By Janine Stein
Desert Island Discs is a popular radio programme where interviewees imagine themselves cast away on an island with music and a book of their choice to take with them. I would take Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed because it’s the perfect book to read in a place where you don’t have to deal with other people.
Near the beginning of the book, Maimonides looks carefully at the story of Tree of Knowledge that we read today. He says that Adam and Eve were created by God with intellect; a form of human perfection that allows us to tell the difference between true and false. But it changes in a mouthful, because it is only when Eve, and then Adam eat the fruit, that they develop the mental awareness of good and bad. This makes things interesting because as Maimonides says: ‘The distinction between good and bad is a matter of general agreement and not intellectual activity.’ It’s only after eating of the tree of knowledge that we can create our own distinctive cultures with unique beliefs, customs and flags. The webs of meaning we humans create are spun in this mode. It’s the world we create for ourselves, not the world as it really is.
Maimonides gives an example of these two modes, the true/false and the good/bad. He says Adam and Eve only felt the shame of nakedness after eating the fruit. The truth is they were naked before and after eating the fruit. But only afterwards, Adam and Eve ‘would acquire the sense for what is generally agreed and become absorbed in judging things as to their being good and bad.’ Maimonides says: ‘His state of mind changed so that he considered bad what he had not considered bad before.’ It is a radical step to realize that ‘the sense for the generally agreed’ is not the same paradigm as true or false as perceived by the intellect.
For example, my sense for the generally agreed is that all girls should have an education. But this belongs in the land of good and bad, and not the land of true and false. Believing as I do, that I have the singular Truth on these subjects is fine alone on a desert island but not when one is living in a world with other people.
For that world, I need Rabbi Norman Lamm who looks at Bereshit 2.18 ‘Lo tov hiyot ha-adam levado’. He says ordinarily we interpret those words to mean it is not good for a man to be alone without a wife. He suggests the verse is saying it is not possible for a man who is alone to be good. Good is what we do with and for other people, so to be good we need to encounter another person. Another human being gives us the opportunity to be generous to them.
Our story starts with a woman with the courage to take what is good and to share it. I notice that the first thing Eve does after eating from the Tree of Knowledge is an act of generosity to Adam. While God created the entire world, the world we create for ourselves began with Eve’s decision to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and to share it.
Janine Stein is a copywriter and Talmud student, and a member of New North London Synagogue