In recent years, building upon the theory of evolution, some scientists have begun to try and explain features of human behavior and psychology by appealing to “evolutionary” theories, that theorize that the reason we do xyz is because back when we were cave men, doing xyz served whatever evolutionary purpose. What interests me about such theories is not their scientific value, because I think there is ample reason to doubt the scientific value of guessing what cavemen acted like and what their society was like based on how we act today. One can accept the theory of evolution and the value of science in general while still doubting that drawing a target and then aiming an imaginary arrow at it is bad science. In fact, the fact that it is bad science is what intrigues me. It tells me that even in the secular halls of evolutionary science, man is still prone to myth-making, to trying to come up with stories that explain why humanity is the way it is, stories that posit some prehistoric world in which humanity acquired the traits we recognize today. The only real difference is the terminology. And that they’re really bad myths. They don’t give us any insight into the human condition, they don’t hit upon some basic part of being human, they merely attempt to make science do a job its wholly unsuited for.
The First Sin , that is, Adam and Eve disobeying the divine command, following the advice of the snake, and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and introducing death and suffering into the world, is on the other hand, a myth. It is quite clearly a myth, what with the world that exists before history described in vivid detail, the talking animals, the use of archetypal characters of “The First Man” and “The First Woman”, and an action that has consequences that speak to human traits. I am relatively confident in stating, perhaps controversially, that it was never meant to be taken as a factual account. But it’s an exceptionally good myth, much better, and in a sense, heck, considering the bad science, in any sense, truer than any account given by evolutionary psychology. There is something about the story of the First Sin that cuts to the very core of what it is like to be a human being in this world, regardless of whether it happened factually and historically or not.
But what is that something, that feature of the story that speaks to something essentially human? Well, as with most things in the Jewish tradition, that is up for interpretation. I have offered my own explanation previously, adding to the already sizeable literature on the subject, but this year, I’d like to offer another explanation, one that is perhaps independent of my previous one, or perhaps not. I’ll let the reader decide, or future me decide, whether there is a consistent thought between the two. If not, I shall not be pestered by the hobgoblin of small minds.
So let’s ask ourselves a question? How did the first sin affect the first couple? How was humanity changed by it? Obviously, we have the peshat: You will die, you’ll have to work hard, and you’ll have to have painful childbirth. But what underlies all those? And there are further questions: How did the eating of the “Tree of Knowledge” affect them? Did they really become like gods, knowing good and bad? How does the fact that they realized they were naked play into things? I don’t know if I will answer all these questions, I’m kind of writing this with the idea half formed, but the point is that the affect on Adam and Chava was more than merely what the peshat says.
I want to start with an idea from R. Yitzchak Hutner which has, since I learned it, affected me a great deal, and I’ve used it in a number of contexts. Rav Hutner, in Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot 21, talks about the effect the fact of death, brought about by the first sin, has on man’s awareness of philosophical truths. Basing himself off a gemara on Sanhedrin 38a, Rav Hutner writes that man being created alone proves two philosophical truths that are dependent on the same thing: One, that Man is unique, worthy of the world being created for him and him alone, and Two, that all humanity is equal, coming from the same source. Once Adam sins and death is introduced, however, the notion that man is unique and worthy of the whole world existing for him and him alone is seemingly falsified, for the world will continue to exist after each individual dies, seemingly indifferent to that person’s existence. Once that concept, that of the uniqueness of man, is falsified, its twin concept, the notion of the unity of man, is also weakened. Those two concepts, then, according to Rav Hutner, can only be maintained through faith in the ultimate eradication of death, Techiyyat HaMetim. Thus, says, Rav Hutner, death, (and by extension, Adam’s sin) introduces an impassable partition of the heart, between what seems to be true and what is believed and affirmed to be true, between ההרגשה שבלב and האמונה שבלב. Without the appearance of death, we could fully comprehend without any doubt the twin concepts of the uniqueness and unity of man. Once death comes into the picture, as a result of Adam’s sin, this partition in the heart is created, and now we must posit such truths on faith.
