How Do We Make Our Ancient Literature
 Concerning Good & Evil
Relevant in Today’s World?

by Dr. Ralph Graff

Zacharias Frankel, the father of Conservative Judaism expressed the opinion that as we address out present, we must conserve our history. We have learned from this literature for millennia. It seems appropriate that we continue to do so. But how do we do that? To understand the biblical perspective of good and evil we will start with the Torah description of the prohibition of eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and its Violation, we will follow with related historic commentaries and we will conclude with current concepts.
Of all the Biblical stories relating to good and bad, why have I chosen this story? Because it is the first story after creation? Because it is so cryptic? Because there is a lesson in this story?
Or perhaps because of a combination of the three?
It seems appropriate that we start by defining the words knowledge, good, bad, free will and other pertinent words, a task more difficult than one might perceive. The following are my extrapolations from the many definitions offered. Knowledge: An understanding of information which may be factual or theoretical, acquired through association, experience or education.
Good: that which is beneficial to the “world”.
Moral: holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.
Bad: that which is detrimental* to the “world”.
Evil, immoral, amoral: It is my simplistic interpretation that although the words have quantitative differences, they all essentially go back to the definitions of bad. Buber and others would disagree.
Free will: The power of acting at one's own discretion, without the constraint of necessity or fate. Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge of reality and existence, the traditional subject matter being the nature of what is (ontology) and what ought to be (ethics).
Ethics: moral principles that govern a person's behavior, concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human characteristics.
In the early chapters of Bereshit, creation is described twice. There are two explanations: Traditionalists believe the second description of creation is designed to embellish the first. The second explanation relates to beliefs concerning the recording of the Torah. Traditionalists believe Torah was given to Moses at Sinai. Before his death, he recorded a portion and orally transmitted the remainder to Joshua. The oral portion was recorded as the Talmud following the destruction of the Second Temple. In the 18th and 19th century, “Biblical Critics” proposed that the written Torah actually came from four sources called J, E, P, and D. Friedman hypothesizes that J and E were recorded in Judah and the Northern Kingdom. P and D were recorded at later times, both during the existence of the first Temple following the downfall of the Northern Kingdom. The redaction of the sources occured early in the time of the second Temple. The first description of creation (Friedman’s P Source)
Genesis 1:1-25: God creates the world, including plants and animals.
Genesis 1:26: “God says let us make mankind in our image and they shall rule over all the earth”.
Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created”.
Genesis 1:28-2:1: God tells them to be fruitful and multiply
Genesis 2:1-3: Having completed the work, God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy.
(In two brief paragraphs, man is created in God’s image. The Garden of Eden is not described, there is no prohibition relating to the tree of knowledge of good and bad, there is no sin, and there is no punishment to the serpent, man or woman. The subject of free will is not broached, but based on responsibilities given to mankind, one may assume he and she have free will.) The second description of creation (Friedman’s J Source)
Genesis 2:4-6: God again creates the earth and skies.
Genesis 2:7: “God formed man from the dust and the man became a being”
Genesis 2:8: “God planted a garden in Eden.”
Genesis 2:9: “from the ground, the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and bad”.
We subsequently learn a bite of the tree of life could grant immortality.
Genesis 2:15 “God took the man and placed him in the Garden”
Genesis 2:16: “God commanded the man, saying of every tree in the garden you are free to eat.”
Genesis 2:17: “but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die”.
(If Eden is an idyllic place, man is ideally created with appropriate knowledge of Good and Bad, eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad will degrade him, and he has free will, why did God made the tree available to man?)
Genesis 2:19 God creates animals
Genesis 2:21, 22: God fashions woman from man’s rib.
Genesis 3.1-5: An exchange between the serpent and the woman takes place in which woman expresses knowledge of the prohibition. The serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be open and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad”.
Genesis 3:6: The woman proceeds to eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree and convinced Adam to do so.
Genesis 3:7: The only immediate effect is Adam and the woman recognizing their nakedness. They perceive this as bad and cover themselves.
God places a curse on the serpent
Genesis 3:16 to the woman He said I will make severe your pangs in childbearing
Genesis 3:17 to Adam he said ”cursed be the ground because of you…your food shall be the grasses of the field…and to dust you shall return”.

