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I have earlier talked a little about why I chose to study religion, but the other day I was asked why I chose to focus on law in religion. What is it about law, which triggers me, makes me aware, makes me want to understand the finesses and theories, which by others would be considered way too boring or abstract to even begin considering it? Well, it’s a little complicated to explain, but I will give a try anyway. But first I need to correct something I wrote in the before mentioned post on why I chose to study Comparative Religion. There I wrote that I would be focusing on the role of the woman in Israel, something which has changed. Or actually, I returned to my first focus though I at the time wasn’t so sure that that was my focus. What I want to say is that my focus is going to be on the mutual attitudes between Jews and Muslims, especially in the context of religion in Israel.
But there’s more to it than that. During my under-graduate studies I took my minor in cultural studies, where identity and the thought on identity preoccupied my quite a lot. It still does. The whole question of how we identify ourselves and what influences this really talks to me, I find it fascinating. Not only that, how do we relate to each other based on that, is also something which, I think, is of crucial importance.
Law and religion is two very strong identity markers, each in its own way. Religion as deciding on identity is obvious, people normally identify themselves according to what they believe, in some cases according to what they think they believe, as well as relating themselves to those who share their beliefs. Law is different; law is more of a deciding factor in how you are identified by those deciding the law. Law doesn’t care much about feelings, only facts (true, those deciding the laws might pay attention to feelings, but they will still have to establish a structured defining system, otherwise making the law too vague to decide anything). But law can also be influenced by those following it or relating to it, by whether they accept it at all (or have to be forced to it) or choose to relate to another system of laws instead. And what will happen in that case?
I’ve downloaded the introduction to a book called “Law and Identity in Mandate Palestine,” written by Assaf Likhovski, which deals a lot with what I’m focusing on, though not so much from the perspective of religion. Likhovski writes about his book that it “is a book about the role of law in defining the self and the collective, in balancing tradition and modernity, Western and non-Western norms. Every non-Western culture confronts this problem, which also constitutes one of the main issues in the momentous conflict between Islam and the West that is now unfolding before our eyes. In this battle, law plays an important role. It serves as a banner under which combatants fight, a weapon for overcoming enemies, a middle ground for meeting them. Law also defines the nature of the participants in the conflict.”
Law is definitely defining for identity, especially in relation to who is among “us” and who isn’t. Everyone the law grants rights and citizenship is per definition one of “us,” everybody isn’t granted this is not. And law is used in this perspective as a weapon, everybody with just the faintest knowledge of the right of return here in Israel, should be aware about that.
Likhovski later relates to the status of the whole matter of identity in then Palestine, and how it was without any clear form:
“Another singular aspect of the country was the unstable identity of its inhabitants. Many twentieth-century societies witnessed a process of identity transformation— the rejection of traditional identities based on religious or tribal loyalty and their replacement by modern national identities. But in mandate Palestine, the process of identity transformation was especially evident. Here Muslim and Christian politicians were engaged in constructing a new Arab identity following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Zionist Jews were busy creating a novel “Hebrew” self, purged of the marks of the Jewish exile. Even British rulers were occupied with reexamining the foundations of their imperialism in response to the challenges posed by the interwar era.”
I believe we still struggle with the problem down here even today. I can point to a couple of examples on the struggle between identities, for example Israeli vs. Jewish, Palestinian vs. Israeli, Arab vs. Palestinian, all being dealt with in extensive discussions. For example, according to the law on Right of Return every Jew, descendant of a Jew, or spouse of a Jew, has the right of return to Israel, becoming a “Oleh Hadash.” There are some exceptions and details influencing the final decision on whether one is allowed in or not, but all in all the law is rather clear. Or actually it isn’t. The problem is who is a “Jew,” a question which has been discussed for millennia (just see the Biblical account on the ‘Yehudim’ vs. the Samarians in the Book of Ezra and Nehamyah), and today is the cause of great fights between various Jewish groups, particular between the Reform movement in the States and Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel. Here a secular law is suddenly being caught up in the discussion of a religious law and how it should be deciding in favor to or against a defined group of participants. The problem is not so much on those descendants from Jews, being for sure Jews, but rather those who convert within the Reform movement and as such will not be recognized as Jews by the Orthodox Rabbinate.
