In the Beginning There Is the Question
“After [Abraham] was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. By day and night he was thinking and wondering, “How is it possible that this sphere should continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it ... his mind was busily working and reflecting until he attained the way of truth, and apprehended the correct line of thought. He knew that there was one God who guides the celestial sphere and created everything...” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot ʿAvodah Zarah 1:3)
According to Maimonides the catalyst for the discovery of monotheism and its eventual development into the religion of Judaism is a question rooted in a child’s pristine moment of wonder, awe, and reflection. That same wonder inspired by nature is mirrored in the perplexity stimulated by biblical and rabbinic texts. Both world and text are encountered in a web of persistent questioning. The canonical scriptures of Judaism perpetually engage because they perpetually intrigue both by the questions they raise and the questions raised by their protagonists.
Every year, the cluster of holidays concentrated at the beginning of the Jewish calendar climaxes with a celebration of an ending that anticipates a new beginning of annual Torah readings. Suspense is not what holds our attention; as we conclude the Torah, we all know well what happens next. What drives us back into the text again and again are the questions it evokes. New questions constantly arise about the whys, whats, and hows of biblical law, narrative, and poetry, fueling a profoundly interminable engagement with Judaism’s foundational document.Much of Jewish commentary is generated by some perceived textual anomaly, such as a redundancy, contradiction, grammatical quirk, chronological disorder, or narrative illogic. To paraphrase the biblical scholar James Kugel, these are irritant surface irregularities around which the rabbinic interpretive oyster constructs a pearl. This irritating process infuses Judaism with potent theological pearls that often may be strikingly at odds with each other.
The First Word: בראשית
It is uncertain how to read the Torah’s very first word. What is familiar to the vast majority of the English-speaking world as In the beginning God created, is more properly rendered When God began to create. This is no mere grammatical quibble; what hangs in the balance is no less a theological principle than whether the world is created out of nothing, and with it the nature of God’s relationship to the world. The Hebrew syntax of the first verses places a number of inexplicable phenomena already on the scene prior to God’s first creative act: a void, darkness, a deep, and a divine wind that hovers protectively over some primordial water. The creation of light certainly sheds none on the meaning of anything that precedes it. In the beginning there is the question and to begin questioning is to question the very beginning.
The Miqraot Gedolot: A Book of Debates
Questions fuel all Jewish biblical interpretation. The most renowned and revered of rabbinic personalities offer opposing interpretations on issues that are so fundamental they would be expected to have led to theological schism. Yet they live side by side in the standard Miqraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bibles) editions that collectively offer their commentaries.
The First Rashi: “In the Beginning There Is Law”
The debates begin already with Rashi’s inaugural question of why the Torah doesn’t skip all of Genesis as well as a substantial section of the beginning of Exodus, and begin instead with the first law that appears in Exodus 12. His answer demotes the entire creation narrative to a detail that legally rationalizes the later Israelite conquest of Canaan.
בראשית ברא – אמר ר' יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל התורה אלא מהחדש הזה לכם (שמות י"ב:ב) שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית? ...שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, והם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, הוא בראה והוא נתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו.
R. Isaac said The Torah should have commenced with the verse This month is for you (Exod. 12:2) since it is the first mitzvah that was commanded to Israel. Why then does it begin with Genesis…in the event nations accuse Israel of robbery since they conquered the land of the seven nations they can respond that the entire earth belongs to God, He created it and gave it to whoever He saw fit; by His will He gave it to them and by His will He took it away from them and gave it to us
Genesis establishes God’s ownership of the world, the Canaanites are tenants who have not kept the terms of their lease, and therefore God, the landlord, is justified in evicting them. In fact, Rashi’s first comment demotes all of the book of Genesis, making narrative subsidiary to law.
Nahmanides: In the Beginning God Was Created
At the same time, we are confronted by Nahmanides’ mystical stance that considers the account of the creation to contain principles so axiomatic that Jewish faith stands or falls on them. He asserts categorically that,
כי צורך גדול הוא להתחיל התורה בבראשית ברא אלהים, כי הוא שורש האמונה, ושאינו מאמין בזה וחושב שהעולם קדמון, הוא כופר בעיקר ואין לו תורה כלל.
