much faster than on Earth so that if one were looking down from a planet to Earth, the perception of time would be that everything was moving rapidly (because in one of the planet-minutes hundreds of thousands of earth-minutes would pass). If one is looking up from Earth it takes hundreds of thousands of Earth-minutes for a few planet-minutes to pass, giving the perception that planet time is moving slowly.
Ramban, clearly ahead of his time, believed that before the physical universe came into existence there was nothingness until suddenly, Bereishis, there appeared a tiny speck the size of a grain of mustard. That minuscule “substance-less substance” was the raw material that expanded out into matter that condensed, congealed, coalesced and expanded to the size of the Solar System. Einstein explained that energy (Ramban’s “substance-less substance”) is the force that can change into matter (Big Bang Theory). Once changed into matter, time “grabbed hold” (i.e., was created).
The Torah describes creation as Day One (rather than the First Day) because it is looking forward from the beginning. By the time Adam was created six days had passed. Dr. Schroeder reconciles this with scientific measurements of the universe being some 15 billion years old by analyzing how the 15 billion years would be perceived from the beginning looking forward. Imagine that at the beginning of time there was a force at the outer end of the universe that sent a blast of light (pulse) to Earth every second. Light travels 300 million meters per second so these pulses arrived on Earth some billions of years later. As the universe stretches, the space between pulses is stretching and it is taking these light blasts longer to reach Earth.
Modern science has calculated that there is a million million (1 with 12 zeros after it) relationship between time as it existed near its beginning and time today. The information about the universe’s creation in six days as presented in the Torah (“in the beginning”) and emanating from just outside the universe (before it was created) would be received on Earth after six million million days. The age of the universe can be calculated by dividing these six million million days by 365. Every time the universe doubles, the perception of time is cut in half but as the universe gets bigger the doubling time gets longer.
The first Biblical day that lasted 24 hours from the “beginning of time” perspective lasted eight billion years from “our” perspective. The second Biblical day lasted half the previous day from our perspective, or two billion years. Day three of 24 hours equates to two billion years (half the previous day); the fourth day equates to one billion years and the fifth and sixth days equate to one-half and one quarter billion years, respectively. The six days of creation from God’s “beginning of time” perspective together equate to an age for the universe of 15 and ¾ billion years from our perspective!
“Bereshis barah Elokim”
These three opening words of the Torah are traditionally translated “In the beginning, God created”, which focuses on God’s unique ability to create something out of nothing (ex nihilio). Others have argued that the more proper translation is “When God began to create” which places greater emphasis on the nature of God’s interaction with the universe He created. Both translations are possible notes Rabbi Gunther Plaut, “but we cannot be sure that this difference is more than stylistic”.
Each day begins with the expression “and God [Elokem] said” and each day something new was created that did not exist the day before. Contrary to the belief of pagans, Evil is not part of the primordial darkness The Torah’s message is that Nature is a willful creation by God.
o Light is created in the universe amidst the prevailing chaos, desolation and darkness
o Separation of Light [order; optimism] and Darkness [turmoil, pessimism]
o Naming Light day and naming Darkness night
o Light of orderliness shines through a chaotic and directionless universe as God begins to focus on the planet earth
o “And there was evening and there was morning, yom echad [one day].” Use of cardinal number (day 1), unlike subsequent days when ordinal number (second, third) is used. Perhaps Echad underscores how God became one with the universe, particularly planet earth; He was deeply intertwined with His creation.