Another example, to stay here in Israel, is the one of being Palestinian and/or Israeli. How are Palestinians defining themselves here in Israel? The vast majority of them do define themselves as Palestinian, though some refuse to define themselves this way, but rather prefer to describe themselves as Israeli Arabs. Some define themselves as Israeli Palestinians, but still, most define themselves as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, or so it is my experience. But it doesn’t stop there, this is only a question of nationality and belonging to either or both nationalities (Palestinian and Israeli), another question appears when we deal with religion, having most Palestinians in Israel being Muslim, but a large majority being Christian, and the religious definition is important, and can be of crucial matter, also in comparison on whether one first define him or herself as Muslim or Palestinian. This is a matter which can cause conflict between the Islamic movements and the nationalist movements. Take an example as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for a Caliphate, not a Palestinian state (since that would be a national state based on Western ideas and as such against Islam), and how their expectations would clash with the nationalist expectations of the more secular Palestinian movements (or maybe even other Islamist movements not sharing the same expectations).
In the meeting between religion and the secular society, especially in the question of law, insights and understandings of how identity is defined, as well as the flexibility and demands of the religion is extremely important. Does the religion demand total loyalty, denying any acceptance of other authorities besides its own authority? How does it allow to rule on behalf of it? How are we dealing with conflicting identities and definitions of identities? Those questions are among the questions I hope to deal with, because in a country like Israel these questions are important to answer, in order to understand the relations and mutual attitudes between Jews and Muslims of today. And that is why I’m focusing on law in the two religions. Among some other reason as well.
Michael Kay, at “Thinking through my fingers” (visit his blog, he is seriously an amazing writer and brilliant thinker), wrote a post where he reflected on the Jews as a “Chosen people.” I found it highly inspiring and felt the need to let it out on him, so I wrote the following as a response (which I also posted there):
And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)
I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.
I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).
I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).
The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”
Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”
And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.
I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.
Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).
Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)
All the best
I read an article, “Who Broke their Vow First? The ‘Three Vows’ and Contemporary Thinking about Jewish Holy War,” by R. Reuven Firestone on the Three Vows and the concept of Holy War in Judaism. For those of you who have dealt a little with discussions on Jewish religious approaches to Zionism and the existence of the State of Israel, the Three Vows probably sound familiar, but for those of you who haven’t, I can shortly explain that they are three ‘vows,’ which are based on three verses in the Song of Songs, interpreted as God forbidding the Jewish People to immigrate to the Holy Land as a ‘wall,’ as well as not to ‘rebel’ against the nations, and the nations not to ‘overly succumb’ the Jews.
It is a very interesting article, which is part of the book “The Just War: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” where Firestone reviews the basic understanding of the concept of ‘Holy War’ in Judaism and according the Hebrew Scriptures, the basis for the Three Vows, as well as later reactions for or against them, as well as interpretations of them, particular in the period of 1948 to recent days.
I can strongly recommend it for anyone wanting to get an idea of religious Zionist approaches and thoughts both on the State of Israel as well as the Three Vows.
Anyway, the article made me think a little on my own position as a religious Jew and as a Zionist. Not that I haven’t thought so much about it before or that I wouldn’t be able to explain my position, but still, the article did make feel more clear about some points.
