Perhaps the most subversive act of all
Humankind's first act of free will is a profound act of bravery.
Genesis is ultimately about differentiation. In Genesis we see the creation of humanity first as unity, and only later divided and gendered.
Let’s start here: “And God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created [humanity]; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
This is, the Rabbis observe, in their own way, the first of two stories of the creation of human beings. But, as Yoda would say, there is another.
For, in Genesis 2, we see:
“God formed the human [adam] from the dust of the earth [adamah]” (2:7), followed by the realization that human loneliness is the first great problem of creation.
God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him. And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the human to see what he would call them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that would be its name. And the human gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for the human no fitting helper was found. So God cast a deep sleep upon the human; and, while he slept, God took one of his [well, we usually translate this as rib, but keep reading] and closed up the flesh at that spot. And God fashioned the [rib, or something] that God had taken from the human into a woman; and God brought her to the human. Then the human said… “This one shall be called Woman, For from man was she taken.” (Genesis 2:18-23)
What to do with this? We make humans, and then, a few verses later, we make humans again, like Genesis 1:27 never happened? Or maybe it did happen, and we just need to thread the needle?
One midrash--again, Rabbinic lore--suggests that the first human was intersex. To wit, Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (and you can also check out Talmud Eruvin 18a):
Said Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, God created an androginos, as it is said, “male and female God created them.” Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, God created a double-faced human, and sawed them and made them backs…. [Other sages] objected to him: But it says, “God took one of the ribs/tzlaot . . . ” [Gen 2:21]! He said to them: It means he took one of his sides, just as you would say, “And for the side/tzela of the Tabernacle” [Ex 26:20]
According to this reading, the story that comes in the next chapter, (Genesis 2:21-22) in which taking side of the First Human —as tzela means “side” as much as “rib,” as evidenced by its use describing the side of the Tabernacle in Exodus—is a sort of metaphysical surgery to separate one whole being into disparate sexes. Unity moves towards differentiation.*
However you slice it, by the second chapter of Genesis, two people have been physically separated and are free to begin the complex dance of enmeshment and interdependence that has defined human relationships since. The first Adam—(and again, adam means human, from adamah, earth, related to dam, blood, and adom, red—in modern Hebrew a person is a ben adam)—is given the power to name everything, all the animals brought as possible partners for him. (Is there a midrash that suggests that he actually tried out the animals as sexual partners in his quest for a partner? Yes, yes there is. Yevamot 63a. Can animals consent? No. I’m not here to make the news, just to report it, folks.) But then, upon meeting the person who is supposed to be his appropriate mate and partner, he makes the call to… name her “Woman, as she was taken from Man” His first interaction with her is to give her a name that is a mere extension of his own identity.
How many times have we done this? Regarded other people only in the ways that they exist in relation to us? Forgotten to see them as independent people with their own needs, pain, hopes, yearnings? Put ourselves in the center of the relationship and then defined them according to our own needs?
Here, in our story, the woman decides to strike out on her own. Despite the fact that her intimate partner does not see her, not really, she is brave enough to trust her own intuition that, despite being told that it was forbidden, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is “good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom.” (Genesis 3:6) She trusts herself. She decides to take a bite and in doing so, Yiskah Rosenfeld notes, she “undertakes the most radical and subversive act of all: changing herself.”
Already this story is revolutionary—the first relationship is the story of breaking free of a partner’s expectations, of choosing to step outside a dynamic that may have been safe, and comfortable, and boundaried, if not terrifically fulfilling for the one who was not particularly seen in her own gorgeous fullness, for her own exquisite self—and following intuition, and the instinct for growth. Stepping out into the unknown.
And even more than that—it’s the story of inviting the partner on this journey of discovery. The first woman invites the first man to change as well, to grow with her as she grows into a new kind of understanding.
This first brave act of free will becomes defining for humanity. This was the decision to choose understanding over blissful ignorance, engagement with the world and its pain instead of remaining in a comfortable bubble. This was the decision to learn and grow and face hard truths—even if doing so sometimes came with difficult consequences.
This is also the story of the transformation from a transactional relationship into one where both parties’ created-in-God’s-image-ness is seen and acknowledged. It’s not perfect, and it’s not without struggle—after God apprehends them for eating the fruit, Adam’s first instinct is to blame his wife—“she gave it to me!” (Genesis 3:12)—but eventually he sees her, renames her as Chava (translated to English as Eve), which can be translated perhaps as “lifeforce”; for she was “mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20) (To get a sense of the wordplay, imagine the verse read, “And Adam named her Livvie, for she was mother of all the living.” Dig?)
Adam and Eve begin literally bound together, and while Eve takes decisive action to try to claim agency and selfhood, to trust her own judgment, and even to invite her partner into that growth, Adam’s ability to see her as an equal is much slower in coming. It’s clear that by the end of their story, the relationship is one of greater parity. Is it one of equity? One in which Eve feels fully valued and cherished? I don’t know. Not all relationships get there, in the end.
But Eve teaches us that we can constantly strive to grow and to learn and to stretch ourselves, and that facing pain may be preferable to eternal avoidance of it. And that sometimes we can bring the people that we love along with us, if they’re willing to join.
*Do we have to take an ancient sacred myth’s word for it about binary ideas about sex and gender? No, no we do not. We already have an intersex model here, right in the midrash mentioned above, and many other teachings from Jewish texts, many other cultures around the world and many teachers here, today, in a myriad of ways that can help us understand the gorgeous possibility available in a world that embraces the expansiveness of gender and sex. Also, as long as we’re here, I’ll keep saying, early and often, Substack needs to deplatform Graham Linehan.
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