decay of flowers leads to reinterpretation of Genesis!

At the Shabbos table, I went into a riff about the flowers. I didn’t take the time to clean out the water from last week, since, of course until right before Shabbat, they were fine. But as the day progressed, I acknowledged (to myself) that they could have stood a bit of trimming out. But of course, that got me thinking about the nature of the universe.

If everything decays and that is a standard part of how the universe works, cycling rotting material, oxygen, nitrogen-releasing, back into the world, etc., it cannot be that the world that G-d created according to the Torah is any different.

And yet, we get this picture of the Jewish original sin, that if that troublemaker Chava hadn’t given that fruit to her man, we’d never die.

Here’s from Chapter 2, Genesis:

טז וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר:  מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat;
יז וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ:  כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ–מוֹת תָּמוּת. 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’

Uh-oh. Let’s continue with Chapter 3, shall we?

א וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן. 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: ‘Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’
ב וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ:  מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל. 2 And the woman said unto the serpent: ‘Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;
ג וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן–אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ:  פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן. 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’
ד וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן. 4 And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die;
ה כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע. 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.’
ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל. 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.

Now pay attention. It does not say, anywhere, that they wouldn’t die at all. Just not on that day. And the snake, of course, points out that they wouldn’t die on that day.

There was going to be death, maybe different from what we have. But the natural order of the world was there.

We in the Western World have gotten so overpowered by Christian theology that we have allowed ourselves to get taken by the idea of Original Sin. That’s not us, that’s not the Jewish way.

I found an interesting file that adds to the idea in an important way, though:

Human beings do not like limitations, and modern human beings in the developed world do not readily accept limitations. The success of science and the triumphs of technology have led men and women to begin to believe that there are no limits to what human beings can achieve. Modern women and men do not like decay: they try to avoid the sights, sounds and smells of decay whenever possible. In the modern world the horizon of death is not so readily accepted as a boundary. So in the modern world, there is a serious attempt to reject the very idea of decay and death as natural and necessary, which is expressed in many ways.  Consider the portrayal of the good  life, for example in magazines and television programmes. Advertisements show the young, the fit, the beautiful: we rarely see people showing signs of decline or disability. When older people appear, they are shown as fit and healthy, enjoying an active life. The realities of failing strength and the loss of faculties  or mental decline are rarely shown.  Wild life television programmes which awe viewers with the beauty of natural world show nature red in tooth and claw: but it is a sanitised nature. Death is shown, and sometimes decay, but the images are carefully chosen to cause minimal offence to viewers’ susceptibilities, and of course they not accompanied by the smell or the feel of rotting matter. Nature is red, but not raw. In this, the programme makers and magazine editors reflect the desires of their viewers and readers, who do not want to see the seamy, smelly side of life.

And further on, he continues:

The idea that even the religious faithful are reluctant to face the reality of death illustrates the challenge for scientists and theologians arising from the changing perceptions of decay and death. Even if the public perception is that decay and death can be successfully resisted, science and theology provide ample support for the claim that at present decay and death are an inevitable part of life. The challenge lies in those words ‘at present’. For both science and theology a fundamental question is raised: are there limits to what humanity can achieve? To be more precise: is it possible for human beings to find ways of avoiding decay and death? This question touches on what it is to be human. As long as  human beings have thought about life, decay and death have been part of the scene. To be human is to be subject to decay and death. If that changes, what does it mean to be human? Equally fundamental is the question: what responsibility do scientists and theologians have for challenging the public perception. Does the development of the idea that decay and death can be overcome raise false hopes, even expectations, of active immortality for humanity? This has consequences for the way we conduct human affairs and plan for the future. What role should scientists and theologians play in discussion of these issues?

I will let you continue to read the whole thing, if you want, but I’ll let you know that he comes up with no conclusion; only more questions about how we can be responsible about technology and fear of death.

Perhaps a lovely way to start this very tough week. When I started this whole thing, I was not aware of the horrendous tragedy in Itamar.

We certainly know good and evil.

השם יקום דמם


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