As you might have noticed I formulated my position as a religious Jew and as a Zionist, not as a religious Zionist. There is a reason for that, namely that I differ on my positions between the two, not being a religious Zionist Jew, but rather a religious Jew and a Zionist. Sounds confusing? I know, and I see why. The thing is, I am a Zionist because I believe that Jews, as well as every other people out there, be it Italians, Tibetans, Kurds or Samis, not necessarily based on the expulsion of others, but rather as defining a homeland for them and their’s. I’m not going into so much details about that here, nor about how I differ between ‘people’ (as in German ‘Volkschlag’), ‘ethnicities,’ and ‘races.’ Rather that this is a pragmatic approach, which is not motivated or based on my religious faith. And I am a religious Jew, because I believe in God and that He gave the Torah as a Divine Guidance for His People. I’m not going into details about what I mean by this either, for anyone being curious enough, you are more than welcome to ask.
So on the one hand I am a Zionist, and on the other a religious Jew. The two of those don’t necessarily have to be opposed, but they are differing approaches to how I view myself, my people, the existence of a ‘Jewish’ state, and our relation and responsibilities to God.
I would define the difference between my position, as a Zionist, and a religious Zionist, as a religious Zionist believing that the State of Israel is the beginning of redemption, seeing that this is a Divine Plan, or something the like. In that sense the State of Israel, while not being the Land of Israel (Medinat Yisrael vs. Eretz Yisrael), is inheriting some kind of divinity. That is, as a Jew you are supposed to be loyal to it.
I don’t see it that way, I see the State of Israel as a state, a Jewish one (whatever that means), as I see Denmark as a Christian state, both being secular, but both giving a special place for Judaism and Christianity respectively as the main religions, but not the only religions. Neither do I see the State of Israel as the beginning of redemption, though I certainly pray for its wellbeing, as I did and still do with Denmark, and for the whole humankind. For example, when I pray the ‘Birkat HaMazon,’ the prayer said after eating bread, the Koren Siddur, which I use, has the addition of blessing Israel being the beginning of the Redemption, which I have used as title for this post, though this is in no way standard for the most Siddurim. This addition I don’t pray, though I do pray for the wellbeing of the soldiers in IDF, who are ‘standing guard’ over Israel.
That also mean, which I believe has been the case until now at least, that you never will see me use any religious arguments for Israel’s presence in the West Bank/Yehudah v’Shomron, though I do believe that it is good and right of Jews to live here, but not only Jews, and not necessarily under Israeli authority.
So in conclusion, being a religious Jew and a Zionist, does not necessarily makes you a religious Zionist, though that certainly most often is the case. And, I have to stress, this also mean that I’m leaning to a separation of state and synagogue, letting religion be part of the private sphere of life (not invisible though, nor ignored, on the contrary), at least until the Coming of Mashiah, may it happen speedily in our days, BE”H. Until then I’d rather support a secular state for the Jews and its citizens.
Nadiha, over at “the fatal feminist,” presents us for a quote from “The Question of Fetishization” by Natalie Reed, which reacts on people feeling “attracted” on what I think would be termed “a concept of race,” more than on the person him- or herself. While I do agree with certain points in the article, for example the focus on the race rather than the person, I don’t agree in the use of “Racism,” though this understanding of the term seems to be rather predominant in our days.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m trying to excuse various forms of discrimination or the like, but rather that I prefer a more correct and direct usage of terms, and when it comes to the term “Racism” as well as the term “Antisemitism,” then I’m a follower of the late historian Gavin I. Langmuir, whom I have mentioned in other connections earlier.
In his book “Towards a Definition of Antisemitism,” Langmuir presents us for a theory on what he calls “enmity” between two groups (the ingroup towards the outgroup – the “us and the other”), which can be found in three different forms, the “realistic assertion,” the “the xenophobic assertion,” and the “chimerical assertion.” These three forms are described as follows:
Realistic assertions about outgroups are propositions that utilize the information available about an outgroup and are based on the same assumptions about the nature of groups and the effect of membership on individuals as those used to understand the ingroup and its reference groups and their members.
Xenophobic assertions are propositions that grammatically attribute a socially menacing conduct to an outgroup and all its members but are empirically based only on the conduct of a historical minority of the members; they neglect other, unthreatening, characteristics of the outgroup; and they do not acknowledge that there are great differences between the individuals who compose the outgroup as there are between the individuals who compose the ingroup.
