I read a fantastic article yesterday from Rabbi Sacks that made me wish our own Gospel Doctrine lessons were this thoughtful. I suppose we get what we pay for (and at our rates it’s even a bargain). Still, we don’t have the excellent mix of thoughtfulness and scholarship that is the hallmark of Jewish scriptural debate and commentary. As Jana Reiss once lamented, there is no Mormon Midrash. So we’ll borrow one today for a closer look at Adam & Eve.
Rabbi Sacks notes the unusual order of events after partaking the forbidden fruit, and he points out that others have questioned whether the text is out of order or items have been omitted (always possible in the Bible). As we all remember, first they partake of the fruit, God finds out, and Adam points the blame at the woman. The woman blames the snake, and the snake is cursed. Next, the woman is cursed with painful child birth. Then, the man is cursed with a life of toil. Three people are blamed, three are cursed. Plenty of blame and cursing to go around, even in chiastic order: blame, blame, blame, curse, curse, curse. Man woman, snake, snake, woman, man.
The next section covers three very different things in an odd order:
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thouart, and unto dust shalt thou return.
20 And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us
To recap the three seemingly unrelated things:
- Mortality is explained to Adam in v. 19.
- Adam names Eve in v 20.
- God gives both of them garments of skin to wear, giving them dignity to cover their shame. Then he talks about their newfound status. They are suddenly like God in a new way.
From Rabbi Sacks’ commentary:
The problems are obvious. Adam has just blamed his wife for leading him into sin. He has also been condemned to mortality. Why, at just this juncture, does he turn to her and give her a new name? And why, immediately afterward, as they are about to be exiled from Eden, does G-d perform an act of kindness to the couple – giving dignity to the very symbol of their sin, the clothes with which they hide their shame?
The mood seems to have changed for no reason. The bitter acrimony of the previous verses suddenly dissolves, and instead -between Adam and his wife, and between G-d and the couple – there is a new tenderness.
It’s an interesting question, one I hadn’t considered before. Are these actions signs of respect? When the blaming and cursing is over, does empathy and respect follow? Are Adam and Eve like our own children who grow up and make mistakes, which creates distance from us as parents, but also makes them like us?
Let’s hear more from Rabbi Sacks about Adam naming Eve as if out of the blue. Why did Adam become tender toward Eve after blaming her? Why did she suddenly need a name?
Until then, death had not entered his consciousness, but now it did. What, if we are mortal, will live on? Is there a part of us that will continue, even though we ourselves are no longer here? It was then that Adam remembered G-d’s words to the woman. She would give birth to children – in pain, to be sure, but she would bring new life into the world.
Suddenly Adam knew that though we die, if we are privileged to have children, something of us will live on: our genes, our influence, our example, our ideals. That is our immortality.
Why did Adam’s attitude toward Eve shift suddenly?
Until he became aware of his mortality, Adam could think of his wife as a mere ezer kenegdo, usually translated as “a suitable helper.” He thought of her as his assistant, not his equal. “She shall be called ‘woman’ [ishah] for she was taken from man [ish].” She was, in his eyes, an extension of himself.
Now he knew otherwise. Without her, he could not have children – and children were his share in eternity. He could no longer think of her as an assistant. She was a person in her own right – more even than he was, for she, not he, would actually give birth. In this respect she was more like G-d than he could be, for G-d is He-who-brings-new-life-into-being.
There’s a patriarchal element to this that I can’t quite love, but maybe that’s necessary since God is speaking to Adam. He is framing mortality as a male problem. In part it reminds me of Tracy M’s excellent post Date Me, Not My Uterus. But the good Rabbi’s view is that love is never interchangeable like that. One uterus is not equal to another. Love is personal. We only love proper names, not nouns. We love individuals, not the concept of a woman. It’s hard to remember that with some of the rhetoric we hear from our fellow congregants. In particular, I am reminded of what Pres. Kimball said in 1977 about any man and woman being able to marry successfully if they are righteous. This comment was the source of nightmares when I was a teenager, imagining that I would need to humbly submit to a loveless marriage to a person I didn’t find attractive or else I wasn’t really a good person, or at least not good enough. As Pres. Kimball said:
any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price
These are words that are still very much considered to be truisms today in the church. I had a conversation about this very concept just a year ago with one of my friends from Relief Society. On a good day, I imagined that it was like if you were stuck on a deserted island with someone eventually, the Blue Lagoon would happen. But what if you were stuck on a deserted island with someone revolting? What if that person was supremely irritating?
To those who love gender essentialism (and I’m not one of them), there is a tendency to lump all women into one big stereotype and all men into one big stereotype, and then to use this as evidence that gender is eternal. In reality, we are all individuals, and all men don’t automatically love all women and vice versa (setting aside the diverse array of sexual orientations). We love individuals, not stereotypes. We date individuals, not their reproductive parts, even if we ultimately hope to have children. The commoditization of men & women is an unfortunate byproduct of our current family rhetoric, but it doesn’t need to be. Rabbi Sacks’ interpretation is like dew in the desert.
And what about the coats of skin that follow the naming of Eve? What do the garments they are given signify in light of God’s budding empathy for Adam and Eve?
Stranger still is the interpretation given by the first century sage Rabbi Meir to the phrase “garments of skin,” bigdei ‘or. Rabbi Meir reads the ayin of the second word as an aleph, bigdei or – and thus interprets the phrase as “garments of light.” This is an almost mystical suggestion and a deeply intriguing one. Why -not when they were in paradise, but as they were leaving it – were the couple bathed with divine radiance, clothed in “garments of light”?
“Garments of light” sounds exactly like the sort of idea that would appeal to Joseph Smith, and I find it quite appealing too. According to Rabbi Sacks, this moment signaled the beginning of individual identity:
With the appearance of proper names, the concept of person is born. A noun designates a class, a group of things linked by common characteristics. Nouns speak of sameness and therefore substitutability. If we lose one watch we can buy another. If our car is stolen we can replace it. “Watch” and “car” are nouns, in both cases objects defined by their function.
A name is different. It refers not to a class or group of things but to an individual in his/her individuality. The primary bearer of a name is a person.
We can only love people individually, as unique persons:
The single most important ethical truth about persons is that none is substitutable for any other. As persons, we are unique. “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint,” said the sages, “they all come out alike. [By contrast,] G-d makes every human being in the same image, his image, and they are all different.”
This is what gives human life its dignity and sanctity. Without it, we would not know love – for love in its primary sense is always directed to a person: to this man, that woman, this child, in their uniqueness. One who truly loves does not love abstractly.
Without equality between the sexes, man cannot converse with God.
We are not gene-producing machines but persons, each of us unique, irreplaceable, here because G-d wanted us to be. That is the world-transforming concept of Hashem – and it was only when Adam responded to Eve as a person that he could respond to G-d as a person.
It’s a fresh perspective on a well-worn text, one that is obviously pivotal to Mormons, and yet one that we don’t discuss in this level of analysis as often as maybe we should. Rabbi Sacks manages the nearly impossible–elevating this text from the usual sexist blames and curses and imbuing it with respect, dignity, and hope for equality, not only of the sexes, but with God. The good Rabbi is a true mensch.