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Friedrich Nietzsche and the Disc Jockey: Serpents of Desire, Part 10

Friedrich Nietzsche and the Disc Jockey: Serpents of Desire, Part 10

Torah as the Spice of Life.

by

A few years ago, I flipped on the radio while driving in New York City. A disc jockey on one of the music stations was offering to help love-stricken callers sort out their romantic troubles. Listening for a few minutes, I encountered an exchange between the DJ and an earnest young, religious fellow who was explaining why he had chosen to remain abstinent until he was married. The DJ debated with him -- and to my surprise, advanced a religious argument -- very pious sounding, actually -- against the caller. "Tell me," the host began, "are you a normal fellow? Do you have any desires?"

Silence at the other end of the line.

After a suitable pause, the host continued: "Look, why do you think the Lord placed these desires in you if He didn't want you to act upon them?"

The poor fellow hadn't expected to be attacked on religious grounds -- and he didn't have much of an answer. As I drove away, my heart went out to the mismatched caller -- and it struck me that the primal snake, after all these years, is still alive and well. His argument, despite the passage of time, seems as current now as it ever did.

"Even if God said don't eat from the tree... so what?"

"God's commands, whatever they may be, are not primary. The real voice of the Divine whispers to you from the inside, through desire and passion that He has instilled in your very being. If your desires were placed inside you by your Creator, then don't you honor Him by doing their bidding?"

Throughout history, opponents of religion have advanced this rather basic argument in a number of forms and guises. In the last hundred or two odd years, one of the more powerful of these attackers was Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who, fittingly enough, entitled a collection of his essays "Beyond Good and Evil". In those writings and in others, Nietzsche railed against organized Western religion. He decried the tendency of religion to shun worldly pleasures and delights; to avoid them as if they were something to be afraid of. Passion, he declared, was the stuff of life itself. If one avoids passion, if one fails to engage it, he has failed the most basic test of humanity. He has failed to live.

As humans, are we really ready to consign passion to the dust heap?

What, really, is the answer to the snake -- or, for that matter, the answer to any modern purveyor of his argument? It's all very nice to say that passion is for animals and God's commands are for humans; that animals obey the voice of God inside them and that we obey the voice of God that comes to us through God's commands - but, as humans, are we really ready to consign passion to the dust heap? Desire, when you really think about it, has much to commend it. Passion fires our aesthetic sense: It makes us yearn for beauty; reach out for the spectacular sunset; thrill to the sounds of Yo-Yo Ma's cello. To at least some extent, Nietzsche was right: Our appreciation of these things, at least in part, is what makes us human. The minute I am devoid of desire, the minute I have no ambition left -- I have no reason to wake up in the morning. I'm as good as dead.

So where, exactly, was the snake wrong?

To really respond to the snake effectively, we need to re-calibrate our arguments a bit. We need to take one last, long look at desire, and see if we really want to completely dismiss its charms. After all, one could argue that God Himself is nothing if not passionate: He is a Being whose Will is so powerful that it spontaneously manifests itself as reality. God desires a universe and out of nothing, it explodes into being. What could be wrong, the snake asks, with a little more passion?

TORAH AND THE SPICE OF LIFE

A good 18 centuries ago, the Sages of the Talmud anticipated this line of reasoning, and they put forward a pithy but perplexing aphorism that tries, I think, to respond to it. The aphorism was written in Hebrew; here's how it's usually translated:

 

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Israel: My son, I have created the Evil Inclination; and I have created the Torah, its antidote. If you involve yourself in the Torah, you will not be delivered into its hands... (Tractate Kiddushin, 30b).

 

At first glance, the Sages seem to be implying that the Evil Inclination is a problem, a sickness, and the Torah is its solution -- the way to get rid of the sickness. But, as is sometimes the case, a lot has been lost in the translation. In the original Hebrew, the Talmud says that the Almighty created the Torah as "tavlin" for the Evil Inclination. Most translations render that word "tavlin" as "antidote" or "salve" ("if you take the antidote... you will not be delivered into its hands..."), which seems to fit with the context -- but unfortunately, that's not really what tavlin means. If you go to Israel today and walk into a shop and ask for tavlin, they'll won't direct you to the medicine counter. Instead, they'll walk you over to the spice rack, and give you a choice of parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme. In Hebrew, tavlin means spice.

Well, that certainly throws things for a twist. If tavlin translates as "spice," what does it mean to say that the Torah is "spice" for the Evil Inclination?

What kinds of things do you put spice on?

You put spice on meat; you put spice on food.

Interesting. The Evil Inclination is "meat." What a profoundly different way of looking at things! If you were stuck on a desert island and could be supplied for a year with your choice of either meat or spice, which would your rather have? I'd venture that most of us would opt for the meat. Spice is great, but you can't live on spice. Meat is fuel; meat provides you with the energy to live.

