25 undergraduate and graduate students in Human Beginnings I:
Genesis are about to embark upon a pilgrimage. Over the course
of the fall and winter quarters, they will make their way through
the Book of Genesis, 25 chapters per quarter. Led by Leon Kass,
SB'58, MD'62, the group assembled in a first-floor Cobb Hall classroom
will slowly progress, treating the book not as a narrow religious
document, but as a philosophical text. They will read Genesis
less as a record of historical beginnings, and more as a portrait
of the permanent elements of human life, psychic and social. And
they will search the text for pedagogical beginnings-the beginning
of moral instruction for readers.
the Addie Clark Harding professor in the Committee on Social Thought
and the College, who's teaching the course for the eighth time,
looks both scholarly and businesslike as he outlines a few assumptions.
First, the book is a coherent whole. Second, the ideas presented
are not "utterly opaque to reason." The third assumption-to
be ignored at the students' peril-is that every word counts. "No
word can be left unexamined," Kass says, giving the class
a clear picture of just how closely they'll be reading for the
next six months. And the final assumption? "Juxtapositions
marking out the parameters of the excavation, the class immediately
starts digging into the words. Genesis unfolds as a continuous
story, the professor says, with the first chapter describing the
beginning of the world: "In the beginning God created the
heaven and the earth."
does the book begin this way?" Kass asks. But first he wants
to know what the students notice about the words themselves.
one thing, ventures a student, the reader doesn't know who's talking.
Kass agrees. "A commanding and unidentified voice starts
the book, speaking about things no human being could have witnessed.
For the reader to continue, there must be thoughtful suspension
as we're unsure of who's speaking, another student suggests, we're
also unsure what we are at "the beginning" of. A dark-haired,
female graduate student points out that the accurate translation
of the Hebrew is really "In beginning," with no definite
article. Another woman, an undergrad sitting along the wall of
the classroom, takes up the point by suggesting another way to
define this beginning: "This is the beginning as far as we
need to know."
decides the time has come to tackle the meaning behind the words.
What do the students make of the first sentence? It summarizes
the first chapter, a reader says. It's a summarization of what
God does, another offers. By saying that God created the heavens
and the earth, Kass asks, what possibilities for the beginning
of the world are eliminated?
Student after student jumps in. The first sentence denies the
eternity and divinity of the universe and heavenly bodies. It
rejects the idea that the world was brought into being through
sexual generation. Along with that is the rejection of the idea
that there were two beings involved in the world's creation.
all the possibilities stand without argument, Kass moves on, noting
that all the beings that are created are familiar to the world
of our visible experience. But, he points out, the order of their
creation doesn't quite coincide with our ordinary experience.
From a corner of the room, a male student announces his discovery:
the text mentions light and also day and night before the sun
and moon are created. "There are plants before there is the
sun," adds another student. Do these inconsistencies disturb
the reader, the students wonder, or is there some rational basis
for the order given that would help us grasp the principles that
inform and govern the world?
so, line by line, the class moves deeper into the beginning.-Q.J.
in the Translations
Soul of the Republic
with a Satirist
Genius of the Everyday