o The word yom has multiple meanings in addition to day:
• Solar year
• Lunar year
• “At once”
• Long but finite span of time (age; epoch)
• A time when an event will take place
o Separation of waters from initial primordial wet mass
o Creation of rakiya [firmament] to divide water above from water below
o Rakiya is named shamayim [sky]
o Waters below the sky gather and are called seas
o Dry land named eretz
o Vegetation sprouts
Creation of sun, moon, stars “…for signs and appointed times…to give light on the land…and to rule over day and night”
o Creation of all living things that creep in water or fly
o Creation of sea monsters
o First-time-ever blessing to fish and fowl to be fruitful and multiply
o Creation of land animals and creeping creatures
o Creation of Man in the mold of God [b’tzelem elokim]: intellectually endowed with free will, speech and the power to choose
o Blessings to Man to be fruitful, to multiply, and to “have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky” -- but not over other human beings without their consent
o Man is to eat vegetation and fruit; animals can only eat vegetation/grass
o God completes Creation and
o Ceases from His Work
Some have argued that the theory of evolution [an attempt to explain life in purely materialistic terms; things happen out of chance and necessity] is completely at odds with the Torah’s description here of God’s having created the earth and Adam and Eve. Natural sciences seek to discover and increase human knowledge and understanding of the universe based on scientific methods. But religion is a system of faith and worship, where the believers are totally confident in the truth of the existence of a supernatural divine power. It is not based upon experimentally proven facts, but rather on a set of beliefs transmitted historically from generation to generation. Religion and science are fundamentally different in their aims and purposes, in their methods, and in their origin.
Some traditional Torah scholars have pointed out that the most important message to be derived from the poetic account of creation is not how God created the world [since the Torah is not meant to be a scientific treatise] but that there is a God who is a supreme, directing Intelligence that planned out a universe with Mankind as its leader. Man is the goal and crown of creation and is tasked with being ethical and productive and creative. That his uniqueness vis a vis even the highest form of animal life, and his endowment with God-like abilities and potential was worthy of a special divine act is captured by God’s lofty words, “Let us make a man in our image”. The Torah takes issue with those who maintain that evolution is a completely random process and that intelligence is an accident. There is a God that exists who created and directed.
Rambam held that not every statement in Genesis is meant literally. In this view, one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science. If science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. If science proved a point that did not contradict any fundamentals of faith, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly. “The account given in scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal’’, particularly the text from the beginning to the account of the sixth day of creation. For Rambam the six days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.
Some traditional Torah scholars (including Rashi) insist that it all took place in six days, as stated. But it can be argued that the six days of creation were not the 24-hour days but were poetic references to prolonged periods of time, each of which could have been billions of years long. Thus understood, the Torah is describing how life emerged gradually over eons as simple life forms gradually morphed into more complex life forms. Adam is described as having been created from the dust of the earth. What is meant is not a scientific detail of the formation of human beings but a poetic way of encapsulating the very long process beginning with simple cells found in dust and ultimately evolving over a very long period of time into a complex talking, thinking human being. Concludes Rabbi J.H. Hertz: “The Biblical account itself gives expression to the same general truth of gradual ascent from amorphous chaos to order, from inorganic to organic, from lifeless matter to vegetable, animal and man; insisting, however, that each stage is no product of chance, but is an act of Divine will, realizing the Divine purpose, and receiving the seal of divine approval.”
Rav A.I. Kook, the mystical first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, saw in evolutionary theory support for the Kabbalistic concepts of the unity of life and the progressive unfolding of history.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin on Evolution
“Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case? Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.
1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn't the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?
There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that "the account of creation is not all to be taken literally," to quote Maimonides. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.
2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn't evolution just a theory, not a fact?
"Evolution" is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor - simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as "the fact of evolution." It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world - for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.
The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the "theory" of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.
3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!
We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God "makes the wind blow and the rain fall." We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God "heals the sick." We have documented history of the process involved in winning the '67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God's miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.
4) Doesn't the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?
Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You... Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.
In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture - after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one's mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.
5) Doesn't the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?
Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God's role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, "When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God" (Proverbs 16:33).
6) Doesn't the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?
Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man's unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a "putrid drop (of semen)," which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.
7) Don't most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?
Very few leading rabbis have studied the science and have ever given the matter serious thought (and rabbis in the charedi world are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rav Kook, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rav Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: "...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." ("The Educational Value of Judaism," in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)
Doesn't evolution go against tradition?
