Life and Knowledge-Good and Bad

To me, one of the most confusing stories in Tanach has always been the story of Adam and Chava in Gan-Eden.

Some immediate questions that come to mind:

1. What is the distinction between the etz hadaat and the etz hachaim? Alternatively, what’s so bad about knowledge?

2. They got thrown out of the garden, and punished with the hardships of life, simply because they ate from the wrong tree. I understand that there was a lack of obeying God here, but come on…it’s a little harsh.

3. What’s the connection between putting Adam in the garden, and realizing that “it’s not good for man to be alone?” What about the garden made God realize that? The two stories are clearly related, as they are written intertwined with one another.

4. Why do we have to know that they were naked, and the shame (or lack thereof) that came along with it? Is that the “knowledge”? What’s so important about that? (see question 1)

5. What’s the role of the etz hachaim? Look at verse 9 and verses 16-17 (I posted them below). Is it a comparison of good vs. bad? How come etz hachaim is not mentioned in v. 16?

There are many more questions that come to mind, but they are not pertinent to this post, so I left them out.

I think that there’s an important element that’s often skipped over.

ט וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן-הָאֲדָמָה כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע

and a few verses later:

טז וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר: מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל.יז וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ: כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ–מוֹת תָּמוּת. יח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ; אֶעֱשֶׂה-לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ

The creation of Chava comes directly after the commandment of which tree to eat from. Then later, in chapter 3, the element of nakedness comes into play. Clearly, this story has a lot of sexual elements in it. It’s a fairly accepted principle that the first creation story (in chapter 1) is the creation of nature. It includes plants, animals, constellations, and people. The second creation story (what we are looking at, in chapter 2) re-tells the creation of man, but the focal point is the etiology of marriage. The climax is the creation of woman, and the advise for a man to leave his parents and cleave to his wife.

So what does the beginning of the chapter have to do with marriage? Why need to know all the information about the trees and the garden?

I think the key word here is daat-knowledge. That’s what the whole Gan-Eden story is focused on. That’s the tree that Adam can’t eat from.

It’s a well known fact that “knowledge” has two definitions in Tanakh. The first is simply having an internal awareness of facts. The second, a more sexual meaning. To biblically know someone is to have sexual relations with them, as in chapter 4:

א וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת-חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ; וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת-קַיִן

Perhaps thats what the etz hadaat is referring to. The etz hadaat and the etz hachaim are metaphors for types of sexual relations: procreation vs. an intimate knowledge of one another. And verse 9 tells the preferred type: He created a tree of life and a tree of knowledge, good and bad. The “tree of life” is good, and the “tree of knowledge” is bad. Alternatively, the good and bad can be applied both to the tree of knowledge. The “tree of knowledge” or, sex for enjoyment, is both good and bad. If the SOLE purpose of the sex is for the physical enjoyment, that’s “bad”. If, however, it’s combined with marriage/procreation, the physical enjoyment is “good”.

Verses 16 and 17 are still troublesome. Perhaps it’s another rule of sex. “From every tree of the garden (types of women?) you can eat, but make sure it’s not only for the enjoyment of the act.”

So, according to this read, the chapter goes something like this:
-God creates Man
-God creates sex
-God gives Man rules of sex: Don’t do it simply for the enjoment of sex.
-God creates Woman.
-God gives man and woman Marriage.
-The desire is too much for Woman to overcome, so she convinces Man to have sex with her, for the enjoyment of it.
-Man and Woman realize they are naked, and are embarrassed.
-Woman is punished by having childbirth be difficult.

It makes a lot of sense, and things connect better than in the “simple” read of the pesukim, although there seem to be a few flaws in the idea. First, what about the worry of God that “now man will be like one of us?” (3:5, 3:22). Where does that fit in? Also, the punishments of the snake and of Adam don’t seem to have anything to do with sex or marriage.

I’m not sure that I like this read of the chapters, and it DEFINATELY wouldn’t fly in (most) feminist circles, but its something different. It requires a lot more thought, but I just wanted to put the idea out there.


The Evolving Organization of My Bookshelf, and Me

When I first started college, I was determined to keep my room organized. I had a knack for losing things, misplacing important papers, and I inevitably took five minutes to leave because I couldn’t find my keys.

I decided that college would be my chance for a fresh start. I sorted the clothes in my closet by color, length, and style. I assigned specific drawers for my makeup, hair clips, and accessories. I made a vow never to leave my room with the bed unmade. And most importantly, I was going to keep the books on my book shelf in a logical order.

And here is where the problem started. What’s a “logical” order? There could be so many ways to arrange them. I started out putting them in size order. The big, hard cover textbooks were on the end, and the smaller, thinner books towards the middle. But this didn’t work for me. There was no reason in my mind why my (large, hardcover) siddur was next to my accounting book. So I separated the books differently. I split the book shelf into two sides, with my box of markers, pens, and pencils in the middle as the divider. To the left were the seforim I had brought with me from home, and on the right were the books I needed for class.

As time went on, the books eventually lost their places on the shelf. I would take one out and then put it back in a different spot. Two books would switch places, and then four, and then eight, until it was impossible to tell that there was ever any sort of order to the shelf. I decided it was time to reorganize the shelf.

At this point,I’d like to point out that I am majoring in Judaic Studies at the University of Maryland.

When I started college, it was easy to divide the books. Stuff I used for class was on the right, stuff I brought from home was on the left. 

Then, I started taking Judaic Studies courses. It was still easy to divide, because I was using all my “textbooks” for class. But now, I’ve completed several of the courses. I no longer need the books for class, but decided to keep them because they were interesting reads. So now, do these books make the leap over to the left side? Do they become seforim? Do ALL of them become seforim? If I move my JPS English-only Tanakh to the left side, do I also move “Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age”? “The Bible Unearthed”? And where do Jewish history books fit in? Is it like the famous George Santayana quote, that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it? Then what about the positive aspects of history? I can’t possibly recreate the enlightenment, though I view it as a positive period for the evolution of Judaism.

I think the broader question at play here is how should one treat the academic study of Judaism.

A few days ago, I was sitting in a gemara shiur (not a university class). We had been discussing a difficult mishnah, and in the gemara, Rav Huna and Rav Chisda tried to explain it various ways. Both of the explanations were a stretch, and it didn’t seem like either of them were “pshat”. So the rabbi leading the shiur showed us what Rabbi David Weiss Halavni, a professor of Talmud at Columbia University and Bar Ilan University, had to say about the issue. Rabbi Halavni read the mishnah with a different perspective than R’ Huna or R’Chisda, and came up with a way of reading it that seems to make a lot of sense, even though it contradicted those amoraim.

The Rabbi asked us what we thought about what Rabbi Halavni said. We all had to agree that it made a lot more sense, but a few students had reservations about his methods. “You can’t just disagree with the gemara like that. It’s not how we do things”, they said. So then The Rabbi said “What do you suggest for someone to do, if they’ve been struggling and struggling to find pshat in the Mishnah, and then they final figure out a way to understand it, but can’t find any amora who agrees with them? Should they just ignore this thought?” The student’s response: “Well, if they see a value in sharing their views, they shouldn’t publish it in a book that looks like a sefer.” [Rabbi Halavni’s book is written in Hebrew, leather bound, and is called ‘mekorot u’mesorot’]

I personally thought that what Rabbi Halavni said was great, and if I had a copy of his book, I would have placed it prominently on the left side.

I wonder where I would have placed his book 2 years ago, before I started learning secular Judaic studies?