Our normative behavior is circumscribed by boundaries that are the essence of civilization.
Absent boundaries and a mechanism for enforcing them, there is nothing that prevents someone stronger from just overpowering and unilaterally taking something from a weaker person. A fundamental role served by government[i] is to adopt and enforce a system of laws establishing recognized boundaries to curtail this type of misbehavior.
The Bible[ii] describes how G-d created the world and Adam and Eve. The Bible records that there was one boundary that G-d specifically communicated to Adam. It seemed simple enough. Adam was told he could eat the fruit of any tree except one, known as the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil[iii].
Interestingly, Adam does not appear to have directly violated this boundary on his own. Perhaps he never passed by the Tree of Knowledge, as he went about performing his duties of tending and guarding the Garden[iv]. It grew deep within the Garden, at its very center[v]. This might explain why he was able to resist the urge to eat the forbidden fruit, until he was presented with it by Eve. The common wisdom of out of sight, out of mind, might have insulated him from being irresistibly drawn to the Tree.
Eve, though, was drawn to the Tree. Her discussion with the Snake, as depicted in the Bible[vi], may be interpreted metaphorically as an inner psychological struggle. In this construct, the Snake represents a person’s instinctual nature and negative urges[vii]. The give and take of the dialogue recorded in the Bible gives expression to how a person might deal with his or her urges and rationalize them. It begins with a restatement of the basic premise that it was entirely permissible to eat the fruits of all the other trees in the Garden. Eve notes it was forbidden only to eat the fruit of this one Tree in the middle of the Garden or touch it. The penalty was the loss of immortality.
Her negative inclination urged her to eat the forbidden fruit and assured her she wouldn’t die. Indeed, it had medicinal qualities that would instantly make her wise like G-d and know the difference between right and wrong, without the travail of a lifetime of learning and experience[viii].
Overpowered by her uncontrollable urges, she fell against the tree, accidentally touching it[ix]. Nothing untoward occurred as result of the fateful touching of the tree. Thus, began the rationalization process that culminated in her eating the fruit. She reasoned if there was nothing really wrong with touching the tree then why would it be wrong to eat the fruit?
Eve also saw that the forbidden Tree was good for eating and a visual delight. It was also desirable as a source of wisdom. How could anyone resist those extraordinary qualities; indeed, it proved irresistible. She proceeded to take the fruit and eat it. She then handed it to Adam and he ate it too.
The Talmud[x] interjects another complicating aspect to this tale. It was Eve who took it upon herself to invent the additional boundary of not touching the Tree, to circumscribe the possibility of her violating the underlying express prohibition against eating its fruit. Adam had only been forbidden to eat the fruit[xi] of the Tree; there was no prohibition against touching it. She might have been concerned about how easily the prohibition might be violated and the onerous consequences mandated. After all, losing immortality was no small matter[xii]. She reasoned better then to enjoin even touching the Tree[xiii] to avoid eating the forbidden fruit.
The Talmud reflects on how this pivotal event, which had so many untoward consequences for humanity[xiv], might have been avoided. It posits, if only Eve hadn’t unilaterally invented that addition not commanded by G-d, she would not have experienced violating her own self-imposed boundary, without apparent consequence. She would then not have been able, unhesitatingly, to delude herself into believing she could also eat the forbidden fruit with impunity. The logic of the linkage was irresistible. It’s one of the ways our rational mind can trick us into believing we are acting properly, when the opposite is true. What appears to be rational thought is actually just a rationalization of an instinctual decision already made. The net result is self-justification of misbehavior and, as the Talmud concludes, anyone who adds, therefore, effectively subtracts. Thus, the Talmud[xv] counsels don’t enact laws that most people are unable to follow.
The harsh reality of human nature is that adopting a multitude of artificial prohibitions layered upon already proscribed behavior does not assure virtuous conduct. Indeed, the more rules, minutiae and complexity, the more likely some rule is bound to be broken. Breaching one boundary engenders disrespect for rules, generally. It inevitably leads to breaching other boundaries.
Eve’s transgression was amplified when she presented the forbidden fruit to Adam and he too consumed it. He may have resisted the urge until now; but presented with the intimate and ready opportunity to violate the boundary, by his trusted life-partner, he did so willingly. It’s hard to refrain stoically from eating in a social setting, when everyone else is doing so. Individually overcoming urges in a solitary context is one thing. However, appearing to disdain others having what seems to be harmless fun and categorically refusing to eat with others can test anyone’s resolve. Nevertheless, a boundary was breached.