No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.
9) But aren't there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?
Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn't reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.”
A Preview of History
The Parsha begins with creation, hope and optimism but ends with despair, hope¬lessness and gloom. The creation of the world and Mankind is followed by Man's early life experiences and conflicts and concludes with the rise (and then fall) of civilization. Humankind experiences a downward moral spiral.
Nechama Leibowitz writes that “The Torah is concerned with the prototype of Mankind; the workings of sin, the temptation leading thereto, and consequences proceeding therefrom recorded here, have a universal timeless application… The Torah shows us how civiliza¬tion and economic progress brought with them four-step erosion in human behavior to the point where Mankind's very existence was endangered.”
Step #1: Adam, the first man, is also the first sinner. He was commanded,
“… Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die."
The Midrash elaborates: "Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair stated: Before Adam partook of this tree it was simply called 'tree' just like the others. But as soon as he ate, thereby transgressing the decree of THE HOLY ONE BLESSED BE HE, it was called the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. Why did God command Adam to eat of all the trees of the garden except one? So that Adam should constantly remember his Creator and be conscious of the yolk of God who created him.” The one commandment that Adam received was designed to help him maintain a perspective on his position in the universe when he was the only human being. Adam needed to know that there was a master over him. Adam's sin, therefore, was a private matter between himself and God wherein he acted as if he were the master of the universe and could do whatever he wanted without limitations or restrictions.
Step #2: One human's cold-blooded murder of another. The Torah states “...Kayin brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground... and Hevel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from the choicest. And the God had respect unto Hevel and to his offering; but unto Kayin and his offering He showed no respect. And Kayin became very angry and depressed. And God said to Kayin, 'Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself you will be forgiven. Kayin spoke with his brother, Hevel (when they were in the field) then rose up against his brother, Hevel and killed him."
According to some, Hevel's offerings were accepted by God because they were brought from the best and finest. This contrasts with Kayin who brought crops that grew on public land and, according to Rashi, were of an inferior quality. Kayin became enraged when his offering was rejected. God tried telling him not to indulge in self-pity and reminding him that his situation could be changed dramatically for the better if he would only improve his attitude and behavior. His-- and all Mankind's-- salvation comes from within. But Kayin was not to be placated. Instead, he strikes up a conversation with his brother, Hevel, out in the fields, away from home and kills him in cold blood.
The story of Kayin and Hevel can be viewed as the story of Mankind and civilization. It is Man's underlying (sometimes unconscious) aggressive, murderous drives and conflicts that precipitate wars and bloodshed.
Step #3: Advances in technology bring violence. Lemech, a direct
descendant of Kayin, sires a son, Tuval-Kayin, who becomes a forger of brass and iron armaments. Lemech boasts of his ability to employ these deadly weapons to lord over his fellow man and to commit indiscriminate murder.
While Kayin's behavior was dictated by sibling rivalry and jealously, the transgressions of Lemech are rooted in the sinister attitude that absolute power makes right and that one tyrant can bully Society.
Step #4: Crimes committed by groups of individuals in power ("the sons of the princes and judges") who enslave their fellow men. The Torah describes how “they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose” thereby destroying the social order. Their abuse of their power and position prompted God to re-examine His decision to create Man.
This Torah description of how history would be shaped by human aggressiveness gives us a chance to look in the mirror and reflect on our behavior, frailties and conflicts. Understanding, self-examination and reflection provide the opportunity to change for the better.
“It is Not Good That Man Should Be Alone”
Virtually every item in the step-by-step account of the Creation was deemed by God to be good. So was the totality of the Creation with its structural harmony, about which the Torah states “God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good”. [Only day two makes no mention of the word “good” (“tov”) because, according to Rashi, the work begun that day was not completed until the following day. Day three repeats the word “good” twice.]
