Garden of Eden


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What is the Jewish understanding of the Adam and Eve story? (Honestly, this is not some kind of stealth faith vs. works type of question). I ask because in Christianity much is made of The Fall and our belief is that Christ reconciled humanity for this fatal error. Does Judaism await some kind of reconciliation, or is the whole thing seen in some other light? I won't elaborate because I my lack of knowledge about this is astounding and I would probably offend.

wow, you don't ask hard questions... much.

i guess the answer would be something like "this is the hardest thing to understand in the whole of Torah". the events surrounding the Creation (called ma'aseh bereishit) and the expulsion from the garden are, like in christianity, pivotal to our understanding of the cosmos but also very different in their emphases. as i don't think it's really appropriate to discuss ma'aseh bereishit in this forum (nor am i anything like expert enough) i will confine my remarks to the garden episode.

basically, the point to focus on is this: what is being describe is the process by which we became human. by human i mean human as we would understand it - more than an animal, more than an angel, less than Divine but nonetheless made in the Divine Image. the picture of adam and eve in the garden is properly fleshed out in the midrashic literature. even leaving aside the sources which say things like "adam was 600 foot tall with a skin made out of a nail-like material", the picture that emerges is of a being that is nothing like a human. for a start, some sources consider adam as a hermaphrodite, who was split into two to make eve as well - this is alluded to by the rib section. even after this, the other respect in which adam and eve are not human is that they do not exercise free will and choice. they behave as the other animals do - in particular, they have intercourse purely because they feel like it, on impulse, without second thought or privacy. what is interesting, however, is that they are not considered to actually feel sexual desire or gratification - they are simply doing something as natural as sneezing (and about as engaging). only after they eat the fruit do they become aware of the consequences of their actions, both positive and negative. they are no longer what they were, but what they have become is recognisably human. we just don't call it a "fall" - just the "sin of adam".

this understanding of the garden story is achieved essentially by the identification of the fruit (not an apple, incidentally) as coming from the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. and what does this signify? not that knowledge itself is good or evil. nor that sex (which is linguistically connected with knowledge of the utmost intimacy, as in "and adam knew his wife") is good or evil. what we are concerned with here is the consequences of actually knowing what happens when you act - in other words, the discovery of free-will. without free-will, there can be no sin (because you weren't acting according to your own free will) and therefore no repentance. so what we are describing here is actually the process of moving from the state of animality (neither good nor bad but different) to that of humanity. in some senses this could be described as a "fall" - for animals cannot be said to sin. only humans (through their free-will) can sin, therefore humanity implies sin and therefore only humans can repent and make a choice to act correctly (to fulfil a commandment, for example) and only through knowledge can you know that you have a choice and mastery of your will.

obviously, once one knows this, there is really no going back, in the same way that time only flows in one direction for humans. once you are human, you can no longer remain in that idyllic state, interacting with animals and nature on their own level. you are removed from them forever. in that way, i suppose, there is cause for sadness, but not for regret. the alternative was there never having been humanity at all - and that choice has already been made. we can atone for adam's sin (i believe this is done on the new year for trees, appropriately enough) but it seems somewhat quixotic to wish it had never happened.

there is plenty of speculation about the "world to come", which is often identified with eden. perhaps this represents the final freedom from freewill itself, when we return to that edenic state. i suppose we will be reconciled to G!D in the way that adam was. we will no longer be human, but we will also no longer be sad - or happy. the later sources seem fairly ambiguous about it - albeit they still consider it a desirable state in the world to come. however, it remains a mystery to us.


Thank you Bananabrain! Fascinating stuff, and the understanding of the garden story actually seems very very similar to my own, except my info came filtered through the Christian church. My own understanding of the garden story is metaphorical rather than factual, but somehow to me the Truth in it remains the same. For example, and I hope I will not offend, the idea of this being "the process by which we became human" is compatible, I think, with the theory of evolution. At some point there was the first human, and perhaps the definitive suite of genes were those that conferred the ability to distinguish good and evil. This isn't some big branch of the theology of lunamoth, just a passing thought (and probably wrong). :) And I think there is also a level of meaning personally as each one of us chooses to follow the will of G-d as we know it and the consequences of not doing so.

It happens that today I viewed a "video-class" on Judaism (50 minutes, so you can imagine that it was not very comprehensive!). A couple of points of interest I jotted down were that there is no element of chance in creation, that creation is divinely planned, and also that G-d remains active in the world. Humans are the climax and purpose of creation, and man has the character of G-d, esp intelligence and moral choice. Not to take us into the creationism, ID, YEC debate, but I would agree with all of these statements and yet still say that the ToE is the most accurate model we have for how this was accomplished. There is no chance event with G-d, it only looks that way from our perspective.

Now, I am starting to appreciate the Christian eschatology little by little and it also seems to be similar to what you described in your last paragraph. I also speculate that it is the removal of free will, such as by the universal, somehow objective knowledge of G-d, that would bring about the return to Eden and it would be so different from what we know that I find it inconceivable, a mystery as you say, and the end of the world as we know it (to coin a phrase). In Christianity we believe that this End Time is actually upon us, accomplished even, or more accurately it breaks through but not yet is in its fullness. These two ideas do not quite mesh for me, but are great grounds for contemplation.

Thank you again for your detailed response.