There is a great need to start the Torah with bereshit bara elohim because it is a fundamental principle of faith and anyone who does not believe this and thinks that the world is pre-eternal is a heretic and has no Torah at all.
Concealed also beneath the literal survey of the creation of the material world lies the esoteric story of the creation of the kabbalistically structured God her/himself and so the first three words of Genesis can be transformed into with the beginning elohim was created.
Maimonides: In the Beginning there is Science
Diametrically opposed to both, is Maimonides’ insistence that the external creation account allegorically masks a scientific account that is wholly consistent with the findings of physics. As he states,
[God] caused His book to open with the Account of the Beginning which, as we have made clear, is natural science.
Unified by Torah not Theology
Theological fault lines within Judaism immediately emerge among a triumvirate of thinkers each of whom is considered royalty in the Jewish intellectual tradition. Such radically different positions can all too easily fragment, and indeed have periodically fragmented, the community. Judaism’s theological vista is broad enough to accommodate each of these camps, however, allowing every individual to align herself comfortably with either Rashi’s legal, Nahmanides’ kabbalistic, or Maimonides’ rationalist approach. The particular choice one makes need not carry the risk of alienation from one’s faith community, from other Jews who make different choices.
What should unite Jews then is the text that they all share, and precisely the unrestrained but disciplined questions these sacred texts invite, or better demand, of their careful readers. What all these great thinkers share is a sense of wonder when confronting the text, and the world through the biblical text, a wonder best described by no less a philosopher than Aristotle who considered it the prime mover of serious thought, for,
[I]t is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize, wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising question about the greater matters too, for example, about the origin of the universe.
The First Mishna
The microscopic examination of Judaism’s scriptures forms the bread and butter of its intellectual history since its rabbinic cast crystallized in the first centuries of the Common Era. The earliest rabbinic text of oral law, the Mishnah, begins, not with a verse, a statement, a law, or a theological assertion, but with the question: “When?” (m. Berachot 1:1):
מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבית?
From when may one recite Shema in the evening?
What follows then, and forever after, is not a categorical answer but a record of questions, debate, and opposing schools of thought.
“Where Are You?” The Torah’s First Question
Judaism’s sacred texts however do not simply evoke theoretical questions that relate solely to textual integrity. Text and life merge in a crosscurrent of questions. If probative questioning lies at the very heart of the Jewish approach to God’s word and human conduct then what better model is there for it than His own questions? Though the first divine communication to human beings is a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge, the second is the curious question addressed by God to Adam in response to the violation of that command: Where are you? Yet Adam fails to answer the call (Gen. 3:8-10).
וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶת קוֹל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּגָּן לְרוּחַ הַיּוֹם וַיִּתְחַבֵּא הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ מִפְּנֵי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהִים בְּתוֹךְ עֵץ הַגָּן. וַיִּקְרָא יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָאָדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶּכָּה. וַיֹּאמֶר אֶת קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן וָאִירָא כִּי עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי וָאֵחָבֵא.
They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden in the cool of the day and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called out to the man “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.”
Adam hides and avoids encounter, first shirking his ethical responsibility of meeting the other, in this instance literally facing up to the face of God. And philosophically, he circumvents the question altogether. Given the opportunity to ponder his situation within the world, Adam’s response amounts to a far graver failure than disobedience, for it is the equivalent of hiding, but this time behind words. It consists merely of excuses, most egregiously transferring blame and responsibility to others (Gen 3:12),
הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה עִמָּדִי הִוא נָתְנָה לִּי מִן הָעֵץ וָאֹכֵל.
The woman You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate.
By hiding, but then responding out of hiddenness, the Bible intimates that it is possible to avoid the divine presence, but impossible to escape reflection, to evade the question and still maintain humanness.
This evasion of a question cascades to its ultimate consequence of a profound alienation from the questioner, in this case the supreme Questioner, marked by a doubly emphasized ejection from the Garden. God both sends out (וישלחהו) and expels Adam (ויגרש), the same term used for the irrevocability of a marital divorce. Avoiding a question has far greater consequences than the merely academic. Relationship will also inevitably be ruptured as a result.
“Where is Abel Your Brother?” The Torah’s Second Questions
The next vital questions posed by God to a human being, this time to Cain, includes (Gen 4:9):
אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ?