Only the creation of Man makes no mention of this Divine satisfaction because it is only Man that has the free choice to act in a way that is either good or is bad. Because human conduct is not preordained, God could not conclude in advance that Man was or would be good. (Later at the end of the parsha we read how God saw/perceived/realized that Man’s behavior and thoughts had turned evil.)
Immediately after Man’s creation God emphatically pronounced Man’s being alone as not at all a good state of affairs:
The Sages of the Talmud thought that loneliness is not good for one’s mental health, noting that “a life without a wife is devoid of joy, blessing and wellbeing”.
Other scholars thought that as a practical matter, a bachelor could not fend for himself. A division of labor and a partnership were necessary.
Sforno elaborates that without this division of labor Man would be so preoccupied with his daily physical needs that he would not be able to realize his full spiritual aspirations.
Rashi reasons that were man alone, it might be thought that two deities ruled the entire universe—partner-less Man in the “lower” world and partner- less God in the “upper” world (heavens).
Akedat Yitzchak thinks the introduction of a special relationship built on love and of helping one another further distinguishes the human couple from members of the animal kingdom not requiring companionship.
Shadal’s view is that God purposely allowed Man to be alone for a brief time so that once he would meet Woman he would be so connected to her and feel that something was lacking without her.
Because it was not His original purpose to allow Man to remain alone, God announces the urgent need to “eesa lo ayzer k’negdo” (“I will make a helper for him”). But, notes Nechama Leibowitz, the introduction of Woman with her differing features does not in and of itself guarantee a good situation, unless the two opposite personalities merge into a unified whole. “If they do not show themselves worthy the result will be disharmony—a clash of opposites.”
“Therefore, a man yaa’zov his father and mother, and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”
The Torah had just described how God had taken a piece from one of Adam’s sides; built it into a woman; then brought her to Adam, whose response was “this shall be called ‘ishah’(woman) because she was taken from ‘ish’(man).
The word yaa’zov is translated “to leave” and the meaning of the verse is that after marriage a man shall leave/abandon his parents and strike out on his own and set up a new home with his new wife. But how does this advice--assumed to be a general teaching based on the narrative and not Adam’s words-- follow logically from the previous statements (“therefore”) since Adam had no biological parents to leave?
To better understand this verse, some propose an alternate definition of yaa’zov. In many places in Tanach the word means…
• Helping to reposition the load on a donkey’s back (azov t’azov) belonging to your kinsman to set it right thereby correcting a situation deemed unfortunate
Furthermore, modern scholars have discovered cognates to the root-word in other ancient languages that mean to assist, to uphold, and to help. Therefore, proposes Professor Ziony Zevit, the verse is better translated “Therefore, a man strengthens/supports/helps his father and mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh”. God had acted like a good father to Adam, bringing him into the world, providing sustenance and giving him employment in the garden. Now He has provided a wife for him. Therefore God (like any parent) expects his “son” [and Mankind] to be both caring responsible and loyal to Him while simultaneously clinging to his spouse.
Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
Mankind’s first directive from God was: “You may eat freely of every tree in the Garden but you shall not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Nechama Leibowitz comments that the doubling of the verb in Hebrew shows the wide freedom of choice given to Man.
“And the Serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts in the field…” This embodiment of the evil inclination instigates a magnification and exaggeration of the stringency of the prohibition aimed at convincing the listener to give in to temptation.
Using half-truths, the Serpent asks innocently, “af ki amar elokim lo souchlu mekol eitz hagan” --“Is it really true that God said that you should not eat from every tree in the Garden” [or “Even if God said such a thing, what of it?”]. Eve weakly protests that, “we may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden” in words that do not fully communicate the broad freedom God granted. She then explains “but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the Garden God has said you shall neither eat nor touch lest you die”. This statement makes it seem like this tree was the only one that mattered, located in the midst (middle) rather than simply a tree. Also, God never said the tree could not be touched. Furthermore, notes Benno Jacob, through her wording Eve transforms what was a moral connection between sin and punishment into a mechanical cause and effect.
