A biweekly column about Jewish things.
The first sin is the most interpreted event in history. Why did they eat––and what should we learn? The wily serpent elicits from Eve the Lord’s injunction against eating from the tree of knowledge, and then:
The serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For the Lord knows that the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and delightful for wisdom, and she took from its fruit and ate, and gave also to her husband, and he ate.
St. Thomas writes at S.T.II-2-163: “The first inordinateness of the human appetite resulted from his coveting inordinately some spiritual good. . . . Now he would not have coveted it inordinately, by desiring it according to his measure as established by the Divine rule. Hence it follows that man's first sin consisted in his coveting some spiritual good above his measure: and this pertains to pride.” I’m afraid that St. Thomas has not helped us much in understanding the first sin, as all sins of commission traduce God’s prescribed measure. Surely knowledge is a spiritual good, and surely man desired it inordinately. But substitute anything for knowledge and you can still explain the sin in question. St. Thomas has defined sin, but said little about its first particular instance.
Rashi, the medieval Ashkenazi exegete, writes that Eve was seduced by the serpent into wanting to be a god (St. Thomas, in fairness, also writes that man wanted to be like God, but only in the sense, true of all sinners, that “by his own natural power he might decide what was good.”) The serpent’s offer is that the fruit of the tree of knowledge will admit Eve into the heavenly ranks. Eve’s goal, according to Rashi, was a kind of theological revisionism.
The medieval Jewish commentators, broadly speaking, do not think that Edenic man wanted to join the angels. Nachmanides’s reading is typical: Eve sensed the pleasure to be derived from eating. This, I think, is the straightforward reading of the text. Eve does not want to join God. She has appetites that God enjoins her from satisfying, but the Bible’s description of her mind indicates she wants less and not more to do with divinity. Eve was a voluptuary, maybe, but not a devil.
Let’s follow Nachmanides and investigate Eve’s hedonism. The Bible relates Eve’s thoughts moving from lower to higher pleasures. First: The fruit can sate Eve’s hunger. By muting the distinguishing feature of the tree of knowledge, Eve evinces her animal nature. She’ll consume this fruit as she would any other fruit.
Eve’s second thought is that the tree is beautiful. Her gluttony is now refined by aesthetic sensibility. Eating will satisfy her, but the tree pleases Eve already. The first two moments of Eve's deliberation have nothing to do with the knowledge of good and evil, or for that matter with the prospect of divinity. Her mind is far from the serpent’s enticement and therefore from overt hostility toward God.
Eve’s final thought is that the tree is delightful for wisdom. Some commentators have assimilated this last moment into the Hedonism Thesis. It’s true that the Hebrew adjective nechmad, which I’ve rendered as “delightful,” adverts the reader to the tree’s effect on Eve, rather than the tree’s intrinsic qualities. But the adjective modifies the tree, not Eve. Furthermore: I have followed many translations in rendering above the Hebrew l’haskil as “for wisdom.” But that is not exact. L’haskil is not a noun, but a causal verb. Sacrificing flow for precision, we should say that the tree “was delightful to bestow wisdom.” The least forced reading is that the tree, as sources of knowledge go, is a delightfully fruitful one. The emphasis is on the quality of the trove, not the sensations of the discoverer.
Eve’s sin is to ignore God in favor of a lesser source of meaning. Subtler than an outright rebel, Eve considers herself neutral with respect to God’s injunction. She wants to replace God not with herself, but with wisdom. I suggest that Eve was the first philosopher, but not just any sort of philosopher. She does not wonder after the stars. She wants to know what truly matters.
I do not think the Bible is suggesting an opposition between wisdom and obedience, or, if you like, between Athens and Jerusalem. There is almost nothing the Bible praises more highly and frequently than knowledge of the sort Eve is after. And indeed, God justifies expelling Adam and Eve on the view that they are now “like us, knowing good and bad,” earthly only because mortal. But the true servant of God consecrates to his creator not only the things human beings find most instinctively pleasurable––food, sex––but also the elevated things. Knowledge of the good ranks among the highest of these things, because God is defined by perfect wisdom and perfect goodness. If God wanted to know the extent of his finest creature’s devotion, he devised the perfect test: to see whether man would forego the highest activity of the Divine image in favor of concord with the Divine will.
The teaching of the Garden of Eden is that the twin imperatives of religious love, to imitate God and to obey God, are really not twins at all; rather, the latter rules over the former. There is a radical irreconcilability between God and man. “Your ways are not my ways,” says Isaiah in the name of the Lord. Which means that whoever loves God from other than a fearful distance does not truly love him.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.