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Genesis Back to the Garden, and Forward

By Rabbi Arthur Green

The holiday season has come and gone. Moses has ascended Mount Nebo, looked across the Jordan and suddenly the world is created all over again.

Here we are, back at Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning.” Our Torah begins with God’s creation of the world. This stands as the basis of our Judaism, as it does of all religion, which emerges out of gratitude for our existence. We acknowledge a God who, in the words of our prayer book, “renews every day the work of creation.”

This faith in Creation does not mean that we need to take the Genesis account literally. You may believe that our planet is 5776 or 18 billion years old. You may understand God as a transcendent Creator, existing before and beyond the universe, or as a force present within all of being itself, ever renewing the gift of life. You may believe in supernatural events, or you may see nature itself as the greatest of all miracles, itself attesting to the handiwork of God.

The point is that existence, including our own, contains a mysterious and sacred truth, one that is touched by a divine presence. Our task as human beings is to discover that presence and to hear its subtle voice addressing us. That voice calls out to us from within all that is. Today, it calls upon us to act for the very survival of that magnificent Creation of which we are a part.

To partake in this universal effort, we Jews need to recommit ourselves to a faith in God’s Creation, defined in the broadest way. We should express it in a stronger commitment to Shabbat as our weekly witnessing of Creation, embracing Shabbat as a celebration of existence and a time of raising our awareness of God’s presence throughout the created world, attesting to the need to treat all of nature and its resources with care and reverence. This renewed Shabbat should engage us in working to preserve Creation during the week as well, taking on roles of leadership in all the many efforts to  conserve and protect the environment in both the private and public spheres.

Shabbat is not an end in itself, but a reminder that our very existence as a “kingdom of priests and holy people” is testimony that we live in a created world, a dwelling-place for the Divine Presence.

A vital Judaism must speak to the most critical issue confronting humanity: the survival of our planet as a fit habitat for human and other higher forms of life. Certainly, we believe that religion must serve as a voice for more humane treatment of each other, for justice, quality and other virtues of our prophetic tradition. But the most urgent task of religion in the 21st century is helping us to change our relationship with the natural world of which we are a part. Without such a change, an essential shift from a position of rapacious consumer of resources to that of responsible steward, we will simply not survive.

All of the religions of humanity will need to be marshaled to a great act of consciousness transformation. We will need to draw upon deep and universal resources of faith to make this change come from the ground up. We will also need to find the strength in our traditions to stand up to the vast economic interests seeking to deny the seriousness of our environmental plight. Some religious leaders, including both the pope and the Dalai Lama, have taken important steps in this direction.

As an act of consciousness-raising in the Jewish community, we at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School call upon all Jews to join us in renewing an ancient practice, that of reciting the biblical text for the day of Creation (or ma’amad), each day of the week. Each Sunday, we are concluding our morning prayers by reciting, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth…”; on Monday, “God said: Let there be a firmament…” and so forth through the week, concluding with “Heaven and earth were completed…” as we raise our cups to sanctify Shabbat on Friday night.

This practice was originally observed by those Israelites whose priestly neighbors were taking their weekly turn at serving in the Temple. As the priests offered sacrifices that they believed sustained the cosmos, the people of their town stood up and called out the days of Creation, joining them in their holy service. Our intent in renewing this daily practice now is a clarion call to proclaim that protecting the environment is indeed a Jewish issue, one that stands at the very heart of our universal faith.

We call upon Jews who pray daily, whatever their denomination or style of prayer, to join with us in this chorus of affirmation of the world as divine creation and commitment to its loving protection. We invite Jews who do not (yet) engage in daily prayer to recite these verses, along with the Shema, as the beginning of a daily spiritual practice. (The text to be recited each day, along with a brief “kavvanah,” or focus for prayer, is available for easy downloading and printing at the Hebrew College website. Over the next several months, we will publish seven brief papers on topics for contemplation and renewed commitment, parallel to each of the seven days of Creation.) We also invite those of other faith traditions, and none, to join us in this recitation, underscoring our shared commitment to protecting God’s creation.

The quality of life that we leave for future generations, indeed the very survival of the human species, is a matter than concerns us all. Religion has a key role to play in the transformation of human attitudes that will be required of us. We will need to think anew about ourselves and the meaning of our existence on this Earth. That is the true subject of religion, and all of the great religions of the world need to turn themselves toward that task.

But there is another, more particular, reason why the future of our relationship to the planet is a specifically Jewish concern. Our modern world is now defined by a shared scientific approach to the history of our planet and all its life forms; evolutionary theory, astrophysics and geology give us what is in effect a new account of how our world came to be, a new “Creation” story. But the old Creation story, that of Genesis 1 (however we understand it), was one of the great Jewish contributions to world civilization.

That story is no longer ours alone; it is known throughout the world. It has taught us some of our greatest values, including God’s love for each creature, the dignity of every human as God’s image and the importance of rest and holiness. We need to help carry these truths forward  into the current account of human origins and the basis of the Earth’s existence. It too needs to become a sacred story, one that reflects our sense of awe and wonder before the Divine Presence that we still know to inhabit this world.

As we take an active role in the movement for environmental recovery, we will bear with us those values that we consider essential to the new picture of human life on earth that must emerge in this precarious period in human history. We call upon ourselves and our communities to stand for a future in which our vision of the world as a divinely planted garden will not be lost.

Rabbi Arthur Green is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy of Religion at Hebrew College, where he also serves as rector of the Rabbinical School.

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