The Serpent, casting doubts on the seriousness of God’s restriction, responds “you shall not surely die”; the threatened punishment will never come to pass. Furthermore, says the Serpent to Eve, the prohibition was not meant for your benefit, only for God’s because He knows that when you eat the fruit of this tree, “you will be like gods, knowing good and evil”.
Eve had been avoiding this special tree. But now, seduced by the Serpent’s words, she becomes less fearful and begins to sense how pleasant and desirous the tree is. No inhibitions remain and she eats the fruit and gives it to her husband Adam to eat. Even before God confronts them, the commission of sin causes guilt and creates the urge to flee and to hide. States the Midrash, “Before a man sins, he inspires fear and awe and creatures are afraid of him. Once he has sinned he is given up to fear and awe and is frightened of others.” Such is the power of guilt that even the rustling of leaves reminds the sinner of his wrongdoings.
Benno Jacob points out that in contrast to His questioning of Adam and Eve, God does not query the serpent about its behavior because the serpent has no moral personality. The snake always crawled but its punishment for having pulled Man down into the dust is that its means of locomotion would be perceived as a curse. Because it committed such a low act of dragging Man down, it was now destined to continue to slither in the dirt and be the object of man’s hatred.
God spares Eve any punishment for her actions because she is already “cursed” (menstruation?) with childbirth labor pains and with her psychological makeup of attraction to and dependency on her mate who will dominate her (Benno Jacob). Eve now realizes that this will be a permanent biological/emotional state. Others explain that by influencing Adam so negatively, Eve failed in her role as an equal, assisting partner. Her punishment for trying to dominate Adam was that she lost her status as an equal and henceforth she would be dependent on a mate who would dominate her. She would have to submit sexually to man and then experience the pain of the resulting childbirth (Chizkuni).
Adam failed to heed God’s single commandment not to eat from the tree. Therefore, his future eating/food source will come about only after his sweat-of-the-brow arduous work in fields that will also yield thorns and thistles. Man’s “return to the earth” (death) is not a punishment for his behavior but a statement of the reality of ultimate return of all living things to their source. Others explain that Adam’s primary responsibility was to rule over the land and its plant and animal life. Instead, he let his desire for plant (fruit) and the influences of an animal (serpent) overtake him, creating a hierarchical imbalance. Therefore, his punishment was that the land would rule over him—only through sweat and toil would the land produce and at the end of Adam’s life the land would consume him.
Kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara—the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.
Shadal thinks the serpent is really the thoughts in Eve’s mind after she saw the snake eat and not die.
Benno Jacob’s approach is that “thoughts of man are put in the mouth of an animal as they come from the beast in man”. The serpent is described as arum which means subtle or sly but also means naked.
Some psychologists think that the Torah is describing the sexual awakening as two humans mature from childlike behavior to adults, a view reinforced by the talk about touching and eating words also associated with the sensual. [Note: The adjective arum used to describe the Serpent links to the immediately preceding verse which states that both Adam and Eve were naked (arumim) and were not ashamed]. The woman tries to deny her sexuality but the natural urge embodied in phallic-like serpent is too overwhelming to ignore.
Understanding the Adam and Eve Story
Rabbi Marc Angel proposes viewing the story not in terms of sin and punishment, but as “a fundamental transition in the nature of humanity”. Initially, Adam and Eve’s basic needs were provided for them without work or planning. Like animals they “grazed” without self-consciousness of their nakedness or awareness of their mortality. But after eating the fruit of the forbidden tree they “awoke” and became conscious of their nakedness and their ultimate mortality.
Eating the fruit was an essential step in their evolution and their development of human consciousness and awareness of surrounding reality. Instead of pleading for mercy after being informed of the consequences of their behavior, “Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” There was no reversion to the former state of pre-consciousness. Adam recognized that Eve was “to be the matriarch of a new progeny of human beings, who lived with all the strengths and weaknesses of being mortal.”
