First published June 29, 2018
“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.), and quoted by Anais Nin in her 1961 work “Seduction of the Minotaur” (among others).
I sat weeping in my living room, in front of my television screen more times over the last week than I have during almost any other time I can remember. I cried more in the last week than I did after 9/11, and as much as I did the first week after watching my city abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. All week I watched in horror and exhaustion as the stories piled up. Tales of children cruelly separated from parents, themselves desperate to flee violence. My soul struggled to process the images in my head of suckling infants pulled from their mothers’ breasts. I could barely understand the news showing whistleblowers’ gut-tangling videos of tiny children in devastated shock amid the persistent absence of any comforting adult.
I struggled for a way to connect, whom to ask for help- while American politicians remained silent and worse, many made up sophomoric school-yard level missives warning that certain groups of human beings do not belong within the boundaries of our country. I tried to make sense of it. I couldn’t. As my brain wandered through the canopy of mythologies and histories of the world, trying to find a place to go for comfort and understanding, it kept lighting in one place, the Garden of Eden.
This baffled me. I love mythology. I love origin stories. I consider myself fairly well educated about the different religious texts of the world’s religions. I have to admit though, I have harbored some ill will to the Book of Genesis. Of all the stories in the Torah, or Old Testament, this is one of my least favorite. The first books of Genesis have not been very inspiring to me. I have found much more joy in other, more mystical interpretations of creation. And then as I was explaining to my husband how I was being haunted by images on television, and the stories of the fall of man, it all came crushing down on me why that story was stuck in my brain.
I thought of how I felt about all of the different countries and peoples of the world. As this is a blog that explores psyche and media, it is best summed up through a movie quote. In the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a little girl timidly approaches and asks Morgan Freeman’s character, Robin’s Muslim companion from Jerusalem, Azeem, if God painted him. Azeem laughs at her question, and answers, “For Certain.” When the child asks, “Why?” Azeem answers, “Because Allah loves wondrous variety.” While it is probably unfair of me to put a quote from Genesis and a quote from a 1990s light-hearted movie in the same category, the sentiment for me of this last quote is more like the sense of the Divine that has meaning to me, than the one that speaks of God casting the first couple out of paradise.
God delights in variety.
I believe that is true. I see it everywhere I look. I see it in the flowers, in the animals. I see it in my friends, in my pets. I see it in the choices I have before me. I see it in the love that comes from so many different people whom I love. I see it in the amazing works of art created in the world. Variety is everywhere. Creation is the demonstration of the Divine Hand, and its evidence speaks volumes greater and deeper than words on any page for me.
This is probably the closest I can get to express my personal connection to the Divine in any succinct way. And as I was lost, mourning the loss of what I believed about America, I was being brought back again and again in my mind to the stories of the Creation of Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis. There are two creation stories, and they have been the subject of much biblical exegesis over the last several thousand years.
So for brevity’s sake, I will offer short versions the stories so that they help the reader make sense of what I am writing.
The first book of Genesis recounts the story of the “earthly” creation:
On the first day, God created Light, reflected on it as “Good” and separated the Day from the Night.
On the second day, God separated the heavens from the waters.
On the third day, God separated the land from the water, created grass upon the earth, and tree bearing fruits.
On the fourth day, God put the sun and moon in the sky, and associated each of them with their respective times. God also put stars in the sky.
On the fifth day, God created sea life, and all the birds.
On the sixth day, God created all of the life that exists on the land, and saw that it was good. God also created human beings, in the “image” of God, in male and female form, and gave them everything they needed. God declared that all the herbs were there for food.
On the seventh day, God rested, and reflected on the goodness of what had been created.
The second creation story focuses on the story of Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man. The story opens on the sixth day of creation with the creation of Adam. In this story there are discrepancies from the first creation story. Most notably, in the second story, man is made before woman, from the red earth, with the breath of life breathed into him directly from God. His partner, Eve, is made from a part of Adam, after God realizes that Adam is lonely with no one of his kind to share the garden with.
God gives the first people the garden out of which they may take any fruit of any tree to eat. They are forbidden only one, and that is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It is this part of the story that was stuck in my head. God gave Adam and Eve, [who may also be interpreted by their allegorical names as Primordial Human or First Man (Adam Kadmon ot Adam Ha-Rishon) and Life (Eve or Chava)], permission to eat anything in the Garden of Eden, with one exception. They were forbidden to eat from the fruit of Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They weren’t even allowed to touch the tree itself, If they did, God admonished, “You will die.” They were led astray by the serpent, who has over time been interpreted as Satan, the Devil, the Other… I like to think of the serpent simply as the power of Ego.
Now the serpent was craftier than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made He said to the woman ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ The woman said to the serpent ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it or you will die. ”’ ‘You will not surely die’, the serpent said to the woman, ‘for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it, gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it (Gen 3:1–6).
