How the Tree of Knowledge Brings Death

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Finishing the Seventh Sha’ar of ‘Akedat Yitzchak: How the Tree of Knowledge Brings Death

Last time, we saw the beginnings of R. Arama’s view of the Tree of Knowledge, what it provided and its proper role. Before he returns to the Tree and its dangers, he finishes his view of the elements of the Garden.

The Four Rivers

Bereshit 2;10 tells us a river flowed out of Eden, and divided into four. R. Arama thinks the rivers symbolize the various appetites and abilities people have due to the influence of Eden, the Divine Intellect. Those appetites lead people to populate and inhabit the world (people want to have children and enjoy various physical pleasures, for which they need to plant, build, and earn money). The first river, Pishon, gave us money, the means to acquire our desires, the reason verse eleven says Pishon surrounded the land of Chavilah, where there was gold. 

The other three rivers take care of the rest of what it means to be human. Gichon refers to the desire for food, drink, and all other bodily needs, so these first two rivers are about humans’ need to support their physical existence and pleasure. R. Arama reads Chideckel as a compound word, referring to the chadut, sharpness, and kalut (I think he means lightness of involvement with the physical world, but I’m not positive) with which one acquires the wisdom of the Tree of Life. Finally, Perat corresponds to the kind of knowledge given by the Tree of Knowledge. [It’s odd, to me, how he puts this intellectual capacity last always, which should have made it seem like it was more important. I think he wants to signal it should always be subordinate to the more august version of the intellect, but it’s not always clear].

Man Is Put in the Garden To…

After the Torah tells us about the Garden, verse fifteen says Hashem took Adam and placed him there, le-‘ovdah u-le-shomrah, to work it and to preserve it [a phrase mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, referenced often as the source of our obligation to be environmentally responsible]. R. Arama thinks man was mainly tasked with keeping the Garden’s closeness to Eden, which means—to him—acting in such a way as to foster/allow the Divine Intellect to shine into the world.

He approvingly quotes a commentator who said the Torah uses the feminine form for the Garden—le-ovdah u-le-shomrah, to work and preserve it, in feminine form—to hint at the parts of the human soul. He says it’s an additional reasonable way to read the words (not the way, because he believes in the Garden’s physical as well as symbolic truth, which converge—the physical, intellectual, and spiritual all follow similar enough paths that the Garden can properly refer to each and all of them.)

When Hashem puts Adam and Chavah in the Garden, they were allowed to use all the trees, as an extension of human beings’ right to use all their human powers, their appetites for money and pleasure as well, to “work the Garden,” to develop themselves and their intellects.

Misplaced Priorities and the Crime in Eating From the Tree

Once he shows a value to those two famous trees, he needs to explain why Hashem would prohibit eating from them, especially since he was sure Hashem wanted human beings to develop their free will, a project they could further by eating from these trees. He therefore does not understand the original prohibition—which he thinks always included the Tree of Life, since Hashem tells Adam not to eat of the tree(s) in the midst of the Garden (the Torah never explicitly has Hashem prohibit eating of the ‘Etz Ha-Chaim; R. Arama thinks the reference to “the tree in the middle of the Garden” including both trees). Pre-sin, why wouldn’t Hashem want people to eat and live forever? Then, once they did eat, the severity of the punishment bothers him as well.

R. Arama begins with three kinds of knowing: not knowing, knowing, or knowing incompletely, which can be misleading. The Tree of Knowledge would properly be used like spices, to bring better taste to food, and makes people more like Hashem (I am leaving out the verses he cites to support the idea, as well as those he cites to say people with no knowledge of good and evil are like animals, since even small children already start to develop a sense of good and evil).

He relates his claim about this kind of knowledge to what Aristotle and Rambam said about the physical. Moderate participation laudably supports health, a valuable means to the true end of more important human endeavors. More all-encompassing involvement is a problem.

Adam and Chava went wrong exactly that way. They turned knowledge of good and evil into an end of its own (R. Arama says they ate fully and completely of it, made it their whole source of nutrition). Making decisions about good and evil is supposed to be a small part of life, subordinate to our real concerns (true intellectual excellence, in R. Arama’s view), which is why Hashem put the trees next to each other (and, as he said earlier in this sha’ar, is why Moshe linked them in Devarim 30;15, says he is placing before them “life and good…death and evil.”).

The Deathly Lure of the Tree of Knowledge

The Tree lures people into overindulgence which R. Arama calls achilah gasah, an halachic term for eating beyond the point of fully stuffed, where only the act of eating gives any pleasure. With the Tree, excessive involvement leads people to think they need to focus only on determinations of good and bad, to leave behind the higher intellectual discussions [of the nature of the world, what Hashem wants of us, how to foster our Gd-like sides].

Focusing away from the intellectual to care only about the topics covered by the Tree of Knowledge loses people their eternal life, since only the intellectual life grants us eternity. Hashem warns of dying as a result of eating from the Tree, because eternal life depends on cultivating the Gdly side of our humanity, which R. Arama calls the intellectual. Once people give up on that, focus only on the moral, they sever the connection to Divine Providence, and become ordinary physical beings, which always eventually die.

The same would have been true of any of the other trees in the Garden. R. Arama thinks there was no need to warn Adam and Chavah against making any of those other trees their overriding focus because no one would think to make life solely about the physical and its pleasures. It would be obvious to all, he thinks, such a misplaced emphasis leaves a person no better than an animal and obviously on a similar path to decline, death, and decay [my first instinct was to bemoan how different we are today, when many supposedly sophisticated people insist on pure materialism; on second thought, I am surprised at R. Arama, since he certainly knew there had always been such misguided materialists in the world, including important philosophers.]

The Tree of Knowledge comes close enough to a valuable area of focus to fool many wise men or sages make the exact error of seeing decisions on good/bad as the sole goal and purpose, and they convince others to follow and agree with them [as, again, we see in our times, when some people think being “a good person,” meaning a moral one, is all that matters].

The Tree of Life, on the other hand, takes much hard work, a lifetime not being long enough. Hashem had to help people have a chance to gravitate towards the harder, less immediately rewarding path by warning them against “eating” (fully focusing on, rather than tasting or spicing with) the Tree of Knowledge.

The Limitations of Philosophy

As always, I’ve skipped much; here, the only last piece I must share is how he translates these ideas to his ongoing dispute with philosophy. Philosophy serves a valuable purpose in bringing people to realize there must be a Gd (a difference from today), Who could not have any physical attributes. But it does people a disservice (akin to how the Tree of Knowledge can distract people from involvement with the Tree of Life) when it denies (and convinces people sophisticated thinkers will reject) Providence, prophecy, or the possibility of Hashem being invested in earthly places (like the Beit Ha-Mikdash), the giving of a Torah, and reward and punishment.

Eating of that Tree, thinking it constitutes the whole truth, leads to death.

At the start of the sha’ar, R. Arama defended the literal truth of the stories of the Torah. Here, the literal event of the Tree of Knowledge carries symbolisms which reverberated in his time and continue in ours. We can overindulge physical and moral types of sustenance, can give them excessive importance. When we do, we take ourselves from the path of life to the path of death, repeating the sad error of Adam and Chavah back in the Garden.

About Gidon Rothstein

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