What is Sefer Bereishis about? What, in a nutshell, is its purpose?
If you take either the literal translations of the five Chumashim [Beginning, Names, Called, Desert, Words] or the given “non-Jewish” names of the Books [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy], you usually get a clear indication of a/the unifying theme running through that particular chumash--the exception of Bereishis/Genesis.
It might be because it’s the only sefer that deals with the world at large outside of Bnei Yisrael at any length.
It might also be because of the 2528 years covered in Chumash, Bereishis covers 2238 of them, 1948 of them in Bereishis and Noach.
I will submit that the thread running through Sefer Bereishis is—relationships. Specifically—adult relationships [well, ostensibly adult relationships]. Even more specifically—sex and violence and the inexorable link between them. If you look at the first ten parshiyos, every one of them has either a central relations-related story, usually right in the text. [Homework: go find them.]
Go beyond that, however, the stories surrounding these relationships—and their attendant “relations” [and, in many cases the bloodshed that results]—reveal the inherent tension between a G-d given morality and human beings trying [or, as the case too often may be, trying not to] both intuit and act in accordance with said morality. One way to do that might be to try to behave in a way that demonstrates a complete absence of said ethic: the first series of events precipitating the mabul [no pun intended] in Ch 6 [“…u’banos yuldi lahem”] may actually start earlier, at 4:19: the story of how Lemech took two wives and played blatant favorites [or, to be even more blatant, how he created an androcentric sex ethic: according to Sefer HaYashar 7, pregnancy was deemed an “abomination” in this period.]
It is, therefore, no accident the sexual of the “zayin mitzvos” are actually learned from a series of remazim in parshas Bereishis 2:24 [see also Sanhedrin 58a] as opposed to from Noach itself. [By way of contrast, murder is beferush in Noach, though Kayin obviously betrays in Bereishis that he knew what he’d done to Hevel was wrong—and why.] The mabul, among other things, was consequential to the absolute complete lack of an ethic surrounding relationships—and that what began with sex [se Rashi on “mikol asher bacahru”, 6:2] usually ended in violence [“chamas”.]
Unfortunately, this lesson seemed to be lost on Ham and Canaan…because almost as soon as G-d promises that there will be no repeat performance of the mabul [9:12-17], they engage in—depending on who you ask [cf. Sanhedrin 70a]—sodomy, incest, rape, and castration. The justice this time comes in the form of the curse of eternal servitude Noach places upon Canaan and his descendants. [Canaan apparently returned the favor with his “five commandments” to his descendants: “love each other, love theft, love wantonness, hate your masters and never speak the truth” [Pesachim 113b]]. Also, the above section is the first—and only—detailed homosexual act in the entire Tanach [the anshei Sodom outside Lots house never got to “know” what they wanted to] and its not an accident that there are so many sordid behaviors attendant to the incident, which might shed some light on the Torah’s attitude towards homosex: it ipso facto involves violence being done to [at least] one party, in that view.
I’ll take it a step further: it might actually detail the Torah’s ambivalent attitude toward male sex drive, [the Talmud’s misigivings about the female sex drive [see especially Sotah 20b] may be balanced by the Biblical one regarding the male if you look hard enough], as it might always have an element of “violence”—certainly a level of “invasion”—attached to it. [Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon—radical feminists who went further and theorized that all heterosex was ipso facto rape-- may have been closer to the mark than they realized.] The classic reason given for mot making a bracha on sex is “i efshar bli ta’aroves hayetzer”: this may be one reason.
In theory, it may explain the powerful symbolism behind bris mila. In recent years there have been various movements to either ban circumcision, or reverse it, or declare it as mutilarory a practice as clitoridectomies, or—pace Rambam [but in reverse]—conemn it as unnecessarily denying sexual pleasure. [New York magazine recently had a pro/con feature on the subject]. These people miss the point. Leaving aside Rambam’s attitude [which is questionable, both hashkafically and medically], circumcision may be a symbolic way of “leveling the playing field”, as it were: taking away the violent dimension of sex. [The arayos yetzer is enough; the damim yetzer just makes things even more complicated].
There’s another element to all this, however: it involves how to educate about sex from a Torah point of view, particularly since the Chumash is so chock full of it [albeit couched in as oblique language as possible]. Before I even moved up to the upper west side, the first speech I ever heard the nieghborhood’s mora d’asra [Rabbi Allen Schwartz, OZ] give started with this question: why are we so reluctant to address issues of relations in chinuch [e.g. when we skip perek 38 in Vayeishev, dealing with Er and Onan and Yeahuda and Tamar], but we have no compunctions about teaching the mass bloodshed in places like Sefer Yehoshua.
I don’t remember how he resolved the issue at the time, but as I was tackling this topic here, I realized that actually teaching the issues—again, however obliquely—may not be something to be afraid of. From my experience—when I learned, for example, the gemara in Kesuvos dealing with pesach pasuah—there is something about dealing with the topic of sex from a halachic/Talmudic point of view that takes all the salaciousness right out of the issue. I would think that applies even in the internaet age when the imagery associated with arayos is increasingly prevalent and less and less subtle.
I’ll end with another corollary: it was said regarding women’s Torah education at the turn of the last century that if women did not learn Torah, they would certainly learn tiflut. I’ll proprose something that may not be as radical as you think: if the next generations don’ get their “relational” information from “safer” [i.e, chinuch] settings—they’ll get it elsewhere.
If they haven’t already.