This will be the first in a series of posts about the weekly parashah (Torah portion). This week’s parashah is B’reishit (Genesis 1:1–6:8). This is also an entry in my friend Fr. Shay’s 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog!
After creating the first two human beings, God puts them in the Garden of Eden, and immediately threatens humanity with death if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the reason why isn’t explained until the serpent shows up and explains it: “for God knows that on the day you eat thereof, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowers of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The Hebrew word for “like God”, ke-elohim, could also mean “like [generic] gods”, or “godly”, or perhaps better, “Godly”. Knowledge makes one become Godly; it makes one Divine.
What does it mean to become Divine? Divinity is the power to discern right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. Divinity is the power to create. God speaks the world into creation; humanity gains this power when they become Godly. This is exactly what happens when the man and woman eat from the tree. They self-create, they come into their own as living, fully autonomous beings, capable of making choices, capable of declaring and directing their own creation.
And this makes God afraid: “See, humankind is now like one of us, knowing good and evil; now, lest they put forth their hand and take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.” (3:22). Who are these “us” that God is so afraid of humans emulating? It is the creators, those who engage in the holy, Godly act of making things as they will. The creation is now creating itself.
God addresses this fear by banishing humanity from the Garden, but God can’t reverse the self-knowledge that humans gave themselves. God, the creator, can’t undo his creations’ self-creation. The best God can do is banish, wipe out, start over. God destroys, but God does not un-create.
The creation stories in Genesis use two verbs for creation: bara and yatzar. The latter is a standard verb that means “create” or “fashion”, but the former is special: it is only ever used with God as the subject. The verb bara denotes a special type of creation, where creation described by the verb yatzar uses materials that already exist: contrast “YHWH God formed [va-yitzar] humankind of the dust of the earth” (2:7) with “God created [va-yiv’ra] humankind in God’s image, in the Divine image God created [bara] him, masculine and feminine God created [bara] them” (1:27).
The Torah presents yatzar-creation (yetzirah) as an act of doing, of making, of building. The act of bara-creation (b’riyah) is a linguistic act; true creativity and creation born out of a holy emulation of God. Traditionally, Kabbalistic mysticism sees b’riyah as reserved for God whereas humans are limited to creation by yetzirah. But this is a power that humankind acquires and starts to exercise, and even God cannot stop it. Creation is speech, both for God and for us.
I, a trans woman, certainly existed before I chose to transition. When I chose to transition, it certainly involved physical and medical changes to my body. This is yetzirah creation: formation out of existing material, changing its shape, changing its essence. But that kind of creation was incomplete, and the person that I am now—the “I” that I really mean when I say “I”—was brought into existence because I declared her to exist. I created my name by declaring it; I created my gender through speech and sign. In order to exist, I had to create myself.
And that creation is an ongoing act. It is a holy act, a Godly act. It is the act of b’riyah, creation by a Divine force, requiring nothing more than the act of declaring it so. Both of these creations are what it takes to make a self. Both kinds of creation are necessary in the world.
God speaks the world into creation; I speak myself into creation. Every day I wake up and ask myself: what kind of woman, what kind of Jew, what kind of self do I want to be today? Who will Emily be today? How will I continue to create myself? How will I continue to create my Self?
And there was evening, and there was morning: another day of creation.