“The opening chapter of a book is often the last to be written.” – Rabbi Ismar Schorsch.
Picture this… It’s some time around the 6th century BCE. The first Temple has been destroyed and the Jewish people are in exile in Babylonia. Although, they are (for the most part) treated fairly in Babylon, they are spiritually suffering 600 miles from home without their Temple center.
Why are they suffering?
Howard Fast in his book, The Jews: Story of a People, explains that prior to the exile, God was associated with a place, and God was still in the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Fast writes, “[They were] suddenly removed from the presence and dwelling place of their God. [They were] out of sight and hearing of God, if God indeed dwelt in the Temple; even out of the memory of God… Unless, of course, God was omnipresent— as much in Babylon as in Jerusalem. Unless worship of God was beyond distance.”
And so, possibly there, in exile in Babylonia, is a writer of the Priestly line (named by scholars, “P”), who wants to connect the Jewish God to not just one place, but to all places, so that the Jewish people can continue dedicating themselves and praying to their God even when far from home. So, this priestly writer writes what will become Book 1, Chapter 1 of the Torah… the Creation story (which is read in synagogues all over the world this Shabbat). Now the story of the Jewish God makes God responsible for the very creation of the world. And if it is the Jewish God who oversees heaven and earth, water and land, flora and fauna, then the Jewish God is not of one land, but all lands, and therefore accessible from any spot on the planet. God was now a Universal God and could see and hear everywhere.
The Jewish concept of God had evolved.
There is a theory of Torah authorship, accepted by the majority of Torah scholars today, that speaks of at least four authors of the Torah. Because of redundancies, contradictions, changing names and personalities of God, and the inclusion of material that could not have been known in Moses’ time, it is believed that sections of the Torah were written over many centuries, only to be finally edited by a priestly group around the time of our priestly author mentioned here, “P.” And “P” didn’t just write Book 1, Chapter 1. “P” is believed to have written as much of the Torah as the three other authors combined and to have been the LAST contributor to the Torah. If this is all true, it means the story of Creation wasn’t written first. It was written last.
“Okay,” I hear you asking, “So, you’re telling me Moses DIDN’T write the Torah? That it isn’t even the direct words of God? That the story of Creation was last and not first? Then why do I bother with Torah or Judaism at all?”
Here is why.
The Jewish God has already had many lives. The understanding of God as a local entity before the exile gave way to the idea of a universal God. Hillel brought the idea that loving God was to care for oneself and others, Rabbinic Judaism taught that dedication to God would lead to redemption, and with the birth of each Jewish movement, the possibilities of God have expanded more and more. Change is at the heart of Judaism, and today there are as many ideas of what God might be as there are Jews. Judaism is a religion that lives and breathes and grows, and we must allow and encourage our understanding of Torah and God to live and breathe and grow and well.
And that’s where you come in.
I know that many of us, who want to, but struggle with believing in God, are particularly troubled by the God of Torah who can be downright angry, violent, judgmental, and scary. But being Jewish and loving Torah doesn’t have to mean accepting the God of Torah as the only possibility of God. After all, if the story of creation was the last chapter to be written, and not the first, then the God of book 1, chapter 1 is already an evolution of the Jewish God-concept. We are just another chapter in that evolution.
And loving Torah doesn’t have to mean loving it as factual history. Appreciating Torah as Jewish tales (inspired or not by God) that are here to teach us important lessons, as an essential piece of the foundation of modern society, as a fascinating record of the Jewish people’s development, as a basis for the passionate belief in caring for each other and our world, as one of the greatest stories ever told.… is enough! That IS being Jewish. That IS loving Torah. The Torah is divine because it was written by people like you and me who deeply wanted to share what they believed of God.
So let’s not walk away from it. Let’s be part of the conversation. We have not just an opportunity but a responsibility to interpret and re-interpret what has already been written and to write our own stories and spiritual explorations too, so we can add them to the Jewish experience. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility to shape Jewish thought. It’s ours.
Remember… the story of creation wasn’t written first. It was written last. So, what do you have to say about God?
Please feel free to start the conversation here by leaving your comments. 🙂