Man’s banishment from Eden serves as a prologue to the Torah and therefore, by extension, to Judaism as a system of ideas and practice. A mythical story that truly sets up the epistemological background of Judaism - read by many but understood by few.
Perhaps it is because of the centrality of this narrative within Christian theology that many Jews often overlook the immense power in this story. Ever since St. Augustine, generations of Christian exegetes have interpreted this story as pointing to man’s inherent sinfulness. Thus, according to dominant Christian thinking we are tainted in a way that necessitates an outside being (Jesus) to save us all.
But I'd like to propose that this story, when understood within a Judeo context, is one of the most powerful philosophical narratives in world history and the ultimate explanation for the very purpose of Judaism as a religious tradition.
When God created Adam and Eve, giving them a single commandment: to not eat from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” (Gen 2:17), a paradox arises. Before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, presumably man had no knowledge, lacking the ability to decipher right from wrong or negative from positive. When the Torah notes that Adam and Eve were naked and they “felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25), the obvious implication is that that they had not yet attained the ability of moral reasoning and knew not how to separate good from bad. How then could they have been expected to listen to God?
The simplistic answer here, offered by many classical Jewish commentators, is that before eating from the Tree - before man had the ability to think for himself in a critical way - he was epistemologically subjected to the decisions of God. Rather than be able to critically view situations himself, man listened to this authority figure, ultimately receiving the bottom line binaries of what to do and what not to do with no foundation to even potentially disagree.
This state of intellectual infancy, when listening to an authority figure is one’s only recourse, the only thing that is reasonable, is a natural part of the human condition. It is a moment of ultimate psychological protection as we are certain that someone, perhaps a parent, a wise teacher, or even a religious leader/tradition knows everything there is to know about the world. That no matter how difficult and random things may seem there is always an answer within reach. While I may not know the answer I am certain someone does. A state of being where there is no existential dread, no infinitely complex moral quandaries, and no epistemological rabbit holes - sounds like Gan Eden.
The tree is a symbol of life in Judaism. Eating from the tree is therefore a symbol of living. When Adam and Eve first considered eating from the tree, they began to truly live a life of their own as opposed to fulfilling the requisite desires imposed on them by an authority. The first stage of true intellectual maturity is the ability to doubt what you have been taught.
“You will certainly not die” if you eat from the tree, man’s inner voice personified in the snake began to doubt (Gen 3:4). Perhaps the truth is being concealed from you in some way. Perhaps the authority figure really doesn’t know everything but rather has a vested interest in keeping you ignorant. Perhaps ignorance is actually best for you and the death that you were warned of upon eating the fruit isn’t a literal death but a metaphorical one, not a physical death but an existential death. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5)
But once a taste of knowledge is acquired it is a fundament of human desire to continue eating. Once Eve saw that the fruit made her wise, she had no choice but to fully taste it (Gen 3:6). Once authority is questioned, ideology is challenged, intellectual foundations are uprooted - there is no turning back. After discovering the matrix there is no way back in. They have intellectually matured. Adam and Eve now understood that they were naked, they now had their own thought processes, their own ability to reason, and their own ideas about what ought to or ought not to be (Gen 3:7).
But ignorance is bliss.
Once authority and ideology is challenged and the facade of a neat and orderly world is torn down - humans have no choice but to face the true facts of life. We toil on this Earth fighting with one another, struggling to make a living, one day as brutal as the next, only to understand that we will eventually return to the Earth as dust (Gen 3:15-19). What many people believe to be God cursing humans once they ate from the tree is simply an acknowledgement of the new perceived reality as the comfort of an all knowing authority figure is removed. God is not condemning them with this punishment, rather elucidating the inevitable consequence of which humans now must contend.
So the natural result is that humans are banished from paradise. One can either live in the garden of Eden or eat from the tree of knowledge but never both. How does one contend with this new reality, once the gate to the garden is blocked off and sealed, and all vestiges of the simplicity of Eden are replaced with the seeming trivialities of everyday life?
I want to suggest that this is the question Judaism comes to answer on both a communal and individual level. A question and a proposed answer that I will be attempting to tackle in my next article. For now I implore everyone to take a deeper look at this story. Not reading it as a literal history of the universe rather as a story with fundamental metaphorical truths about aspects of our world.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Is the true Jewish ideal to sit and learn Torah all day? What about when it's at the expense of earning a living and, in Israel at least, defending your country? When did the "kollel life" become the norm and not the exception? Didn't our ancestors, even from the time of the Bible, fight battles and hold down jobs?
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