Approaching Bereshit

It is a common scene in many Jewish elementary schools. A boy is learning Humash, and his rebbe tells him that dinosaurs never existed. Perplexed, the boy asks how this could be true if archeologists had actually found evidence of dinosaurs’ existence by digging up their bones. “Those are elephant bones,” his rebbe replies. The student is unconvinced. “Wouldn’t the paleontologists know if the bones were elephant bones?” he asks himself.

Many Jewish children all over the world learn Bereshit in a simple and clear-cut manner in the early years of their education. They are taught that God created the world in six days, Adam and Eve were tricked by a snake, and the flood covered the entire planet. While it may be necessary to teach young children Bereshit in a very basic manner, once students reach high school, new questions arise. Teachers will be challenged with questions such as, “How can we believe that God created the world in six days if we learned in science class that it actually took billions of years for the world to form?” and “How is it possible for Adam to have been the first person if we learned that many Homo sapiens existed at the same time?” And explaining that dinosaur bones are really elephant bones will not answer those thirsting for a convincing explanation. If this method does not satisfy a student’s curiosity, then what method does? How should a teacher present Bereshit to inquisitive high school students?

While interviewing Jewish teachers from across North America I was able to discern the use of three basic approaches to this issue. One extreme approach would be to say that the stories in the beginning of Bereshit are merely allegorical, fictional accounts meant to convey lessons. For example, R. Jonathan Sacks writes that “when a biblical text is incompatible with either reason or observation, that is sufficient evidence that it is to be read figuratively, allegorically, poetically, or in some other way.” A second approach would be to focus on the moral messages found in Bereshit, by emphasizing the literal without claiming that it is actually an allegory. The third approach would be to show that the stories of Bereshit do fit with science, as seen from many biblical commentators and modern Jewish scientists, such as Nathan Aviezer and Gerald Schroeder.

I interviewed five different teachers from Modern Orthodox schools in North America to find out how they teach sefer Bereshit. Interestingly, all of these teachers use either the second or third approach.

The approach most used among the teachers is the second approach—to focus on lessons of Bereshit and not on the actual historical events. R. Nathaniel Helfgot, a teacher at SAR High School, as well as the Chair of the Departments of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, chooses to focus on the messages that the text is trying to convey. He says that it is important for him not to get too concerned about historical content. The Torah contains messages about God and the world, morality and human potential, and more. R. Helfgot believes that Adam and Havvah were real people, but he does not get caught up in teaching whether or not the events actually happened. He would not be against saying that one of the stories is an allegory, but he does not know which stories could be classified as allegories. Rather, the point of learning Bereshit, according to R. Helfgot, is to learn about the nature of human existence and the foundation of society. If a student does come to him, questioning the interplay of science and Torah, R. Helfgot directs him or her to the works of Nathan Aviezer, Gerald Schroeder, and Natan Slifkin, but he does not grapple with the issue of Science vs. Torah in his class.

Others that I contacted teach in a similar style. Barbara Freedman, a former Humash teacher at the Hebrew Academy of Montreal, said that her basic approach in teaching Bereshit is that Torah is not a book of science. Rather, she says, “it is hora’ah –  teaching about [Jewish] belief and faith.” When she teaches the stories of creation, Adam and Havvah in the garden, and Noah and the ark, she presents the material as though these events really did happen. However, she chooses to “focus on the moral lessons and, of course, medieval commentary in each of these events, and the paradigm of the events in Bereshit for civilization.” In her words, “science tells how and the Torah tells why.” When the focus is on learning morals, she does not find it necessary to bring scientific theories into the discussion.

Mrs. Freedman is not the only Jewish educator who takes this approach. Melissa Perl, the Tanakh Department Chair at the Margolin Hebrew Academy Upper School, presents the first few chapters of Bereshit in a very similar manner. Mrs. Perl was my teacher for Bereshit when I was in high school, and the recurring motifs in her class were morals and ethics. The first eleven chapters of sefer Bereshit, as Mrs. Perl teaches them, set up an ideal world and the major ethical and moral principles upon which the entire world rests. From chapter twelve on, there is a major shift in the way the story is told. Chapter twelve begins the story of ethical monotheism, and the man (Avraham) whose mission it was to carry out the principle of ethical monotheism set up in chapters one through eleven.

Mrs. Perl’s teaching style is to focus on the key principles that emerge in the first few chapters. She explains to her class that in chapters one and two a natural hierarchy of the world is set up, with God ruling man. Humans are charged with acting in accordance with principles of ethical and moral behavior, which are critical to our existence. The focus does not need to be whether or not Adam and Havvah were real, or whether or not the story in the Garden of Eden happened exactly as it is described in the pesukim. Rather, the focus should be the key morals that emerge from these chapters and how they set the stage for the rest of the events in the Torah.

This approach does not address the contradictions between science and Torah. How then do teachers who use this approach respond to such questions? Mrs. Perl, like Mrs. Freedman, explained that although she certainly does not ignore these questions, they are not so pressing; because of her particular teaching style, these questions do not arise. The lessons that are imparted are relevant and true regardless of whether or not God created man from dust, and regardless of whether or not Adam and Havvah were real individuals or simply allegories. In other words, the lessons remain whether or not the stories are true.

