Male and Female God Created Them: The Everyday Life of the Creation Myth in Israeli Society

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

“So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Every society for which there are records has its version of a Creation myth. These myths serve as important allegories and help the society tell its own story. They present a microcosm of society, of the way men and women relate to one another, and of the place of humans in the world of nature. It is essential that we understand the values projected in creation myths in order to transform power imbalances.

While Jewish tradition has several Creation stories, I will focus on the ways in which the Creation story in Genesis 2 establishes the patriarchal order of our Jewish history. Plants could not grow because man was not there to till the ground, which is why God created the mist to water the earth, and man to cultivate it. Following the creation of the garden, plants, and rivers, God guides man around the Garden of Eden and instructs him on cultivating and keeping the earth.  God then creates all the animals to help man and save man from being alone. Man sees and names them and finds no help through them.  So, God creates woman from man’s rib. According to this story, man has an essential role in Creation, designated to him by God. The entire plant and animal kingdom is dependent on man, while woman is created to support man’s welfare.

After eating from the Tree of All Knowledge, Adam and Eve become aware of duality (which had been not present before) and man and woman realize they’re different. God and man then come into conflict, as they, too, are different. In that conflict, woman (paired with nature) is the cause of the first sin. Knowledge therefore comes not only out of the realization of good and evil, but also out of the differences between male and female.

This paradigm led to the establishment of a Jewish society in which women could exist and function only in relation to their fathers, husbands, sons, or brothers. The paradigm has also led to the evolution of two separate sets of rules within our halachic systems, excluding women from all religious leadership roles, from major events within the Jewish community, and from the close and intimate disciplines of religious practice that are related to time and season.

This duality echoes another element of the Creation story, which is the connection between women and knowledge. In the story of Creation, the “basic” state of man is one of ignorance. He is commanded to refrain from eating from the fruits of the Tree of All Knowledge (Gen. 2:16–17). The only limitation placed on man is the restriction of knowledge. Woman (being tricked by the snake) tempts man to eat from the fruit, committing the first sin, and shattering his divine-intended ignorance.

In Israeli society today, religious and political rhetoric perpetuate this particularly misogynistic reading of sin, knowledge, and gender roles. Since 1999, there have been repeated demands made by members of the ultra-Orthodox leadership (the fastest growing community in Israel, averaging 6.9 children per family) to segregate men and women in the public sphere in Israel. These demands, following a decade of work by the Israel Religious Action Center, are now, thankfully, being rejected by the Israeli government. Beyond their lobbying, ultra-Orthodoxy’s social structures prevent adults from leaving the closed society through a gender-segregated school system that deprives boys of the educational tools that would enable them to sustain themselves and lead lives outside the ultra-Orthodox world.  Through the political pressure of ultra-Orthodox parties, the Israeli government sponsors such schools that in essence teach only traditional Jewish studies. Since the late 1990s, in order to support their growing society, ultra-Orthodox women have been leading a quiet revolution. They are lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. They are more educated and are earning more money than ever before.

We in Israel therefore find ourselves living with the Creation metaphor as an everyday reality: Man in a primal state, connected to God, and woman holding the forbidden fruit of knowledge, thus threatening the innocence of man. This ongoing reenactment of the Creation story is a major threat to the future of Israel. Twenty-seven percent of Israeli boys in first grade study in a public educational system that ostensibly sentences them to a life of poverty and binds them to the ultra- Orthodox community. As we continue to lead the legal and political struggle to improve the education of ultra-Orthodox boys, we need to both recognize the elements of our tradition that provide support for the current situation, as well as utilize the various traditional responses to support knowledge, education, and gender equality.

Rabbi Noa Sattath is the a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Rabbi Noa Sattath is also the Director of Israel Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement in Israel. She is charged with leading the staff of the organization, developing and implementing social change strategies in the fields of separation of religion and state, women’s rights, and the struggle against racism.