Where is Abel your brother?
Avoiding a question and evading responsibility for oneself can all too easily lead to evading responsibility for others, as Cain’s answer suggests (Gen 4:9):
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי?
I do not know; Am I my brother's keeper?
To be oblivious to others, as the first part of the response indicates, is the result of the rejection of caring for others rhetorically expressed by the second. God’s question focuses on brother and Cain’s response denies brotherhood, an ethical posture that renders fratricide legitimate. Care for the other is the only barrier to harming or exploiting the other. When Cain therefore disavows his responsibility, God immediately knows of Abel’s murder because it is the inevitable outcome of Cain’s avowed indifference. So God rebounds his own rhetorical question, the next question in the Torah (Gen 4:10):
What have you done?
The Continuous Loop of Torah Reading
The continuum of Torah readings also leaves us with a Torah that has no formal ending or beginning because, in its perpetual yearly loop, the last passage in Deuteronomy can be thought of as preceding the first in Genesis. Deuteronomy ends with a characterization of Moses’ formidable powers as a public spectacle viewed by a mass audience: “all the great might and awesome power” (וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל; Deut 34:12). Moses’ miraculous success against the Egyptian oppressors was witnessed by the entire people, played out, as the final three Hebrew words of the Torah attest, in front of the eyes of all of Israel (לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל; Deut 34:12).
The very next reading on Simchat Torah is the mysterious prologue to creation, plunging us into a time, or timelessness, where there are no eye witnesses, only those incomprehensible phenomena of Genesis 1:1-2 that lie beyond tangible human experience. But what is implied by this juxtaposition of ending and beginning?
Mimicking the Human Process of Discovery
The answer resides in understanding the very art of questioning. Torah study mimics the human process of discovery and invention, prodding us in a sense to follow a scientific method, which is instigated by questions. Human beings can venture into the unseen and the mysterious only once they have grasped the empirically obvious, what is manifest and readily available, inducing an investigation that probes deeper into what is not all that apparent. The Torah’s transition from ending to beginning follows Aristotle’s path of wonder noted previously, “wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising question about the greater matters too.”
Moses’ “awesome power” was there for all to see. Yet it could have been mistakenly attributed to Moses’ own magical powers over nature. Its miraculous dimension, its metaphysical link to a transcendent power, however, can only be discerned once that power beyond nature is acknowledged as the force behind natureThat is why, of all the details it could have provided, the ending also accentuates the hiddenness of Moses’ gravesite, for “no one knows his burial place to this day” (וְלֹא יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת קְבֻרָתוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה; Deut 34:6). The questions regarding Moses’ uniqueness would lead literally and figuratively to a dead end if they aimed solely toward the physical concern with the bodily remains that the grave preserves. As if the pathology alone of Einstein’s famously stolen brain could have provided the key to his genius!
Moses’ extraordinary leadership emphasized at the end of the Torah raises questions whose answers lie in a realm beyond mere politics and culture. Those questions lead in the direction of the beginning of the Torah, of origins and the creation, of what transforms life into something more than biology and sociology, of the divine breath that animated the inert material out of which humanity was fashioned.
Moses Succeeds where Adam Failed
But there is much more in the proximity between the end and the beginning. The end also uniquely qualifies the intimacy of Moses’ relationship with God as “face to face” (פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים; Deut 34:10). The Torah thus culminates in the rehabilitation of a relationship between God and humanity that was damaged in the beginning. Maimonides understands Adam’s expulsion from Eden as a consequence of his turning his face away from what should have been the true objective of his life. His questions no longer aimed at discovering what is true in the world, and since God is the ultimate truth in the world Adam’s face veered away from God’s. The end therefore arrives full circle in reorienting the divine and human faces toward, rather than away, from each other.
Moses’ own original encounter with God might explain why he succeeds where Adam failed. He asked the questions Adam refused to ponder. His first question at the burning bush, “Who am I?” (מִי אָנֹכִי; Exod 3:11), is the primary step on the way to determining one’s purpose in life. It is the question Adam evaded when prompted to ask it by God’s own question Where are you? Without an understanding of the self, extending beyond the self towards others is impossible.
Moses doesn’t stop there, but continues posing a second question necessary for establishing relationship, asking for God’s name, for a disclosure of the other’s identity (Exod 3:13):
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.
