Rashi’s Dilemma: What We Create

By David J. Steiner

Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond,
more or less adequately, to reality.
Jean Piaget

I am not a fan of binaries. They tend to create false dichotomies, which direct us to believe that we have to choose between right and wrong. This can lead to idolatry, in the form of a perceived monopoly on truth and righteousness. That said some things are mutually exclusive. It cannot be day and night at the same time in the same place. When we act in the world, we make choices. This makes it important to understand and accept that when we choose, the GPS in our head is navigating the world through an epistemology, a worldview, the unique spectacles that make us individuals.

“What do we keep and what do we leave behind,” the title and question of a previous article, is a confining question that treats the world as if it is discoverable, but it is also an attempt at finding common language for those people who see the world and say, “It is what it is,” and those who see it as constantly being created.

Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educational philosopher, believed that we create the world as we read and write it. This constructivist approach essentially posits that there is a world to be read, but each of us creates it for ourselves in the literacy of engagement. Another way to understand this is that we all cohabitate the world, but none of us perceive our earthly home the same way.

How we teach creation has a lot to do with the epistemologies we help shape in young people. The biblical creation story, when expressed fundamentally, is problematic. The binary that fundamentalism frames posits that creation is either literal or metaphorical. Confronted with this binary, I often find myself perplexed by the insistence that an omnipotent, omniscient deity is incapable of expressing herself in metaphor. However, the bigger problem with this dichotomy is its obfuscation of the binary, which I present above. Is the world constantly being created, as Freire believes, or is its discovery uniform?

I’m struggling with suggesting that the “truth” is that it is both created and constantly being created because I believe that the truths I accept at any given time are just as susceptible to change as everything else in the world. That said, right now, as I sit and drink my Turkish coffee with cardamom, I believe that the world I inhabit is only perceptible to me through my experience.

John Dewey presents a different way of understanding this. He says that we do not learn through experience… we learn through reflecting on experience, but he complicates this by adding that we only think when confronted with a problem. This may explain why later in life he proclaimed that art is the most effective mode of communication that exists. As history, the Genesis stories ask us to halt our reflection and accept reality as “it is,” but as metaphor the Genesis stories serve as art insisting that we continue to reflect. Art, unlike most forms of communication, even in its simplest expression, poses a challenge to experienced reality. It acts as Dewey’s “problem,” which forces us to think.

When we educate the next generation of Jews, we make a choice. Framed as, “What do we keep? What do we leave behind?” the world is there for our choosing, but language is a form of conceptualizing the world, which thus serves as a means of reifying it. A different way to understand this educational challenge is to ask, “What do we create?” This Jewish constructivist approach to education lends itself to the possibility that creation is unending, and we are active participants in creation. Let me suggest, further, that a simple change in the reading of Torah, the movement of one letter from the end of one word to the beginning of the next can create a complete epistemological change in understanding.

Bereishit barah Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets

If we move the letter “tav,” from the end of the first word, bereishit, “in the beginning,” to the beginning of the second word, barah, “He created,” the entirety of the meaning of the text changes and we go from, “In the beginning, He created the heaven and the earth,” to, “In my head, God, create the heaven and earth.”

The great Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) has a similar problem with the letter tav. As a grammarian, he reminds us that the word Bereishit, Genesis, is an improper use of a conjunctive form and suggests that the proper word would be b’rishona, “at first.” He then gives a litany of scriptural examples to prove his grammatical point in order to conclude, “that Scripture did not teach us anything about the sequence of the earlier and the later [acts of creation],” it is not historical, and declares, “This verse calls for a midrashic interpretation.”

Rashi explains his dilemma about “In the beginning, God…” using his understanding of the second part of the verse, “created the heaven and the earth,” by referring to Genesis 2:4, the second creation story. “These are the legends of the heaven and of the earth, in their creation, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” By doing this, he establishes a constructivist understanding of Torah. God, the character, creates legends of heaven and earth, “in the day,” at a moment in time, without eliminating the human possibility to do the same.

When we ask, “What do we keep? What do we leave behind?” we are essentially creating the world anew. This is why a conservative approach to past understandings can mislead us. Try to imagine James Madison, who wrote the United States Constitution, being interviewed about today’s debate over gun control,

  • Interviewer: Mr. Madison, did you know that your Second Amendment to the Constitution allows for citizens to walk into supermarkets carrying AK-47’s?
  • Madison: What’s an AK-47?
  • Interviewer: A Kalashnikov. An assault rifle that can fire hundreds of bullets per minute.
  • Madison: That’s not what I intended. Our muskets could only shoot one bullet at a time. How do you keep your citizens safe?

Madison would not only be appalled by our abuse of the right he created, he wouldn’t be able to comprehend our interpretation. Now take Moses.

  • Interviewer: What was the intention of that commandment, “Preserve the Sabbath day.”
  • Moses: I was worried that since the people who left bondage in Egypt were not going to enter the Promised Land that the next generation might forget the importance of resting. Their parents had no control over their time, and that commandment was intended to force them to take a break to appreciate what it means to be free.
  • Interviewer: How do you understand that freedom?
  • Moses: Well obviously it means getting to choose to do whatever you want?
  • Interviewer: Like go to the movies or play video games.
  • Moses: Sure. Whatever works. My sister would dance with other women. My brother used to like to sculpt calves.

Treating the world as if it is there to be discovered, implies that “it is what it is,” which is not the way many of us want to read the Torah. When Moses received Torah at Sinai, as reported in The Ethics of our Fathers, he passed it to Joshua who passed it to the Elders, and so on. And in each of those generations it was different, not because the text changed but because we did. A rebel Egyptian prince understands God differently that a warrior who is about to conquer the Promised Land, and Joshua was a different leader than the Elders who got to rule in that land. This is why Rashi says, “This verse calls for a midrashic interpretation.” And in reality, the whole text requires our contemporary interpretation, over and over again, anew in each generation. This is why our concern must look forward and ask “How can this apply for us, the living.”

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a mediator and educator in Chicago.