“In the beginning, G-d Created the Heavens and the earth.” [1:1]
Right? Wrong! “In the beginning of G-d’s Creation of Heaven and earth; the earth was in an unformed state (Tohu Vavohu)…” See Rashi.
In a recent discussion on the Internet, this change of language led to quite a bit of confusion. Someone asked essentially the following question: since according to Rashi the account of Creation begins after the earth was already “Tohu Vavohu,” does this mean that Rashi believed that G-d did not create “Tohu Vavohu?”
Of course not (“Heaven forbid!”). From Rashi, the Ramban [Nachmanides], and Ibn Ezra, we see that only the Torah – quite deliberately – does not provide a full chronological history of the very beginning of Creation. The Sifsei Chachamim explains [note Kaf] that the Torah “wishes to explain only what came into existence following the creation of Heaven and Earth…” But Heaven and Earth were created, even from null to “Tohu Vavohu” – the Greek idea of matter existing before G-d created it is simply never entertained.
This leads us to a larger issue. In our classes, we study works by many traditional scholars, and deliver Divrei Torah on the parsha using a variety of traditional sources. Behind the diverse opinions and outlooks, it becomes obvious that these scholars share a common thread of underlying beliefs. The truth is that traditional Jewish philosophy has a strikingly clear set of parameters, an awareness of which can help those who want to study further on their own.
While it is true that the Talmud is filled with one debate after another, it is also true that the debates only occur within these firm guidelines. The concept of a G-d who created the universe from scratch is part of that core. The Ramban says: “Isn’t there a great need to begin with Creation? Because this is the root of our beliefs, and one who does not believe this, and believes that the universe existed for all eternity, denies the fundamentals and has no Torah… but the answer is that the work of Creation involves deep concepts which cannot be understood from the verses…” Thus he explains why the Medrash asserts that the Torah could have really started later on (save for certain other reasons, see there), says something perfectly in accordance with modern science (“There was a Big Bang. We don’t know why or how.”), and also underlines this fundamental concept. The Rambam [Maimonides] begins his Mishnah Torah, his compendium of Jewish law, by saying that “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there exists a ‘First Being,’ and He brings into existence all that exists [lit. all that is found]; and all that exists, from heaven to earth and all in between, does not exist except through the steadfastness of He who makes it exist.” [Mada 1:1] He offers much the same words as the first of his 13 Fundamental principles of Jewish belief, as detailed in his commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin Chapter 10.
Against the backdrop of such definite statements, it is almost inconceivable that any traditional scholar (such as Rashi) could argue against Creation Ex Nihilo!
The scholars of the Talmud and beyond certainly knew that alternative philosophies existed – one merely need read of the encounters with Greeks and Romans, the Moreh Nevuchim, and the Kuzari. Certainly, a system designed to promote asking the most penetrating, challenging, and thoughtful questions cannot simply set up blinders to prevent thinking about fundamental issues. Nonetheless, none of these encounters and debates made their way into the Halachic literature (save into the laws of idolatry!) because at the end of the day, these perspectives are totally foreign to that which our tradition claims to have acquired at Mt. Sinai.
To take the most obvious example: is it possible for a Talmudic scholar, who questions everything, to fail to examine the very existence of G-d? No. Several years ago, I heard a leading sage in Jerusalem require a group of students to examine the existence of G-d in their own minds until they came up with no fewer than five satisfactory proofs that G-d exists. And yet, of course, this is hardly a subject of debate – the Rabbis clearly felt that they had the proofs.
For anyone interested in a serious study of these underlying concepts, I would recommend the Rambam’s 13 principles. They are available in print (translated and explained in several languages), on the Internet, and – we hope to provide them shortly on our site, with explanations and elaboration as necessary. We hope that a description of these “parameters of Jewish tradition” will help readers to better understand traditional perspectives and sources.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.