(If God did not want man to have knowledge of good and bad, why did the punishment not include reversing the ability to distinguish between good and bad?)
Genesis 3:22: “And the Lord God said, Now that the man has become one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the God banished him from the garden.”
(Ironically, the serpent was correct in that Adam and the woman did not die.)
In summary, man is not created in God’s image, man and woman are placed in an idyllic environment and tempted by a villainous serpent, the serpent, man and woman sin and are punished, and God fears what man will do with his newly found ability. Is this embellishment of the first story or a different story?
Commentary on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?
Ramchal: Man was created with a balance of good and bad and free choice. Eating from the tree altered that balance toward Bad. Ramban states that:
The occurrences are in keeping with the plain meaning of the text. Man’s original nature, (as he was created), led him to do what he was supposed to do (obey the Torah) with no desire or feeling. As a result of eating from the forbidden tree, man acquired the ability to use his judgement to determine good and bad (rather than depend on Torah). Buber notes that the problem with this explanation is that it entails a paradox. If, prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge, man had no independent will and desire and he acted in accordance with his God-given nature, then it is impossible to understand how he would have chosen to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. If man was created with free will, what was the point of imposing any sort of prohibition in the first place? Was God testing man?
The passage “As soon as you eat of it you shall die” should be interpreted as “you shall realize that you are mortal.” Rambam described this sequence as parable, never having occurred. Sampson Raphael Hirsch says the instruction to not eat of the fruit was designed to prevent man from questioning mitzvahs that he did not understand.
Unauthored Midrashim state that Adam chose to eat from the tree in order to serve G-d more completely. Without the ability to do wrong, his observance seemed robotic. By placing himself in a world where there is both good and evil, he could choose to do good and choose to serve G-d and thereafter be on a more elevated spiritual level than he was before the sin. Hertz Commentary: Man’s sacred privilege is freedom of will, including the ability to obey God. If one believes the mitzvahs define good and bad, the ability to distinguish is not necessary. Man’s unlimited ability to secure knowledge could outstrip his sense of obedience to divine law, or produce destructive knowledge.
My commentary, separating the P and J sources: The P source describes man as created in God’s image, likely possessing free will, created to help God. The J source does not create man in God’s image. Man appears to possess free will as indicated by his choice to eat from the tree thus setting him up for a fall, resulting in punishment. The two sources describe man quite differently.
Buber uses the Tree story to introduce his approach to Good and Evil which he describes as “dreamlike contemplation. It is apparent the two doers know not what they do. Both good and bad are to be found here, in a strange ironical shape which the commentators have not understood”. Buber describes three possible interpretations: acquisition of sexual desire (but man and woman are created sexually mature), cognition of the world (but man was already given the responsibility to rule animals) and moral consciousness, which he proceeds to discuss.

Can anything meaningful come from these stories? Two different stories of creation are told without effort to make them compatible. One story describes man as God’s helper, the other having committed the “original sin”. Can man switch from one to the other?

Current concepts: the Scientific Method.
How do the Philosophers of our day make this literature relevant in today’s world? Not unlike Frankel’s historic comments’, Norbert Samuelson, Prof. of Jewish Studies, Arizona State U. in a 2002 essay entitled The Death and Revival of Jewish Philosophy, states, “a contemporary Jewish Philosophy must be an interface between Biblical Jewish Philosophy and modern Jewish thought that is believable and has moral value. This scholarly activity requires knowledge of relevant historical texts as well as familiarity with contemporary sciences. Rabbi Neal Gillman attributes similar statements to Sabato Marais and Solomon Schechter, the first and second Heads of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York at the turn of the 20th century. Samuelson notes that philosophic study has moved out of Philosophy Departments into other Departments such as computational science, mathematics, and linguistics”. How have these disciplines altered philosophy? They have added the Scientific Method to axiomatic and philosophic beliefs. What is the process? Knowledge starts with Axiomatic beliefs, beliefs which are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true. We are taught and axiomatically believe that a Jonathan apple is red. Neither philosophy nor science has caused us to believe otherwise. Judaism and probably all ancient religions started axiomatically. Axiomatic beliefs can be altered by Philosophic beliefs, beliefs based on knowledge. Examples are Hume who philosophized that knowledge came from experience and Kant, who philosophized that knowledge came from rational thought. Prophets can be considered the ultimate philosophers. Prophets can be divided into those who prophesies are correct or incorrect, the latter being called false prophets. Can we augment philosophical beliefs with Beliefs based on the Scientific Method?

What is the scientific method?

A question is asked: The axiomatic belief is that the sun revolves around the earth. Copernicus asks the question, is it possible that the sun does not revolve around the earth?
A hypothesis is created: Copernicus hypothesizes that the earth revolves around the sun.
The hypothesis is tested by accumulating data: Galileo’s observation of four moons orbiting Jupiter proves that not everything in the heavens revolves around the earth, thus supporting Copernicus. Tycho Brahe’s precise observations of planetary motion combined with calculations by Kepler adds convincing support.
Newton’s theories precisely agree with the Tycho/Kepler results, substantiating Copernicus’ hypothesis (source, Martin Israel). A new norm is accepted based on data. That the earth revolves around the sun becomes axiomatic.
Different disciplines require different degrees of accurate data to be acceptable: mathematics>physics>biology>philosophy; the better the evidence, the more believable the conclusion. Just as prophets can draw incorrect conclusions, scientists can misinterpret data and come to incorrect conclusions. Samuelson concludes that, in spite of the difficulty of acquiring data for philosophy, the use of the scientific method has resulted in more confidence in humankind and less in revelation.