Once they realized the reality of death, God placed cheruvim to prevent them from eating of the tree of life (not previously prohibited to them) to prevent their retrogression to an unrealistic, seemingly eternal utopian life. [Note: Rabbi Angel speculates that the reason God prohibited eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was because He wanted them to “develop their human consciousness in a slower, more organic way” so as to be “better prepared to handle the challenges of being mortal human beings”.] Later listing of the genealogy between Adam and Noah concludes everyone’s length of life with the phrase “and he died” perhaps to drive home the point that, like Adam, no one lives forever and that death is the final part of the life process.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ analysis builds on the ideas of anthropologist Ruth Benedict whose insight was that there are some cultures that are built on shame in which the highest value is honor and other cultures built on guilt in which the highest value is righteousness. Because shame results from not living up to others’ expectations its societies are other-directed. They are usually visual in nature, having to do with how one appears (or imagines appearing) to others. Shame prompts one to want to hide or to disappear or to be somewhere else. Guilt-based societies are inner-directed and reflect the feeling of failure to do what our own conscience demands of us. In these societies conscience (failure to listen) accompanies us wherever we go.
The Adam and Eve saga is all about the visual-- appearances, shame, vision and sight: “…God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened…the eyes of both of them were opened…the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and desirable to the eyes.” Shame is the key emotion. After eating they were ashamed and tried to hide.
But in Judaism God is heard, never seen. Adam and Eve “heard God’s voice…” In replying to God Adam says, “I heard your voice”. Their sin was in following their eyes instead of their ears. They concentrated on the visual appeal instead of listening to God’s command not to eat. Shame cultures create social conformity and a fear of losing honor and face should others see one behaving in ways that are at variance with the group. By not conforming to what everyone else does, Judaism is a kind of living protest against the herd instinct. The Patriarch Avraham was the world’s first iconoclast (both literally and figuratively). “The ethic of Judaism is not a matter of appearances, of honor and shame. It is a matter of hearing and heeding the voice of God in the depths of the soul.”
Rabbi Sacks concludes that the Adam and Eve story contains a profound message about the way we should live. They chose to follow their eyes (the tree and the fruit) instead of their ears (God’s command) and felt shame, not guilt, and the inevitable consequence. But Judaism is about listening and not about seeing: “Shema Yisroel” (“Listen, Israel”). God teaches Elijah the prophet that He is not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire but in “the still, small voice”.
We can find Jewish spirituality by listening to the song of Nature; to the poetry and music of prayer and the Psalms; to the poetry and truth of God’s words in the Torah; and to the words of those we love and who love us.
On Kayin and Hevel
In this story the Torah, for the first time, consistently employs the Essence name of God (the yud, hay, vav, hay) possibly because it stresses core and essential Truths of human existence:
• Divine mercy is critical to the formation and development of family
• His mercy serves as a role model for human interaction
• Inherent in the human condition are sibling rivalry and other (sometimes unconscious) aggressive emotions that drive behavior.
Kayin’s name is based on Eve’s statement that "I have gained (kaneese—which sounds like Kayin) a male child (or man) with the help of God” (or “from God”). Her praise for God may have reflected her gratitude for a long-awaited pregnancy and birth or may reflect her relief that the intimacy with her husband did not cause her own death that she feared.
Regarding Eve’s second son the Torah merely states that "she then bore his brother Hevel” without offering any explanation for the name. It sounds like the name was already chosen by someone else even before the birth. Hevel means breath or vapor, something fleeting.
Did Eve favor her first born and ignore child number two? Did her enthusiasm and gratitude to God lessen once she gave birth a second time and realized that childbirth was not a Divine phenomenon but a natural event? Or is this the Torah's way of letting us know in advance that the second child's life would be like a fleeting breath (i.e., that he would die prematurely)?
