One of the lasting readings of the the Creation story in recent decades comes from the philosophical work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav). In Lonely Man, the Rav distinguishes between the story as outlined in chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. Human beings in chapter 1 are created male and female, and given the charge of mastering the earth and ruling it. This version clearly puts humans at the apex of the creation narrative–the culmination of six days of labor, after which God can look on everything God has made and proclaim it “very good.”

In chapter 2, by contrast, human beings are created alongside the rest of the world, placed in a garden, with the simple charge of tending it. Adam is created alone, not male and female simultaneously, and God first seeks a fitting helper for him from among the other animals. Only when that option is exhausted does God take a rib from Adam to create Eve.

These two stories provide the basis for the Rav’s distinguishing between Adam I and Adam II: Adam I, the scientific man, stands over against nature, Adam II, the natural man, is part of it; the world of Adam I finds equality between men and wome,  the world of Adam II explains gender politics; etc.

This observation of the Rav’s is among his most well-known teachings, probably because it resonates so well with the modern experience, of being simultaneously part of the world and apart from it.

Yet there is an important second step, often overlooked, to the Rav’s insight. The Adam I/Adam II distinction can easily become an issue of identity–trying to describe the human condition, or what human beings are. Much of philosophy has been caught up in that discussion for decades or centuries. And yet, in a seminar this quarter on secularism and religion, I find myself growing tired of the conversation–we can never adequately explain what human beings are. It’s intersting alright, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to improving anything. While the Rav certainly emphasized what human beings do as much as what they are, this part of his insight is too frequently forgotten.

In his books of the last decade or so, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has sought to move the conversation away from what human beings are to what human beings do. His 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, is a landmark in this regard. Sacks has been preoccupied for years with the questions that philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor have asked–how can we understand the place of religion and unique cultures within a globalized world? Sacks’s contribution is to think about societies as things that all of us contribute to, instead of something that all of us take from.

His model for this is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was built with the contributions of “all whose heart moved” him or her. “A nation,” Sacks writes, “is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of the Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle,” Sacks concludes, “God was in effect saying: To turn a group of people into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

We have just concluded the holiday of Sukkot, which concludes the holiday cycle begun with Passover and continuing through Shavuot. Those two holidays celebrate freedom from oppression and the establishment of law, the creation of the covenant. Sukkot is the final achievement: the creation of society through buliding, taking the contributions of the world itself to make something together. The Sukkah is our contemporary Mishkan.

At the same time, we experience this reality through the weekly cycle of work and rest, chol and Shabbat. The Rabbis of course understood that the work of building the Mishkan was the human counterpart to God’s creation of the world. The work we do not do on Shabbat is defined by the work done to create the Mishkan–and therefore this is precisely the holy work, the purposeful work, the melechet machshevet, we do during the week. The emphasis is on the doing, on the creating, on the acting–it is not simply on cogitating about being.

One of my former (and continuing) students, Jessica Fain, who is currently studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, wrote me a profound and wonderful line this morning in her pre-Shabbat reflection: “Rather than saying God is good, say good is Godly.  We should be looking for the Godliness in action.” Doing, creating, is how we walk in God’s ways.

Shabbat shalom.

Advertisements