When people turn the Torah into something that is too holy, they lose the ability to read it: to distinguish between its high and low points, between its historical content and its wondrous timeless narratives; to see in it a practical guide to human conduct. The prohibitions of a tradition that tries too hard to preserve formative knowledge sometimes create defensive structures behind which the treasures get lost.
Another obstacle to our reading of the Torah is contained in secular culture, which makes human beings the source of authority in the world and no longer permits them to understand a narrative depicting an authority that is higher than the human one. If we assume the liberty and responsibility to read the Torah text on our own and to interpret it by ourselves – if we dare to risk the constriction of human authority – then perhaps we can succeed to read what is written in the Torah.
The world, according to what we know today, was created in a big bang some 13.25 billion years ago. Human beings and apes evolved from a common ancestor that evolved from a creature that emerged from the sea to continue its existence on land. Life began in a single cell that divided into two. The first chapters of Genesis are among humanitys formative narratives not because of the scientific knowledge they contain but rather because of the answer they provide to the question, What is a human being?
At a critical point preceding the actual writing of Genesis, the author rebels against the conventional thinking of the ancients who believed the world has always existed, that reality is a permanent given and that we must learn how to live with that reality (contemporary biological psychiatry is bringing us back to that same line of thinking). The iconoclastic, independent-minded biblical author shatters the shackles of what the ancients believed, what the authors own tribe believed, what people advise regarding the best way to succeed in life. This marks the origin of independent researchers who have the capacity for liberating themselves from the fetters of accepted conventions in their respective fields, for being willing to take the risk that their findings will not be recognized by society, for creating something that is ahead of its time, and for attaining the most prestigious prize of all: truth.
The core of the Genesis narrative is surprisingly similar to what the world of science will discover thousands of years after the writing of the text: The world is creation in process.
The gift bestowed upon human beings, which distinguishes them from the animal world, is this knowledge, which invites them to join the process of the worlds creation: to be the apprentices of the worlds engine; to develop those parts of creation that are vital for human beings nutrition and health, for control of their environment, and for enjoyment of beauty, which alludes to what exists beyond human means of expression.
The story of creation in Genesis reveals love for human beings, who, alone among the members of the animal world, were chosen to know their creator and to be partners in completing the process of their own development.
A mysterious creator gives Adam something from his own concealed image. The first to receive this gift of divine grace and recognize the gifts value, Adam is exempt from the exhausting postmodern effort to find love or to discover a unique mission that could cure him of his worst fear: the fear that his life is meaningless.
When human beings make the choice to conduct themselves as if they are in Gods presence, they rise above themselves – above their homeland, their parents home, their genetics, their impulses, their fears – and attain a certain freedom. The free human being is born.
Humanitys formative insight contains incurable pain. Human beings who are privileged to know their maker will fall in love with, and seek to emulate, him. But they are doomed to forever carry this longing in their heart without ever being able to realize it. The knowledge required for complete dominion over the world and eternal life are Gods sole province: but of the tree of knowledge thou shalt not eat of it (Genesis 2:17).
Contemporary developmental psychology recognizes a universal human conflict between dependence and independence in the childs relationship with his or her parents. At the heart of all human action is the conflict between the desire to belong to a group and the desire to leave that group. This internal conflict is depicted in Genesis, where we witness both dependence on God and the desire to rebel against him.
The story of the worlds creation in Genesis proposes a diagnosis for two recurrent disorders in human culture. Those who dismiss their maker want to become God (and ye shall be as God [Gen. 3:5]), but lose their feeling of being chosen, being special, having a unique mission. Those who forsake the concept of the creative, constantly growing human being live with Gods angels and compete with them; they replace responsible action with manipulative liturgy through which they try to activate God to provide for human needs. Religiously observant people tend to create a God who works for them; some secular individuals seek to turn themselves into God. Both sides lose the Genesis narratives chief protagonist.
This narrative threatens to take from us what human culture grants us: the promise that we can do everything, that we are the center of the universe, that our chief function is to fulfill our desires and be happy, that we are entitled to everything, and that nobody can tell us that we have sinned.
The sin of the first human beings on earth repeats itself throughout history. During periods of rapid technological development, people begin to think that they can close the gap between themselves and God. In the modern age, human beings return to the self-improvement workshop given by the heir of the serpent in the Genesis narrative, where participants are sold techniques and materials that purportedly will enable them to attain control over their lives – in other words, to become God.
The punishment meted out to human beings who believe that, with the technology they possess, their story will be different from that of preceding generations, parallels the one meted out to Adam and Eve: a constant anxiety springing from the knowledge of the failure they are doomed to endure in attempting to become perfect beings, and the depression arising from failure to fulfill the mission they should never have undertaken in the first place. The Torah proposes a type of medication not found today in Israels basket of state-subsidized drugs but which requires collaboration in the quest to rediscover humanitys role.
Dr. Yair Caspi is the director of the Psychology in Judaism Institute in Tel Aviv and author of two Hebrew bestsellers, Inquiring of God, and Challenged.