THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Bereshit – פרשת בראשית
October 26, 2019 – כז תשרי תשפ
This essay is sponsored by Joanne Wiesner-Steiner in loving memory of Abraham Wiesner אברהם בן נתן ז"ל.
Creationism without Racism
The Book of Genesis teaches that all humankind descends from an original first couple, Adam and Eve, who were the direct handiwork of God. Absent creative re-interpretation, those who read the Bible literally would have to accept the doctrine of monogenism.
Yet, over the centuries, many religious Christian scholars who sought to harmonize their personal beliefs with the Scriptural text rejected monogenism because of its failure adequately to answer basic questions of history and demographics. If we all descend from a common ancestor, why do the various races of Europe, Asia, and Africa exhibit such dramatic differences in physical appearance and other traits? If human civilization began with one family in one location, how did humankind spread to all corners of the earth? How did the total human population expand to the current 7 billion if it began only a few thousand years ago with two people? How does one explain the existence of civilizations pre-dating (per either the Hebrew count of 5,780 years or Bishop Ussher’s count of 6,023 years) Adam?
Most classical civilizations were not troubled by these sorts of question, however, because they believed in polygenism. Julian the Apostate, the fourth century Emperor who tried to steer Rome away from Christianity and back toward traditional paganism, held that Zeus created many first men. Polygenism was a useful creation myth for many ancient cultures, as it promotes tribal unity and distrust of outsiders. Polygenism can also justify national claims to possess a unique relationship with the deity. If not for the account in Genesis, Judaism could have justified its fundamental doctrine of chosen-ness in this fashion. [The Bible refers to Israel as “children of God (Deuteronomy 14:1),” which, if read literally, implies a genealogical difference between Israel and the nations, dating back to God’s original creation of man.]
Several theories developed to attempt to reconcile the facts of history (as known at the time) with the Biblical narrative. One suggestion, called Pre-Adamism, posits that man roamed the earth for many millennia before Adam, who was therefore not the first human. This theory was quite popular among those theologians and anthropologists who wanted to distinguish between the ancestry of what they considered superior and inferior races. The former were deemed to be descendants of Adam and infused with a divine soul; the latter were viewed as little more than beasts.
Augustine rejected the notion that mankind or, more generally, the world, can be traced back so far into antiquity. Judah Halevi similarly rejected the claim that the civilization of India is more than 5,000 years old. He dismissed the physical evidence thereof as unconvincing because it ran afoul of the revealed word of Scripture (Kuzari 1:61).
Another theory, Co-Adamism, suggests that multiple first men were created by God in disparate lands and with varying physical appearances. While this approach resolves the problems of race and geography, it does not resolve any chronological difficulties.
A third approach is to see the Table of Nations set forth in Genesis 10 as incomplete and as reflecting only the known world of the Bible – that is, the Ancient Near East. The existence, in fact, of civilizations outside the ANE but unmentioned by the text, could be seen as proof that the Bible does not at all require a belief in monogenism.
This theory, however, presumes that the Bible is a man-generated document and therefore incapable of revealing information unknowable by its authors. Orthodox Judaism rejects that view out of hand; the fundamental belief in Divine authorship of the Torah is inconsistent with any constraint upon God or His powers. In particular, for God there is no distinction among past, present, and future. For Him, there is no notion of Time, History, and “the future.” These notions exist in physics (though time remains extremely difficult to explain); they do not exist for God.
The rabbinic sages maintained a firm belief in monogenism אדם נברא יחידי. This was so not because of any general reluctance on their part to countenance allegorical interpretations of Scripture. On the contrary, they did not shy from reaching for allegory. Rather, monogenism was embraced because it played an important role in rabbinic concepts of theology, legal philosophy, and morality.
Judaism stresses the sanctity and importance of every human life. While the Bible imposes capital punishment for a wide variety of infractions, in fact the rabbinic courts executed people only rarely (Mishnah Makkot 1:10). The laws of courtroom procedure were codified so as heavily to favor the defendant. Prior to offering testimony in capital cases, the witnesses were interrogated about the possibility that their knowledge of the case had been gained only through speculation or hearsay. Fear was instilled in their hearts by reminding them that not only would the blood of the defendant be on their hands but so, too, would that of all generations that would never descend from a wrongfully executed defendant.
The Mishnah says that Adam was created alone in order to teach us, “Whoever destroys one life it is as though he destroys an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).” Judaism’s respect for human life was in sharp contrast to the barbarity of most other contemporary cultures.
Monogenism was also necessary to prevent belief in multiple deities שלא יהו אומרים הרבה רשויות בשמים. Talmudic-era Judaism faced the dual challenges of Zoroastrian Dualism and Christian Trinitarianism. The sages guardedly never allowed the slightest expression or idea -- liturgical or theological -- that might be interpreted as a departure from pure monotheism (Berakhot 33b). A belief in the creation of multiple first-men could suggest their respective creation by multiple gods. To counter this possibility, the Bible stresses the common descent of all humanity from Adam.
Moreover, God’s skill as the ultimate craftsman is glorified by acceptance of monogenism. Whereas a human artisan produces many identical coins from the same mold, God fashions billions of unique human beings, all of whom are descended from His single human creation. The sages repeatedly stressed God’s exalted status as a Designer who, unlike man, possesses the power to breathe life into inanimate beings (Megillah14a).
Monogenism also discourages people from making unwarranted assumptions about their own righteousness solely on the basis of their lineage. “The righteous should not say ‘We are the sons of the righteous.’ The wicked should not say, ‘We are the sons of the wicked (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5).’”
Free will is a central tenet of rabbinic Judaism (Avot 3:15). The pious or sinful behavior of our forebears does not predetermine our own fates. If multiple first-men had been created, some of them well-behaved and others incorrigible, it would be tempting for the criminal element within society to claim that their own misdeeds are the inevitable product of their tainted lineage. Conversely, the descendants of the righteous might become complacent on the assumption that they could do no wrong in light of their pristine lineage. Monogenism avoids these potential problems. As God told Cain after he had committed the first murder, “If you do well shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not well, sin crouches at the door (Genesis 4:7).” Man determines his own fate on the basis of a lifetime of his own choices.
The most interesting reason offered for why God chose monogenism is that monogenism helps preserve international peace (Sanhedrin 38a). Man tends to quarrel with his neighbor or neighboring tribe. Each tribe, nation, and race wants to believe in its own superiority. If we realize that all of us are, in fact, cousins, theories of superiority and inferiority would be rejected and the world would see less conflict.
However, as the Talmud concedes, in fact inter-tribal conflict does exist. The Talmud then comments that, if one thinks the world, as it is, is bloody, despite the common descent of its inhabitants, how much worse would it would be had creation been polygenic and we were not all brothers? ומה עכשיו שנברא יחיד - מתגרות, נבראו שנים – על אחת כמה וכמה.
Our sages here touched upon, though they did not fully explicate, an essential belief about human nature. Most of the ancient world did not subscribe to monogenism. Yet the sages’ view that polygenism would have led to an even more contentious world seems to imply that they believed that each person’s conscience tells him not to mistreat his fellow human being merely because he looks different or was born in a different land.
Accordingly, even a person reared in an environment of hate and within a culture of bigotry has the ability -- and the obligation – to respect the sanctity of every human life.
That is the principle. But every day’s newspaper demonstrates that it is violated.