B’reishit, Chapter 3: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

Although God had warned Adam and the woman that they should not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent convinced the woman to eat it.  Delighted by the fruit, she convinced Adam to partake of it as well.  After realizing that they were naked, they covered themselves, and God knew that they had eaten from the fruit.  For this transgression, He cursed them and prohibited them from entering the Garden of Eden.  Adam named his wife Hava.

What is so terrible about knowing good and evil?  In fact, isn’t it better to know good from evil; don’t we value knowing right from wrong?  This is the most difficult question lingering behind our chapter.  After all, did God not create man in His image?  God certainly distinguishes good from evil!

The answer to this question that has resonated with me most is that of Maimonides, found in the second chapter of his Guide of the Perplexed.  According to Maimonides, the problem with eating the fruit was the introduction of new thought categories to humankind.  Up until Adam and Hava ate from the tree, the categories by which they judged ethics were the same as the categories by which they judged physics.  I’ll explain briefly: physics is the way we describe the physical things around us; ethics is the way we describe how we ought to behave.  Physics is judged by the categories of true and false.  “The sky is blue” is true; “the sky is green” is false (usually).  “Maimonides wrote The Guide of the Perplexed” is true; “Maimonides wrote The Brothers Karamazov” is false.  Ethics, however, are usually judged by the categories of right and wrong or good and bad.  It is right to help an elderly person cross the street; it is wrong to steal money from the bank.

Maimonides claims that prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humankind judged ethics by the categories of true and false as well.  That is, the judgments of ethics were objective.  Everyone (namely, Adam and Hava, but had they not eaten from the Tree this would have applied to all humans) knew and would agree upon what was ethical and what was unethical.  When Adam and Hava ate from the tree, subjectivity was introduced to the world.  Something could be right for me but wrong for you; something could be bad to me but good to you.  It is only because the first humans ate from the tree that the fields of ethics and moral philosophy are necessary; it is only because of that action that mitzvot are necessary to guide us as to what we ought to do.  Had they not eaten from that tree, the right things to do would be as obvious to us as the sky is blue.  What might the world look like if that were indeed the case today?

Rabbi Roy Feldman

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B’reishit, Chapter 3: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

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