The Genesis of Ethics

D’var Torah given by Rabbi Ari Weiss at Congregation Ramath Orah on October 24, 2008.

Where to begin?

There is so much to say to say at the beginning: of humans being created, of giving the world meaning, of what sin and exile are, of the possibility of redemption.

Here I would like to focus a bit on the second creation story, or the second perspective of creation –

As opposed to the first the creation story with its evolution from birds to animals culminating in humans which are created together, at twilight on the sixth day the following  is the order of the second story.

  1. There was earth without much vegetation
  2. Man, not humans, but man is created.
  3. God creates the Garden of Eden and places man there.
  4. God creates great vegetation, greenmarket produce – beautiful to look at and great to eat – including the tree of life and the tree of good and evil.
  5. God moves to the prescriptive.  There is the introduction of law, of a commandment: you can eat from everything in the Garden; you cannot eat from the eitz hadat and eitz hachayim.
  6. Man is alone.  This is bad.
  7. God creates animals to be a helpmate for man.  Man gives them names, gives them meaning.  This really is the moment of rationality.  In Greek logos means the word, it also means reason.  In Jewish medieval philosophy, human are called chay hamdiber, not only the animal who talks but the animal that reasons: it seems that through speaking to the animals, calling them names or ascribing meaning to them, that man the animal turns into man the human. Maybe not.
  8. God creates women from man’s rib.
  9. Women and the man eat from the tree of good and evil, are kicked out of the Garden, are punished.  History begins –

Here’s my question:  Why have commandments and law in the Garden of Eden?  Why have it right away prior to meaning and companionship?   What is it about Law, about commandments, and about obligation – really the grammar of ethics – that makes it anterior to everything else?  Why is it at the moment that something is permitted – to eat of all the trees of the Garden — does something have to be forbidden.  Why have it in the first place?

And perhaps: Why do we need Halacha today?  Because isn’t this what this story is really about: does not the story of our creation clue us in to what is essential about our humanity?

Rambam thought so.   In the first chapter of the Guide of the Perplexed, Rambam writes the words tzelem, image, and demut, likeness, revel what is God-like or essential about our humanity.  This for the Rambam is intellect, or ability for intellectual comprehension.  I would suggest that you all read the Guide of the Perplexed 1:1 and 1:2 to see the revolutionary way Rambam interprets this story.

Back to the question: why is man commanded at the beginning of the story? Why does commandment and obligation, and law – the project of ethics in its broadest possible meaning – precede meaning and companionship?

I would like to focus on one specific answer, that is suggested in the work of Emmanuel Levinas.  Who was Emmanuel Levinas?  He was one of the great post-war philosophers and Jewish thinkers.  The greatness of Levinas is that he accepts the devastating critique of philosophy made by Nietzsche and Heidegger among others that the quest for certainty, for foundations, for foundationalism, that defined the enlightenment project has failed.  These skeptics of enlightenment deny the great dream of knowing the real: for them philosophy ends in disappointment, disenchantment, and disillusionment.  Levinas accepts all this yet does not admit to a nihilism that, to coin a phrase, proclaims that God is dead and all is permitted; that an absence of knowledge leads to an absence of morality.  Instead in the forty years after the holocaust, which he and his immediate family survived but that killed most of his family members that remained in Lithuania, Levinas claimed that we have to refocus on ethics. In this sense, his sometimes student Jacques Derrida compares Levinas work to a wave which pounds the sand again and again each time hitting the same point but leaving its mark deeper and deeper.

Levinas wrote in Greek and in Hebrew – that is he wrote in general philosophy without any reference to Judaism and wrote about Judaism including some magnificent commentaries on the Talmud.

I would like to focus briefly on a Hebraic text by Levinas that will help understand why it is necessary, essential, that God’s commandment not to eat from the tree precedes, or conditions, man’s quest for meaning and companionship in the world.  Perhaps it will also shed light on why law, or perhaps we should say the grammar of law, commandment, and obligation – Rabbinic Judaism –  is necessary.

Levinas comments on the Gemera in Shabbat 88:a-b that relates that God brings the Jews to Sinai and then instead of giving them the torah lifts that mountain over the heads, overturns it, and says “either you accept my torah or here will be your death.”

Levinas understands this moment as God saying that the “Jewish way of being, of the difficult freedom of being Jewish” is not a choice that one makes; that part of being Jewish is not to have a freedom that all is permitted; that you can satisfy every aspect of your desire or self-interest but there are limits to a base or animal freedom.   Commandment and obligation are part and parcel of being fully human.  By imposing limits, by putting the Other first, commandments and obligation raise humans from the animal.  Without law, all is meaningless, death, oblivion – as symbolized by the threat of the overturned Har Sinai.  Levinas writes:

If you do not accept the Torah, you will not leave this place of desolation and death, this desert which lays to waste all the splendors of the earth.  You will not be able to being history, to break the block of being stupidly sufficient unto itself, like Haman drinking with King Ahasuerus…Only the Torah, a seemingly utopian knowledge, assures man of a place.

I think that this is why the first thing that God does after God creates man is to command him – to teach him limits.  Once that happens, man is able to give meaning to the world, to name things, and be introduced to another humans being – i.e. the first women. According to this thought, ethics comes before meaning or it orders meaning.  First man must be commanded then he can find happiness so long as that happiness accords with the command. Ethics or Halacha becomes the purpose of creation.  The sugya in Shabbat continues:

Resh Lakish taught: What dies the verse mean: “Evening came, then morning, it was the sixth day”?  The definite article [i.e. the sixth day] is not necessary.  Answer: God had established a covenant with the works of the Beginning (with the Real called to come forth): If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not I will being you back to chaos.

Resh Lakish is a universalist.  He builds on the previous Gemera: the Jews acceptance of the Torah at Sinai is the purpose of all creation.  It provides the meaning of existence for Jews and gentiles alike.  As Levinas writes:

God, therefore, did not create without concerning Himself with the meaning of creation.  Being has a meaning.  The meaning of being, the meaning of creation, is to realize the Torah.  The world is here so that the ethical order has the possibility of being fulfilled.  The act by which the Israelites accept the Torah is the act which gives meaning to reality.  To refuse the is to bring being back to nothingness.

Here the true universalism of Torah, of the ethical order, is proclaimed.  To be commanded, to have obligations, is not the heritage of Jews alone.  Sinai is binding for all, as Levinas writes in another Talmudic commentary, to receive law, to be bound by obligations, is to be fully human and realize self-consciousness.  We are all descendents of the first man who was commanded when he was created; Auschwitz has taught us that we are all Jews.

We all need law even if like the first man we fail, and as the story goes on we know that he fails spectacularly, we can follow the Torah and return to the purpose of creation. The Rambam writes in the Guide of the Perplexed3:27 that the goal of the majority of the Mitzvot is “the welfare of the states of people in their relations with one another through the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing and through the acquisition of a noble and excellent character.”

So I think that this is one of the main messages of the Torah that we need law and commandments to regulate or desires and self-interest.  That law and obligations are part of our humanity.  Unfortunately for most Americans, Alan Greenspan just realized this point.  He reportedly told a house sub-committee this past Thursday: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” Great.  I would have hoped that the man charged with regulating the banks would have actually regulated them and would not have allowed them to put their self-interest first.

Some of the work we do at Uri L’Tzedek is to create a space where we can talk about what our community would like, what we need to do, to realize our humanity, the meaning of existence, to put the Other first.  Shabbat Shalom.