Friday, October 04, 2002
Okay, it's a pretty busy day at work, so my one-day-late thoughts on this week's parshah will be quite cursory. I expect to return to this theme in the future, however (who knows, maybe even in print) because it is of deep and abiding interest to me.
I have been deeply influenced in my understanding of the Genesis narratives by three readers: the author of the Book of Job; Rav Soloveitchik; and Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. Not, you might think, a likely fraternity, but it makes sense to me. Here's why.
From the Book of Job, we understand that the problem of theodicy - loosely, if G-d is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then why is there evil? - cannot be separated from the narrative of creation, because the problem of evil is a problem with the nature of creation. When Job asks G-d to explain His justice, G-d replies out of the whirlwind with a narrative of creation. And it is a strange narrative, because it climaxes not in the creation of Man but in the creation of the Leviathan and Behemoth, which G-d praises for their perfection in power and violence.
From Rav Soloveitchik, I take the idea that the double-narrative of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is a double interpretation of the same events. In the first narrative, creation is orderly and majestic, and climaxes in the creation of Man, the regent for G-d as ruler of the world. This is the creation as understood by Promethean Man, a Man who looks to G-d for inspiration to do great deeds, who seeks to comprehend and subdue creation and so emulate his Creator. The second narrative, where creation is less orderly but far more intimate, climaxes with what Christians understand as the Fall: the exile from the Garden of Eden. This is the creation as understood by Existential Man, a Man who, once his eyes are opened and sees his place in the universe, is struck low with awe before his Creator, and is dependent on Him for the very basics like clothing.
From Joseph Smith, I take the idea that this ultimate moment, the exile from the garden, is identical to eating the fruit of the tree of Knowledge. One is not the punishment for the other; each is another way of talking about the other. The exile from the garden was humanity's entry into the world of Experience, a necessary stage on the way to what Smith saw as a literal, and I would describe as a figurative apotheosis. This brings us back to Soloveitchik's Promethean Man of the first Genesis narrative.
Here is my synthesis, very much in a nutshell.
We forget, when we talk about the Garden of Eden, that it was a place. It was not the world; the world was around it, and Eden was planted within it. When people talk as if nature had fallen from some higher state to a lower state because of a human sin, then, this is an error. The world was always what it is, from the beginning. And, if Smith is correct that eating the tree and exile from the garden are one event, not a sequence, then we are also the same as we were from the beginning. What has changed is where we are. We no longer live in a garden; now we live in the world.
The world is a beautiful and fabulous place, but it is a place of wildness and violence. It is a place of natural evil - the evil of earthquakes and lightning - which is not properly evil, or immoral, but amoral. The apotheosis of this world is the Leviathan, and G-d finds the Leviathan extraordinarily beautiful, a perfection of its kind. But we were not made to live in it. We were made to live in a garden. And we know this, even though we chose - this is Smith again - to enter the world and leave the garden.
We are torn in two directions. We seek to emulate our Creator, and that is why we chose the path of Experience, with the consequence of living in a world of wildness, a world to which we are not suited. If we had not done this, we would have been far smaller beings, and less of a joy to our Creator. And yet we feel the alienation of living in a world to which we are not suited; we feel the pain of our exile, and yearn for a return to the bosom of our Creator. Our Promethean side, in response, seeks to transform the world into the garden that we long for, while from the other side of our souls we seek only to escape the world, and overcome it.
Both are valid religious impulses. The choice between redeeming or remaking the world and escaping or overcoming it is a false one. We can't deny either part of our nature, either part of our relationship with G-d. We are not supposed to reconcile ourselves to a world of pain; we are supposed to make this world a garden. The G-d who created the Leviathan is not interested only in humble submission. That is the fundamental meaning of the voice from the whirlwind to Job: that G-d wants us to be great - great in goodness, but still great, and to be great requires entering the world of Experience, the world of suffering and evil, and not fleeing from it. But we are also not supposed to deny our souls, becoming machines of creation and destruction - or even machines of management and order. We are not to forget that the garden was not just a stately pageant of animals and plants and celestial bodies arrayed in their proper order, but a place where G-d walked among us, and spoke to us, as to a friend, or to a beloved child.