Chimerical assertions are propositions that grammatically attribute with certitude to an outgroup and all its members characteristics that have never been empirically observed.
(Towards a Defintion of Antisemitism, chapter 14, pp. 328)
These three groups of assertion are presented in the context of enmity or hatred from the ingroup towards the outgroup, but I expect that it also can be used in the positive approach.
What he presents here are three different forms of attitude. The first, the realistic, is not dealing differently with one’s own group as with the other group, knowing that just as there are differences among individuals in one’s own group, so there are in the “other” group. To use an example, in my study of Judaism and Islam, I’m not dealing any different with Islam as I am dealing with Judaism, or – more correctly – I’m not dealing (at least I shouldn’t) any different with Muslims from Jews. Just as there are differences among the individuals of the groups called “Jews,” so there are among the individuals of the group called “Muslims.”
The second assertion, the xenophobic assertion, takes the actions or characteristics of few individuals or a/more minority group/s and let that be assertive for the whole outgroup. Let’s use the Israeli settlers as an example here. We have the “price tag group,” extremist (and mostly young) religious settlers burning mosques, attacking innocent, and other stupid acts, in order to “revenge” what they feel have been “unjust” attacks on them or “theirs.” Their motive is not the subject though, but the way some people are taking their actions or characteristics, and let that be defining for the whole group called “settlers,” is. A Palestinian, knowing full well that there are extremist among his own “group,” who act in the same way, but would react strongly against people letting these individuals or minority group being the definition for the whole group called “Palestinians,” but yet do the exact same when it comes to the group called “settlers” or the group called “Israelis,” is an example on the xenophobic assertion. To be sure, we could have used a member from the “settlers,” the “Israelis,” or even the “Jews” as well.
The Xenophobic assertion is when a person or a group takes “examples” on actions or characteristics never been empirically proved to be true, and let them be defining for the whole outgroup. Langmuir uses the example of Jews drinking the blood of Christian children himself, which I also think is a very precise example. It can also be used in the “positive” form about Jews, as Jews being overly good with money, though it never have been proved that Jews should be better with money than others. Jews have not had that much of a choice when it came to business careers, and thus mostly had to work with money. There is no genetic or culturally inherent in the “Jewish culture,” which would prove that Jews are better than money with others (I can say for one that I’m terrible with money).
Langmuir reacts to the term “Racism,” arguing that it doesn’t really give meaning to use that term anymore, since it connotes the understanding that humankind is found in various races (such as with dogs), which is pretty normal knowledge not to be true. Of course, as he explains, it is always possible to find individuals who deny this knowledge and insists on believing what cannot be proven empirically, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it has been proved and accepted today that whether we are talking about “Caucasian,” “African,” “Asian,” “Arabic,” or something else, then it’s all the same race. Should we point to another human race, then the Neanderthals would be a good example.
When it comes to “Antisemitism,” or here “Anti-Semitism,” then the same goes, since the idea of a “Semitic race” should be dead by now (it’s not as dead as one would wish it was, but nevertheless). You cannot be more “anti Semite,” than you can be “anti Smurf” or “anti unicorn.” That is, you certainly can be anti all three examples, but just as the Smurfs and unicorns haven’t been proven to exist empirically, so hasn’t the Semitic race been. Of course, one could argue that the idea about the three examples certainly exists, but then – so far as one would be anti any of the three ideas of these examples – being anti this, would be anti-ideaaboutsmurfs, and what does that really mean? That one is against how Smurfs are portrayed and believed to be? About the idea that there are Smurfs? Or something else?
Nevertheless, Langmuir does accept that there are examples when it would give meaning to use the terms “Racism” and “Antisemitism,” but then it would only be in the case of the xenophobic assertion, when we are prescribing something not realistic, not real, to a whole group. As such the idea that “Jews are drinking the blood of small Christian children” would certainly be racist or antisemitic.
