In my lifetime, the Torah’s story of the beginning of humanity has loomed large. The version we find in Genesis 2-3, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has especially been a matter of intense and fruitful controversy in the years in which I’ve studied and taught Torah.
For me, it all started with the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex, in which she locates in the Hebrew Bible’s creation story the origin of our western cultural understanding of female humanity as Other, prescribing women’s subordination as essential to human existence. As Kate Millett put it in her feminist classic, Sexual Politics: “Patriarchy has God on its side.” They both, like many feminist writers and activists after them, indict the biblical text as the fount of religious justification for women’s inequality and lack of power at all levels of society—even for misogyny, as, in a widespread reading, the woman is to blame for “paradise lost,” for all the evils of the human condition.
Many decades after those feminist critiques, we still confront the challenge of understanding the Torah’s narrative of the origin of human life. If that early feminist reading is still compelling, how can we commit ourselves to our Torah as a “Torah of truth”? But decades of feminist Bible scholarship and Jewish and Christian women’s serious, though often deeply troubled, probing of this foundational text have opened new possibilities. I want to offer one way of thinking about the story that, for me, both affirms feminist concerns and yet offers a more complicated, potentially redemptive perspective.
Almost every account of the creation story ends with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden at the end of chapter 3 of Genesis: “[God] drove out the human, and set up east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3: 24). We describe this conclusion as “the Fall,” influenced by the Christian perception, or, using a Jewish lens, as the exile of humanity.
What we see as the end of the creation story is also the beginning of an ongoing condition in which Eve (representative of all women) is ruled over by Adam (representative of all men), enduring harsh labor, pain in childbirth and loss of a voice in relation to man and God. The emblem of her full subordination is that she is named by Adam, just as, earlier in the story, the man had given names to the animals: “And the human called his woman’s name Eve (chavah), for she was the mother of all that lives (chai)” (3: 20).
But, as feminist scholar Ilana Pardes has shown us, that ending is not the end of the creation story. Not only does the story continue, but Eve returns to center stage with an even more powerful and creative voice. The verse that follows, Genesis 3:24, reads: “And the man knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, ‘I have got me (kaniti) a man (ish) with the Lord’. And she bore as well his brother Abel” (4: 1-2). No longer the object of naming, she gives names and interprets the meaning of the names she bestows on her children. She is, in fact, the first in a long series of women in the Hebrew Bible who not only claim the power implied in the act of naming their children, but demonstrate the quintessential human capacity to make meaning, using language creatively to re-shape her life. Her naming speech, in Pardes’s words, “ presents another phase in the formation of the first woman’s relation to God and Adam as it offers a glimpse of her own perception of motherhood and (pro)creation” (Countertraditions in the Bible, p. 42).
What is that perception? Eve, in her pun on the name Cain (ka’yin in Hebrew), uses a verb which can mean “acquire”, but also means to make or to create, and when it refers to God, always means “create.” She also uses the word ”ish” (man) to refer to the being she has borne. Most translations of this verse tame its daring possibilities, by translating Eve’s words as “I have acquired/gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” But, as Bible scholar, Moshe David Cassuto, commented, Eve here is saying “I have created a man with God.” As Cassuto puts it, “The first woman, in her joy at giving birth to her first son, boasts of her generative power, which approximates in her estimation to the divine creative power. The Lord formed the first man, and I have formed the second man…I stand together (i.e. equally) WITH [God] in the rank of creators.”
Woman understands herself as God’s partner in the work of creation. And far from accepting her subordination to her male human partner, she uses the power of language to reverse Adam’s original claim to primacy in his first act of naming her: “This one at last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, This one shall be called Woman (isha), for from man (ish) was this one taken” (2: 23). Eve now asserts her own status in creation. She and God together create a man!
Expanding our perception of the creation story to include this naming-speech and Eve’s second such speech when she names Seth (4:25) enables us to uncover a biblical “countertradition, ” an often unnoticed alternative voice woven into the text. It transforms our story of human origins from a prescriptive endorsement of gender hierarchy into an account of human struggle and ambitious striving with inevitable human failures—through which, nevertheless, woman claims the power of language to remake her world.
Dr. Judith Kates, Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew College, teaches Hebrew Bible and Jewish interpretive traditions in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and in many community programs of adult learning. She is co-editor (with Gail Twersky Reimer) of Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story and Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holidays.