By Israel Drazin
The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from Bereishit, the opening parts of the Bible.
Whether Bible readers understand the biblical story of Creation literally or as a parable, they still need to know what the Bible is teaching about people and what is expected of them. Ancient sages derive different messages from the Torah. The following are three of their insights.
The Sanctity of the Body and “The Image of God”
The Talmud understands the Bible teaching the holiness of the human body when it states a parable that the dust from which Adam was formed was taken from the ground on which the sacrificial altar of the temple was to be built (Jerusalem Talmud, Nazir 7:2).
What is the meaning of “holy” and how can we apply it to humans? Scholars say that “holy” means “separate,” something that is set aside, something importance, exalted, almost divine. The word stresses that people should realize that their bodies and minds are significant, and must be handled properly.
Can people do with their bodies as they want? Judaism looks with disfavor on tattooing the body, considering it a violation of the sanctity of the body. Tradition also demands that an executed criminal’s body may not hang overnight because this is a desecration of the body.
Among many other skills, the great sage Maimonides (1138-1204) was a philosopher and physician, He stressed that the basic human duty is to train oneself to think, but he recognized that people are unable to think well if their body isn’t functioning as it should. He wrote many medical books teaching how to acquire proper health.
Maimonides states: “Humans are given free will. If a person wants to take the good path and be righteous, he is free to do so; and if he chooses the evil one and decides to be wicked, he can do so … The Creator doesn’t preordain people to be good or evil” (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 5:1–3).
N. Leibowitz, (Studies in Bereishit, page 2) comments that since humans can be good or bad, the Torah doesn’t describe the creation of humans as being “good” (although it calls all other creations “good”). The decision as to behavior depends on humans, not God.
The Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 61a) puts it this way: there are two letters yud in the Hebrew vayyitzer, “and He created” in Genesis 2:7. This denotes the existence of a yetzer ha’ra, an evil inclination, and a yetzer ha’tov, a good inclination.
These teachings raise questions: Why were people given the ability to do evil? What is the evil inclination? Can it be used to do good? Is the sex-drive an evil inclination? Why is it better to have free will than to be like animals that seem to act only by instinct?
Why Were Only Two Humans Created and Not an Entire Society?
“Why was Adam created alone?” queries the Talmud. “To teach us that whoever destroys one person, the Torah accounts it to him as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one person, the Torah considers it as if a whole world was saved” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a).
Man was created alone “for the sake of peace among men, that one may not say to his fellows, ‘My parent was greater than yours’” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a).
The dust from which Adam was formed was taken from the four corners of the earth, suggesting the oneness of humanity (Rashi on Genesis 2:7). The Jewish philosopher Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058) wrote: “Whether a person is a Jew or non-Jew, male or female, free or slave, it is by their deeds that God judges them.”
These teachings raise questions: Can these teachings be equated with the proposition that “all men are created equal”? Are all people created equal? How are they equal? Are there ways where they are not equal? Why?