Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 3 – The Fall of Adam and Eve
Rabbi Todd (Tuvia) Berman
In one of the most famous and celebrated chapters of the Guide, Rambam relates to the seminal event in the history of mankind – namely Adam’s rebellion and fall in Genesis chapter 3. Perhaps understanding the pre and then post-fall condition of man will give the religious seeker a glimpse of “Gan Eden” and the human ideal. Rambam divides the discussion into two parts. In the first, he responds to a questioner puzzled by a seemingly complex issue in the pre-fall Man’s nature: Man seems to benefit from sinning and eating from the Tree of knowledge. In the second part, Rambam presents a novel interpretation to the story which sheds light on the nature of the human religious quest.
The Torah tells us:
And the LORD God commanded Man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat; for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’ (Gen. 2:16-17)
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. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. (Gen 3:6-7)
And the LORD God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; ‘ (Gen. 3:22)
The Torah seems to say that Man, before he ate of the tree, lacked knowledge of good and evil. This lack in his nature became filled by his rebellion at which point his eyes were opened. This might lead to antinomian conclusions: sin leads not to punishment but to reward. As the questioner explains:
“It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfection which is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. “
In response, Rambam introduces the reader to a critical distinction between the nature of truth and the nature of aesthetics. For Rambam, aesthetic distinctions are ones of personal or popular evaluation while truth is absolute. Man was created with full intellectual capability called “Tzelem Elokim” the Divine Image. In this pristine state, Man recognized the world through a Divine binary of truth and falsehood. After the fall, however, Man was confused and could only discern the world through “Tov ve’Rah” usually translated as “good” and “evil” but perhaps more precisely “becoming and unbecoming”. For Rambam, Truth is objective while aesthetics are subjective. Man lost objectivity and was “punished” with a subjective and unclear view of reality.
Unfortunately, the fall of Adam impaired the vision of his descendants. This is the true meaning of Man’s punishment: Man can no longer see the Truth but is enslaved to a blurred vision of the world. We view the outside through a clouded lens of personal bias. No longer able to see clearly, we stumble in search of the absolute Truth of God. The religious seeker, after the fall of Adam and Eve, is forever locked in this search.
In the next installment, we shall endeavor to understand Rambam’s view of how Man failed and the full nature of the sin Adam HaRishon.