Don’t Judge THE Book by Its First Page

Sermon delivered October 1, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

My wife swears by her method of choosing a book. In the book store, she doesn’t dwell for too long on the cover. Instead, she reads the first page. Toni says that, if the book captures her attention on page one, she knows that she will enjoy it. She is not guilty of the cliché, “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Instead, she judges it by its first page.

Many people do exactly that with the Bible. Of course, they don’t go into a book store and decide whether to buy the Bible on the basis of what they see on page one. Rather, our American society has treated the first page of Genesis, the Creation story, as a political battle-ground. Political holy war is waged over whether or not candidates profess to believe that God created the world in six days, exactly as described in the Bible. Science, particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution, is said to be true only if the Bible is false. The tragic result is that, in order to win elections, perfectly intelligent, well-educated men and women stand in front of the American public and insist that the scientists have it all wrong.

Human history has been down this road before. For centuries, in Europe, the Church considered the teachings of science to be blasphemy. Scientists were executed for their crime of revealing natural truths to the world. Galileo spent years under house arrest for the crime of teaching the Copernican discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Though today’s Fundamentalists won’t admit it, a literal reading of Genesis 1 places the Earth, not the sun, at the center. The Church deemed the teachings of Copernicus to threaten the very foundation of biblical truth. The advancement of humankind was retarded by decades, if not centuries, because world leaders believed that the Bible and science were in basic contradiction. We may be frightened today by candidates for high office who would consign us to that same medieval view of science and the Bible today.

The opposite position is little better. Countless men and women today, accepting scientific teachings about the origin of the universe, have judged the Bible to be false. Much of the western world has adopted a secularism that has not profited us. We rightly argue that people do not have to be religious in order to be moral, but we must acknowledge that our secular society is no longer tethered to its moral moorings. We are the heirs to a magnificent spiritual heritage. We risk losing our heritage and its blessings if we permit Genesis and all of our sacred writings to be defined by those who would argue that the Bible is to be judged in competition with science.

The problem is that both groups, the Fundamentalists and the secularists, have a basic misunderstanding of Torah, of Genesis, indeed of the entire Bible. Both groups open the Scripture to the first page, and imagine that it is a science or history text book. Fundamentalists, of course, imagine the Bible to be a good text, while secularists declare it to be rubbish. Genesis, though, is a rich text, which should not be reduced to a science or history text book.

We all know what we do with text books when we’re done with them: Perhaps we will resell to another user, but eventually the book becomes outdated or too worn, and it is consigned to the dumpster; or, if we’re really good, the recycling bin. A Bible, on the other hand, or a Torah scroll, is not thrown away. It is buried, with all the respect that ought to be accorded a book that has conveyed holiness to the world. Genesis, indeed all of the Torah, is not a book about how the world came to be, or about what happened in history. Instead, Torah is about why we are here on Earth together; the Bible is a guide-book to human life.

On Wednesday night, we celebrated Simchat Torah. We completed our annual reading of the Torah with the final words of Deuteronomy. Right here in the Sanctuary, we rolled the Torah back to the beginning, to Genesis. Tomorrow morning, Emma will recommence the annual reading for us, as she reads the first words. Tonight, let us meditate on what we may learn from this first portion of the Bible.

God says, “Let us make humanity in our image.” Why the use of the first person plural, “us,” instead of “me?” God is one, of course. Some have argued that God is speaking in the royal “we,” like the Queen of England, “We are not amused.” But God doesn’t speak like that elsewhere in the Bible, so that argument doesn’t hold. Instead, as we look at the passage immediately before the creation of humanity, we see that God creates the animals first. Perhaps when God says, “Let us make humanity in our image,” we are to understand that we humans are made in the image of animals and of God. Physically, of course, we are animals. The great Rabbi Maimonides taught that God’s image doesn’t refer to anything physical. We don’t look like God; indeed, we’re taught to understand that God doesn’t have any kind of physical form whatsoever. Instead, our DNA, the atoms and molecules and cells that make up our bodies unite us with other living things.

