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. 


The Animal Kingdom

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. 

In all of Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein—the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the egg—is the most seemingly eccentric and confusing. To the enterprising mind, however, this supposedly ethical dilemma of shiluach hakein underlies the divine enterprise that the Creation story presents to humanity.

On that point, the fifth day of Creation presents the Jewish people with an overarching moral quandary. As we will discern, the universe would not be complete without the diversity of the fauna that roams upon the lands. The totality of Torah articulates a myriad of responsibilities that humans have for animals. These responsibilities are intertwined with opportunities for the cultivation of Jewish values. Perhaps the premier mechanism to cultivate reverence for the wondrous multiplicity of Creation is to avoid eating God’s creatures altogether.

Indeed, vegetarianism/veganism—and Jewish awareness toward the overarching umbrella of animal welfare—is the most dynamic and growing trend in the American Jewish community and has been for the past few decades. Yet, the biblical text presents us with a conundrum. In the latter part of the Creation story, humans are told they “shall hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This seems to be in contradiction to the human obligation to emulate God’s ways and be “good to all” (Psalm 145:9). How could the consumption of God’s creatures be commensurate with the duty to uphold mercy?

The biblical history of animal consumption experienced three distinct eras. In the Garden of Eden humans did not consume animals. After the Great Deluge[1] and construction of the ark, God perceived the violent nature of humans and thus permitted meat consumption as a concession so they would channel their violent nature to kill animals instead of people. Finally, we come to learn that after meat was only permitted as a sacrifice to God, it later became permitted as a more regular staple of diets outside of sacrificial worship. These three eras mark the progression of an admittedly supernal ideal and evolution of a certain religious pragmatism. Are we now in a fourth era, and in the position to consider the well-being and rights of animals as comparable to the basic rights that humans are privileged to hold?

Following this reasoning, a midrash explains that Moses was chosen as the leader and prophet for the Jewish people because of his consideration for animals.[2] It is not only the prophets and kings of Israel who are so often portrayed as compassionate shepherds; this is also a popular way of personifying God: “The Eternal is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). This value is also reflected in one of the best-known instances of animal protection in the Talmud: That we may not eat until we have fed our animals (BT B’rachot 40a).

The Torah states, “When…you say: ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deuteronomy 12:20). A commentary in the Talmud goes even further, interpreting the verse from Deuteronomy to mean that “a person should not eat meat unless they have a special craving for it” (BT Chulin 84a).

Throughout the millennia, Jews have yearned to return to the Garden of Eden. The Creation story is not the story of the Jews, but of every creature that God found worthy to exist. By being compassionate to animals, we not only fulfill the mandate of the Torah, but we regain our humanity. In fact, the great sages of the Talmud consider mercy and compassion to be essential characteristics of being Jewish (BT Beitzah 32b). Choosing not to eat meat for ethical reasons has the power to imprint the values of mercy and compassion deep within our souls. From the lowliest microbe to the most complex being, all gain life from the same holy source.

When we arrive at the insight that the world was not created for us alone[3]—that the mother bird and her egg are precious to God— and that we are not entitled to consume whatever we wish, we reach a powerful Torah ideal, one that may be the most spiritual ideal of all. We share this beautiful world with a remarkable diversity of life. We are only one aspect of this biosphere.  And when we respect it for what it is, we venerate that which brought it forth from the far reaches of time and space.

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

Rabbi Yanklowitz is also the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

[1] Also known as the Flood, seen later in Genesis 6–9.

[2] Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2.

[3] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:13.



The Second Day: A Pilot’s Perspective

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. 

The second day of Creation supplies the world with a new device never seen before: an “expanse” that separates two domains, the heavens and the waters, from one another. The original Hebrew rakia, “something that is beaten or stamped out,” is like a sheet of metal an artisan has flattened into a thin layer to divide one area from another. Portrayed here as decidedly solid, later in Genesis (7:11 and 8:2), we learn that rain can descend from the heavens through windows or sluices, offering the fascinating possibility of trans-expanse communication: water could come down, and in certain very rare instances, people could go up.

In the early days of postbiblical literature, the idea of human beings ascending to heaven to access hidden secrets was all the rage. Enoch, Elijah, Moses, and just a few other characters were granted such supernal experiences, succeeding in their desire to gain divine knowledge in a way that even the subsequent mythical Prometheus would have envied. As a rabbi and student of ancient texts, and a pilot, I admit to feeling a deep connection to these ancient ascent stories.  We moderns, who leap routinely heavenward in complex tubes of beaten metal with sophisticated machinery unimaginable to the premodern mind, are often pretty blasé about what it takes to leave the earth’s surface, climb a mile into thin air, and land a thousand miles distant.

Focus, for a moment, on the intense harmony that must be achieved by the unstintingly complex mechanism that is an aircraft; the balance between going above and returning to below. In the complexity of flight lies another expanse we must cross: the expanse of reaching for expertise. Bringing oneself squarely up against a challenging task one learns to perform is a vital part of being fully human. Flying is but one of these sorts of tasks. The truth is we become fully human when we commit our entire selves to something that is hard and worth doing, when we know our limits, and when we take pride in what we achieve.

One lesser known form of aviation is soaring, also known as gliding. In soaring, a powered aircraft tows you up from a grass runway to a few thousand feet over the airport, whereupon the engineless glider and pilot sail free to employ the air around them to remain aloft as long as possible. The harmony that results from diverse parts that function together suggests a oneness to the universe that is both human and beyond humanity, existing both below the expanse and above it at the same time. As a glider pilot, I have personally circled in rising columns of air with families of hawks, climbed over ten thousand feet in just a few minutes in strong thermal lift, and remained aloft for hours traveling miles and miles powered only by the air. To be able to understand clouds and wind, lift and sink, terrain and airflow well enough to do this makes me feel as if I have access to secret knowledge; as if I have, like an ancient, gone on an ascent to the heavens and returned with secrets that surpass regular humanity. Once one has soared, one can never quite look at clouds and the sky in the same way again. Each glance at sky above fills me with a deep and abiding sense of gratitude that God has created a world in which this is possible for mortal human beings.

For the remarkable ability to fly, with all its beautiful complexity, and for entrée to the secret knowledge of an aviator in the heavens above, I am profoundly thankful. The Creation story in Genesis reminds us, at its core, that God’s handiwork is a gift God shared with us, which implies a duty of care and an invitation to investigate. Safe inside beaten metal thousands of feet above our normal dwelling place, we effortlessly cross expanses unimaginable to our ancestors, learning and growing as we go. This gift of ascent within God’s Creation, whether literal or figurative, is one we can never fully repay.

Rabbi Aaron Panken is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.  Rabbi Panken is also President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute (HUC-JIR), North America’s first Jewish seminary, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York.