Over-Focus on the Tree of Knowledge

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

How to Rectify the Damage Caused by Over-Focus on the Tree of Knowledge

Ethics Are Universals

Philosophers opposed the idea angels know ethics partially because they viewed ethics as particulars, a matter each culture chooses for itself, too specific to be of interest or concern to higher beings.

R. Arama objects; in his view, they miss the bigger picture, the swaths of ethics accepted universally [as we list some of his examples, I note not all of them are as universally agreed today as in his time]. Everybody believes in honoring parents, treating the elderly with respect, acting justly, righteously, and kindly, which encompasses most of what falls into the category of good and evil. Countries vary in their specific ways of enacting these ideals for reasons including climate, such as whether covering one’s head signifies humility and modesty or arrogance, but they all agree (emphasis mine) on the value of humility and modesty [his word is tzeni’ut, which includes avoiding all forms of ostentation, in clothing, in spending money, in material objects], and all societies strive for it in their own ways.

Aristotle agreed with the idea of a natural law, principles all people ratify as vital to human conduct. Variations in nature do not make us doubt the existence of physical laws of nature, nor do the exceptions to those laws. The same is true of human law; there are universally accepted, regardless of the differences in detail among societies [and climates, which I find a fascinating addition].

Back to the Tree

He suggests commentators resisted the idea of angels’ knowing good and evil, because they could not see why Hashem would prohibit Adam and Chavah from partaking of a Tree which taught information the angels had. In their view, the Tree had to cause some kind of damage, or else it should have been allowed to Adam and Chavah. And if it caused damage, the angels would have no need or interest of and in it.

For R. Arama, the presence of ideas of good and evil throughout the Torah mean it cannot be inherently problematic knowledge. As we’ve seen before, he thinks people were always allowed to use the Tree, only not eat from it, make it the center of their worldview. Whatever Hashem’s reason to ban Adam and Chavah from the Tree, he has again rejected a reason to deny angels’ knowledge of these topics.

People and Angels

They may know them, but people can act on them in a way angels cannot. People can perfect themselves by doing good, harm themselves by doing evil, where an angel is able to do only good, since it appears to the angel as a matter of truth and falsehood. [He refers us to Guide II;7; I pause for us to remind ourselves of how Aristotle and Rambam serve as his starting point despite his frequent disagreement. They were authorities, whose views carried weight. It’s a model we don’t always remember, where an authority is respected and a source upon which to rely even if we often also disagree and think the truth lies elsewhere.]

I skipped a few pieces of his explanation of Onkelos; let’s pick it up again where he says Onkelos found it hard to imagine the nachash, the serpent, could understand enough about angels to tell Chavah eating from the Tree would make her (and Adam) like them. Human beings perceive angels prophetically or use their great intellect to understand something about them, neither of which is within a serpent’s capabilities. The serpent’s references to what Hashem said all built off Chavah’s words, not his own, as (in a later Biblical incident), Balak speaks about what Hashem had said without himself having any ability to communicate with Hashem.

Most important to R. Arama, Onkelos clearly did not mean to deny any faith principles, such as Hashem’s knowledge of good and evil.

The Expulsion From Eden

He next wonders why Adam and Chavah were evicted from the Garden after eating. For him, the Garden was a physical place, as were the Trees of Knowledge and of Life, and the four rivers. Naturalists of his time searched for the Fountain of Youth, which they thought consisted of water trapped in stones and trees; they were sure they needed only find the way to extract the water, and then anyone who bathed in it would find their youth restored. Whatever would be true of such waters, R. Arama  says, would easily be true of the Tree of Life as well.

A physical Tree explains why Hashem declared a need to remove Adam and Chavah from the Garden. They had proved themselves unworthy of eternal life by investing excessively in conventional ethics, making central what should have been ancillary. Second, they showed themselves willing to violate Hashem’s commands, which meant Hashem had to expect they might eat other forbidden fruit.

Adam’s disobedience brought other forced distractions, such as having to work the land for food, which turns sustenance into a time-consuming chore instead of something automatically available [we weren’t supposed to spend the majority of our time earning a living, he is saying; it, too, is part of the punishment for overinvesting in what should matter less. He is clearly speaking pointedly to his audience with these words, and the idea fits our times just as well].

Helpful Direction

R. Arama thinks the verses about the expulsion recap Hashem’s goals in creating human beings, to encourage people to focus on those, to resist the lure of distractions. Were people to eat of the Tree of Life, they would no longer be a beriah chadashah, by which I think he means people were intended to bring something new to the world. Humans would bring nothing new or different to immortality.

Removing Adam from the Garden will force him to focus on the two elements of his world, the intellectual and the agricultural (by which I think he means all the physical). Forced to balance the two, Adam is supposed to remember what Tamid 32a tells us the elders of the south said to Alexander the Great, the way to live is to kill oneself (to deny or strictly restrain one’s physical side).

The verse speaks of Hashem sending Adam out of the Garden in the sense of Bereshit 45; 5, where Yosef said Hashem had sent him ahead to Egypt, to provide sustenance for the family. Here, too, Hashem removed Adam from the Garden to lay down a path to eternal life.

The Overcome-able Barriers to the Tree

The keruvim Hashem places at the entrance to the Garden, for R. Arama, indicate the elevated concepts Adam must learn in order to again earn the eternal life he seeks. The verse calls them keruvim, angels, to point out the loftiness of the ideas, how far they are from ordinary human thought.

The tool Adam had to achieve those ideas, his intellect, has been reduced to a cherev ha-mithapechet, a sword which flips over, not strong enough to cut on its own because of its tendency to reverse. When a person comes to consider more significant matters, his/her insight and sharpness are reduced to grossness and stupidity, on relatively light matters, let alone the difficult topics of truths about Hashem.

[I think he implies people are great and clever about finding a way to make money, traits they seem to lose when they grapple with more weighty issues, where they seem to lose their abilities to think, let alone come to true conclusions; but maybe I’m overlaying my experience on his words.]

He thinks perhaps Rambam was referring to that in the Introduction to the Guide, when he said people only come to philosophical insight occasionally, as flashes, like the lahat ha-cherev ha-mithapechet, the flaming sword flashing back and forth.

These two barriers, how far above most of us is the path to eternal life and our inability to think well about such matters, safely guard the path, withhold it from all who are unworthy [note how he’s made the barriers Hashem set up internal to us, where the verse sounds like they were external]. Exceptional people, who earn the right to again wear the garments of Eden, are those who removed themselves from all external and unimportant distractions, aim their efforts at understanding the deepest intellectual ideas, go into the “orchard,” and come out intact [a reference to Tosefta Chagiga 2;3, where R. Akiva and three others enter this orchard, but only R. Akiva leaves whole].

The tenth sha’ar was about what knowledge we were meant to have, where we were supposed to focus, where we went astray, and how we can and should return to what Hashem most wanted of us, to focus on the deeper truths of Hashem and the world.

About Gidon Rothstein

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