9/06/2007

Talmudic Accounts of the Creation of Man: Part I

[This will be cross-posted to Reshimu, where I will now be a contributor]

The fourth chapter of Masechet Sanhedrin is a treasure-trove of Rabbinic contemplations regarding the creation and station of mankind. The discussion is launched as a result of Mishnaic account of the way in which witnesses in capital cases were impressed with the importance of human life. These Mishnayot themselves are the source of well-known Rabbinic statements such as “One who saves a single [Jewish/human, depending on MSS] life is as if he saved an entire world”, “The world was created for me”, and “Man was created unique”. The Talmud introduces a number of discussions and narratives which expand on this theme of mankind’s creation. I felt it appropriate to look into some of these passages in the days before Rosh Hashana, traditionally celebrated as man’s collective birthday.

We’ll start with a short one, but a good one:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין פרק ד - אחד דיני ממונות דף לח עמוד א-ב
תניא, היה רבי מאיר אומר: אדם הראשון מכל העולם כולו הוצבר עפרו, שנאמר +תהלים קל"ט+ גלמי ראו עיניך, (וכתיב +דברי הימים ב' ט"ז+ כי ה' עיניו משטטות בכל הארץ). אמר רב אושעיא משמיה דרב: אדם הראשון [דף לח עמוד ב] גופו מבבל וראשו מארץ ישראל, ואבריו משאר ארצות. עגבותיו - אמר רב אחא: מאקרא דאגמא.
We have learned that Rabbi Meir used to say: Original Man’s dirt was collected from over the entire world, as it says “Your eyes perceived my form” (Tehillim 139) and it says “The eyes of God scan the entire earth” (Divrei Hayamim II 16). Rav Oshaya says in the name of Rav: Original Man’s body was from Babylon, head was from the Land of Israel, and limbs were from the other lands. What about his buttocks? Rav Acha said: from Akra de-Agma.
There are three distinct statements in this little passage. They are clearly related by their subject matter, as each discusses the origin of Original Man’s dirt. I think it would be a mistake to assume, however, that these statements were said as part of a single discussion (which they clearly weren’t, since they are attributed to Sages who lived centuries and countries apart), or that they even have the same agenda. Thus, each should be evaluated independently.
Rabbi Meir’s statement is very different from the subsequent Amoraic statements. He does not mention particular lands and brings Biblical prooftexts for his assertion. He is saying that man was made from the entire world. What does that mean?

In his Talmudic readings, Levinas asserts, based on the teachings of his mentor, the enigmatic Mr. Shoshani, that whenever the Gemara cites a verse, that verse must be understood in context in order to fully understand the Talmudic passage. I generally like to avoid blanket ‘rules’ about how to learn Gemara – different methods are better for different scenarios – and I’ve come across particular cases where this Levinasian assertion quite clearly seems to fall short. However, in this instance, I believe it to be ‘spot on’. I submit that Chapter 139 of Tehillim would be a fantastic candidate to be the ‘Shir Shel Yom’ of Rosh Hashana. It describes God’s creation of Man and God’s intimate knowledge of Man’s innermost workings. The Psalmist describes his own transparency before God and how he comes to grips with it and even welcomes it, as his allegiance is to God alone. The whole Psalm is permeated with what Rudolf Otto might call “creature feeling”, the feeling of a created entity before its Master and Creator, that sense of absolute dependence, loss of identity, and lack of control.

Thus, on one level, Rabbi Meir is saying that Man is as much a part of Creation as the rest of the world – indeed, on the same page of Gemara, it is suggested that Man was created just before Shabbat so that he would not claim that he participated in Creation. Man is a creature, just like everything else. On the other hand, Rabbi Meir’s statement also suggests something very different. Man’s relationship with the world is not a marriage of distinct entities. Man is of the world. In a sense, the study of the world – physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and so forth – is part of Man’s effort to write his own autobiography. Additionally, this passage expresses a certain universality of Man. No land is preferred over another. All men belong to the whole Earth. This idea can lend itself to an environmentalist reading of this passage as well.

Rav Oshaya, speaking in Rav’s name, does not seem to be the logical conclusion of Rabbi Meir’s statement. Perhaps he works off of Rabbi Meir’s statement, and perhaps not; either way, he is saying something very different. He notices, as the Maharal points out, that different places have different ‘personalities’ just as different parts of the body serve different functions. He is making a statement about the correspondence between human characteristics and the characteristics of various places in the known world. Thus, man’s head, the seat of the spirit and intellect, originates in the Land of Israel, whose very air makes one wise according to Our Sages, who never met an Israeli politician. The supremacy of the Land of Israel in matters of spirit has always been acknowledged as the land of prophecy, as the place on Earth closest to God.
Babylonia, on the other hand, is distinguished by other features. As Maharal notes, the Torah knows Babylon as the cradle of civilization, where Man first built cities, and from where he began to extend his reach across the land. This metaphor of Bavel as the torso from which the appendages begin to reach out parallels the development of mankind as a whole. This passage sees the unfolding of human history as something that was built-in to man’s very creation.

Additionally, if Israel represents man’s spiritual side, then Babylon can lay a strong claim to his physical side. It is, after all, Mesopotamia, the most fertile region of the ancient world. In the Talmudic worldview, these two lands are the important places, and other lands are considered trivial. Perhaps they fulfill functional roles. The notion that the limbs are from the ‘rest of the world’ reflects this bias. Perhaps it can be compared to Israel and the United States in today’s Jewish world. There are other places, but the majority of World Jewry, living in those two places, finds it easy and convenient to ignore everything else.

The last line is by far the most jarring part of this passage. Is Rav Acha serious? Perhaps not. I wonder if he meant it as a joke. I remember my first time at Port Authority in Manhattan; I believe it was on the way to the Siyum Shas at Madison Square Garden almost 20 years ago. I remember that it was like nothing I had ever seen before in terms of the griminess and promiscuity of the place (before the city decided to clean it up). I remember my father quoting my uncle as saying that if God had to give the world an enema, He’d stick the nozzle in Port Authority. Is Rav Acha expressing a similar sentiment? The Sefer Ha-Aggadah understands that Akra de-Agma was indeed a promiscuous place.

Alternatively, maybe it’s not a joke. Every part of the human anatomy serves a function, however unpleasant. Perhaps the same can be said of the Earth. We need coal mines and peat bogs, too. Cities need dumps, sewage treatment plants, and all sorts of other industries which are essential but which I’d prefer not to live near. Perhaps Rav Acha is reminding us to appreciate these places, even if from a distance.
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