by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
The divine power of story should not be ignored. For centuries, the storytellers of this country provided verbal fuel for the campfire narratives around which our communities formed. The stories of English literature we all grew up with form a canon for our American discourse. They are replete with references and allusions to the Bible--particularly Genesis--that story of stories of divine power and human failure.
During the two millennia before English literature was written down, the study of Genesis formed the glue which held Jewish (and later, Christian) communities together. Through the process of midrash, the communal study of Holy Writ, the rabbis of old kept the Bible alive and vibrant in their own synagogues, communities and towns by creative rereading of biblical passages. Group discussion of scripture and its interpretation enabled these students of old to read into the narratives of Genesis the concerns and issues of each generation. From village to village people studied together, discussed the stories of Genesis, and so doing, illuminated their own lives. Through the shared struggle of study, individuals learned to listen and then to hear one another. They grew to appreciate the contributions and insights of others and so formed communities of readers who valued shared discourse much as they revered the Bible which inspired it.
I have found the study of Genesis no less vibrant and essential as we hurtle toward the next millennium. The apparently simple exercise of studying the stories of Genesis with a committed group of readers has been doubly surprising. The first surprise was that a disparate group of readers--Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, believers and atheists--could be bound tightly into a community by the power of group study. Sharing together our insights, taking the risk of self-revelation that comes with true study, linked us to one another as though to family.
The second surprise, which should not have been so surprising, was the spiritual feeling that was engendered by this study. As a rabbi, I feel comfortable identifying this phenomenon as God's presence. Yet I know that there have been those with whom I have studied who would attest to the powerful spiritual experience without committing to God. Call it what one will, group study of Genesis has offered access to two powers that are essential if we are to flourish in the coming millennium: the power of community and the divine power of story.
--Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is the author of THE GENESIS OF ETHICS and READING THE BOOK.
"All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by...religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need."
--Harvey Cox, THE SEDUCTION OF THE SPIRIT (1973)
"I am still learning the art of writing from the Book of Genesis...Whenever I take the Bible down from my bookcase and I begin to read it, I cannot put it down. I always find new aspects, new facts, new tensions, new information in it. I sometimes imagine that, while I sleep or walk, some hidden scribe invades my house and puts new passages, new names, new events into this wonderful book...It is God's greatest gift to humanity."
--Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Genesis," in CONGREGATION (1987)
"Be not ashamed to learn truth from any source."
--Ibn Gabirol, MIBHAR HAPENINUM (ca. 1050)