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Who dunnit?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-10-27

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This time of the year hen the Torah readings are all about creation and the early years of mankind, I always wonder about this world of ours.

How was it made, by whom or what and  when? I know ( though plenty of others don’t seem to)  we cannot undisputedly answer the ‘who’ and the ‘why’.

We can believe that it was Intelligent Creation or God or some Divine Kabbalistic process, of course. But that doesn’t really answer the question; it simply removes it from discussion. He did it and that’s that. And if you try dabbling in scientific theory you’re still left with lots of questions, because good as theory is, it’s still only a theory. Then of course you’ll get all those silly responses evangelists love, such as if you spill a bottle of ink it won’t write Shakespeare, or all the millions of cells in an eye couldn’t have come by accident from one little cell! swimming around in the soup.

No, dear reader, I am not going to indulge either in fanciful speculation or in scientific experiment. I’m just as interested as always in the inconsistencies of dogma. As you know, I love religion with a passion. It animates my life. But the moment it indulges in politics or tries to control the way people think, I have to admit that it suddenly turns into a blind black monster that only makes me want to run in the opposite direction.

What I love about the Talmud is that, when it comes to ideas, it is full of fancies and contradictions and alternatives and no one thought to say, ‘You gotta believe this.’ They just set out their wares for different humans of different levels of intelligence and understanding to pick. Sure there were certain ideas they regarded as absolutely essential to the religious experience, the idea of a Divine Force, the idea of spirit and soul and continuity and, of course, Revelation. But they did leave the actual way you came to understand these ideas, the actual thought process, up to you, without feeling the need to specify.

So let’s get back to Creation. Somewhere down the line--long after the Bible fixed Nissan in the spring, as the first month--the festival of the Seventh Month, the Day of Remembrance, the Day to Blow the Shofar, turned into Rosh Hashanah, the New Year for years. (To be fair it was only one of four New Years according the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah; we Jews have always liked doing things differently.) Then somewhere along the line Rosh Hashana became identified as the Anniversary of Creation--except, surprise, surprise, according to the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (11a), Rabbi Eleazar says it was Tishrei, but Rabbi Joshua says it was Nissan!

They also argue about whether the world was created from the centre out or from the outside in (Yoma 54b). I love that one! What is the better process, inside out or outside in?! And you’ll be happy to know they neither hurled abuse at each other nor called each other names! It is true that the liturgy established in the late Gaonic period about a thousand years ago established Tishrei as the favourite, as our Machzors testify, ‘This is the day, the beginning of Your creations.’ But even then there’s a debate as to whether it was the creation out of Chaos or the creation of ‘Adam’. And it makes a difference because if Man was created on Rosh Hashanah (a nice humanist or anthropocentric view of the universe) then the creative process started beforehand, in Ellul.

It wasn’t until barely a thousand years ago that we Jews started calculating the years to creation as part of our calendar. Probably one in the eye for the Christians and the Muslims. ‘Ours goes back earlier than yours, so there!’ Even if there is a reference to calculating the date of creation in the Talmud Avodah Zara, it was not used practically until much later. So one is bound to wonder whether this is supposed to be a matter of record or of polemic.

We can argue till we are blue in face, nothing will solved, and the only thing we will know is that when we wake up tomorrow we have another day to get through, either honourably or not! The idea of God creating humanity, everyone, refardless of whether it is a scientific truth at least asserts a positive idea that humanity comes from one source and rises and falls together and a world catastrophe will sweep it all away.

Does it really matter who created the world or how? Surely it matters  more how we live in it! And that, after all, is how the Torah looks at it. In the early chapters there are supplementary narratives that look at the creation process from different angles: the physical content and the layers of interaction between humans and nature and with each other. It is clear that the cause of our difficulties is the way in which humans put their selfish desires above the common good or spiritual values. God patiently tries to woo humans towards a more considered life but makes it pretty clear that their fate lies more in their hands than in the world around them. For some reason, thousands of years on we still don’t seem to learn the lesson. Many religions spend more energy on enforcing dogma than insisting on humane behaviour. That is why I think that, scientists apart, when and how the world was created is a very indulgent pu! rsuit while we humans are so busy killing or oppressing each other.

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