This week we enter the beginning of a brand new cycle of Torah reading with a parashah that has become controversial in today’s political climate: B’reishit (in the beginning). The creation of the world is described beautifully and poetically in the Torah, but in our world where we’re always trying to figure out what’s true and what’s false, people seem to get stuck on this first portion of Genesis. Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, describe his interpretation of B’reishit, and the difference between factual and moral truth.
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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Episode 40 of “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion.
Of course, as we often say, there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah and we do want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism Like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
This week, as we begin our Torah cycle anew with Parashat B’reishit, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism asks, how you see truth and how you define it.
[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we begin an entire new cycle of weekly Torah readings. We begin at the beginning, with Parashat B’reishit. In the beginning, in the beginning of the Torah, in the beginning of the book of Genesis, in the beginning of the parashah of this week. B’reishit bara Elohim, in the beginning of God's creating. And we have the narrative of creation that flows forth.
I do think that in our world, we're always trying to figure out what's true, what's false, what's right, what's wrong. And I think that sometimes we get really stuck on this opening narrative of the book of Genesis. It describes the creation of the world in such beautiful, poetic terms. Each day something is created, and the language is precise and so gorgeous.
But we raise the question, is this really how the world was created? I mean, I studied in college. I went to a science course. I know the world is a more complex reality. And I remember, it was a number of years ago in a community I was privileged to serve, a local science teacher called me up, said, “Rabbi Jacobs, can I just ask you a question?” I said, “Yeah. Of course, you can ask me a question.”
He said, “Do you believe that the Torah's account of creation is true?” I said, “Yeah, I do.” He goes, “Oh great. Would you come this coming week, and I want you to speak to the whole eighth grade? I want you to tell them how you believe.”
So, as I was preparing to go over to the school that day, I realized that he thought this was going to be a reenactment of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, right? That unbelievably powerful moment in American history where John Thomas Scopes and William Jennings Bryan, they had a duel about the Creation narrative.
So, I get into the class. All these eighth graders-- many of whom are my Bar and Bat Mitzvah students-- are squirming in their chairs. And the teacher says, “All right. Well, I've got Rabbi Jacobs here. I want to just ask him, Rabbi Jacobs, do you think the Torah's account of creation is true?”
I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “Great.” And then I said, “Well, ask me if I think the scientific theory of creation is true as well.” He said, “Well, no, no. If you already said the Torah is true, you can't say that science is true.” I said, “Well, ask me.” He says, “Do you think the scientific explanations of creation are true?” I said, “Absolutely.”
He looked so puzzled. He said, “Well, I don't understand.” I said, “The Torah is not telling us how the world was created. The Torah has got a beautiful, powerful narrative about why the world was created. What might come to be in a world that was perfectly ordered and poetically held together. But that the Torah is not telling us how the Big Bang unfolded and all of those very important questions. Those are questions that we wrestle with.”
So, the question that really is fundamental in looking at this opening narrative is, how do we find truth? Is truth that something is factual? Or is truth that there's a deeper meaning held within an account? And I think of the other great text in our tradition.
The Talmud has a discussion that says, why was the creation story clear that we all descend from one ancestor? And the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin says, we all descended from one ancestor so that no one says to another person, my lineage is better than yours.
Well, did we actually descend from one ancestor? That's a teaching. Is it factually true? I don't know. I know it to be morally true. I think about the world we're living in where, particularly here in North America, so many people are questioning, are we really all equal? Do individuals with certain status and privilege somehow put themselves above others?
I love that the Genesis narrative is teaching us one of the deepest principles about moral existence, and that is, in God's family, we are all siblings and there are no exceptions. So how do we find what is true? How do we find those truths? Well, I actually think by opening up this story of creation.
In the Torah's narrative, there are 469 words. These beautiful words shape a possibility for how we could make our world this incredibly compelling, and equal, and just, and compassionate world. That's what this opening narrative, it suggests that's what could be. But we have to become those partners with God in shaping the world as it ought to be.
And when we think about Adam and Eve, and we think about the garden, and we think about descending from one set of ancestors, I hope that when we go out every day and we see people from different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different skin colors, that we realize, we are all part of the same family. And the Torah commands us that that radical equality is fundamental to the nature of creation itself.
So, I think there is so much truth in this opening narrative of creation, but I'm not going to be distracted by having to establish its historicity or that it has to agree with all aspects of science. Science is also from God. It's how we think deeply about the world. So, let's make sure to find the truth that we can, and more importantly, to live the truth that we find. That's where it's really challenging.
So, when you ask me, is the Torah true? I would answer, not yet. That depends on us. And I hope in this new year of study, of discovery, of searching for the bedrock truth upon which we can build our lives of purpose and depth, that we'll find those ancient truths and realize they are incredibly challenging.
And let's also immerse ourselves in science, and let's figure out as much as we can about how the world works. But when we have to come up with that answer as to why we're here and what it is that we're doing with our time on Earth, that's where religious tradition can be unbelievably profound. So, let's find what's true in science. Let's find what's true in religion. And from that, let's live a deeper, more profound life. And in so doing, we will be partners with God, and we will make this narrative true.
[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at www.reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.
Until next week – l’hitraot!