I hope that you can forgive me going to length about this, but I felt it necessary in order to explain my thoughts on Racism (and Antisemitism), before I could give my reaction to Nahida’s quote.
I certainly agree with her agreement that it seems wrong to attribute a certain positive (or negative) attribute to a certain group, for example in the example when we go from “I think long, dark, straight hair and smaller than average breasts are sexy” to “I’m into Asian girls”, but I wouldn’t call it Racism. These characteristics seem to be more predominant among Asians than other groups, but it is not something imagined, therefore this would more be put under the xenophobic assertion than the chimerical, and thus – according to Langmuir – not being Racism or based on this. This would probably not be more different than saying that you’re into Scandinavians, because you like blond hair and blue eyes, though you might as well find many Baltic people with the same characteristics. Or to use another example in the same line, is it racist when people believe, even insist, that I have to be Russian, just because I – according to them – look Russian? In Denmark I can walk around and be viewed as perfectly Danish, while here in Israel I’m most certain Russian.
Hence my reaction is not that I believe that it’s perfectly okay to deny any non-Asian the chance of partnership, if one is into long, dark, straight hair and smaller than average breasts. I don’t. I do find it somehow ignorant, but not racist. I’m reacting against the very prevalent usage of the term “Racism,” which more removes any clear understanding of the term, than it helps battling discrimination.
I became inspired to write this post from another blog post I read recently, “Stop the Presses! Reform Jews can’t be called ‘observant’?”, as well as from an article in “The Orthodox Forum,” by B. Barry Levy, “The State and Directions of Orthodox Bible Study.”
The post, “Stop the Presses! Reform Jews can’t be called ‘observant’?”, at The Grand Scheme, is mostly dealing with the question of whether a Reform Jew can be called “observant” or not. Relating to another post on another blog, author Eileen Flynn wonders about whether it is right to object against the term “objective” being used about Reform Jews. Personally, as I also wrote in a comment to the post, I don’t see the big problem, as long as the person in question really is observant. It is not the “observance” I differ on, but what to be “observed.”
In his article, “The State and Directions of Orthodox Bible Study,” Barry Levy primarily talks about how to approach and create a consistent understanding within the Orthodox world, on what it means to conduct Bible studies in acceptance to Orthodox values. He does devote a part of the article on what “Orthodox” means, and that is, as well as Flynn’s post, what I will relate to in this post.
First and foremost, in the Jewish world today, we have four general movements, namely the Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform, and the Reconstructionist movements. I’m not going to spend time explaining the principles of these four movements, but more focus on the meaning of “Orthodox,” and when one can be called so.
Levy introduces the second part of his article with the question “Who or what is Orthodox,” and relates to the earliest uses of the term, namely around the year 1800 (1795 to be precise), limiting the scope of identifying “Orthodox” within the last two centuries. Of course, his article is mostly focused on the scholarship within Bible study, but I did get some good input out of it, namely that the Orthodox Jews seem to accept a certain group of literature. Levy defines it this way:
“Orthodoxy identifies with all of the vast and varied pre-Orthodox rabbinic tradition and theoretically takes seriously its range of ideological positions (and is the only contemporary Jewish religious movement to do so)….”
What I find interesting here, is the use of “identifying,” theoretically,” and “range of ideological positions.” Basically, what Levy here states is that the Orthodox Jew identifies, at least on the theoretical plane, with the vast and varied pre-Orthodox Rabbinic tradition and its range of ideological positions. This Orthodox Jew doesn’t need to be observant, practicing, or the like, in order to fall within this definition, though I would believe that it would take at least a minimum of observance, in order to fully relate to the ideological positions of the Rabbinic tradition, one of which is the duty to indulge in the study of Torah.