The serpent entices Eve first, and then she entices Adam to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She sees that the fruit looks good, and that there is no obvious reason why they shouldn’t eat it, except for God’s commandment to them.
For a long time, these stories have been used to explain why humans are evil, why we are disobedient, and why women are justifiably treated with less respect than men. I am going to ignore all of those interpretations for the sake of brevity and to keep the discussion focused on the points I wish to target.
For me there are two key points here. It is not the Divine voice that interprets the meaning of “The Knowledge of Good and Evil” for the first couple, it is the serpent, the tempter. He provides the interpretation, and so given the Judaeo-Christian interpretation of his motives, why should we believe his interpretation of the nature of the tree? Why believe him?
Second, and this for me is key, what if God forbade the tree because it had the effect of reducing the vision of the first couple? What if the tree’s fruit was not the haughty, “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and the capacity to see as God sees, as the serpent offers, but the “Tree of Binary Reduction”, where everything becomes Good or Evil with no other possible experience?
What if the banishment from the Garden of Eden, is about the power of destruction Adam and Eve are capable of if they eat of the tree, and that is why death is the consequence? Having eaten of that tree of binaries, Adam and Eve would destroy all that they were given as they tried in vain to separate the contents of Eden into Good or Evil? God knew that since the Tree of Life dwelled there, he could not permit the first couple to remain, for eventually Life itself would be reduced to the binary of good versus evil. Life could be destroyed by Adam and Eve’s arrogance. Thus, Adam and Eve no longer have access to that tree, and thus will die as a natural consequence. This is alluded to as the first couple leaves the garden, an archangel is placed to protect the Tree of Life in the Garden from Adam and Eve, lest they attempt to return.
This thought led me to think about the position of those people who are suffering in the world right now because of difference. In most of our cultures around the world, suffering is caused by the enforcement of binaries, the arrogance of thinking we know without hesitation the difference between what is Good and what is Evil. Now, I think that mostly, a moral and ethical person can tell the difference, but when we deny humanity, and look to our own fruits of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we are done for.
What are the fruits of that tree? They are arbitrary rules that don’t take variation into account. Some examples:
Tribalism that says this group is like us, and that group is not, and therefore we should annihilate the “other”.
Anything that is created in the image of man in God’s place, based on a misinterpretation, not on the variety of the Divine Creation.
Absolutism without understanding.
Superiority of any class over another- whether this is sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, xenophobia, or the exiling of another because of their faith, ability, finances, or capacity.
Christianity offers that Jesus came to set humanity straight on this idea. The gospel is filled with stories of Jesus welcoming the stranger, paying homage to those who are different, going up against powerful interests in support of the poor and those who had less power. And yet, we live in a medieval interpretation of Christianity: that we should conquer our enemies; that we should be a monoculture that eschews the variety that God created around the world in favor of a world that looks like the image of man that we wish to promote. In the case of the United States of America in 2018, that is a world that is white, working class, uneducated, and tribal, plundering everything in its path with no concern for future generations or our neighbors.
I think we can re-examine the creation story as the sin of binarism and ego over the love a variety and awe. We live in sin when we give in to our ego, of wanting to be the ones who think that we know the Divine Will with absolute clarity, that we understand better, that we can be the ones to make laws based not on justice, but on black and white rules. In other words, when we put ourselves on the same footing, and assume the vantage point of God. I would argue this is when we are in trouble.
What changes when we rethink what the “Fall of Man” is about? What happens if we don’t accept the serpent’s interpretation of what the tree gives us? What do we gain if we humble ourselves to look at the earth as the fullness of the Garden, and that we have been given everything we need as a result? What happens to us if we see that person who looks different, speaks a different language, and eats different food, as evidence of the Divine hand’s love of variety, same as the beauty of flowers, animals, art, and music?
What if we don’t assume the role of God for ourselves as we think about the creation story? What if we used our judgment, but didn’t judge? What if we upheld the rights of liberty, but didn’t conflate that with absolute freedom from judgment for ourselves? What if we denied tribalism, and still loved our own communities and families first and best, taking responsibility for those closest to us, without denying the humanity of those furthest from us?
Could we see the Garden all around us?
I have been struggling with this idea for months, and I have to say it helps me. It also hurts me. I see and love my neighbors, even those with whom I disagree. And yet, I am compelled by my love and by my hope for humanity, and a desire for human dignity, that I extend that idea beyond my street, my town, my race, my state, my religion.
I cannot take the All Seeing vantage point.
And so, I use judgment, but I don’t judge.
I see the wondrous variety.
I love my neighbors.
I strive to see the world as it is, not as I am.
If I am lucky, I will get a glimpse of the Garden.
I wish the same for you.