Thursday, November 29, 2012


                                                    Adam and Eve in Paradise 
                                    by Peter Wenzel (1745-1829)

For thousands of years, people have dreamed of living in the hereafter in a place called Paradise, enjoying a comfortable, easy life. To me that would be the most boring place in the universe. Let me explain.

The idea of “paradise” (an old Persian word that is also found in Hebrew, pardes, meaning “orchard” or “garden”) goes back to the ancient Near Eastern as well as other Mediterranean societies. The Sumerians referred to it as “Dilmun,” the Greeks spoke of “Elysian Fields”; the Hebrew Bible has gan e’den (Garden in/of Eden) and the Arabs mention “Djennet.” According to some ancient Rabbis, in paradise (also referred to as ‘the world to come’) “There is neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of God’s presence” (BT Ber. 17a). The Quran describes Djennet as a place where people enjoy all kinds of delicious food and wines, but also the company of wide eyed-beautifully shaped wives ( Sura 54). 
In medieval times, Dante (14th cent.) and, his Jewish counterpart, Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, came out with different images, all of them based on speculation and wild imagination.
To me paradise, however conceived, sounds like a dull place, with nothing to look forward, where work has no meaning and, no matter what you do, your future is assured. Is this the kind of life we want?

I prefer to live in a world, here on earth, which, though not perfect, is open to possibilities for personal growth, where work gives meaning and purpose to one’s life, where love creates deeper bonds, where the realization of our human limitations and our eventual death provides an incentive to do something good for others. I go with the Psalmist who declared, “The righteous shall inherit the land, and live here in it forever” (Ps. 37: 29). I personally would skip the “forever” part. After I am gone, the energy I represent will, I assume, become part of the energy of the universe, and my name will endure as long as some people remember it. 

The Bible mentions that Adam and Eve lived in gan e’den but were kicked out, because, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, they could now attempt to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God (Gen. 3: 23). Most Christians refer to this story as the “Fall.” Though there were some Jews who did share this belief (see, II Esdras in the Apocrypha), mainline Judaism has viewed this parable, not as a Fall, but as the emergence of conscience, which, for me, is a good thing. I think the biblical story of Paradise is telling us that humans must accept their limitation and mortality, and that with knowledge comes the responsibility of making moral choices. 

So, keep dreaming about paradise, if you wish. As for me, I am happy to live in a real world, here on earth, with all of its imperfections, where I can grow, feel, love, learn, and mature. I admit, however, that a good health and a few bucks would make things much easier.

Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 2012
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Thursday, November 8, 2012


When we read an ancient text, we tend to read it through the eyes of our contemporary culture, but that does a disservice to the original material written under different assumptions. A good example is the famous Creation story in the Bible.

When medieval thinkers discussed the biblical story of creation, they maintained that this had to be “ex nihilo,” namely “[creation] from nothing.” Otherwise, God would have to compete with another divinity that is eternal, negating the belief in monotheism. However, when ancient people thought of creation, they did not worry whether creation had to be “out of nothing,” because that was not the way in which they usually conceived of “creation.” For people in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, creation was more like assigning a function to an already existing matter. In fact, in ancient Egypt, creation was thought of taking place daily! This reminds me of the Midrash that tells us that God went on creating other worlds and destroying them  until God created the one in which we live (Gen. R. 3: 7) as well as the rabbinic prayer that praises God for renewing the works of creation daily: “In Your goodness, You daily renew creation” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 228). 
In the Bible, there are two parallel creation stories: In the first (Gen. 1: 1-2:4a), God creates the world by uttering a word: “God said,’ Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3),” whereas in the second (Gen 2:4b-24), God, working like a potter (yotzer), creates (yatzar) Adam (see, Gen. 2: 8) by giving shape to matter, as if it were, with his hands . The editor/s of these stories did not consider the issue of creation out of nothing. It is only modern translators who, reflecting the medieval debate, rendered the very first verse of Genesis as: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is a wrong translation, as some medieval rabbinic commentators, Rashi included, already pointed out. In Hebrew bereshit is not “In the beginning,” but “in the beginning of” [creation]. Thus, the new Jewish Publication Society correctly translates, “When God began to create heaven and earth..….God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Therefore, the first created item was “light.” This approach seems to be more in line with modern scientific explanations of the “creation” of the universe, the “big bang,” when billions of years ago, a huge molecular cloud collapsed and fell under the influence of gravity; ever since, the universe appears to be expanding.
“Light” --This is what we need in our time: not medieval assumptions or superstitions, but a scholarly and critical study of ancient texts that would give justice to the editors’ intention, whether we agree with them or not.

Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 2012