When I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask, me, "What is His name?" what shall I say to them?
In this case God’s seemingly tautological response of “I will be who I will be” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; Exod 3:14) ensures that the questioning will never cease, for God is a being who is ever in flux with no fixed identity. God never is, but perpetually becomes, and so human beings must perpetually ask the questions to maintain a constantly evolving relationship with an elusive transcendent: Who am I and who are You?
— PostScript —
The Last Simchat Torah in the Warsaw Ghetto
In keeping with Jewish tradition, which calls for a solemn interruptive moment in every celebration to memorialize its tragic past, like the proverbial breaking of a glass at a wedding, I end by offering my own literary shattering of glass. I recall another Simchat Torah that leaves only unanswerable questions.
Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, transcribed sermons he delivered in the Ghetto between the fall of 1939 and the summer of 1942. Buried, fortuitously retrieved, and published as The Holy Fire (Esh Kodesh) after the end of World War II, it is a rare, wholly unique, and vital testament to an existential struggle to wrest spiritual meaning out of suffering of such magnitude as to defy all theological reason. On the Sabbath of October 18, 1941, that year’s beginning Sabbath following Simchat Torah, he spoke on the transition from the Torah’s ending to its beginning.
Rabbi Shapira, the Moses of the Ghetto, surely lived a life of intimacy with God that was as close as one could imagine to the face to face experienced by the biblical Moses. Yet that divine face had become hopelessly obscured by two years of unimaginable loss and suffering. Faced with the very real prospect of no more beginnings for him, his Hasidim, and his nation, he was no longer willing to bury his questions underneath the utopian expectation of some benefit God might have in store at the end of history. No longer could this make sense of the unprecedented suffering he and his people experienced, and no longer could the Rebbe resign himself to this age-old worn theology.
Those questions compelled the Rebbe who lived and breathed the sacred text to knit that ending and beginning into a seamless anguished demand which could no longer tolerate such extreme suffering as punishment or some hidden divine compassion that might materialize in a distant future. The end and beginning now scream out as one continuous sentence:
הנה נודע שהתורה נעוץ סופה בתחילתה ותחילתה בסופה…לכן פעל משה לכל האותות והמופתים וכו׳ ולכל היד ההזקה אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל בראשית¨ שגם בראשית ומתחילה ומיד יהי׳ חסד לעיני כל ישראל.
It is known that the Torah’s ending is anchored in its beginning and its beginning in its ending… therefore Moses orchestrated all the signs and portents…and the great might that Moses displayed before all of Israel in the beginning, that right at the beginning, at the very start, and immediately there should be compassion displayed before all of Israel.
Salvation must become public, revealed, and accomplished immediately, at beginnings and not at endings. Otherwise, nothing could preempt the looming ending of a year that anticipated no further new beginning.
The Rebbe, in his sacred language where endings blur into beginnings, echoed Ivan Karamazov’s willingness to surrender his eternal reward for the sake of preventing the suffering of a single innocent child,
[A]nd so I decline the offer of eternal harmony altogether. It is not worth one single small tear of even one tortured little child....
This was part of the Rebbe’s last cycle of sermons, ending abruptly with the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av of 1942, the day commemorating the destruction of both temples. That day is known as the Shabbat of the vision (chazon), named after the first word of the haftarah reading which is introduced with the phrase a vision (chazon) of Isaiah. However the scope of that particular Shabbat’s vision, of the Rebbe’s own vision, did not extend to new beginnings. Instead it consisted of a panorama of final endings, for the day coincided precisely with another beginning of only endings—the deportations of the ghetto’s residents to the killing grounds of Treblinka.
Shortly afterward, the Rebbe and virtually all of the ghetto’s occupants were murdered. His sermons thus no longer anticipated new beginnings. The question that all his sermons combined articulated was a Where are you. Yet this time the question addressed God and it is God who evaded the question and remained deaf to His own word as relayed to Him by the Rebbe. The question remains for all time. But for any relationship with the Transcendent to persist, even in its irreparable brokenness, it must forever be asked.
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October 21, 2016
June 6, 2020
Prof. James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and Medieival Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto, and an LL.M. from New York University’s Law School. He is the author of Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider and, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.
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