At first blush, it seems surprising, even blasphemous, to see things this way: How dare you say that the Evil Inclination is more "essential" somehow than Torah! But hold your horses and think a bit about what the Sages are saying here. For it's not just the word "tavlin" in this aphorism that defies easy translation; the term "Evil Inclination" -- that thing for which the Torah is meant as tavlin -- is just as slippery a concept to get a handle on.

What, exactly, is this thing named "the Evil Inclination"? Is it the Dark Side of the Force? Is it some horned devil, complete with pitchfork and bright red suit? Is it some scorned angel with a little too much time on his hands who perches above our left shoulder and whispers bad advice in our ear? When we think about the Evil Inclination, we often envision something darkly metaphysical or faintly childish. But in "real life," what is this thing?

If we exchange the language of the rabbis for modern, psychological language, we might say that the Evil Inclination is nothing more or less than our passions, our drives, our desires. In fact, we might go a bit farther. In Hebrew, the term for "Evil Inclination" is yetzer hara. The root of the word yetzer is y'tz'r -- which, fascinatingly, means: "to create". If we translate yetzer hara quite literally, it would seem to connote -- get ready for this: The drive to create, [in] evil [form]. Or, perhaps, more succinctly: Yetzer Hara = "creativity gone awry"...

Our passions fuel us; they are engines that makes us go. Our drive to create, in particular, is one of the deepest and most fundamental of these passions. It, indeed, has many outlets: Sexuality; artistic endeavor; the yearning to be an inventor; ambition of almost any sort -- you name it; they are all expressions of creativity at some level. The Talmud, centuries before Freud and Nietzsche, insisted that such forces our essential to our humanity. Without energy, without "meat", you are dead.

But, the Talmud adds, the meat can still use some spice. Let's think about this carefully. What, exactly, does spice do for meat?

It gives direction to it; it makes it taste one way rather than another. Without any spice; meat is bland; with the proper spices, it's the dish of kings.

The Torah gives direction to our most basic, most powerful, drives.

Maybe this explains the rabbis' insistence that Torah is the tavlin, the spice, for the Evil Inclination. The Torah gives direction to our most basic, most powerful, drives. Sexuality, ambition; these things are the highly flammable fuel that combusts inside us and makes us go. It is tempting for religion to look at such raw, daunting forces and to frown upon them; to try and suppress them. The Talmud is saying, though, that the answer to the fearsome power of passion is not to go and take the engines out of our cars; to renounce "meat" and starve. No, the Torah is designed not to extinguish passion but to complement it; to provide spice -- direction -- for it; to make desire taste like something. The Torah's commands seek to direct passion towards productive ends; towards worthwhile, even holy, endeavors. Feel your passion, your sexuality, your ambition, the Torah says; don't destroy it. But direct it this way, rather than that way. Steer it; don't let it steer you.

THE ADVENT OF IMBALANCE

There was a time, I would submit, when this task of steering was not as difficult a job as it now seems to us. In the pre-tree world, when passion and intellect were more naturally in balance, "moral clarity" was easier to come by. We could make decisions with unfiltered vision, without undue fear that our desires distorted the moral landscape; without worrying quite so much that the way we perceived the Will of our Creator was subtly corrupted by our own passions; by our own will to create.

That world changed -- we changed -- when we ate of the Tree of Knowledge. After partaking from this wellspring of desire, I would suggest, Adam and Eve sensed that the engine that burned inside them was more powerful than it had been before. Yes, their heightened desire made them greater beings, more like God Himself, the Ultimate Creator:

 

...you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil... (Genesis 3:5)...

 

But there was a hitch: Humanity traded in its engine for a more powerful one -- but it was still left with the same steering wheel as it had before. The delicate balance between passion and intellect was altered. In the post-tree world, Adam and Eve -- all of us, really -- were left to struggle with the dilemma: How does one direct a powerful, massive engine, with a small, easily overmatched intellect?

A NEWFOUND FEAR

Now let's re-read our story one last time, focusing on what happens immediately after Adam and Eve eat from the Tree.

In the immediate aftermath of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam hears "the voice of God strolling in the Garden", and he hides, aware that he is naked. It is interesting that it is the hearing God's voice -- not anything in particular that God says, but just the awareness of His voice -- that prompts Adam's anxiety. Having just hearkened to the snake's gambit, having accepted, if only because he wanted to, the idea that God really speaks to me through my instinct, through the voice inside me -- at that moment, hearing the voice of God coming from the outside was especially jarring. It was a stark reminder that God does, indeed, speak to man with words; that His expectations go beyond our simply yielding to the engine inside us, letting it take us where it will.

