A World of Broccoli and Pizza: Serpents of Desire, Part 7
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A World of Broccoli and Pizza: Serpents of Desire, Part 7

A World of Broccoli and Pizza: Serpents of Desire, Part 7

Knowledge and the nature of good and evil.

by

The time has come to examine more carefully the centerpiece of our story, the "Tree of Knowledge". Doing so, however, is no easy task. The tree isn't around anymore -- and even if it were, we probably couldn't understand it by taking sap samples from its trunk, or by measuring the biochemical qualities of its fruit. But while the tree itself is gone, the Hebrew words that describe its characteristics are alive and well. And these, I think, may hold some of the clues we are looking for.

The forbidden tree is known in Hebrew as the "Etz HaDa'as Tov Vara". Let's ask ourselves what these Hebrew terms really mean. The conventional translation of the phrase is "knowledge of good and evil". Is there anything more here than meets the eye?

WHAT IS REAL KNOWLEDGE MADE OF?

Let's start with the first phrase, "da'at" -- conventionally translated as "knowledge". Interestingly, the meaning of this word is not limited to "knowledge" in the conventional sense of the word. Indeed, one of the first times the root is used in the Book of Genesis, it conveys an experience that, at first blush, few of us would call "knowledge" at all:

V'ha'adam yada es chavah ishto...
And the man knew his wife...

In the Bible, the word da'at doubles as a synonym for sexual intimacy. The Torah's use of this word for both "knowledge" and "sexual union" is probably significant. More than likely, there is a core understanding of "da'at" that gives rise to both these meanings. What would that core be about?

Let's try and approach it this way: When a man "knows" his wife, what is he really seeking? Cynics might reply that he's after nothing but pleasure. But beyond sheer, physical pleasure -- and even beyond procreation -- is there not something more, something deeper, that he seeks? Perhaps, on some level, he is indeed after "knowledge" -- knowledge of the mysterious, alluring feminine that is so different from him, but so much a "missing" part of him at the same time.

To be sure, it is not intellectual knowledge that he seeks. He is seeking raw, first-hand knowledge. He is seeking to experience the feminine in a direct, unfiltered way.

In the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, a long-standing debate has raged about what real "knowledge" is made of. The rationalists have argued that "head knowledge" reigns supreme. You know something is true when you can demonstrate it through logic or analysis. Others, though, have argued that real knowledge is gained by experience. It's all very nice to contemplate an idea in your head, they argue, but you only know it's real when it happens in the real world; when you demonstrate it, say, in a laboratory. If you see it, if you can feel it, if you experience it -- then you know it's real.

Mankind attains "da'at" of good and evil, perhaps, not by intellectualizing about morality and what it is made of -- but by experiencing "good and evil" in a raw, direct way.

"Da'at" seems to denote this latter kind of knowledge – knowing something by experiencing it. A scientist who performs an experiment attains "da'at", even though he can't yet explain the rationale behind what he has experienced. A man attains "da'at" of a woman by joining with her and experiencing her, even though he can't express in words her mysterious essence. And mankind attains "da'at" of good and evil, perhaps, not by intellectualizing about morality and what it is made of – but by experiencing "good and evil" in a raw, direct way.

To summarize, then: In attaining "knowledge" of good and evil, we didn't get a better intellectual understanding of right and wrong. We got an experiential understanding of these things. We began to know right and wrong from the "inside" now.

But what, exactly, does that mean? It sounds so abstract. What does it mean to know "good and evil" in a raw, experiential kind of way? I know what it means to know ice cream experientially -- from the inside. I go to Baskin and Robbins, order some "Pralines ‘N Cream" on a cone, and eat it -- then I've got my "da'at" of ice cream. But what does it mean to know "good and evil" in this way? How does one take "good and evil" inside of oneself?

A closer look at the words "good and evil" -- or in Hebrew, tov and ra -- may provide the keys we are looking for.

RIGHT AND WRONG FROM THE INSIDE OUT

Earlier, I alluded to Maimonides' view of our story. In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides suggested that Adam and Eve were already aware of right and wrong, in some fashion, before eating from the tree. According to Maimonides, the tree did not give us moral awareness when we had none before. Rather, it transformed this awareness from one kind into another. Before eating from the tree, we would not have chosen to call virtuous moral choices "good" and vile choices "evil". We would have had a different way of thinking about such things; we would have used different words.

What were these "other words", this more "accurate" way of looking at things? Well, according to Maimonides, in the pre-tree world -- in the more pristine world -- virtuous choices would have been called "true", and reprehensible choices would have been labeled "false". In short, doing the right thing was called "truth"; and doing the wrong thing was called "falsehood".

What does Maimonides mean by this? At first glance, it seems bizarre. The word false would seem to describe "2+2 = 5" a lot better than it would describe, say, robbing a bank. What does it really mean to see morality as a set of choices between "truth and falsehood"? And how does this differ from saying that morality means choosing between "good and evil"?

I don't know for sure, and Maimonides doesn't elaborate all that much on what he means by this. But here's one way, I think, we might understand what he's getting at.

Let's think about it. How are "true" things different than "good" things?

When I say something is true, I'm describing objective reality. I'm telling you that something is out there; it's real. And it's real whether I like it or not. If we talk about morality as a matter of true and false, then, this might be shorthand for saying that making moral choices involves discerning something objective. It involves figuring out what the right thing to do is; what my Maker expects of me -- and then trying to align my behavior with that "truth".

How then, do we see virtue differently when we call it "good" rather than "true"? While the word "true" has a core meaning of "real", the word "good" is not quite as objective a term. For example, what else does "good" mean besides "that which is ethically correct"? Its other meaning is: "that which is pleasing". When I say something is good, what I am really telling you, in a subtle way, is that I approve of it; that it is desirable.

