Genesis 1: A tale of two Torahs?

Genesis 1: A tale of two Torahs?

I take the Torah’s account of Creation in Genesis 1 literally.

Only, I seem to have a different Torah text than the one Christian creationists and Jewish fundamentalists appear to have, because my Genesis 1 supports such things as the Big Bang, a world that is at least 15 billion years old, and evolution.

The issue is relevant for two reasons. The first is the recent board of education elections in Kansas, which saw the ouster of several fundamentalist Christians whose version of Genesis 1 does not allow for any of these things. The second is the release by a small but brave publishing house in Brooklyn, Yashar Books, of "The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter With Science, Cosmology and Evolution," by Rabbi Natan (Nosson) Slifkin.

The so-called creationists claim to take the Genesis text literally. God created the world in six ‘4-hour days and when He said, "Let there be a tree," poof, there was a tree.

Only, He does not say that in my version of Genesis 1. In my version, "God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation…."

I take these words at face value. "Let the earth sprout vegetation" is God’s command for the earth to do its thing, and "the earth brought forth vegetation" means that it did as it was told. No poof, there was a tree; God set the wheel in motion and nature took its course.

Genesis 1 is very carefully constructed. It says what it means and its construction helps to convey that meaning. On Day One, the text reports, "God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." That is a "poof and there was" statement — but it is the only one in the entire chapter. In all other instances, the language implies no sense of immediacy. To underscore that uniqueness, Day One is set off from all the others. "There was evening, there was morning, Day Two…; Day Three…; Day Four," and so on. On Day One, however, the formula is different: "There was evening, there was morning, one day."

That this "light" was itself unique and creative is clear from the use of the word "create" (bara) in the very first verse. The word and its cognates appear only two other times in the chapter — the creation of life in general and the creation of human life in particular. In each case, the word signals a cosmic-size development in creation.

Science insists that life began in the oceans. Nonsense, cry the creationists and the fundamentalists, because the Bible says God created life.

Not my Torah. "God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.’ God created the great sea creatures, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind."

God did create life — by commanding the waters to "bring forth" that life, "which the waters brought forth in swarms." As noted, the Torah highlights this by specifically using a "bara" cognate.

Science also insists that the earth was once one big body of water surrounding a single continent. My Torah says the same thing. "God said, ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.’ And it was so."

That brings us to Slifkin’s tome. He is an Orthodox rabbi, a product of the yeshiva world. Several years ago, he wrote "The Science of Torah," a book that deals with creation issues. In it, explains Yashar Books’ publisher Rabbi Gil Student, Slifkin dares to take "science seriously as an intellectual power to be reckoned with. He is on a quest for truth."

That quest led Slifkin to rewrite his book, greatly expanding it. The new version is "The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter With Science, Cosmology and Evolution," which Student (a Teaneck transplant to Borough Park) is distributing.

The book flat out states that there is little in what science has to say that Jews need to fear. Rather than diminishing God, science "enhances our appreciation of God’s handiwork," Slifkin says, adding that "actual scientific explanation proves never to be incompatible with religion, not even Darwinist theory."

That may not sound earth-shattering to the average reader of this column or of Slifkin’s books, but it is a red flag for the fundamentalists within our ranks. Nearly two years ago, a score of prominent rabbis on the right — among them the leader of Israel’s non-chasidic rigidly religious community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, a leading figure in the U.S.-based haredi world — issued a total ban on Slifkin’s writings. As one rabbi who signed the ban, Yitzchak Sheiner, put it, Slifkin’s writings are "hair-raising to read….He believes that the world is millions of years old — all nonsense! — and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed."

That ban led his publisher at the time to drop him as an author; to another publisher removing his name from a book he helped translate; an outreach organization to expunge him from its website (he has since been reinstated); and religious schools at which he taught to fire him.

Fortunately, not everyone agrees with the ban or even with the notion that Slifkin’s views are heresy. One is Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, who went so far as to write the foreword to "The Challenge of Creation."

Slifkin, he notes, relied on "impeccable and authoritative traditional sources" in expounding the very views others find so anti-traditional and heretical.

Weinreb is correct about Slifkin’s sources — they are impeccable, authoritative, and traditional — which only begs the question: Is there another version of Bereisheet out there to which only fundamentalists, Christian and Jewish, have access?