Thursday, October 27, 2005


Weekly Portion Blogging: Bereshis (Part II)

Just a question (later will be some on Cain and Abel):

I am sure there is already some midrash on this, but why are the days of Creation given ordinal numbers ("second", "third", etc.) but the first day is called "day one" rather than "first day" ("yom echad" rather than "yom rishon")? And why is it "day one", "second day", etc., rather than "the first day", "the second day", etc.?

What is the use of language trying to tell us here?

There actually was a dispute in Mishnaic times about the use of language in the Torah. R. Akiva held a view that today we would describe as "Orthodox" in regards to the divine authorship of the Torah. R. Ishmael held a view we would describe as "Conservative". R. Akiva felt that the Torah were the exact words of God whereas R. Ishmael, while still viewing the Torah as God's law and having authority (why I said "Conservative" rather than, say, "Reform"), saw the text of the Torah as something written down by humans. As such, R. Akiva put great weight on the exact wording of the Torah -- any grammatical oddity, particular word usage, etc., was fodder for speculation. OTOH, R. Ishmael eschewed such speculation as the precise words of the Torah were whatever was the language of the time the Torah developed.

What is interesting is that, even if R. Akiva was "Orthodox" while R. Ishmael was "Conservative", liberal Jews (we Jews are weird ... Conservative Judaism is a kind of liberal Judaism) will often use the reasoning of R. Akiva to try and deduce the actual intent of a law in order to have adequate fences and forgo un-necessary ones, whereas Orthodox Jews might find such Akiva-esque reasoning to be grasping at straws. Consider the issue of homosexuality and Judaism: many liberal Jews use Akiva-esque reasoning based on the peculiar wording of that passage in Leviticus to infer that modern homosexuality is not forbidden, but more traditionalist Jews would follow R. Ishmael, even if they would agree more with the underlying philosophy of R. Akiva, and say that we liberals are twisting the words of Torah to suit our own agenda.

This just goes to show, I reckon, that sometimes one's underlying ontology and epistemology (e.g. whether you believe that the knowledge in Torah is exactly revealed from God) and the consequences of that in terms of one's approach to logic and rhetoric can be at great odds (perhaps someone might care to comment on this tension in the world-view of R. Akiva and how it effected his getting involved with a false messiah and eventually being a martyr). It also goes to show that just because, e.g., a liberal might agree with Alexander Hamilton or a conservative with James Madison, doesn't make Hamilton a liberal nor Madison a conservative. While we can and should learn from the past and respect precident and figure out why people felt the way they did, specific political agendas must change over time in response to changing situations: someone who tries to use 18th century political programmes or economic theories too literally today is being foolish -- did we have limitted liability corporations then? or the full scale of the industrial revolution? There is, though, some basic conception wherein we can say Hamilton was a conservative: we might not be able to express it, but we know it when we see it.

But still: what would R. Akiva say about the use of language in the Creation story? Is it a clue that something more than the literal meaning is going on with the story?

Could it be as simple as: Before the "first day", there were no other days. You can't number something if there is only one of it, but you can quantify it. This also emphasizes that God created time as well as the physical world/universe.
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