Non-Gender Equality at Creation
I very much appreciate the careful and affirming reading of the Genesis creation stories offered in Raanan Eichler’s TABS essay, “Gender Equality at Creation.” He suggests that the story of creating woman after man as his partner was meant to underline the fundamental human problem of loneliness. I would like to suggest another possibility.
The Creation of Adam: A Non-Gendered Being
Before addressing that issue, I wonder whether we need to suppose, along with Eichler and many other scholars, that Genesis 2 posits the creation of Man first. In light of the use ofadam in Gen 1:27 and 5:1-2 as “a human being,” I see no reason to relinquish such a non-gendered meaning for the second creation story.
“Man” and “Woman” as gendered beings only appear in this account after the adam had undergone surgery (“The first splitting of the adam” as a colleague of mine used to quip). Both ish and ishshah in Genesis 2 appear on the scene simultaneously and thus echo the co-creation in Genesis 1. Admittedly, this interpretation, as well as the more traditional one, concerning Man’s creation preceding women’s each creates problems.
The Meaning of עזר כנגדו: The Positive Benefits of the “Other”
The point I do wish to develop concerns Gen 2:18, “It is not good for the adam to be alone; I will make him an ezer kenegdo.” Eichler asks:
From what peril does the Woman in our story rescue the previously helpless Man? From loneliness, which is the first thing in creation – and in the Bible – that is said to be “not good” (Gen 2:18), and which is a serious enough problem to prompt the creation of the entire animal kingdom (vv. 19–20).
Creation of partners need not be reckoned only, or even primarily, in terms of loneliness, although the idea about “the lonely man of faith” as per Soloveitchik is potent and valuable. Perhaps we should also consider other options as well.
Partnership is not necessarily or even primarily a matter of evading loneliness. It is often a response to the recognition that having an “other” is significant if we are to be and flourish—someone who can adequately interact with us, take a stand, and not merely echo our views.
Emmanuel Levinas has highlighted the absolute significance of the other as other. Levinas posits as foundational our relation to the other whose distinctiveness as an other resists assimilation and whose face is a call to justice and responsibility. For Levinas, responding to such a face-to-face encounter defines what it means to be human. By being an “other”kenegdo, able to stand opposite and in relation, the envisioned partner is a helper. Being a counterpoint, and in this manner a call to responsibility and accountability (kenegdo), is what renders the other as “help” (ezer), and not (merely) a person who relieves us of our loneliness.
The Word Ezer is Not Feminine
I am often struck by the fact that God does not appear to consider gender as the basis for such an ezer. The term “help” in Gen 2:18 is in a masculine form. It could be rendered in feminine form in Hebrew as ezrah or ozeret, should a female have been the main goal (and some modern translations in fact convert the terms to feminine forms). But what do God’s words convey with ezer kenegdo?
God Can Also Be Keneged
I find Ps 16:8 helpful/useful in this connection.
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי יְ-הֹוָ֣ה לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד:
I keep Yhwh before me (le-negdi) always.
Here the speaker envisions God standing opposite him, using the same word Genesis uses for man and woman.
Equal Engagement with the Other: The Essence of Partnership
Something of the sort applies to Gen 2:18. Yet, there is a different kind of accountability when one confronts another human being who both shares in the category of humanity but is also not the same, someone who is a fitting “other.” And it is this kind of relation that God seems to want to create when the adam is given an equal partner.
As Levinas has taught us to see, the presence of an other bespeaks of accountability, of an engagement, of response whether in support or critique, elements that so much of the rest of the Torah seeks to inculcate. Standing to face the other, then, has a moral dimension significantly beyond relieving loneliness.
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November 11, 2015
September 5, 2020
Prof. Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, LA. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology and her ordination from HUC-JIR. Eskenazi is co-author of the award-winning JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth and co-editor of the award-winning The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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