Perhaps, then, Maimonides means the following: The shift from a world of true and false to a world of good and evil was a shift between a world where my essential choice was an objective one, to a more subjective world -- a world in which my desire intrudes and becomes an inescapable part of the moral calculus...

As we suggested earlier, the "Tree of Knowledge" was deeply associated with desire -- it appealed to us at all conceivable aesthetic levels, from the most base (taste) to the most profound (mind). Perhaps the mysterious tree of knowledge was really a tree of desire. And perhaps the most fundamental ramification of our choice to eat from it was simply this: The role that desire plays in our lives would become forever changed.

To explain: In the pre-tree world, desire was more easily controlled. It was a natural part of man -- but a part that was in equilibrium with the rest of us. It was less likely to blind-side us. In the post-tree world, that can no longer be taken for granted. Desire brandishes a higher profile in man's psyche. It remains ever present, in the background, always a force to be reckoned with. Desire becomes a lens through which I view things. I no longer see a clear world of "true" and "false"; I now see something that is ever so slightly different. I see "good" and "evil".

A WORLD OF BROCCOLI AND PIZZA

If this still seems a little abstract, lets go back to some more commonplace ways in which we use these words, "true and false", as well as "good and evil". I think if we listen carefully to these words, we'll see some echoes of Maimonides' understanding of things:

When we shoot an arrow that hits its mark, we sometimes speak of the arrow having flown "true" to its target. Conversely, the Hebrew word chet, which means "sin", also doubles for "having shot at a target and missed" (see Judges, 20:16). In effect, when I see moral decisions as choices between truth and falsehood, it means that I am trying to "hit a target" when I make these decisions. I am trying to discern my Creator's expectations for me and I am trying to act accordingly. To sin is not primarily about hell-fire and guilt. If it is about that, it's only secondary. What it's about primarily is "missing the mark" -- failing to align myself with the reality called the will of my Creator.

And let's talk about the other side of the coin. When a kid pushes away a plate of broccoli because he says it's "bad" and prefers the pizza because it's "good" -- he is not dispassionately telling you about the quality and nutritional benefits of the food. He's telling you what he likes and what he doesn't like. In a curious kind of way, he is actually telling you more about himself than he is about the food.

Similarly, when the Torah speaks of "knowing good and evil", perhaps this is shorthand for a new way of looking at moral choices. Yes, I am still trying to figure out what God wants of me -- at least overtly. But there's another factor that can potentially cloud my vision: It's not only about what G-d wants anymore; it's also about what I want. Inside of every moral decision is a little bit of pizza and broccoli. My own desires are now an inescapable part of the picture; I am seeing right and wrong "from the inside" now. I can rise above these desires, but doing so is not as easy as it seems.

In the brave new world of good and evil, the picture I have of what is right and worthwhile is not necessarily the way things really are. That which is merely "good" -- desirable to me -- can easily masquerade very righteously as the "true". When I am looking at life through the filter of my own subjectivity, I may think that "x" is what G-d wants -- but perhaps it's really just what I want?

ARE ALL MORAL DILEMMAS CREATED EQUAL?

To really get a handle on these ideas, I'd like to take them out of the realm of theory and apply them to "real life". Let's try talking about "truth and falsehood" and "good and evil" in the context of some moral dilemmas that you and I might face during the course of our lives.

Try a little thought experiment, if you would. Below, you'll find a list of several hypothetical moral dilemmas. See whether you feel that these dilemmas might divide naturally into two different groups. Take a blank piece of paper, perhaps, put a line down the middle and mark one side of the line "Column A" and the other side "Column B". How, if at all, would you divide the list?

Here are the examples:

"Is it OK to take the dying man off the respirator?"

"My elderly mother needs help organizing her house before she moves -- but my kid needs me to help him prepare for finals. Who do I spend the evening with?

"Should Billy lie to the teacher to protect his friend Bobby, when the teacher asks him whether Bobby was cheating on his test?"

It's a dark and rainy night in Manhattan. You throw your trusty Chevy Suburban into reverse and begin to back out of your parking spot, when you hear a sickening thud. You get out of the car to behold, right behind you, a shiny black Lexus convertible -- with a badly dented front end. You look around. The street is entirely dark, not a soul to be seen. Do you leave a note or not?

My personal view is that the dilemmas do divide naturally into two groups. Three of these dilemmas, I think, are "real". One of them, though, is fundamentally illusory. Three of the dilemmas exist no matter whether you live in a world of "true and false" or a world of "good and evil". The other exists only in the mixed up world of "good and evil". In the world of "true and false", it evaporates like smoke.

See what you think. We'll compare notes next week.

 

Published: October 28, 2007

Article 8 of 12 in the series Serpents of Desire


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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) John P. Rivera, May 21, 2007 12:43 AM

Question? If eating of the Tree of Good and Evil gave or added experiential understanding,why deed they cover there nakedness after eating it?

Great work, I can see you have extended knowledge on this and many other controversial subjects.

(8) felix, June 19, 2006 12:00 AM

brilliant

i am overwhelmed by the clarity of the exposition.first time in my life that the story of "the tree" has a real meaning to me

(7) shmuel, March 28, 2006 12:00 AM

enlightening

great piece, look forward to more

(6) Anonymous, March 27, 2006 12:00 AM

the best

The articles of Rabbi David Fohrmann are very beautiful and very interesting;they are for me the best from this blessed site.

(5) Barry Katz, March 27, 2006 12:00 AM

what a brilliant article

... just learning the Sugya of Yetzer Horah [Kiddushin] with my class - this article will enhance the Shiurim greatly.
Yeyasher Kochacho!

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