Friday, October 05, 2007

Creation: Redux (B'reishit)

We gon’ pick up with creation: the redux
and check the influx of new narrative focus
as we switch from God by himself and add humans in a locus
to drive central themes forward.

God makes man anew, in explicit detail
from the dust of the earth and a divine kind of gale:
the breath of life – nishmat hayyim
which gets mentioned just once in the Torah, it seems;
this proves the uniqueness of the human being,
seeing that God gave life directly to each person now breathing.

But back to the story – now there’s a garden in Eden
and god placed the man amidst a tree den
with plentiful food, one tree of life and one from which bad and good
could be understood.
One made you immortal and the other one would
give you perspective on what you should
decide independently about how you act presently,
though Ibn-Ezra targets this sexually,
saying carnal knowledge is textually
represented when shame’s manifested like it will be sequentially.

But first, a quick break, for a little geography.
Four rivers cut through the idyllic topography:
first, Pishon, in Havilah with gold.
Then Gihon in Cush and the Tigris we’re told;
the latter east of Asshur, a city of old.
Last is the Euphrates, not qualified, but bold.

Now that we know where Eden was at,
the narrative boomerangs and we’re suddenly back
in the garden, where we now find the man,
who’s intend to till and tend all the land.
So as we use the earth, we’re meant to revamp
the damage we do because we’re more responsible
for what we’ve invested in to.

But then God issued a warning of a thing not to do.
We remember the tree that knows good and bad?
Don’t eat from it, fool, or there’s no life to be had!
This commandment can be looked at two ways:
Tradition says it’s a chance for the human to stray
by making a choice in which he has a say,
but a more modern look might contemplate
on whether this was a warning on how life complicates
with full knowledge separating man from the apes.
And as for the death threat, it might follow in league:
Ramban says it hinted you’ll know mortally
is how you’re days are numbered
and no other animal is with that thought encumbered,
which is why God sought for man literally
“a helper corresponding to him”
not one to subordinate or for facilitation.

They couldn’t find it with animals, so God soon stole a rib
after Adam, now named, passed names to the beasts
and found himself asleep while God took the piece,
created a woman
and prompted a cry when God brought her to him.
He called her Ishah to his Ish,
words similar sounding but they have different roots,
implying equality, making sexism moot.

And as the chapter closes with a narrative boot,
the author inscribes
that a man leaves his parents in search of a wife,
a return to one flesh and a different time;
a union of persons, in love so sublime
that it’s not about reproduction
but an introduction of wholeness missing since the beginning.

Now for a quick reconstruction of the issues at hand:
God made all the animals, but held special status for man,
provided he kept tilling and tending the land,
gave him a warning, but provided companionship in female form
because lonely’s not good at keeping you warm
when you lay down to rest.
And you should treat your females well
because we know they’re the best
or equals with men, which we see when the pieces complement.
So sexism, fellas, needs to get bent
thrown off to the side
disposed of, discarded and never realized.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

B'reishit: How? Why? Written by Whom?

When I sat down to write on the first Parsha in the Torah, B’reishit, the story’s synopsis was not the first thought to come to mind. Instead, I remembered two books in which the infamous creation story is referenced, each offers unique insight into questions often asked when speaking of the text.

I. Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

Written by Michael Shermer, this book grapples with the various incarnations of creationism that have manifested over the year. Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic Magazine and evangelical Christian turned defender of evolution, admits that his task is not an easy one. Combating faith with science (and vice-versa) leaves no one satisfied, and Shermer's book emphasizes that there is no level playing field for evolution and creation to be debated, let alone allow anyone to proclaim a winner. Like any good scientist, Shermer creates a model, the Separate-Worlds Model, to better explain his central thesis.
... science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement but are non-overlapping. Before science began its ascent four centuries ago, religion provided an explanation for the natural world in form of various cosmogony myths. Since the scientific revolution, however, science has taken over the job of explaining the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creations ... (page 120)
While I agree with much of what Shermer claims in his book and consider myself an evolutionist, the model outlined above polarizes religion and science instead of letting them live in separate worlds, as his model’s nomenclature would suggest. I believe that B’reishit and evolution answer fundamentally different questions. While much of the literal Genesis story can be discounted by evolutionary theory, the question of why the Earth was created cannot be scientifically proven. Evolution and various other theories such as the Big Bang explain how the Earth was created and how life developed on this planet. However, the why is a supernatural question, to which Shermer would concede: “Science is not equipped to evaluate supernatural explanations for our observations ... science leaves their consideration to the domain of religious faith.” (page 98)

The null hypothesis of all Western religions is that God exists and created the Earth; until science can disprove said hypothesis, religion will always have relevance. Shermer ends his book with his own creation story, using a skeleton of the Genesis story almost satirically:
And God created pongids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve, In the book in which God explained how He did all this, the Bible, in one chapter He said He created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in another chapter He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created theologians to sort it out. (page 162)
II. Ishmael

Written by Daniel Quinn, this novel personfies his teachings through a series of lessons taught to a man by a telekinetic gorilla in order to save the world. Quinn’s central thesis is that there are two distinct societal norms throughout human history: "Takers" and "Leavers." Takers are those that use Earth's resources as if a birthright, with no real consideration for other life forms or the Earth itself. Leavers are those that live in harmony with other life forms and do not see themselves are rulers here on Earth.