Adam's anxiety takes the form of discomfort over his nakedness. Interestingly, the emotion Adam talks about here is not embarrassment -- what we might have expected from someone who just realized he is naked -- but fear:

 

I was afraid because I was naked and I hid (ibid. 3:10).

 

Fear is a world away from embarrassment. I become embarrassed when a peer teases me, when I make a gaffe in public; I am afraid, on the other hand, of something I sense is bigger than me, of something beyond my control, of something that can crush me. Before he ate from the tree, Adam was well aware that he was naked; he just wasn't afraid of it. Sexuality, in the old world, had been just a natural part of life -- why bother with clothes? Now, though, things felt different. Sexuality -- the biological manifestation of our drive to create -- was stronger, more overwhelming, now. Nakedness -- direct, unfiltered confrontation with our own sexuality -- is now a source of fear.

These newly powerful passions, this drive to create -- it may be godly; it may be intoxicating; but it can also crush me, can't it? How does one steer an engine as fearsome as this?

THE PRICE OF POWER

After Adam and Eve eat from the tree, God imposes upon them what seems to be a grab-bag of punishments: Death, pain in childbirth, difficulty farming; the snake crawls on his belly and eats dust. But are these "punishments" really as random as they seem?

Let's start with the snake. Adam and Eve were beguiled by a walking, talking serpent into losing sight of the essential differences between themselves and the animal world. Now, in the aftermath of that failure, God removed that particular source of confusion: No longer would the animal world seem quite so nearly human. The snake now crawls on its belly and loses its legs -- and, presumably, its ability to speak as well. Moreover, there is the promise of hatred between the children of Eve and the descendants of the snake. Humankind, having once mistaken itself for snakes, will be less likely to do so in the future.

As for the punishments that affect Adam and Eve, are they really punishments at all -- or perhaps just consequences? Let's go back to the "engine and steering wheel" analogy. Imagine you had a car built by a supremely competent manufacturer. It works in complete harmony with everything else built by the same manufacturer -- and it works in complete harmony with itself. Now let's ask some questions:

If there is no friction between the moving parts of the car, for how long does it last?

It lasts forever.

Okay. But let's say you take the car and fiddle with the engine. You rebuild your V4 engine and give yourself the more powerful V8. Well, now you've got more power, but at a price. The harmony is gone.

Internally, friction is introduced into the system. The parts, ever so slightly out of balance, grind and eventually wear out. The system will one day break down. Death has become a reality for mankind.

And the "grinding" has other manifestations, too. Just as mankind grinds within himself, he grinds to reproduce himself, too: Childbirth -- previously an effortless experience, now becomes a pain-wracked ordeal. Creativity, the creation of new life, is more jarring now.

Mankind feels the loss of harmony in other ways, too. We find ourselves slightly out of sync with everything else built by the Manufacturer. In the past, the world of nature would effortlessly provide its bounty for Adam. Now, Adam must beat sustenance out of the ground by the sweat of his brow. In the past, we were perfectly in tune with the world around us. Now, when a tsunami stalks silently towards shore, it is the animal world that senses instinctively that something is amiss; it is they that head knowingly for high ground. Man remains enclosed in a world of his own, on vacation at the beach, oblivious to the subtle shrieking of the natural world all around him.

A final manifestation of this disharmony: We must pick up and go, now. As a reader of this column, Machla Abramovitz, remarked to me in an email: Mankind, no longer at home with himself, finds himself no longer at home in the world created for him either. He suffers exile from the Garden, and must make the best of it in new and vaguely foreign terrain.

 

*     *     *

 

We are nearing the end of our look at Adam and Eve in the Garden. In our final chapter, we'll tie things together with an exploration of the Almighty's seemingly unnecessary question to Adam, "where are you?". A closer look at the Hebrew, will, I think, reveal some haunting dimensions to this question -- including the intriguing possibility that it may not even be a question at all...

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Take some time to think about it, and I'll see you next week.

 

Published: October 28, 2007


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Article 11 of 12 in the series Serpents of Desire

Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Anonymous, October 31, 2006 3:13 PM

Brilliant

Beautiful, intelligent article - thank you! For Dan's question... I would think perhaps Eve would endure a smiliar fate to that of Lilith, who knows?

(11) Anonymous, May 4, 2006 12:00 AM

Yes, Yes, If one has a pure heart

Thanks for the thoughtfulness of this article. A reminder of what we know in our hearts, but need to hear again to remember what we knew intuitively!

(10) curtis smith, May 3, 2006 12:00 AM

it's a great read.

(9) Dan Smith, May 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Apple

What would have happened if only Eve ate of the fruit and only she was put out of the garden?

(8) David Altschuler, April 28, 2006 12:00 AM

I rarely read articles twice...

R'Fohrman,
You have a great gift in developing analogies. I savored your explaining the punishments after our eating the Fruit in terms of friction and engines. Thank you.

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