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We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

One reply on “We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781”

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