אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
If you read the King James Bible, the Torah starts with the sentence, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” In Hebrew, if one letter were moved, the whole sentence could be understood differently. I often ponder what would be different in the world if the letter Tav was moved from the end of the word Bereishit, "in the beginning," to the beginning of the next word, Barah, “created.” The shift of one letter completely changes the meaning of the text, and hence the Torah. With this change, we would be saying, “In my head, God, create the Heavens and the Earth.” This possibility is not terribly radical because the text was transmitted orally before it was ever written. Things shift in transition. Maybe it was spoken differently.
The Kabbalists have no need to change the placement of the letters to derive different meaning. They read “Bereishit bara Elohim et,” In the beginning, God created “et,” (Not to be confused with ET or extra terrestrial) which is a word with no translation, and can also be understood as A to Z, Alpha Omega, from beginning to end and all that exists in between. Literally, et is the firat Hebrew letter, alef, and the last, tav. For the Kabbalists, “et,” or the alef-bet, is like the Periodic Table of Elements, the basis of all matter. Yes, they attribute the creation of “et,” to God, but that could easily be substituted with nature or the big bang. I know this may not comply with modern secular humanistic sensibility of “Say what you mean and mean what you say,” but there really is no way of knowing what God meant for the ancients.
Some Humanistic Jews have a tendency to treat any mention of God with disdain or aloofness, which makes reading the Torah rather difficult. I encounter a patronizing sensibility that feels superior to the "irrational" understanding of believers, and this does not feel very humanistic to me. I would suggest a different approach; Cognitive Pluralism - The view that different people, or groups of people, may have different cognitive architectures, therefore being disposed to reason differently or form and revise beliefs and desires in varied ways. With this approach, we can move on to the humanism in our text.
But first, what is humanism? One definition says that it is an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
“And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light (Gen.1:3).” Does “solely rational” mean that humanists cannot speak in metaphor? Is this verse possibly another way of saying that words create worlds. That is what Donaldo Macado and Paolo Freire believed when they penned, Literacy: Reading the word and the World. It is the constructivist worldview that the world is as we each encounter it, whether in words on a page or in physical encounters. The Baal She Tov, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, used to say that when he reads Torah, he reads the white spaces in between the letters of the text. Clearly, there are many ways to read Torah that can get beyond the God language. One of those ways is through metaphor. Think about the wizarding world of Harry Potter. “Abra K’dabra,” I shall create as I speak. It’s not magic. It’s how we make meaning.
“Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth (Gen 1:22).' God gives the first commandment to animals. Can we learn from this some humility as a species? Did the authors or redactors have a message here that goes beyond the God character?
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them (Gen.1:27).” Is this not a statement about the sameness of all humankind, about the equality of women and men? Why would we deny the use of these metaphors just because of the characters the author chooses to use to illustrate the point. So what if God is said to be the creator.
“These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven (Gen. 2:4).” Should we skip this verse because it attributes the creation of heaven and earth to God and ignore the fact that it hands us on a silver platter an argument for the poetic/literary license that tells two very distinct creation myths? The first story of creation takes seven days. Chapter two gives us creation in one day, and it provides us will the more familiar account of the creation of humanity.
What about the story of the tree of knowledge? Is it not the ultimate story of human responsibility for our own behavior? Everyone, Adam, Eve and the serpent, denies responsibility yet each of them is somehow culpable for violating a command, and what of this command? Is it not so that we learn from this story the lesson that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. teaches from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Keeping knowledge from humanity is unjust. Is it more secular or humanistic to paint this picture without using God as the tyrant who wants to keep us blissfully ignorant?
“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him (Gen. 2:18).” Does God’s role in the creation of a helper for man make it less clear that we need to form partnerships in this world? And isn’t this further strengthened by Cain’s question, “Am I my brother's keeper? (Gen. 4:9)” Yes, you are your brother’s keeper, even if you are not accountable to an external deity. In fact, you maybe more so because you are obligated without threat of external punishment.