This leads me to Flynn’s post about being “observant.” Often I see the term “observant” being used interchangeably with “Orthodox,” as well as with “frum,” as if these three terms share the exact same meaning. I don’t believe so. As I also wrote in my comment to Flynn’s post, the level of observance is not the same as what one observes. Take for example a person who is on a diet. He/she will most likely be very observant when it comes to eat the right food at the right times. He/she doesn’t need to be Orthodox though. Let’s – for the sake of argument – further delve into this example. A person on a diet will observe what this person believes has to be observed, while the Orthodox Jew also will observe his/her diet, but with a whole different scope, namely a more “spiritual” scope, choosing not to eat things which the person on a diet would eat, and the other way around. Both persons can be more or less observant with their diet, though the diets differ. Hence, I would believe, a Reform Jew can also be observant, though what he/she (and I have to admit that it is my experience that it’s mostly “she,” when it comes to the Reform Jews, shame on the men) observes are different from what an Orthodox Jew would observe.
Based on this, my understanding of who is or isn’t “Orthodox,” is based on approach and identification, more than it is on “observance.”
All the best.
 Ibid. page 43.
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
This is not only the first verse in the Torah, but also one of the most intriguing ones, jumping right into the existence of everything, by stating that “in the beginning G-D created the Heavens and the Earth!” One is tempted to ask, “in the beginning of what?”
The Hebrew term, which also is the opening for the Torah, בראשית (bereshit), consists of the suffix “b” (in) and the word “reshit”, beginning, which is not signifying the start, but the beginning of something. The root of the word is ראש, head, which signifies that we are talking about the “head” of the subject at hand, the top of what is being talked about. Here we begin discussing what will come after, but not what went before, since that is – apparently – not of interest. What is of interest here is that this is the head, the beginning of all things we see today, all that we can relate to through empiric inquiry, this is what is at hand here. This verse is not attempting to state that this is the beginning of everything, in which case it would have explained that ראשון, firstly, did G-D create the Heavens and the Earth, not ראשית, being the first source for what is coming afterwards. Onkelos furthermore stresses this in his Aramaic translation, using the word בקדמין, “in the before”, pointing at the meaning, that this is what went before what will follow, instead of using the form קדמאה, first.
From this it would seem that what is at stake, is the order of creation, first the Heavens and the Earth, then the creation of the six days. To this Rashi and Ibn Ezra disagree, rendering the translation “In the beginning of G-D’s creating,” that is, in the beginning when G-D created the universe, which then is followed by the following verses. The pshat, the simple reading of the text, will tell us that we are talking about the Heavens and the Earth being the first things created. Rashi and Ibn Ezra understands this differently, not seeing any particular order being given in this verse, but merely describing the scene during the creation. Keeping with the pshat, though, we still get a good understanding of what is going. The word for “creating,” ברא, is signifying something created ex nihilo, out of nothing. This runs contrary to the newer theories of an exploding/imploding universe, which recreates itself in eternity. The universe where created as it was, without anything existing before G-D’s actions. Whatever, if anything went before this, then it wasn’t anymore at that time, only G-D, and anything was created from nothing at that point.
So we can deduce the following understanding from the verse: In the beginning of the existence of our universe, which G-D formed and created out of nothing, time was starting and the cornerstones, the Heavens and the Earth, were created for our world. This world is not only this planet we are living on, but it is still our starting point, why “earth” is mentioned in the singular, whereas “heavens”, the world we are to explore, is mentioned in the plural.
