The Jewish Studio

False Starts and the Art of Renewal


Beginnings tend to be messy: ask anyone who’s ever given birth, tilled the soil, sculpted, composed, or built something to last. By their nature, beginnings tend to begin unformed and void, at first dark and uncertain, then haltingly lurch toward something-ness.

Each year, Jews recycle Torah and begin its reading anew. This week we again start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), with the story of Genesis – creation, unformed and void, dark on the face of the deep, light, goodness, evening and morning, time and space, sun and moon, life and death, humanity, a garden with two special trees, an apple, a showdown, an expulsion…. The story is mother’s milk to theology itself. Except for cosmologists embracing the Big Bounce rather than the Big Bang Theory of Everything, we can understand Genesis as a pre-scientific (or extra-scientific) theology of beginning-ness.

If we look closer, however, we see that the Biblical creation starts with a false start – and maybe more than one. Torah’s first chapter recites a first creation, but then Torah’s second chapter tantalizingly suggests asecond creation story. The first story posits six days of creation; the second story just one day. The first story evolves humanity at the end of the creation narrative; the second story creates humanity upfront before plants. The first story chronicles humanity’s creation equally in both male and female form, both in the divine image; the second story creates first a male and then a female from the male’s side.

Torah’s creation story is a mess. Biblical exegetes ascribing to the Documentary Hypothesis reason that the Genesis narrative must combine two separate tellings, by two separate narrators, redacted and mushed together into our codified Torah. Creation sure is a messy business.

There’s more. Jewish mystics imagine not two creations but seven (Zohar 1:24b). And why not? If there could be two creation stories, and if creation can be wiped out later (tune in next week forNoah and the Flood), then why not more? Better yet: why not imagine that creation happens each instant? So teaches quantum mechanics, which aligns with traditional Jewish morning liturgy that praises the force “that in goodness constantly renews the work of creation.”

We may never fully unlock the secrets of the universe: there’s plenty of Jewish wisdom that counsels us mere mortals not to try (Talmud, Chagigah 14b). But as to what we ourselves create, we have an important choice to make. We can deem our creations made once, over and done; or we can choose to scrap some of them and start over. Or, we can see each moment literally as pregnant with possibility, a whole universe waiting to unfold by our attitude, word and deed. Which one we choose will shape the kind of creators we are and can become, and with it our own human power to renew our world for good.

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

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