And speaking of Cain and Abel, could ignore the fact that their conflict centers around appeasing God and miss one of the most important lessons of the chapter; you can’t just go and kill someone. You don’t have to use this to illustrate the God characters omniscience or ability to judge humanity. In fact, you can use it to critique God’s response, but why ignore this story just because it uses the God character to discuss the human problem of murder. God’s response is both human and etiological. Etiology was the closest thing our forebears had to science. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth (Gen. 4:10-13).” In a close reading of this text, God doesn’t even provide Cain’s curse. He simply observes it, and while he marks Cain with a sign and threatens seven-fold revenge on anyone attacking him, he doesn’t issue capital punishment against Cain. Try explaining that to fundamentalists. Or how about when Lemach admits, “I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me. If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech seventy and seven-fold (Gen. 4:23-24).” Could it not be that the biblical author(s) are trying to, at least, show the transcendence of God, who does not/cannot interfere?
Finally, there is the story of Adam and Eve’s third son, Enosh. In Modern Hebrew, humanity is referred to as bene Enosh, the offspring of Enosh because there is a desire of the authors to separate us from the bad genes of Cain, the murderer, who is deported to the Land of Nod. This text can certainly lead to a discussion about the nature of humanity. We are Enosh’s offspring because we are not tainted by Cain’s murderous genes, and we are not the children of Abel who cuddled up to God at the expense of his brother.
Lastly, chapter five of the Torah is not a narrative. It’s more like a genealogy chart. It has some surprises, like Enoch, son of Jared, who doesn’t die, but instead, “walks with God, and he was not (Gen.5:24),” and the epilogue of the tree of knowledge story where God’s promise that Adam will surely die is fulfilled at nine hundred and thirty years of age after seeing ten generations of progeny. Surely, more than God being a softy on his threats, what sticks out most in this story is that while each of the recorded grandchildren beget sons and daughters, we only learn about the importance of the son who is mentioned as the representative of the next generation. This insight into the world of our mother’s and father’s may be one of the most important since it serves as a reminder that the trouble we have today with gender inequality has deep roots that clearly seem to deviate from the initial story of woman coming from Adam’s side, which would indicate her equality.
People, especially the theistic, will have a hard time seeing humanism in the Torah, but in Pirkei Avot (5:22), "Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it and search in it, since everything is in it." "Everything" here needs to be qualified. Pirkei Avot was compiled after the first 200 years of the common era. Ben Bag Bag didn't live in the Internet age. Information was less abundant. It didn't travel on cyber superhighways and was not put through the rigors of scientific inquiry or accountable to reason. What Ben Bag Bag could have been saying is, "Everything we know to be true is in it." Maybe the Torah was the Encyclopedia Britannica of its time, or maybe he wanted to build a wall around knowledge and was creating his ancient version of the New York Times tag line, "All the news that's fit to print," which is a great analogy because it has become archaic like some readings of Torah.
In theory, these days, when news doesn't need to be restricted to newsprint, the key operative word is "fit." Most likely, Ben Bag Bag's "everything," was what the people in power, the redactors of Torah, and the "official" interpreters of it, saw as "fit" for their system of beliefs and their adherents. That doesn't mean that there is no humanism in the Torah. It just depends on how you read the text. Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, often called Baal Shem Tov or Besht, would say that when he reads Torah, he is not limited to the letters on the page. He also reads the white spaces. Rabbi Akiva, according to the God character in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 59b), was supposed to be able to, "derive heaps and heaps of halakhot [Laws] from," the taggin, the crowns on the letters in a Torah scroll.
When I read Torah, not only do I use a humanistic lens, I also read as a constructivist. Constructivism is a theory that basically says that people construct personal understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection. Constructivism is often used as a justification for a progressive approach to education. As John Dewey said, "“We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.” The great Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire, would say that literacy is the ability to read and write the world. This is how I want to understand Ben Bag Bag's "everything." As we encounter Torah, we reflect on our experience with it and have the freedom to construct our own meaning from it. For me, that construct is humanism.
David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a rabbinic student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He is also a filmmaker, a nice landlord and a mediator. He is writing these weekly Torah commentaries as a rabbinical thesis.