I want to develop this notion of a partition in the heart that’s created as a result of Adam’s sin. Even though Rav Hutner sees such a partition as merely a logical conclusion extrapolated from the fact of death, I want to push it a little further, to perhaps something he never intended. I’d like to say it was not death that created such a partition, but that the sin itself created the partition, which “created”, so to speak, death. How so?
I’d like to bring a somewhat embarrassing example from my own life to illustrate. I wore Tzitzis every day throughout grade school, high school, and camp, through sweaty sports games, through squishy car rides, through everything. And I saw people take them off for sports games, and just generally not wear them, and I couldn’t understand why. They’re not that uncomfortable! I’m fine in them. And then I got techelet tziztis, and then the beged tore, and then I had to wait for a new beged, but I didnt have any regular tzitzis. And I just went without them. And, wow, you know what, this is actually pretty comfortable! And when I got a new beged, it became a struggle every morning to convince myself to put the tzitzis on. I had tasted of the forbidden fruit, there was no going back. What had happened was I had lived my life until that point with the idea of not wearing tzitzis never being a real, live option. But when I went without them, for a couple of days, it created a new, heretofore unseen possibility, of not wearing tzitzis. I now knew that there was a possibility of living my life, not wearing tzitzis. Even if I had known this intellectually, it had never seemed like a live option until I actually did it. My life, had until my point, existed in a narrative that had me wearing tzitzis. Going without tzitzis, even for a little bit, created the possibility of multiple narratives, from which I would have to choose, and struggle with that choice.
Back to Adam and Chava. Adam and Chava are told, “Don’t eat from that tree, or else you’ll die”. They perceive of this command the same way kid me understood rules against not wearing tzitzis: “Why would I do that?” Their Ddenic existence was one in which disobeying God was not a live possibility. They existed in one narrative, that of harmony with nature (according to Abarbanel), and of truth and falsehood (Rambam). There was no notion of choice, or of struggle, of being tested by circumstance. If God told them not to eat from the tree, they weren’t gonna eat from the tree. But the snake comes along, and says to Chava, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose one’s own path, to determine good and bad for one’s self, on one’s own criteria? Wouldn’t it be great to know good and bad? And Chava likes the cut of his jib, and she eats from the fruit, and gives to Adam.
By eating from the fruit, they have not just disobeyed God; they have created the very concept and possibility of disobedience. They have learned that multiple, indeed, infinite, narratives exist from which they can choose. They can choose to eat from the tree or to not eat from the tree, or just avoid trees altogether. They can obey or disobey, be good or evil, virtuous or sinful, peaceful or warlike, tolerant or oppressive. They are like Gods, able to see the multiple paths of good and bad. But it is that realization that creates the partition Rav Hutner speaks of. If all narratives exist side by side, all of them possible, all of them within grasp, how do we know which one to choose? Before the sin, there was one narrative, the true word of God, the state of nature, and no possibility of others. Now, other possibilities than the state of nature exist, and they realize they are naked, and they will now have to work hard to produce food. Now, other possibilities than God’s word exist, and they attempt to hide from God when he calls to them. Now, other possibilities than their uniqueness exist and thus death is introduced into the world. The partition that Rav Hutner describes is the impassable barrier between the multiple possibilities and narratives of this world, and certainty in the true one. As long as there are other possible narratives that can be followed, religion remains something posited based on faith and revelation.
What are we to do about this state of humanity? On one hand, we work towards and pray for the day of the fulfillment of Devarim 30:6, וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ: לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ–לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ. But in the meantime? There is a famous vort of the Kotzker, on the words of Devarim 11:18, וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם. The Kotzker asks, why “on your heart”, why not “in?” Answers the Kotzker, because the heart is blocked by an impenetrable barrier, and one cannot just place truth in their heart. They must place it on their heart, in stacks and piles, and wait for a moment that your heart’s barrier opens, in a moment of clarity or inspiration, so that in such a moment, truth merely needs to fall in.