Reading the verse as a D’rash, we are also told something about our roles as humans. Originally the text was written without spaces, as one long text, and without vowels. Reading “the Heavens and the Earth” in Hebrew, את השמים ואת הארץ, we can deduce a different meaning, a message to man and woman respectively. To the man the verse is saying אתה שמים ואתה ארץ, you, man, are heaven and earth. Be aware that just as you have a soul, you also have a body, and as the divine is written in the plural, so should your spiritual side, your connection to G-D, be more than your lower instincts. To the women it says את השמים ואת הארץ, you are the heavens and you are the earth. In you the child is formed, being formed by a soul and a body, and as the being that will be closest to the child, make sure that it gets more from Heaven than from earth. This shows an awareness that the woman is on a higher spiritual level than man, but also that she has that bigger responsibility in forming the children, to be G-D-fearing human beings, who can control their lower instincts. This is not to say that the woman is worth more than the man (or the opposite), but that we simply have different roles and we have to take the consequences of our roles and our responsibilities serious. The child, which is rather established by experts on the field, is closer connected to its mother than any other human being. This also gives the mother that extra responsibility in bringing up the child, especially the first years of its life. The woman is the source of the Heaven and the earth in the family. She has the power to influence the whole family either in a good or a negative direction. This is seen from the Midrash on the role of the woman, which states: “It is related of a pious man who was married to a pious woman that, being childless, they divorced one another. He went and married a wicked woman and she made him wicked. She went and married a wicked man and made him righteous. It follows that all depends upon the woman (Bereshit Rabbah, 17:7).” The husband’s role in the family is as the provider and supporter of his woman, and her role is as the center of the home, spreading her influence and “sending her children to learn Torah in the Synagogue and their husbands to study in the Schools of Rabbis (B’rachot 17a).”
 In a rabbinic drash we can read that G-D created a huge number of worlds, which – each – didn’t succeed in their missions, and thus had to be destroyed.
One of my favorit Parashot, if not my absolute favorite (well, I love the whole Torah) is Bereshit. Every time I study this Parashah I’m amazed of all the new details that jump to my eyes. You can study this text a thousand times, and yet there are still new things to be learned.
One of the verses that has taken my focus often, though somehow unconscious, is 1:28, which in its Hebrew original goes:
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
This is a very interesting verse. A simple translation is going like this (according to the JVP 1999 translation):
God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”
I will be looking at some other translations shortly, and later on focus on my own translation and understanding of the verse, but for now let us look at the plain meaning, the pshat:
This is in the end of the six days of creation. G-D has just created man in His image (verses 26 and 27) and now He gives His Commandment to man, namely to be fertile, increase, fill the earth, master it, and rule all the living things on earth. It seems like a Commandment, which is also a kind of prophecy, man was created and from being a very primitive but intelligent being, we today rule and suppress the earth to a degree, which is almost destructive for us. We have become fertile, we have increased, we have filled the earth, and we are ruling all the living creatures of the earth, both on land in the ocean.
But something more is hinted at in this verse. First off, let us turn an eye to verse 26 as well as in the second part of verse 28. Verse 26 goes like:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”
The word I’m focused on is “rule.” Both in verse 26 and verse 28 the Hebrew verb is ירד, and is presented in the two forms וְיִרְדּוּ (verse 26) and וּרְדוּ (verse 28). The former is in the future form, “they will,” whereas the latter is imperative, “do it!” But the verb is weird, odd. The root points to something which is either fallen or has gone down, it can be both physical and spiritual, but here it is used about ruling? And this is happening even before the sin, which put man outside Gan Eden, what is going on here? Maybe another meaning of the root can give an understanding, namely that it also can mean “to oppress, to tyrannize, to subjugate.” When one rules, there are various levels in which manner one can rule. One can be including, one can be dictating, and so on. One of the lesser ways of rule is tyranny or oppression. And if we understand the meaning of the word in this manner, then maybe it is more of a prophecy, an expectation of what will indeed be?