There is a second approach that is drastically different from the others. Instead of circumventing the scientific issues, some teachers choose to use Bereshit as a means to confront the questions of science and Torah directly and show that the two can be reconciled. In my junior year of high school, I took a course on Bereshit taught by my father, R. Yonason Gersten. R. Gersten’s class is very much oriented towards helping students resolve their concerns regarding Science vs. Torah, and how we can learn Bereshit in a way that shows students that secular education does not discredit the Torah. The first thing R. Gersten does in his class is to point out that one cannot ask questions on science to the written Torah because we do not believe in learning Torah just from what is written; Jews also learn from oral Torah. He puts off the questions on science until after reading through chapter one with his students. During this first reading, he helps the students ask questions on the pesukim. For example, before the issue of science even presents itself, R. Gersten has the students question the meaning of day in the creation story. Since the sun and the moon do not appear until the fourth day, it must mean that the word “day” does not mean a typical twenty-four hour time period—the first three “days” could have been millions of years long. This interpretation of “day” is one that has been used by the mefarshim (commentators) for thousands of years. After reading through the chapter and asking questions to gain an understanding of what is written, R. Gersten will intentionally bring up science. He even spends a number of days explaining the theory of evolution itself so that the students will have a better understanding of the issues they are facing.

After spending time learning in depth about how each day of creation can be explained, the class learns about Adam and Havvah. When students learn about the emergence of modern man in science or history class, they learn that it took thousands of years for Homo sapiens to emerge, and that there were many Homo sapiens that developed at the same time. How then is it possible for the Torah to say that Adam was the first person? R. Gersten presents a solution to the question to his class. He explains that Adam was the first being created be-tselem Elokim (in the image of God). Based on Ibn Ezra, [i] R. Gersten explains that the snake was a human being without the tselem Elokim. The difference between the snake and Adam is that Adam had a concept of God, while the snake only understood that there is a powerful force in the world. When the Torah writes that Adam is the first human, it means that Adam was the first to develop abstract thought. This approach develops a way to read all of the stories in Bereshit as literally true, but still consonant with scientific facts. It accomplishes this by adopting interpretations of the events that, while different from traditional interpretations, still present viable readings. R. Gersten’s goal in his class is to avoid apologetics and to demonstrate that the interpretations we use in our learning were not written in response to modern scientific discoveries, but, rather, were espoused long ago.

R. Gersten’s approach is similar to that of R. Daniel Weiss, a teacher at Northwest Yeshiva High School. Rabbi Weiss starts from the premise that the same God that created and designed the universe (science) is the God that provided us with the Torah. Therefore, both systems must work together, and if we find a contradiction between our scientific observation of the physical world and our understanding of the Torah, we must attempt to reconcile that contradiction. This can be done by gaining a clearer and better understanding of either the Torah or of science. R. Weiss is willing to concede that one does have to be intellectually honest at some times, and admits that sometimes we do not always know the answer to a question.

Both Rabbis Gersten and Weiss found that their students have a positive reaction when taught this way. Both teachers are trying to make the Torah rational and understandable, and students appreciate learning that science does not necessarily contradict the Torah.

Rachel Kosowsky, a teacher at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, encourages her students to investigate the relationship between science and Torah. Mrs. Kosowsky wants her students to choose for themselves the approach that they are most comfortable with, so she teaches the different approaches: that science and Torah do not conflict, that the people in the stories were real, and also that the stories are allegories. She presents material from Gerald Schroeder, a physicist, who explains how the biblical six days of creation can be explained using Einstein’s theory of relativity. She also teaches about the morals and ethics of Bereshit. She opens up the questions, but she does not promote one particular approach; she wants her students to consider the various options. Instead of feeding her students answers, Mrs. Kosowsky gives her students the freedom to grapple with the issues themselves in order to find answers that they both identify with and understand.

Interestingly, amongst all the teachers I interviewed, nobody adopted the “allegorical approach.” I posted my query about the contradictions between science and Bereshit on the Lookjed listserv, and  none of the responses I received suggested teaching stories as allegorical tales. Why is it that no one uses this approach? In a way, it seems like the easiest answer. If you teach that a story is an allegory, you no longer have to justify the Torah against science. But people are not comfortable taking this approach. If we decide that one story is an allegory, what will stop us from discounting the literal truth of the entire Torah?

Additionally, learning Torah and thinking of it as allegory may detract from our whole religious experience of the Torah. When you learn Humash and think about Adam and Havvah as fictional people, the religious experience may be very different. This perspective is shared by the teachers I interviewed. Even the teachers who said they would be willing to accept some stories as allegories were not willing to say that people, like Adam and Havvah, did not exist. Interpreting the Bereshit story as an allegory can leave one religiously unsatisfied. If Bereshit is viewed as an allegory, how would one decide what else in the Bible is just a mashal? It is a foundational belief of our religious heritage that God created Adam, and that there is a yad Hashem in the world.


Zahava Gersten is a high school senior at Goldie Margolin School for Girls in Memphis, TN.



[i] Ibn Ezra to Bereshit 3:1.