Friday, October 16, 2009

Esotericism in Genesis


Jewish date:  28 Tishri 5770 (Parashath Bere’shith).

Today’s holidays:  Choti Diwali – Narak Chaturdashi (day 2 of Diwali; Hinduism), Feast of Ida Craddock (Thelema).

Worthy cause of the day:  “ Political Action: Harry Reid: Include the Public Option” and “Take Action: Wild Lands Need You! Help Pass A Strong Climate Bill”.

Today’s topic:  This week’s parashah (section of the Torah read by Jews in synagogue), Bere’shith (Genesis 1:1-6:8), deals with the contentious subject of the origins of the Universe and humanity.  I have decided to take this opportunity to publish some material on this subject which has until now been sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing.

Contrary to the impression left by the people who make the most noise, belief in evolution is perfectly orthodox in Judaism and is approved by the Rabbinical Council of America (Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design 2005).

My personal take on the question:  There is no doubt that the opening chapters of Genesis have often been interpreted close to their literal meaning; this should be obvious to anyone who opens up Miqra’oth Gedoloth, the popular collection of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.  However, there is reason to believe this is not the only legitimate way to interpret this material.  It is attested that in the times of Tanna’im and the ’Amora’im (≈ 40 BCE-450 CE), there were two branches of Pharisaic Jewish esoteric knowledge, Ma‘aseh Bere’shith (“the work of creation”) and Ma‘aseh Merkavah (“the work of the Chariot”) (Scholem 1987) which were only to be taught to a select few (Talmudh Bavli, Ḥaghighah 11b-12a; Talmudh Bavli Ḥaghighah 13a; Talmudh Bavli, Meghillah 25a-25b; Mishneh Torah, Sefer hamMadda‘, Hilkhoth Yesodhe hatTorah 4:17-18).  Due to insufficient transmission, this knowledge has been lost (Maimonides and Friedländer 1903, introduction to section 3).  Since we know we have this loss, it is irrational to assume that any specific interpretation of the pre-Abrahamic material in Genesis (Genesis 1:1-11:9) is the One True Interpretation (as if in Judaism we normally spoke in terms of One True Interpretations).  Furthermore, the fact that Ma‘aseh Bere’shith was considered inappropriate for all but a select few suggests something far removed from the literal meaning of the text, something difficult to understand and liable to misinterpretation.

For comparison, note the Song of Songs, which is traditionally regarded as esoteric and never to be taken a literal love song.

Physics is an aspect of the Divine Will.  Evolution, which is an effect of physics, is thus a working of the Divine Will.  Who are we to insist to YHWH how the Universe and everything in it was created?  Note that nothing in the Hebrew Bible conditions Divine love or mercy (or hatred or anger) or the commandments on our ancestry.  This is despite humanity’s humble origins even according to the literal meaning of the text:  dirt (Genesis 2:7).  Spiritual giants have often had humble beginnings.  It is not our origin which makes us important; it is who we are now and what we may become.

Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. Rabbinical Council of America, 2005-12-27 2005 [cited 2009-02-09. Available from
Maimonides, Moses, and Michael Friedländer. The guide for the perplexed (2d). G. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1903 [cited. Available from
Scholem, Gershom. 1987. Kabbalah. New York: Dorset Press. Original edition, Jerusalem:  Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1974.