Kayin follows in the footsteps of his farmer father Adam--despite being fully aware that farming would be hard and often unfruitful ("kotz vedardar tatzmeach lach") -- and decides on his own to bring a Thanksgiving offering to God. The text does not state explicitly how the brothers knew who’s offering was favored (Rashi thinks that a fire came down from heaven and burned Hevel’s offering); or why it was favored; or the time gap between the offerings. It’s possible the offerings took place simultaneously. But when he sees his younger brother not only copying but also outdoing him (by bringing prime meat from the higher life form of animals), Kayin is enraged and, I think, imagines that God will not accept his offering. (Note: Hevel, by his display of one-upmanship, may be provoking Kayin, thereby fanning the flames of jealousy and rivalry.) This assumed conclusion amplifies Kayin's existing, already-intense sibling rivalry and brings on feelings of depression, inferiority, and hopelessness.
Kayin is deeply pained and embarrassed. God acknowledges the enormity of Kayin's rage--and confirms that these emotions could completely swallow him up and destroy him--but also informs Kayin that he [Mankind] can confront, and control these raging emotions. (Today this might involve undergoing psychoanalysis.)
“Kayin told it to his brother Hevel and when they were in the field Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him.” The text makes no mention of what they were talking about. A Midrash cites three opinions:
One view is that they decided to divide the world with one taking the lands and the other taking the movables. Soon one said, “You are standing on my land-- get off!” and the other responded “The clothes you are wearing are mine-- take them off!” During this heated exchange an enraged Kayin rose up and killed his brother.
R. Joshua of Sakhnin in the name of R. Levi said that they agreed to divide material positions equally but argued about on whose property the Temple should be built. The ""field" referred to in “And when they were in the field " is the Temple, as it is written "Zion shall be plowed as a field”. In the heat of the argument, Kayin rose up and murdered Hevel.
Yehuda bar Ami said: They were arguing over Eve.
The first opinion maintains that killings and war are fought over economic issues, over material wealth. R' Joshua, holds that bloodshed is prompted by religious and ideological conflict. Rabbi Yehuda contends that Mankind’s deadly quarrels are rooted in sexual passion.
Some have speculated that Kayin was jealous of his younger brother’s financial success so decided to outdo him by being the first to publicly demonstrate his devotion to God. Perhaps his inner rage and resentment towards God for allowing this situation to exist manifest itself in his self-defeating decision to bring an offering of lesser quality.
God attempts to soften Kayin’s feelings of rejection and embarrassment with the words “Lama Chara lach” (“why are you so upset?”) Sforno thinks this means that God is asking Kayin why he is dwelling on the past and not focusing on how to deal with his issues. Even if one errs, one needs to recognize the inner power to change, to be forgiven and to feel uplifted. One who does not make the effort, however, will be overwhelmed with a deadening existence.
Kayin Never Accepted Responsibility for His Action
God asks Kayin “ayay Hevel acheycha” (where is your brother Hevel)? The use of the Hebrew word ayay communicates an effort on God’s part to engage Kayin in conversation and give him a chance to confess his guilt. Using an alternate word for “where”, ayfo, would have communicated a harsh, demanding tone.
Kayin defiantly responds “Am I my brother’s keeper?” After God confronts Kayin with the horror of what he has done (“Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil”), He tells him that he “will be cursed by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood…the soil will no longer give you its strength…you will be a restless wanderer on the Earth.” Jack Sherman thinks that the negativity created by this act of murder poisoned the land for Kayin.
Kayin, likely racked with guilt, imagines that he is deserving of and/or
expecting even more suffering. He grumbles to God that “My punishment is too great to bear… I must hide from your presence… I will be a wanderer [depressed and alone] in the land [unable to settle or fearful of settling in any one place] and whoever finds me will kill me” [his guilt prompted him to voice this fear, even though it was not included in God’s stated punishment].
