Joy Doerzbacher

Book Review

Bernstein, Ellen. Splendor of Creation. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005.


The book is written from the Jewish perspective of the Creation story found in Genesis chapter 1. Coming from this starting point the author uses many philosophers from the Jewish tradition and extra canonical Jewish texts and commentaries. When interesting comparisons from other traditions on the same topic arises the author connects them with the Jewish tradition. These other traditions include science, the shared Jewish-Christian history, feminist theologians, and even Native American customs.

Ellen begins her book by explaining her story. As she taught high school biology, she tried to remember what got her excited about nature and her environment, and it was not facts and statistics. Instead she turned to authors and their stories about nature, and hands on activities to get her students excited and involved.

The way that the author structures her book is by devoting each chapter to one day of the Creation story. The passage about the day is introduced and then each line is looked at more closely. Ellen highlights words within the text that she feels is the most important or are unique, allowing the reader to take a closer look and not breeze through the very familiar story.

The author brings to light that because we think we know what the story says, that because we have heard the story so many times before, we graze over the text like it is nothing new. But as Ellen was looking into her own connection with her Jewish culture, she took a new look into scripture. And was honestly surprised by what she found.

Within the passages that are all given their own discussion time and ability to stand on their own and in their context, specific words are drawn out by the author. The Hebrew language has ambiguities and a potential for several meanings of the same word, and Ellen walks the reader through these.

After the author gets the reader on her page about the text she works with it in the other contexts that have already been mentioned, from the eyes of feminists, etc. She adds her own input and experiences from her life. These experiences include her activism, education, and religious communal living.

Ultimately what the author wants to do is allow as many points as possible for the reader to feel inspired and connected with nature and our world.

For Ellen it’s clear that “religious institutions could take a powerful leadership role in environmental repair.” (pg xii) Yet this is as far as she goes with this idea. She does not step so far as to offer a plan of action for churches and their communities. It seems that she hopes that if she makes her case though the book then the reader would know exactly what to do. More than that, the reader would be inspired to change, because it is in their scripture.

The book also feels like an introduction to Judaism, past and present. Festivals and holy days are explained in conjunction with the fourth creation day. This is the creation of the heavenly lights, a bright one to rule the day, a lesser one to rule the night, as well as stars. The purpose of these is for signs and seasons, for days and for years. (pg. 55) Ellen tells the reader that because the seasons, the moon and sun are created on this day, and that festivals were also created. She explains a couple of the major festivals, including Tu B’Sh’vat, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, just to name a few.

Ellen also goes out of her way to include science and evolution in her book. Periodically she will introduce what was created on the specific day and remind the reader that this does not contradict modern science investigation. However this is said very quickly, without giving the statement development.

Ellen is also playful in her book. On the fifth day of creation God creates all that lives in the waters and the skies. Playful not only in the stories that she shares but she also calls for actual play. On the fifth day God creates a sea monster, and there are several theories as to why this would specifically be included in the text. Some think it is because of how jolting this creature would be. Others site Psalm 104, and the Leviathan that God ‘frolics with in the sea’. (pg 82) Ellen calls us to remember to play because God remembered to play from the very beginning.

Ellen tackles the same questions that have plagued Judeo-Christian religions, on the sixth day God gives humans “dominion” over the Earth. Ellen goes right to the source, to one of the major articles that supports “dominion” in its negative context. Lynn White wrote that “the Bible gave humanity a mandate to exploit nature.” (pg 110) Even though many hundreds of articles and books have been written on this topic, in response to Lynn White, we are clearly not done talking about this Biblical line’s significance and implications.

If you go to the original text in the Bible the section reads “God blessed them [man and woman] and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and master it, and have dominion over … ‘” (pg. 110). Ellen points out that the earth as given as a blessing and it is then human’s responsibility for creation. The argument is discussed further by a medieval rabbinic commentator, Rashi. He says that if we willfully embody God’s image (as the sixth creation day says) and rule with compassion, we will rise above the animals and preside over them, insuring life of harmony on earth. However if we deny our responsibility to creation, we will sink below the level of the animals. Ellen sees this and identifies for the reader that “if we twist the blessing to further our own ends, the blessing becomes a curse” (pg 111).

The author calls the environmental crisis a spiritual crisis. Ellen makes the case, slowly and only periodically, that religion could very well be the answer to this spiritual crisis. Because this certainly was the answer in her own life. She never advocates for one religion, or one way, but she does only speak from her life and Judaism. Ellen says, “A God-centered life is a fitting response to a world that devalues nature itself, while it overvalues the ‘things’ we take from nature” (pg 3).

As much as she does uplift the Jewish laws, rituals, prayers, characters of exemplary life, and holy days, she also critiques. As an adult, returning to her roots, Ellen finds in the passages “God saw that it was good”. However when she looked around she did not ‘see’ much in her home or synagogue. It is the Jewish tradition to not have icons as they could be lifted up and worshipped, which is a violation of the first commandment to have no other gods than YHWH. Ellen speculates that it is from this starting point that words, hearing and speaking, have been fine-tuned within the Jewish tradition.

Ellen builds the case for sight and seeing with a very purposeful goal. She believes that the environmental crisis is a “perceptual problem” (pg 101). When humans look at the world in one fashion, we stop ourselves from experiencing the world in new ways. And as we become comfortable in our ways, it can become difficult to acknowledge when the way that we have been traveling is wrong. Balance is theme that keeps arising, and this is one of the many examples she offers.

Ellen makes a stronger case of showing how connected humans are to the world even though we try to live above nature and its means. Ellen taps into what humans are missing in the society that we have built around ourselves and from what we are told we need. As she goes through each passage within each day, Ellen matches up physiological and communal needs with what was being created or blessed, and finding value in statements that you might not positive at first glance.

People know about the sun and its affect, when during winter months the earth gets less sunlight and some people feel it as seasonal affective disorder, SAD. The moon also plays a less recognized role on humans, some people may be livelier as the moon brightens and quieter as the moon dims. Another great example is that of the full moon and increased activity of all kinds.

Ellen also makes a fairly convincing argument about the elements of life (earth, water, air and fire) corresponding with elements needed by humans. Earth would be the body, the senses, desire, and relationships (pg 32). Air is human thought or mind (pg 22). Water symbolizes our feelings and our emotions (pg 29). Fire is connected with soul or spirit (pg 7). It is important to make the connection of our “fiery” spirit, “watery” feelings, “airy” thoughts into a “grounded” lifestyle with nature (pg 34).

Something that surprised me about the book was the author’s lack of dealing with the text with historical criticism. She does not say that the Biblical account of Creation happening in one week is ‘fact’, nor does she call it ‘just a story.’ Instead she seems to take for granted the reader and assumes that they are of the same mind as her. While she does walk through each passage as if the reader was not familiar with the text, she does this because the story is so well known. She takes this approach with the text to be extra careful not to leave out any word that might be important and hold some insight.