“Creation has us consider who we are at our most fundamental.” These words, in Rabbi Benjamin David’s introduction to his anthology, Seven Days, Many Voices, sets the stage for a book which is about fundamentals, but not at all fundamentalist.
As reflected in the title, this anthology sets out to include a variety of voices interpreting the seven days of creation, as recounted in the book of Genesis. Most, but not all, of these voices come from a Reform Jewish perspective; similarly, most, but not all, are written by clergy. There are a total of forty-two essays (perhaps a nod to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?), comprised of six essays in each of seven sections.
In keeping with David’s modern and liberal approach, the book is no enemy of science. In fact, it includes in its pages strong arguments for reading the seven days of creation, as recounted in Genesis, using a scientific lens. This is not revolutionary, but it is done here with depth. Consider, for instance, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman’s essay on using scientific metaphors in theology, referring to the One God of the Shema as “Adonai the Singularity” (p.35), or Loui Dobin’s piece on the physics of Jewish time.
A number of essays in this anthology have stand-alone value. I was particularly struck by Rabbi Jill Maderer’s essay on the meaning of celebrating festivals at their designated times (rather than when it is convenient). Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb contributes a comprehensive article on the principle of bal tashchit (not wasting) – replete with “fanciful divine diary entries” giving insight into God’s reflections on the very busy third day of creation (p.114f); similarly, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz gives a Jewish perspective on the rights of animals. Cantor Ellen Dreskin adds an important perspective in her piece on music and time, which speaks of “the crumbs of the melodies of our lives” in a way that is evocative of a Yizkor reflection (p.181).
Two essays also stand out for their intellectual originality and sophistication. One is Rabbi Oren Hayon’s essay suggesting that creation is “the first phase of God’s project of establishing justice on earth” (p.4), in which he compares the wind over the waters in Genesis to God splitting the sea in Exodus. Another is Dr. Alyssa Gray’s argument that the Mishnah, like the biblical creation, is an acknowledgment of an existential rupture – but that, unlike in Genesis, the rabbinic re-creation after the destruction of the Temple is the product of human hands.
Most impressive is the overall range of perspectives. The section on the second day of creation, for example, contains a pilot’s perspective on the division between heaven and earth (Rabbi Aaron Panken); the metaphor of God as homemaker, constraining chaos with order (Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman); reflections on prayers in the swimming pool (Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon); meditations on star-gazing, in the desert and at summer camp (Rabbi Scott Nagel); an argument for water conservation (Rabbi Kevin Kleinman); and a description of the sacred potential of mikvah (Shaina Herring and Rabbi Sara Luria). Also notable is the range of essays on the seventh day of creation. As a congregational rabbi, I was especially moved by Rabbi Benjamin David’s piece on Shabbat and parenting, and Rabbi Richard Address’ reflections on Shabbat and aging. Rabbi Address’ question stays with the reader, interweaving the existence of the world with the existence of the self: “This is the great religious concern: How do I bring meaning to the time that I have?” (p.292).
There is some repetition between the essays, which is a challenge inherent in this kind of collection. Environmentalism, as one would expect, makes frequent appearances. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is cited numerous times, leaving Pope Francis as a distant (but still noteworthy) second. One wonders whether the authors could have reached for a greater theological range; it is perhaps surprising that Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s covenant theology does not make more of an appearance (with the notable exception of Rabbi Jack Paskoff’s essay on the meta-ethics of Shabbat); feminist theologians are likewise lacking, though there is a good mix of genders among contributors.
I would have loved to have seen the inclusion of poetic interpretation – as we find in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary – to add an extra layer of meaning. However, the anthology as it stands provides a rich resource for individuals and study groups alike. Rabbi David speaks in his introduction of approaching his topic with great curiosity. Perhaps its greatest virtue is to leave the reader newly curious about one of our oldest stories.
Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil. serves Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal.
Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation is now available to order from CCAR Press.