The cascade of events resulting from this seemingly small infraction was manifold and the effect was catastrophic. In the very next Chapter of the Bible[xvi], the tragic tale of Cain and Abel occurs. Interestingly, according to the Midrash[xvii], their underlying dispute was about unrealistic and untenable boundaries. It appears that in their ultimate lack of wisdom, they divided up the entire world into movable and immovable property. Cain, who took all the land, ordered Abel off his ground. Abel responded by asserting Cain’s clothing belonged to him. Cain told Abel to fly and Abel demanded Cain surrender his clothes. Unable to live within the boundaries of their flawed agreement, they fought and Cain killed Abel. If that were not enough, a perilous decline in the moral fabric of society ensued.
By Noah’s time, as described in the Bible[xviii], there was a total breakdown of civilized society. The image depicted in the Talmud[xix], is a dystopian world of rampant licentiousness, idolatry and robbery. The Midrash[xx] describes a depraved world of wanton violence and murder. The disintegration of societal mores was at every level and included oppression[xxi], forcible takings and even bestiality[xxii]. Civilization was irretrievably lost and G-d decided to wipe it out in the worldwide Great Flood[xxiii] and start again with Noah and his family.
The Biblical lessons are fundamental, compelling and convey a sense of immediacy in our present times. Boundaries that are respected are a critical element in the preservation and success of a society. Boundaries that are only honored in the breach undermine society. Without respect for all laws there is often, effectively, respect for none.
Everyone must be educated about the laws we have and they must be enforced justly and equitably, without favoritism or bias. Reforming laws that don’t work, in practice, is also critical to preserving respect for law and the underlying societal boundaries they represent.
It may seem virtuous to enact new laws that facially legislate morality and pretend to regulate human behavior, in accordance with the latest fancy of self-declared morally superior individuals. However, as Eve so profoundly demonstrated, if humanity doesn’t abide it, then the net effect of adding is subtracting.
We live in the best of times and, in the perception of some, the worst of times. There are malign nations and terrorist organizations that threaten the peace and security of the world. There are also threats at home from the fringes of the left and right, who seek to undermine our way of life in the name of some ‘ism’ or unfounded slogan. The spate of violent ant-Semitic attacks is just one example of what occurs when boundaries are not respected.
It doesn’t take much more than a lack of respect for boundaries to initiate a cascade of untoward events that result in catastrophic consequences. That’s how it began in the very beginning and it can easily end that way. All that’s required is for society to condone the indiscriminate violation of its mores or exhibit an unwillingness or inability to enforce its boundaries. It undermines that almost indefinable quality of respect that is the invisible glue, which holds society together.
Respect boundaries; the survival of civilization depends on it.
[i] See Avot 3:2 and BT Avoda Zara 4a.
[ii] Genesis, Chapters 1-2.
[iii] Genesis 2:17.
[iv] Genesis 2:15.
[v] See Rashi commentary on Genesis 2:9.
[vi] Genesis 3:1-6.
[vii] See Sforno commentary on Genesis 3:1. See also Bava Batra 16a and Genesis Rabbah 20.
[viii] Vilna Gaon’s Aderet Eliyahu commentary on Genesis 3:5.
[ix] BT Sanhedrin 29a.
[x] BT Sanhedrin 29a. See also Genesis Rabbah 19:3.
[xi] Genesis 2:17
[xiii] Genesis 3:3.
[xiv] See Genesis, Chapter 2.
[xv] BT Bava Kamma 79b, Avodah Zara 36a, Bava Batra 60 and Horayot 3b. See also Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Rebels 2:5.
[xvi] Genesis 4:8.
[xvii] Genesis Rabbah 22:7.
[xviii] Genesis 6:11-12.
[xix] BT Sanhedrin 57a, Avodah Zara 23b, Bechorot 57a and Chulin 23a.
[xx] Midrash Aggadah Genesis 6:11, as well as, Rashi commentary on the verse.
[xxi] Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 6:11.
[xxii] BT Sanhedrin 108a and Temurah 28b.
[xxiii] Genesis, Chapters 6-10.