Quinn asserts that the Taker society began when food began being kept under lock and key, spurred on by the Agricultural revolution. Quinn sees no problem with subsistence farming, but points to B’reishit as the beginning of Taker society. God punishes Adam and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil by banishing them the Garden of Eden. Quinn explains that eating the fruit of the Tree provides the gods with the knowledge they need to rule the world - the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die. The fruit nourishes only gods, but they realized that if Adam ("man") were to eat from the tree, he might think he gained the gods' wisdom, and - in his arrogance - destroy the world and himself: "And so they said to him, you may eat of every tree in the garden, save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree, you will certainly die." (Genesis 2:16)

Ishmael makes the point that the story of the Fall of Man, which the Takers have adopted as their own, was developed by Leavers to explain the Takers' origin. If it were of Taker origin, the story would be one of liberating ascent, and instead of being forbidden to Adam, the fruit of the Tree would have been thrust upon him.

Ishmael and his student go on to discuss how, for the ancient Semitic herders among whom the tale originated, the story of Cain killing Abel symbolizes the Leaver being killed off and their lands taken so that they could be cultivated. These ancient herders realized that the Takers were acting as if they were gods themselves, with all the wisdom of what is good and evil and how to rule the world. As a result, the gods banished these people from the Garden and they were brought from a life of bounty in the hands of the gods to one of being the accursed "tillers of the soil." (page 173)

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sparking the Lineup (B'reishit)

It’s time to bat leadoff, put our feet on the ground
and start to explore this Torah scroll we’ve unwound.
With just the first letter, we’ve already found
deeper levels available – here, let me expound:
B’reishit has started, and with no further adieu,
that letter’s a bet, No. 2 in Hebrew.
It’s closed on three sides and open on one,
forcing us to move forward, now that we’ve begun.
And though we haven’t started at the beginning,
Midrash says it’s encouragement to show us that winning
is possible when your head is spinning
by being thrown into whatever is sitting
on your plate at the moment,
and that despite any confusion, you can still own it
by looking forward, not back and putting the onus
on not the “why” of existence, but rather the “how”
and what you can do if you focus right now.

So let’s start with a God of transcendent being,
for whom time and space are tools he’s wielding
to create a world with life that is teeming.
This creation (barah) is solely divine,
and beyond capability for the human mind.
God started his work, saying, “Let there be light,”
and split that from the day, to create the first night.
It was good, and with Day One in the books,
God turned to the waters,
creating the sky to separate the two proper.

With seas and the rain with sky in between,
Day Two is the only one God fails to deem as good,
which should scream with symbolism –
in the Midrash, it means
separation sometimes is necessary, though not always good
and God twice blessed the third day, so we’ve understood
this tells us that Tuesday is a day on which we should
schedule big events on for luck and success,
but now we move on – the events of Day Three are next.

The seas get gathered and dry land is blessed
with vegetation because God moved to divest
some power into the Earth, so it could manifest
seed-bearing plants and trees of all kinds.
God called this good twice and put Day Three behind.

God moved to Day Four, starting the cycle anew,
reflecting the first three, but with motion imbued,
starting with stars, so we’d at least have a crude
way to tell time as our lives moved on through;
so sun during the day, and at night the moon.

This was all good and we shift to Day Five,
when God commands the waters to bring forth much life,
from sea monsters below, to birds in the sky;
and blessed them to give birth so they could multiply.
God saw it was good with animals up in the mix,
so he had the Earth bring forth cattle and a few creeping things –
and while he was at it, wild beasts
on Day Six.

This was good, too, but not quite enough,
so God made man (adam) in our image –
a collective pronoun, indeterminate, with no limit.
Midrash guesses are puzzled, infinite:
maybe a secret cabal of God and the angels,
or maybe God and the animals created perfect strangers –
evolution’s highest art, by co-working painters.
Humans are given nature to rule,
male and female together are intended to pool
their efforts, be fertile and increase,
and eat vegetarian – there’s no mention of meat.

This was all very good and God was appeased,
so on Day No. 7, God finally ceased
the act of creation though it wasn’t complete.
The Vilna Gaon tells us this means
we should put aside work when we come to the Sabbath
and just live in this world we’ve come to inhabit
because God blessed Day Seven, declaring it holy –
a timely decision that historically only
serves to contrast thoughts of Babylonian origin about creation
because they built a temple to allow veneration
at the end of their own creationdom epic.

So the quick recap in 27 words:
Light, night, sky, seas, dry land and herbs,
sun, moon, stars, time, things swimming and birds,
cattle, wild beasts, man, woman in turn,
the Seventh Day rest – that’s all we’ve observed.

Now that this interpretation is done,
let’s all relax and step back,
because we’ve only begun.

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