Chava’s Reasons for Eating

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Chava’s Reasons for Eating: A New Look at Reasoning and Reason

by R. Ira Bedzow

This article is adapted from my new book, Maimonides for Moderns: A Statement of Contemporary Jewish Philosophy, which will be published by Springer. For more information, see its sections on practical reasoning.

Contemporary philosophical conceptions of “Reason” – which predominantly define the term as the capacity of a person to provide reasons for acting – assume a stark divide between ethical reasoning and conforming to external standards.  Whether based in neo-Aristotelian notions or Kantian notions, ethical reasoning is intended to provide independent justification for action.  Any reliance on social or legal norms and values would demonstrate deficiency in one’s moral reasoning and would result in actions which, even if in accord with the ethical choice, would not be ethically motivated.  For example, according to Aristotle, living well consists of choosing good and noble actions for their own sake, and for no other reason at all; therefore, excellence cannot be achieved when a person acts out of obedience to the law.  Similarly, for Kant, voluntary moral action must stem from a wholly internal motivation, where one’s will both determines what is right and is motivated to act according to what is right, and following the law negates any role for one’s will to determine what is right.

This contemporary notion of ethical reasoning as wholly independent of outside influence is a thorn in the side of today’s Jewish philosophers.  Without having a place for incorporating the values, norms, and the authority of Jewish law into one’s ethical deliberation, so as to obey God’s will in fulfilling Torah commandments, Jewish philosophers who are forced to adopt these two contemporary frameworks of ethical reasoning must either abandon the idea of ethical reasoning as a religious value altogether or must assume that, if it exists, it is not an ideal.  This debate over the priority of Divine command morality and appreciating the value of internal ethical reasoning has a long history in medieval Jewish philosophy, yet for the sake of focusing on the modern period, the difficulty can be seen in the statements of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, Arba’ah Turim, Yoreh Deah, 181, and Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein, Arukh HaShulhan, Yoreh Deah 240:2-3, who argue that the normative value of the commandments is in the fact that God commanded them, and any search for a different source of normativity would detract from the power of God’s decree.  By normative and normativity, I mean providing reasons for doing an action or considering such an action as correct to do.  Of course, there have been contemporary scholars who defend internal deliberation within the notion of submitting to Divine decree, yet few have provided an account of “Reason” to support its inclusion such that it can answer the challenges posed by neo-Aristotelian and Kantian conceptions.

While emphasis must be made of the theological notion that moral growth consists of making one’s own will align with God’s will,1 in today’s intellectual and social environment, ideas regarding individuality and personal identity shape much of our religious observance and our understanding of our relationship with God and the Torah’s commandments.  It would, therefore, be prudent to find a way to incorporate a notion of ethical reasoning into Divine command morality as a means for people to identify with fulfilling God’s commands as commandments – without morality being self-legislated – while also being able to explain how we still act voluntarily.  This notion of ethical reasoning must be different than the neo-Aristotelian or Kantian frameworks, or we will be left with just another form of Faith vs. Reason.

To provide such a place for moral reasoning, I propose that we think about how a person reasons rather than about “Reason.”  In other words, instead of adopting neo-Aristotelian or Kantian views of “Reason,” where it means providing reasons for acting, we define “reasoning” as recognizing and responding to reasons, where reasons consist of internal beliefs and desires as well as external physical, social, and religious facts and norms.  When we appreciate that “reasoning” consists of recognizing and responding to reasons, and not simply providing them through “Reason,” then ethical reasoning cannot be wholly internal or independent of the world in which a person lives, but rather must incorporate the person, his or her world, and the facts, norms, and values that God has created and commanded.

Biblical Example

To support the idea that contemporary Jewish philosophers can adopt a view that reasoning consists of recognizing and responding to reasons, I will show how this process of reasoning can be used to explain what transpired in the exchange between Chava and the serpent over eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Just to provide a counterpoint, in a neo-Aristotelian or Kantian framework, Chava can only think and act morally – she can only have knowledge of good and evil and act upon it – if she provides her own reasons for acting.  Once she relies on norms or values which she did not originate, she might be thinking practically or legally, but she is not thinking ethically.

Initially the serpent questions Chava as to why she cannot eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The serpent uses the following reason:

1) God said, “You shall not eat of every tree in the garden,” which implies that she shall not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as well.

*Implied reasons are subsumed within the more general reasons, since inferences, as deductive logical conclusions, are just further descriptions of relations between other facts.

Chava answers that she cannot eat from the Tree for the following incorrect reason:

1) God said, “You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it, lest you will die.”

*The reason is incorrect because it includes a normative reason that is not true (you shall not touch it).

God did not tell Chava this statement directly; therefore, she must have heard it from Adam and only afterwards could have recognized this statement as a reason to be considered.  Either Adam or Chava added to God’s statement, “and you shall not touch it.”2  The additional reason not to touch the Tree comes from the belief that it will further safeguard the original command, yet the reason itself is external.  Its externality is obvious if Adam created the reason.  If Chava created the reason, it would still be partly external since she must recognize its normative force vis-à-vis the situation.  Her internal desire not to touch the tree was not independent of all outside factors.  As we will see, her subsequent actions demonstrate that the reason not to touch the tree was distinct from her desire not to touch the tree, since it was weighed in the same way as the other normative reasons during her deliberations.

Chava incorrectly recognizes the reason to consist of the fact that

1) if she eats from the Tree or if she touches it, then she will die.

In other words, she understood God’s statement as a means to make her aware of the natural consequences of eating from the Tree, i.e. that it was poisonous, for example.  She does not recognize the correct reason as consisting of two facts, namely

1) God said, “You shall not eat from it.”

2) If she eats from it, then she will die.

