(Featured Image: Garden of Eden Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens)
The story of Adam and Chava (Eve) is one that most people take to have some great mystical, otherworldly significance. Many use it to justify misogyny and the oppression of women. Others see it as the source of an “original sin,” with which all humans are supposedly born. In my opinion, and experience, it is none of the above.
From the very beginning I have felt there was more to this story than meets the eye. A key argument for the existence of an “Oral Law” (the Talmud) is that the Torah cannot be understood without the help of Rabbis. While I disagree with this justification for the deviations of “mainstream” Judaism by the Paroshim/Pharisees, the fact remains that there are areas where outside knowledge is required in order to understand the Torah and its content. There are many things the author(s) understood or knew, and assumed their readers would know, that we today do not.
The Torah begins with a series of legends not to be read literally but to be seen in light of metaphor and concept. The very nature of these stories is in ample evidence: they have a legendary character and are not believable in a literal form–they are obviously myths, fables, and tall tales. This is in stark contrast to the remainder of the Torah which is a series of books that are built from ancient knowledge and can be more or less verified as plausible archaeologically. Until we reach the beginning of the story of Abraham (B’reishit [Genesis] 11:26) we are in this legendary and metaphorical section. That said, if we are not to interpret the story literally–that is that Adam and Chava lived in a garden and were expelled–but also derive a greater meaning or symbolism from the story, then what is this meaning?
I stood confused about this aspect of the story for many years. I was searching for this once obvious, but today elusive, meaning, until my wife found an interesting exploration of the story in comparison to many similar creation stories in a psychology textbook: Power in Eden, by Bruce Lerro. This book notes the similarities in this story with those of cultures that the ancient Hebrews and/or Israelites had contact with, most notably the Egyptians. Many ancient cultures have stories about the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled, “civilized” lifestyle.
Let us examine the points in the story in B’reishit: Adam and Chava live in a natural environment, do not know of evil, have no legal codex, are clearly smarter than the other creatures, and are very close to their creator. In nature there is no evil, when a lion kills a zebra it is not evil, this simply satisfies the animal’s need for food. Hunter-gatherers, likewise, feel very close to their creator (whom they know to be behind all of the natural phenomena around them), do not experience evil, and feel no shame about their bodies.
Chava then eats from the fruit of knowledge. Women are known to be the driving force behind civilization. Always eager to seek a better lifestyle, many cultures credit women with the blessings and curses of civilized life (outside of this story, the Greek myth of Pandora stands out as the most notable example). She then brings Adam in on it. Suddenly people abandon Hashem and His natural creation in favor of a life in which they are more destructive of that creation. Forests are cleared for farm land and villages, rivers redirected for irrigation, and animals are domesticated. Villages soon grow into cities wherein thousands of people live.
Women now “know” the pain of childbirth (it ceases to be simply a natural process), people are ashamed of their bodies and wear clothing (not simply out of necessity), and man discovers a knowledge of evil. What is evil? It is the capacity of men to behave in a deliberately harmful way toward one another, that is, with cruelty and malice. Man invented evil and commits it against himself and his neighbor. In civilized society, oppression, slavery, murder, and many other evils can be visited on thousands and even millions of people.
These civilized people may look upon the hunter-gatherers as living in a perfect world in which they are close to the creator, live simple and fulfilling lives, and do not know the pains and ills of the civilized world; but this is forever closed to us. Those of us who live in the civilized world, who have crossed that line, cannot return. No matter how much we might wish to be, we are not suited to that kind of life, nor would we be able to enjoy it if we could return to it. Indeed, it is the stuff of post-apocalyptic fiction that societies might devolve back to a hunter-gatherer state. It is more likely that such societies would only devolve back to basic agriculture instead. The story of the Garden of Bliss (Eden in Hebrew means comfort or ignorant bliss) reflects the ensuing nostalgia.
What is notable in this cross-cultural comparison, however, is how very different the Jewish version of this story is from those of other peoples. Not so much with regard to man’s behavior, but with the Creator’s. First and foremost, it is deliberate: Hashem creates a universe intentionally and consciously. It is not something separate from Him but part of Him. He has created a universe run by natural systems and mechanisms (we created science to study these). These are the natural laws, Hashem’s first laws.
The great Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza defined this conscious universe through panentheism. Why would human beings be able to develop and evolve beyond the limitations experienced by other creatures? This too must have been intentional. If Hashem did not want Chava, and humanity, to learn how to develop civilization, we never would have. Man’s existence is not an accident, our flawed nature is not an accident, and we have a purpose both each of us individually, as nations, and as a whole species. Even if Hashem does not always reveal His purposes to us.
A second and highly notable contrast between the creation story of the Torah and those of other cultures in this time, is the lack of sexual imagery. Many culture’s creation stories involve their creator masturbating the world into existence, and creating man through some act of sexual perversion with an animal or lesser being. Aside from the fact that Adam and Chava eventually reproduce, sexual imagery is absent from the Torah’s version of this story. This echoes a theme in the Torah that Hashem is real, He is the “living” G-d. He is not a fictional, flawed, or supernatural character envisioned by men with flaws who wish to elevate themselves. Neither is Hashem a magical being who can be manipulated with offerings and sacrifices. These practices are distinctly for the benefit of mankind who need them to commune with their Creator now that we have no experience of Him; we do not live in the environment into which He placed us.
Unfortunately, later on, Rabbis invented the Kabbalah which re-asserted sexual imagery by taking dionysian imagery and forcing it on Jewish practice. The Kabbalists envisioned male and female aspects of G-d that engage a cosmic orgy every time someone performs a good deed, prays, or makes love in an “appropriate” way. It makes me feel sick, disgusted, and unclean even to mention it, but this wickedness must be revealed. I believe that Kabbalah is idolatry and forces into Judaism unclean ideas that were absent prior to this cultural pollution. For many centuries most Rabbis agreed with me on this. Only recently have Kabbalistic ideas become normalized into much of Rabbinical Judaism.
Having achieved civilization, man has grown beyond the limitations of the natural world. Now, he must progress in order to survive. Mankind must develop new technology, acquire knowledge, evolve socially, and grow. What happens when such behavior becomes destructive? Men are flawed, we will abuse our knowledge. To this end Hashem revealed to us divinely inspired, ancient knowledge as a guide for all future generations: the Torah. No matter how advanced our technology progresses, no matter what social evolution takes place, no matter what new scientific knowledge is discovered we know we will be just and righteous if we abide by the laws that Moshe wrote for us about 3500 years ago.