Genesis (En)Gendered: An Angelic View from Eden’s Way
This momentous #metoo #ibelieveyou moment urges us to see old stories with new eyes. Reading sacred texts with ever renewing eyes is one of many ways that theology teaches us how to see and think – to reach beyond ourselves, to not become calcified and thus brittle, to strengthen our capacity to hold multiplicity and nuance without falling into hopeless relativism or nihilism.
Let’s start at the very beginning (“a very good place to start“). What might this moment of societal gender and sexual reckoning mean for how we read Torah’s sacred story of Creation, ostensibly the most familiar narrative in the Jewish canon?
That we can ask this question about Torah’s most familiar narrative itself says something important – and something hopeful – about the theological project of renewing our eyes and expanding what we see and how we see. (Pirkei Avot 5:22) famously calls us into a constantly renewing relationship with Torah: “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it” (hafokh bah v’hafokh bah d’khola vah). If we should keep turning any part of Torah to find more within, then kal va-khomer (all the more) for Torah narratives that seem most familiar in the spiritual landscape.
Hence our turn to the Beginning’s seemingly familiar story of how all things began – including human gender. Genesis records that all humanity, created in forms both male and female, descends from the divine tzelem (image) (Gen. 1:26-27). If every human form reflects a holy image, then this moment of societal gender and sexual reckoning is as much a spiritual moment as a political one. A human blindness that fails to regard every human image as holy is the spiritual foundation of the many forms of abuse, repression and inequality today refracting through prisms of gender and sex.
But we can see differently.
We can re-vision the Havah (Eve) of Eden, whom history rendered as errantly disobedient, into a heroine. In Re-Reading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter (2014), Women of the Wall‘s Rabbi Bonna Haberman z”l wrote that Havah’s defiance courageously birthed human consciousness, as an omniscient and omnipotent Creator must have intended. Anyone who’s ever interacted with teenagers knows that sometimes claiming agency and defying authority are how we learn and become.
We can re-vision Eden’s gender roles. While one reading of Torah is that God punishes Havah by telling her V’hu yimshol-bakh – typically rendered as “and he [Adam] will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16-17), eyes of the #metoo era might read these same words as: “and he will rule within you.” This reading evokes an inner voice that many women hear within, echoing with gender inferiority and control that vitiates agency. Rather than reading these words as normative, might we read them instead as descriptive – not what must be but what too often has been, a challenge for us to do better?
We can re-vision Eden’s keruvim (cherubim), which Torah records God to place at Eden’s entrance to prevent human return (Gen. 3:24). According to Torah, these angelic forms carry lahat ha-herev ha-mithapekhet, an ever-turning flaming sword to keep humanity out.
But look with new eyes. Nowhere does Torah actually say “keep out” permanently: Torah says only that the cherubim are placed lishmor et derekh etz ha-hayim (“to guard the way of the Tree of Life”). Lishmor (“guard” or “keep”) as in V’shamru bnai Yisrael et ha-Shabbat (“The children of Israel will guard [or keep] Shabbat”) (Ex. 31:16). Rather than forever keeping us out of Eden, might the angels point the way back? If so, how? Perhaps precisely though the ever-turning flaming sword. Midrash from the Amoraic era (300 – 500 CE) holds that the cherubic “ever-turning” describes not their flaming sword but the angels themselves! This midrash imagines that Eden’s cherubim “sometimes appeared as men, sometimes women, sometimes spirits, sometimes angels” (Gen. Rabbah 21:9).
See this: Eden’s cherubim are visioned as gender fluid. Seeing fluidity is what keeps (not closes) the way of the Tree of Life. This fluidity (mithapekhet) shares its verb root with Pirkei Avot’s calling to “turn it and turn it” (hafokh bah v’hafokh bah). Seen this way, it is precisely our capacity to re-vision – and especially re-vision gender – that keeps the Edenic way!
I’m especially touched that scholars understand this midrash, like much of Genesis Rabbah, as a text that speaks to children. What if we all taught our children that gender, power and vision are fluid and changeable, and that we are to see them as such? After all, we humans are only a bit lower than the angels (Psalms 8:6). What if we taught our clergy likewise? our politicians? our families? Perhaps then #metoo and #ibelieveyou, mansplaining and gaslighting, all could go the way of history.
Perhaps then we’ll begin to see a way open toward a renewed Tree of Life – with angels pointing us there all along.
Originally published as part of AJR’s Parashat Ha-Shavua series.