Since ancient times, Jewish authorities have been using the scientific method, granted in simplistic forms. In early Temple times, HALACHA might have been ignored or new laws created, but HALACHA was never changed. Ezra describes that he is approached by the officials of the Babylonian emigrants to Jerusalem who are concerned by the marriage of their sons to “the daughters of the people of the land”. They weren’t concerned about the possibility; they were concerned about actual happenings, which constitute data. They suggest “Let us make a covenant with our God to expel all of these women and their children” and Ezra accepts, attributing the decision to the Law”. Sarah Japhet, in her book “From the Rivers of Babylon to the Highlands of Judah states, if a law existed, there would be no need to make a covenant with God. A covenant was necessary because no law actually existed. A law that was perceived to be a “Good law” was created to address a perceived problem that was not covered by existing law.

In the late Temple period during the time of Hillel, HALACHA was actually changed. Deuteronomy (15:1–2) states that “every seven years you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow”; Deuteronomy (15:12–15) states that “If a fellow Hebrew is sold to you, in the seventh year you shall set him free. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt”. These laws were designed to benefit the poor and enslaved. Seeing that people were refusing to loan as the sabbatical year was approaching, Prosbul was established, stating that a money loan should not be eliminated because of the Sabbatical year in order to benefit both the rich and the poor. The rich were thereby protected against loss of property; and the poor could thus obtain a loan whenever they needed it. The reason for this innovation was therefore given as "for the sake of the order of the world." Thus, a Law that was created to do Good, was no longer doing so and it was altered.(Source, Gillman Sacred Fragments).

During the Talmud era, following the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shaye Cohen describes the Rabbis, seeing flaws in existing law relating to marriage, defined the definition of a “good marriage” in Mishnah Kidushin, initiating the concept of the requirement for matrilineal inheritance for one to be considered Jewish.

The diaspora has made the concept of single Sanhedrin untenable. The responsibility for adjudging the Law has become movement-related. The responsibility in the Conservative Movement is delegated to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This committee has addressed itself to good and bad in today’s world, appreciating the circumstances that existed when a Law was created, current circumstances, and if the law needs to be changed. Rabbi Barmash notes that the Committee had been effective in dealing with Women’s role in Judaism and Gay Rights, although inequities remain.

How does the individual relate to good, bad and free will in today’s world? We must realize that good and bad are moving targets; what is perceived as good today, may be bad tomorrow.
Let me use an example that I have drawn from Kati Marton’s book The Great Escape in which she describes nine Hungarian youths who, recognizing growing anti-Semitism in Europe, emigrate from Europe. The group included Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John Von Neuman, members of the outstanding European physics community. Marton relates the exciting story of their role in the creation of the atomic bomb in the United States. In 1939, Szilard became aware that a group of German physicists had split the uranium nucleus. He recognized the possibility that the Nazis might develop an atomic bomb. Because of that fear, with the help of Wigner and Teller, Albert Einstein was contacted and recruited to communicate with President Roosevelt, who, in turn, established funding for the Manhattan Project resulting in the creation of the atomic bomb. All four of the physicists were participants in the Manhattan Project. Of the group, Eugene Wigner subsequently became a Nobel Laureate. Had he not died young, John Von Neumann would certainly have become a Nobel Laureate. Let me focus on the other two, Szilard and Teller. After the bomb had been tested at Alamogordo New Mexico, but before it had been used in Japan, it was obvious to Szilard that neither the Germans nor any others were on the verge of developing an atomic bomb. With that realization he worked tirelessly to prevent its use in Japan. The man whose belief that developing the atomic bomb was good, based on additional information, changed his opinion judging the use of the atomic bomb to be bad. To the contrary, his close friend, Edward Teller, continued to believe that developing the bomb was good to the extent that he played a critical role in developing the Hydrogen Bomb.

I have described Dr. Samuelson’s belief that contemporary science is critical in developing believable and moral Jewish Philosophy. But in the final analysis, each of us must make personal decisions on good and bad. It is accepted that the holocaust and the Nazis were bad. But there were local citizens that made personal decisions, to help the Nazis, to ignore what was happening, or help the Jews? What role did religious belief or science play in the individual’s decisions?

Let me conclude, describing the thoughts of Rabbi Pamela Barmash and Yaakov Kaufman. Rabbi Barmash states. “I think that philosophy is moving into science of mind and psychology, and the underlying question is whether that will be an improvement for philosophy. You describe philosophy as searching to be more scientific, but is that healthy for philosophy? Is that healthy for Jewish philosophy and Jewish thought? Is that even accurate for the way science operates? To my mind, more humility is needed, and Jewish thought needs to be more about experiencing God’s presence and learning how to balance competing ideals.”

Previously, I have defined the traditional subject matter of philosophy as being the nature of what is (ontology) and what ought to be (ethics). An anonomist, (by his request) a linguist, states “I was not surprised that he (Samuelson) says that linguistics are taking over ontology… I would have found it more interesting if he said that linguists are developing ethics, because linguistics is primarily a study of grammar unconcerned with human actions,…

Can the scientific method adapt itself to “ethics” as well as ontology (a discussion for the future)?

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