If we understand the creation story as a moral lesson, we will derive critical teachings from this verse. Not surprisingly, it’s a lesson that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution also teaches. We learn that all living things are one family. Trees and amoebas and birds and reptiles – and, yes, monkeys, chimpanzees, and apes – are our cousins, however distant. To be sure, Genesis says that we humans are to “rule” other creatures, not to rule them out of existence, not to crush them, but to exercise good leadership to preserve and extend God’s creation. We, then, become God’s partners in creation.

And let us not forget: We are not created solely in the image of animals. Genesis 1 says that God creates us in God’s image; Chapter 2 is more specific: In the biblical imagination, the first human was created from the Earth, and then God provided the breath of life. The Hebrew word for “breath” also means “soul.” We are meant to understand that we have a spiritual life. We are more than merely atoms and molecules and cells.

Later, in Leviticus, Torah tells us that we must strive to be holy, “for I the Lord Your God am holy.” Our first reaction might be, “If God is holy, there’s no way I can be holy. I’m not God!” Emma knows that response is wrong, because her special friend Bobi Stern has taught her since she was born, as she has taught generations of Temple and Synagogue students, that each of us has a little bit of God inside us. Being created in the image of God isn’t a scientific matter to be proven or disproved. Instead, we proclaim that we are made in God’s image to explain our religious obligation.

Toward the end of Genesis 1, God explains that the world is filled with food for humanity and all living things. God has provided food. If we are to actualize the image of God within us, then we must assure that adequate nutrition becomes the birthright of every human being. If we are to be holy as God is holy, then we must feed the hungry.

Later in this week’s portion, Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, and they realize that they are naked. God clothes them, protecting their privacy and sheltering them from the elements. If we are to make real the image of God within us, we must assure that adequate clothing and shelter become the birthright of every human being. If we are to be holy as God is holy, then we must clothe the naked.

And let us acknowledge this religious fact: These stories are not false, and are no less true, whether they actually happened the way they are written in Genesis or not. Science and history are not the measuring stick for understanding the Bible. The lessons taught in Genesis and throughout Torah are true.

This week’s Torah portion is so rich that it also contains the story of Cain and Abel. The narrative tells of two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, who bring offerings to God. For whatever reason, God favors the sacrifice of the younger son, Abel. Cain is so angry that he murders his brother. God confronts Cain, asking the whereabouts of Abel. Famously, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is in dispute. Cain imagines that the answer is “no.” He is not responsible for Abel, so disconnected in fact that he felt empowered to take away his younger brother’s life. God’s answer is the opposite: Cain is responsible for Abel. Cain and Abel represent their entire generation of the human family; they are symbols that stand for us all. We are meant to learn that we are all responsible for one another. Do we care whether these two people, Cain and Abel, actually lived? Does the point of the story, the message we are to receive, require that the events are historically accurate? The Bible goes on to say that Cain is banished from the Garden of Eden; he leaves, and finds his wife. But who is this woman? We haven’t been told that Adam and Eve have a daughter. If they had, would he marry his sister? Should he? Questions like these, which assume a literal reading of the Torah, point to the absurdity of the literalist reading. What does matter? We must understand that we truly are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. We are responsible for the welfare of every other human being, just as Cain should have understood his obligation to Abel.

Yes, too many people judge the Bible by a gross misunderstanding of the first page. They imagine our sacred scripture to be nothing more than a science book, a history text. Some judge Torah favorably on that scale, and imagine it to be authoritative as science or history. Others judge our sacred text to be junk science, and ridicule it.

Let us proclaim to the world: Torah should not be discounted. It is no mere science or history text. Instead, Torah is the greatest book ever written, beginning on its first page and continuing to the last. From Genesis forward, Torah teaches us how to live our human lives on Earth. Torah should not interfere with science; instead, Torah should guide our application of the world’s wisdom. If science lends to the welfare of every living thing, it is good. If science helps us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it is good. If science teaches us to care more successfully for our brothers and sisters, it is good.

Let us study science and history from their own text books. Let us not stymie science as the enemy of religion, as was done in the Middle Ages. Let knowledge fill the Earth. Let us not stymie religion as the enemy of science, as secularists would have it. Let the teachings of Torah make us human. Then, we pray, God will look upon us and proclaim, in the words of Genesis: It is very good.