Two Creations, One Philosophy (Bereisheet)

cat-in-mirrorFor first century philosopher Philo of Alexandria, there is only one true philosophy of life. Both of his favorite philosophers — Moses and Plato — express it. In the Torah, Moses presents many ideas later found in the philosophical dialogues of Plato.

Plato often describes the physical world as a faint representation of big ideas that mathematically, morally and metaphysically structure reality. So, says Philo, does Moses.

At the beginning of the Torah, Moses presents two contrasting creation stories. In the first story, divine speech, ordered mathematically into six segments, creates an ideal world of “goodness.” In this ideal world, human beings reflect the image of the Divine. In contrast, the second creation story begins with the earth and its produce; even human beings are made of clay.

By juxtaposing these two stories, Moses teaches that God created the world in two stages. First, God created an intellectual model. This subtle, ideal plan can be known only through thought. Next, relying on this model, God created a physical world. This world, much less perfect than the ideal plan, is the one we know through everyday sensory experience.

Moses begins the Torah with a creation story, even though its main theme is morality and ritual. This beginning, says Philo, teaches that laws of ethics and spiritual practice reflect the structure of reality. When we practice them, we create human communities in harmony with nature.

Philo recognizes that we don’t live in an ideal world. However, this is not a defect of creation or of God. Instead, it’s a challenge for human responsibility. Matter isn’t perfect; it can only show a hint, a trace, or a faint representation of ideals. Human beings, however, blend matter with mind. We live well when we use our minds to reflect on our embodied lives. At our best, we discern spiritual ideals and put them into practice.

For additional teachings about Parshat Bereisheet (Genesis 1:1-6:8) click here.

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