The first normative fact is a proscription, while the second fact explains the consequences of transgressing the proscription.

When Chava saw that the reason – if she touches the Tree, then she will die – was false,3 then she incorrectly thought that the entire reason for not eating from the Tree was false.  Therefore, she now had the following reasons to eat from the tree:

1) The fact, “if she eats from the Tree or if she touches it, then she will die,” is false, which implies that the fruit was good to eat.

2) The serpent told her that if she eats it, her eyes will be open.

3) The serpent told her that if she eats it, she will be like God, knowing good and bad.

4) She desires to have her eyes opened and to know good and bad.

  • With respect to the first reason above, “good to eat” does not mean that she thought it was good in the moral sense, only that the fruit was good to eat in that eating it would not kill her.  To proffer otherwise would contradict the story, since Chava was only able to know good and evil after eating from the Tree, not beforehand.  A different, but not unrelated, way to explain it is that the Bible states earlier that God caused to sprout from the ground “every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food” and also “the Tree of Life” as well as “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”4  When Chava saw that the Tree would not harm her, she uses similar expressions, namely that she saw that the Tree was “good for eating” and a “delight to the eyes” (as well as “desirable for comprehension”).5  Because the Tree did not harm her, Chava thought that it was similar to all the other trees of the garden, of which she was permitted to eat, only that this Tree was also “pleasing according to her reasoning” to eat it as well.

She did not recognize the normative reason,

1) God said, “You shall not eat from the Tree.”

While the latter is still a normative reason for her regardless of her recognition of it, because she did not recognize it, she did not consider it in her deliberating.  Chava recognized the second and third statements above when the serpent told them to her.  Her desire became part of her reason to eat when she recognized its normative force and used it in her deliberations as to whether she should eat from the Tree.

Only after she ate from the Tree did she recognize that God’s statement, ‘You shall not eat from the Tree,’ was a normative reason.  In other words, only after she ate from the Tree did she know that God’s commands are reasons to act by virtue of His command.  As such, in eating from the Tree, she learned how to think and act morally.  She gained knowledge of good and evil.

What is most interesting about the serpent’s statement in seducing Chava is that it describes moral knowledge in the same way as I have been describing ethical reasoning.  “Opening one’s eyes” refers to an ability to perceive reasons.  When the serpent says that she will be like God, the term used is Elohim, which is the name that is used to denote judging and evaluating circumstances.  Therefore, to “know good and bad,” one must have one’s eyes open to reasons as well as have the ability to judge them so as to know whether one’s actions are proper or not.6

After Adam and Chava ate from the Tree, the Bible states that they recognized that they were naked.  From this recognition, they reasoned that they should clothe themselves.  Before they ate from the Tree, the Bible states that Adam and his wife were naked, but they were not ashamed.  The difference between these two passages is not an introduction of the normative reason to clothe oneself when one is naked.  Rather, the difference between the passages is that before they ate, they did not recognize this reason, and after they ate, when their eyes were open to it, they did.

After Adam and Chava ate the fruit, they hid from God.  When asked why they hid, Adam gives the following reasons:

1) He heard God’s voice in the garden.

2) He was afraid.

The reason he was afraid was because

3) He was naked.

Being naked is not an obvious reason to be afraid; however, Adam’s fear is based on the same reason as the shame Adam and Chava felt while alone.  The reason for being ashamed was that it was a response to the recognition that being naked is inappropriate when among equals and thus serves as a reason to be clothed.  The reason for being afraid is that it is a response to the recognition that being naked is inappropriate when in the presence of a superior.

While this conception of reasoning is not Maimonidean, it is consistent with Maimonides’ understanding of what had occurred in the Garden of Eden.  According to Maimonides, Adam was originally created with intellectual perfection, so that he could acquire truths such as “the heavens are spherical,” as well as distinguish between the truth and the falsity.  Due to his innocence, however, he did not possess the faculty to assess moral truths, since they are only apparent truths based on social convention.  In other words, Adam was able to recognize and respond to explanatory reasons, but not normative reasons.  After Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he was punished and lost part of his intellectual faculty.  Yet he gained the moral ability to recognize and respond to normative reasons.7  According to Maimonides, the idea of one’s eyes opening connotes receiving new sources of knowledge.8 As such, he provides a very similar explanation for what made them afraid.  He writes, “And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. It is not said, And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they saw. For what was seen previously was exactly that which was seen afterwards.  There was no membrane over the eye that was now removed, but rather he entered upon another state in which he considered as bad things that he had not seen in that light before.”9

  1. Avot 2:4. 

  2. The Talmudic Sages offer that the proscription not to touch the tree was authored by Adam so as to make a fence around the original command.  Rashi, on the other hand, comments that Chava added the extra proscription herself. 

  3. This is not explicit in the Biblical text, yet it is taken for granted by the Sages that such was the case. 

  4. Genesis 2:9. 

  5. Genesis 3:6. 

  6. Compare Genesis 3:5 and Genesis 3:7. 

  7. Guide for the Perplexed I:2. 

  8. He compares this passage with “God opened her eyes” (Genesis 21:19), “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah 38: 8), and “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. 12: 2).  He also compares it to “Open ears, he hears not” (ibid. 40:20).  

  9. Guide for the Perplexed I:2, Pines, 25. 

About Ira Bedzow

Ira Bedzow is the Director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities Program at New York Medical College. Among his other responsibilities, he is in charge of a new master’s program in biomedical ethics at NYMC, which has an option for a focus in Jewish medical ethics. He is also the Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values. Rabbi Bedzow received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Daniel Channen (Yoreh Yoreh), Rabbi Yitzchak Oshinksy (Yadin Yadin), and Rabbi Dovid Schochet (Yadin Yadin). He earned his PhD in Religion at Emory University.

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