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What’s Wrong with Knowledge? - בראשית

Friday, 16 October, 2020 - 1:36 pm

What’s Wrong with Knowledge?

When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden life was simple. G-d had only one request. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. The tree which they were prohibited from consuming, which therefore symbolized the most negative thing in the garden, was, of course, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

This raises many questions, among them: 1) What is wrong with knowledge? Would G-d prefer that Adam and Eve remain  ignorant? 2) The question which Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide to the Perplexed, refers to as an “astonishing question” raised by a “learned man”: How can it be that because Adam and Eve violated the commandment of G-d they were rewarded with knowledge, which is the greatest gift man can possess? How is it possible that violating G-d’s will elevated man to the state of enlightenment? 

The answer, according to Maimonides, lies in the words good and evil, which imply subjective good and evil. Before the sin Adam and Eve would think in terms of truth or falsehood; if something was objectively positive it was true, if something was objectively negative it was false. The result of the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the introduction of a heightened awareness of self. The human being began to think primarily in terms of self. How does this experience make me feel? If the experience feels good subjectively, it is then desirable. When G-d did not want Adam and Eve to know good and evil he was not trying to keep them ignorant of knowledge, on the contrary, G-d hoped that humanity could hold on to objective knowledge. The “opening of the eyes” that Adam and Eve experienced by consuming the fruit, was not an upgrade that was awarded, but rather on the contrary, it was a downgrade. They traded-in superior objective knowledge for inferior subjective knowledge.  

The consequence of developing a subjective sense of good and evil is that we were expelled from the tranquility of Eden. Each person evaluated good based on their own self interest, which inevitably led to a chaotic clash of egos. In the short term, the fruit of the tree of knowledge moved us away from G-d.

The story of the tree of knowledge is not an all out tragedy. The subjective perspective introduced passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. If I am attracted to something because I feel that it is good for me, that will intensify my longing and desire for it. So while initially the introduction of the subjective idea of good may have turned us away from the truth of G-d, toward the pursuit of our own temptations, in the long run the subjective perspective could, in fact, enhance our relationship with G-d, intensifying the yearning, deepening the love, and stoking the passion to reconnect to G-d and transforming the world back into Eden. 

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