Kayin’s worry that whoever finds me will kill me suggests that there were many people alive. But according to the Torah’s account, only Adam, Eve and Kayin were alive then! Rabbi Joseph Telushkin considers the possibility that other humans were also created even though the Torah makes no mention of them. The Torah’s focus is on recounting the lineage from Adam to Noah to Avraham that led to the creation of the Jewish nation.
The Midrash illustrates Kayin’s [and Mankind’s] repudiation of responsibility and his attempt to shift the blame elsewhere. Following are some of Kayin’s words to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper…You are the keeper of all creatures yet you seek him at my hand…I slayed him because you created in me the evil inclination…It was You who killed him for had you accepted my sacrifice the same as his, I would not have been jealous of him.”
Rabbi Berel Wein notes “that the Torah emphasizes the resilience of human beings that has marked the trajectory of civilization from the beginning of time until today. Kayin, despite his great crime, ends up building cities and fathering generations. And in the midst of all of the evil and wicked people, there do appear righteous personalities who point to a better future and to a more noble society. It is not the numerical superiority of evil people that determines the course of human events but rather it is that the dearth of good people who are willing to proclaim goodness as a way of life that determines the eventual fate of society.”
The Mark of Kayin
The Torah states that “Vaysem Hashem L’Kayin ous levelti hachos oso call motzo.” The Gutnick edition translation of this phrase is: “God placed His Holy Name as a mark inscribed on Kayin’s forehead so that he should not be killed by anyone who would find him”. The kind of sign is not specified by the text. Professor James Kugel cites some who think that a letter of the alphabet was engraved on his forehead. Others speculate that it was a pair of ferocious looking animal horns that might scare off any potential attacker.
Robert Alter explains that this is a mark of protection, not a stigma or mark of shame as the conventional use of the expression “mark of Cain” indicates. [Note: God provides Kayin the murderer with protection that Kayin failed to provide to his brother. Perhaps embedded in this story is the ethical concept imitatio dei –that in our lives we must imitate God in expressing kindness/protection to one another no matter the circumstances.]
Shadal, perhaps bothered by the textual use of L’Kayin (for Kayin) and not B’Kayin (on Kayin), concludes that God did not place a sign ON his body, but assured Kayin that no one would harm him.
Rav Sadya Gaon understands this to mean that God designated a restricted geographic area for Kayin where he would be protected from anyone seeking to harm him (like Cities of Refuge).
Benno Jacob argues that linguistically a “sign” indicates a foretold event. God informs Kayin that he will not be slain “but will eventually die only after seven--either generations or misfortunes”.
“Then Cain went away from the presence of God and dwelt in the land of Nod, East of Eden.” God told Kayin he would be a na vanad (wanderer) yet, ironically, he settles in a land with a similar sounding name.
Torah Presents Universal Psychological Truths
Limit-setting for children is healthy--The Father God instructs his “offspring” to not eat from only one tree in a Garden of Eden filled with many delicious choices. The restriction reminds the child of the reality of his dependence on the parent
Children disobey their parents—Eve lusted for the one forbidden fruit and tested/defied God, her “father”
People wracked with guilt may…
Become fearful-- after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam is frightened by the mere rustling of leaves in the Garden
Try to hide (“man and his wife hid themselves”)
Feel exposed (Adam says “…and I was afraid because I was naked” –bare and fearful his misdeed was uncovered)
Blame others and avoid responsibility:
• Adam: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate”
• Eve: “the serpent beguiled me and I ate”
• Kayin: “I slayed him because you [God]created in me the evil inclination”
The hissing serpent, the nachash (derived from a Hebrew root-word meaning whisper) may represent Eve’s yetzer hara, her “evil inclination”, her (unconscious) aggressive and potentially self-destructive behavior. Her dialogue with the nachash can be understood as a peek into her mental process of coping with competing desires, much as Bilaam’s braying donkey may have been a projective identification on Bilaam’s part, employing words and dialogue that reflected his anger and internal struggle over going to curse the Israelites.
The moral of the story is that there are consequences for all of us when we fail to defeat temptation in our lives.