Rashi, the famous commentator, also put note to this usage, explaining that there is a double meaning to this, that of oppression and that of falling, namely if man does not know how to oppress his animal nature, then he will fall and the animal nature will rule him, instead of him ruling it. For Rashi this word is indeed about oppression, but about the oppression of the “animal” inside us. This is very interesting, especially when we look at another keyword, namely וְכִבְשֻׁהָ (verse 28), which is translated as “master it [the earth]” (other translations have “subdue”). But the interesting thing is that if we take Rashi’s rendering of “rule” and understand וְכִבְשֻׁהָ based on that, then there is a new meaning. The word actually has more to do with controlling of instincts that it has with rule, namely meaning “to restrain oneself, to overcome one’s inclinations, to hold back.” So we are not talking about “ruling” or “mastering” the earth, as much as we are talking about overcoming “earth.” But what does that mean? Let’s take a look on yet another word in this verse, namely אֱלֹהִים. “Elohim” is plural for “elohah” which means god, but also “judge.” The meaning of this word is that of a power with a definite authority in some matter. For example a judge is understood as being an “elohah.” This is also the meaning of the word, when it is applied to G-D, namely that of the Divine strict Judge. When we read how the verse is put up, then a strict translation of the first part would be:
[He] Blessed them, Eloqim, [He] said to them elohim…
Is G-D actually talking to man as being “elohim,” that is, as having some definitive authority? It doesn’t seem too far stretched, considering that the context is about ruling, so maybe G-D is relating to man’s role as a definitive authority on earth? If that is the case, then when we continue, we can read that man is supposed to be fertile, increase and fill the earth, and to “restrain, overcome or keep it back.”
Let us put it together. Rashi told that the word for “rule” is about ruling our own nature, controlling, oppressing our animal instincts, so we will not be controlled by it. We are supposed to be with definitive authority, and the world is to be overcome or restrained. It seems like G-D here puts a very important note to us, namely that though we have definitive authority here on earth, then we should NOT fall to the level of being mere animals in our rule of earth. Our “earthly” side should be overcome, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to give into our inclinations, but keep restrain on ourselves, when we act as rulers. This is leading us back to the first verse, which – when read a little alternative – tells us that we are both of the Divine and the earthly.
When we rule the world, we should do so with restrain and understanding. May G-D bless us with wisdom and understanding in our relation to each other and to his creation.
Yesterday I had a little discussion with a Jewish friend from my work.. In general the subject was focused on being religious as a Jew..
It started with her telling me, that she had been on work on Shabbat, a fact I am aware of, but nevertheless really don’t need to know, since I don’t take much rejoice in Jews acting wrong (or in any people acting wrong, for that sake)..
When I told her, that I didn’t need to know about it, she went on: “But I don’t keep Shabbat!”.. “No, I know..” I responded, “but still, don’t tell me, maybe I one day have to keep it against you, and I really don’t want to..”
She didn’t quite understand that, since it’s her right, in Denmark, to keep or don’t keep Shabbat – which is true – so I had to explain about that hypothetical thought, that maybe one day we will live in a Halachic state.. We joked a little about it, in reality I don’t feel any need to force my beliefs on anyone, even though I would prefer all Jews to be religious and take our religion serious..
Well, at a certain point she apparently felt the need to state the obvious to me: “I’m borne by a Jewish woman, so I’m as much a Jew as you!”.. Well, I couldn’t really deny that, neither did I want to.. And neither had I at any point stated that she wasn’t..
But this is the whole point.. Why is it, that some people, when they suddenly feel attacked, needs to point out that they’re Jews too? Actually, my though was (and is) that, yes, she – and all of you Jews who read this – is as much a Jew as I am, but this is the point: She is as much obligated to keep the Mitzvot as I am.. It’s not a safe to state “I’m a Jew!” and then think everything is okay.. On the contrary, state that and hell is loose (sort of speaking).. Yell “I’m a Jew!” and some One will yell “YES, KEEP MITZVOT!”..
But maybe that is where we Jews go wrong of each others sometimes? When religious and non-religious speak together.. We religious don’t say it clear enough that we consider all Jews our brothers and sisters, and as valuable as everybody else, no matter the level of religiosity.. And our non-religious brothers and sisters think that when we talk about the need of being observant, we talk about the need of being “Jewish enough”?
So let me say it out clear.. Are your mother a Jewess or have you converted Halachic, the I certainly do think you’re a Jew.. But then again, I also do think that you’re as obliged as I am, to keep Mitzvot.. Torah was given to ALL of Israel, also you..