Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat B'reishit 2013

Parashat B'reishit
Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris

27 September 2013

Bereshit, the beginning of Torah and repository of not one, but two origin stories, is perhaps one of the best known of all the parashiot. And yet even within its oft-quoted verses are still some that have the potential to surprise and challenge us. Many, if not most, of us, for example, are likely familiar with the biblical rendition of the creation of people – that notable story where Adam is created from the dust of the earth; God’s breathes life into his nostrils; and then, when Adam cannot find another being like himself on all the earth with whom he can find companionship, God puts Adam into a deep sleep, removes his rib and creates Eve. Of course, this version is often how we are taught and remember the story, and yet it is not precisely accurate. The word so often translated as rib, tzela, can equally in the Bible mean a side, as in the side of the Ark of the Covenant. Eve in this way is no longer a mere rib of Adam, but half of his whole. Eve and Adam are like two sides of a coin, which cannot exist one without the other. It is an impossibly heteronormative story, so not without concerns for a contemporary reader, but at least read in this fashion Eve and Adam have a far greater degree of equanimity. In fact, in the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 8:1 the classical rabbis go so far as to suggest that Adam (before the division) was a hermaphrodite with two faces and that when Adam was put into a deep sleep, God simply cut Adam in half down the back like separating some sort of bi-gendered conjoined twins. Only afterwards are the new entities of Adam and Eve created and from their separation become male and female with the possibility of parity between them.

And yet this creation narrative is actually the second description of the creation of human life in the Bible, not the first. The first, which undoubtedly we all know so well from Simchat Torah, choruses with the end of each day’s creating with the words, ‘V’yehi erev, v’yehi boker yom…’ (It was evening; it was morning, day…). Day one – heaven and earth; day two – sky and water; day three – dry earth and vegetation; day four – sun, moon, and stars; day five – insects, birds, and sea creatures; and day six – mammals, including us, human beings. In Genesis 1: 26-27 we are created in two fascinating verses,

26And God said, ‘Let us make humanity (adam) in our image, according to our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the things that creep on the earth. 27And God created humanity (adam) in God’s image; in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them.

Despite some scholarly debate, the general consensus among academics is that adam here in Genesis 1 is not the proper name of an individual, as it becomes in the second creation story in Genesis 2, but rather used in the sense that it is mostly employed throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible to mean humanity. In verse 26 God creates a mass of undifferentiated humans, who sit as rulers over the rest of God’s created world. The verse says nothing about relations between human beings, only about relations between humans and the natural world.

Then, in verse 27, the text imparts some most curious information. These newly created humans are in some fashion supposed to reflect the divine image, tzelem elohim, a term in Biblical Hebrew that has a determinedly concrete quality to it. How can human beings be tangibly like God? The text is clear. Structurally and semantically the meaning – even if hotly denied by generations of male exegetes – is obvious. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton made this point as early as 1898, so I am really not

the first to notice.) We are reflections of the divine image through gender. Parity between genders is no longer a possibility; it is an imperative of the text. If both male and female are reflections of God, than both genders are equally holy. And God is not homogeneous either.

Of course this reading ignores a range of problems in the text – how should human beings relate to the natural world, is gender so clearly binary, why does God speak in the plural, etc. These are all good questions – and many more that could be raised by these verses and the ones that follow – but my point here today is simply that issue of equality between human beings, especially as relates to gender, is not merely a question of modern sensibilities that we must overturn our ancient precepts to promote. Arguably, at least in the case of Genesis 1 and even within possible normative readings of Genesis 2, millennia of patriarchy have done more violence to the biblical text than we, contemporary Liberal Jews, do.