Reading Bereshit Metaphorically and Meaningfully

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Each year, we return to the story of G-d’s Creation of the world, and the surrounding universe, a cosmic event mediated by the power of speech. These events are referenced each week as part of Shabbat, when we “remember” or recognize the active role that G-d took as the author of Creation. These events are both general and specific.

Perhaps, in the absence of other knowledge, we would attempt to understand this passage literally. But traditional commentators have noted the immense difficulty of sustaining even an internally consistent understanding of Creation, especially on the basis of a “simple” understanding of the verses.

Rashi to Bereshit 1:1, at the end of “bereshit bara,” comments that if we understand the first verse as “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth,” we ought to immediately be puzzled by verse 1:2, which describes the spirit of G-d hovering over the waters. When were the waters created? And if the “heavens” are a mixture of fire and water, as Rashi understands they are, when were the fires created? “Against your will, the verses do not teach what was created earlier and what was created later.”

Similarly, Ramban notes that the creation of the world is a “deep secret” that “cannot be understood from the verses themselves” without the traditional Kabbalistic knowledge taught to Moshe. “It is enough for Torah people to get by without these verses, and to believe in the general principle taught later (Shemot 20:11) “For in six days G-d made the Heavens and the Earth, the ocean and all that is in it, and on the seventh day He rested.”

The Ramban emphasizes the impossibility of verses  alone, without a tradition, providing a detailed understanding of Creation. Rashi even suggests that we cannot learn from the creation story the “order” in which things were created. These insights suggest a few guidelines for reading the creation story “metaphorically.”

  1. Some teachings ascribe significance to the order in which the Torah speaks about creation occurring. For example, “Humans were created last, to remind us that even a mere insect preceded our existence,” (Sanhedrin 38a) teaches humility, and perhaps ecological awareness. But this in no way commits us to understanding literally the order of the Torah’s verses as absolute or binding.
  1. A metaphorical understanding should be more than the absence of knowledge. Our baseline ought to be that a sustained “literal” understanding is impossible, and that therefore we are forced to engage in metaphorical readings. But these readings should not just be the absence of literalism, but rather a sustained attempt to “read for meaning” from the verses. The ba’araita on Sanhedrin 38a is one example of this. Rav Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man is another.
  1. Scientific truths should not be squared with the written text of the Torah. For quite some time in mathematics, attempts to “square the circle” – to construct with straightedge and compass a square with the same area as a circle – was viewed not as an impossibility, but rather as a goal. Now, with our more sophisticated understanding of mathematics, we understand that this is impossible. Similarly, with our sophisticated understanding of Torah, we ought to not try to read the creation of the light into the evolution of a quark-gluon plasma in the Plank seconds that followed the Big Bang.

There is much work left to be done. I believe it is quite critical that we eventually understand the main themes of Bereshit, with G-d the Author of Creation. Here is a simple goal: maybe we could eventually  understand why the metaphor of working in six days was used. We talk about this every week on Shabbat repeatedly in the liturgy, and in the 10 Commandments in Parshat Yitro, which the Ramban referenced. Perhaps most poignantly,  our lives are patterned on the same work cycle. I look forward to a new year, and a Modern Orthodox discussion of what a meaningful metaphorical understanding of Bereshit would be.

Joshua Skootsky has been part of the Summer Beit Midrash twice and is currently an undergraduate at Yeshiva University.

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