From the Desk - The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - Part I
I hope that you are well, coping with the weather and getting into the swing of the “Post-Holiday Season!”
Here at Beth Ora, we are busy preparing some exciting initiatives for the coming months. We are very excited to be celebrating this Shabbat with Steven Caron and Sheida Rabipour and their families in advance of their wedding on Sunday. We wish Sheida and Steven much blessing and happiness as they begin their lives together.
In advance of Veterans’ Day, we will be also honouring our veterans this Shabbat during the service and look forward to hearing their reflections during the Kiddush. I encourage all of you to join us in synagogue to show honour and gratitude to those who made such sacrifices for the good of our world.
Next Shabbat (November 15th-16th), Beth Ora is excited to participate in the international Shabbat Project. As you know, this is an immensely successful initiative through which many thousands of people make a special effort to observe Shabbat. If anyone has any questions or would like any assistance with Shabbat observance, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 514-714-6559. Beth Ora will be marking the project with a special participatory Shabbat service followed by a special Kiddush of song and reflection. I hope that very many of you will join us and so many thousands around the world in celebrating Shabbat during this year’s Shabbat Project. Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat, Rabbi Anthony and Carly Knopf Dovid, Rachelli, Yehuda and Avrami
What’s the Deal with… the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Part I This week’s What’s the Deal is the first of a three week series in answering questions Barry Vininsky asked me on the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The first question Barry asked me was why Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat from the tree. After all, isn’t knowledge of good and evil a good thing?! The question becomes even stronger when we recall that Hashem says, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree, “Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad.” This suggests that the knowledge granted by the tree somehow made man godlike. Why prevent man from attaining a Godly trait. In preparing this answer, I benefited greatly from the AlHaTorah website. There are at least four general answers to Barry’s question. Let’s list and briefly explain them:
1. Eating the Fruit of the Tree Creates Sexual Desire
This approach is advanced by the great Biblical commentators Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) and Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel. They understand that the knowledge of good and evil does not refer to intellectual knowledge or the ability to distinguish between good and evil. They maintain that Adam and Eve had this already before eating from the tree. If not, they argue, what sense would it have made for Hashem to prohibit or permit him to eat from different trees, and how could he be held accountable had he disobeyed?
In support of their explanation, they point to many places in the Bible where the root yud dalet ayin (spelling ‘yada’ which means knowledge) connotes sexual relations. Accordingly, they suggest that here, too the knowledge gained by the Tree was sexual in nature and that Adam and Eve gained sexual desire. Ibn Ezra and Radak also point to the verse that says that, after the sin, Adam and Eve knew they were naked. Only with sexual desire did nakedness take on any importance and lead to a feeling of embarrassment.
2. Eating the Fruit of the Tree Creates an Inclination to Do Evil The great commentator and philosopher Ramban (Nahmanides) quotes Biblical verses to show that ‘daat’ (usually translated as knowledge) can refer to will or choice. Ramban argues that this is the meaning of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – the tree granted man free will to choose between something and its opposite, for positive or negative. This is also what the serpent means when he says that on the day you eat from the tree ‘you shall be like G-d, knowers of good and evil.” The ability to choose between and good and evil is a Divine trait. Ramban explains that, as a result of eating from the tree, man is guided not only by what is right, but by passions and desire. It would have been better for man to have no choices and to always do what is correct.
The great commentator Rashi goes further to suggest that the knowledge granted by the tree was the evil inclination itself.
3. Eating the Fruit of the Tree Affected Intellectual Knowledge According to the great philosophers Rambam (Maimonides) and Ralbag (Gersonides), before the sin, humans had innate, objective knowledge of truths and falsehoods which they gained by pure analytical reasoning. After eating from the tree, their intellectual level dropped and knowledge became subjective, based on moral convention, custom and experience.
Rambam claims that the word ‘daat’ should be understood according to its simplest meaning – it refers to knowledge. Rambam and Ralbag define ‘tov v’ra’ (usually translated as good and evil) as beautiful and disgraceful, not to be confused with true and false. Truth refers to facts achieved through intellectual reasoning while knowledge of good and evil are individual perceptions based on human observations or moral conventions which can be mistaken. Eating from the tree, thus, caused a regression in the knowledge of mankind.
According to the great 19th century commentator Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann, eating from the tree caused the universal concepts of right and wrong to be instilled in mankind. For Rabbi Hoffmann, knowing good and bad refers to differentiating between right and wrong. The tree, though, did not grant knowledge of all morality but only of those universal morals shared by every society. Hashem had intended that humans would receive their moral training directly from Him so their perfection could be ensured.
4. No New Knowledge Came from Eating from the Tree The great 19th century commentary and philosopher Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that eating from the fruit of the tree did not change man’s nature, but rather manifested man’s failure to recognize that it is G-d who determines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ According to Rabbi Hirsch, the fruit of the tree did not have any intrinsic qualities through which it could provide knowledge of any sort. It is called ‘the tree of knowledge,” based on the outcome of the story. According to Rabbi Hirsch, through the tree, man was to demonstrate how he planned to determine what was good and what was bad: whether he would decide this on his own, or allow G-d to determine it. The prohibition was, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, a test in self-control; could man control his desires and subordinate the dictates of his senses to Hashem’s will? Hashem presented him with a tree which was pleasing to the eyes, palate and intellect and thus appeared to be good. Yet, the fact that Hashem prohibited it, defined the fruit as bad. Would man recognize that morality is determined by Hashem’s will alone, or would he decide for himself what was good and what was bad?