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Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation

“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.

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Who Is Wise? One Who Learns From All.

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 to order!

The opening words of the Torah are iconic, and they mark the start of an iconic narrative, namely the Torah’s account of how God created our world. Centuries later, these words continue to carry power and resonate broadly. However, those first six days, presented twice in Genesis, tell of much more than the beginning of day and night, skies and seas, animals of earth and air; they provide us with a touchstone to return to once and again over the course of our lives. When we dare to investigate the intricacies of the Creation text we come to see not only ourselves, but the imperatives with which we live as Jews: to care for the natural universe, to take responsibility for ourselves and those around us, to lift up the Sabbath as a holy day, and to always remember our ever-profound origins.

We might also argue that never before have there been greater misgivings regarding Creation. At a time when considerable skepticism is aimed at religious institutions and tradition at large, the early chapters of Genesis are easily cast aside as antiquated, even irrelevant. And yet, even when placed beside the realities of scientific discovery and evolution, those chapters remind us in the most succinct fashion of precisely what is so ennobling regarding religion and religious life: ritual, poetry, coexistence, tradition, and the underlying belief so many of us carry in a benevolent Creator manifest in our daily lives. It is true that if the Creation story is going to withstand the test of time, it is not only because of its literary prowess and magnitude, but because it consistently renews our commitment to faith itself.

In an age of dire pace and frenzied obsession with technology, holding fast to our beginnings matters greatly, for us and our children. Rather than fixate forever on what’s next, and whose social media status garners greatest attention, Creation has us consider who we are at our most fundamental. They are verses to which we are meant to pay attention.

Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, a new publication from CCAR Press, started as a mere idea three years ago.  It has now become a very exciting reality.  When I proposed a book that would explore the great range of thought around the Torah’s Creation stories, I never imagined the far-reaching scope achieved by the nearly fifty essays.  Indeed, included in this collection are the diverse perspectives of awe-inspiring colleagues and teachers, each of whom have wrestled with Creation in their own right.  The end result is an anthology that captures the layers and complexities of Creation in new and fascinating ways.  At the start of this project I believed, and still believe, that we honor Creation most when we allow ourselves to see it in the most complicated light, rather than rushing to simplified, easy readings.

The book’s contributors challenge many of the common conceptions around Creation. They urge readers to see Creation not only as a story about how God formed our world in six days, but what it means to have faith, what it means to be a Jewish parent, what it means to care for the environment, what it means to protect the most vulnerable among us, what it means to think deeply about gender and sexuality, and what it means to observe Shabbat.

I am proud to align myself with a community that allows for and encourages diversity of thought.  To include authors that span the ideological spectrum within one anthology, sometimes in near total opposition to one another, speaks to the adage from the Mishnah: “Who is wise?  One who learns from all.” Perhaps one of the great victories of this book, therefore, is that it reminds us to learn from those not altogether like ourselves.

Rabbi Benjamin David serves Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, New Jersey.  Rabbi David is also the Editor of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available to order.