Monday, October 01, 2007

The Judaic Ideal: “Right Reason” as Flawed

© The Curious Jew. This paper may not be reused, resubmitted or replicated in any form without the express permission of the owner. More importantly, will catch you.

Milton’s masterful depiction of the Fall in Eden draws upon various midrashic, aggadic and apocryphal Judaic sources, even though it differs greatly from the simple text in Genesis. Milton, caught as ever between two extremes, his existence as a great literary figure and his existence as a devout Christian, desires to make the Fall appear logical to mankind. He therefore makes it into a process brought about by misapplied logic and fallacious arguments. The great difference between Milton and the Judaic/ Midrashic approach appears in the argument of the serpent. Milton has the serpent target Eve’s vanity, pride, ambition and courage. Hence, his serpent plays upon Eve’s inherent emotions and character traits. The Judaic/ Midrashic serpent targets Eve’s reason, rationally demonstrating why she ought to eat of the forbidden fruit. Milton believes that “right reason” is lost due to the fall, but the Jewish/ Midrashic approach is that reason leads to that downfall in the first place. In Milton, Eve ought to have exercised reason rather than listen to sophisticated, fallacious exercises in sophistry aimed at manipulating her emotions. In Judaism, Eve ought merely to have obeyed, even if her reason suggests otherwise.

Milton’s genius lies in creating a logical story that outlines the motives, feelings and beliefs of its principle characters. His approach suggests a human connection between the postlapsarian reader and the prelapsarian characters. Genesis is grim and cold in its pronouncement, “And the woman took from the fruit…And their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3: 6-7). Innocence is destroyed at the very moment Adam and Eve eat from the fruit; they were immortal and perfect, now they are mortal and flawed. Milton, alternatively, depicts the gradual encroaching evil that imitates the potency of wine as it takes effect; Eve begins by eating of the fruit, indulges in greed (Milton 9: 791), becomes duplicitous (“But to Adam in what sort/ Shall I appear?” (9: 819-820), engages in idol-worship through bowing to the tree (9: 835) and then proceeds to claim that she is now Divine, reaching for the godhead (9: 877). Once Adam agrees to join her, the two feel lust and engage in carnal activities (9: 1015) and only after all this do they realize that they have sinned (Evans 288). Milton’s progression is masterly because it is believable; this is a story and as such it must ring true.

It is for this reason that Milton’s villain, Satan, is so carefully developed. Satan feels a moment of remorse when he sees the two harmless beings whom he could almost pity were it not for God’s seemingly harsh treatment of him, which he must repay. Satan is also envious of man, whom he views as a rival for the angels, indeed, created by God to replace those whom God had lost through Satan’s rebellion (9: 147-148). While the Bible itself does not support this view of Satan, Jewish legend and apocrypha suggests that Satan rebelled against God in the same way that Milton illustrates. Satan, according to apocryphal sources, refuses to worship Adam and accept his superiority when commanded to do so by God. God suggests a test to demonstrate that Adam’s wisdom outshines that of the angels; namely, that Adam and Satan both attempt to assign the animals their proper names- whoever succeeds will be the true victor. Although Adam succeeds, Satan refuses to worship him. The angel Michael threatens Satan by stating that if Satan does not worship Adam, “the Lord God will break out in wrath against thee.” Satan haughtily replies, “If He breaks out in wrath against me, I will exalt my throne from the stars of God, I will be like the most High!” (Ginzberg 62-63) God then casts down Satan and his whole troop of angels, dashing them to the Earth. This is the reason, then, for “the enmity between Satan and man” (Ginzberg 63).

In the Bible itself, Satan and the snake are not equated. The verse in Genesis reads simply, “Now the serpent was cunning beyond any beast of the field that God had made” (Genesis 3:1). This suggests that it is the serpent itself, as an animal rather than possessed by any creature, that desires to bring about Adam and Eve’s downfall. Yet again, however, the simple Biblical reading is fleshed out in midrashic sources and apocrypha. First, the serpent is given a motive. Similar to Satan’s appreciation of Eve, terming her “divinely fair, fit love for gods” (9: 489) and having been depicted as jealously watching while she and Adam make love (4: 493-502), the serpent is said to have observed the two of them “in their natural functions” which led him to “conceive a passion for her [Eve]” (Evans 46). Indeed, Milton’s Adam and Eve suggest that their unknown enemy may perhaps desire to “disturb/ Conjugal love, than which perhaps no bliss/ Enjoyed by us excites his envy more” (9: 262-264). Judaic sources agree with this statement; R’ Johanan went so far as to say that the serpent actually “copulated with Eve” and therefore “infused her with lust” (Evans 47). Others state that the serpent was not actually a serpent at all, but rather the angel Samael. According to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, a midrashic source, Samael “descended and saw all the creatures…and he found among them none so skilled to do evil as the serpent…Its appearance was something like that of the camel, and he mounted and rode upon it” (Evans 46-47). The fact that Samael, who is often equated with Satan, is said to have thought that none of the animals was “so skilled to do evil as the serpent” is echoed in Satan’s thoughts in Paradise Lost. Satan, contemplating all the creatures, found “the serpent subtlest beast of all the field” (9: 86) and decides that this creature is a “fit vessel, fittest imp of fraud, in whom/ to enter” (9: 89-90). The specific description “fittest imp of fraud” directly tallies with the Midrashic assertion that Samael saw the beast as the most “skilled to do evil.”

The greatest difference between the Judaic account and Milton’s account is the warning. Adam and Eve are warned three times that they have a great foe, an enemy who will try to bring them down and hurt them. In Genesis, there is no such warning. There is only God’s command; the question is one of obedience due to that command. It is unnecessary to suggest that there may be a specific plotter who will attempt to entice them. Also important is Genesis’ depiction of man and woman. There, man and woman are considered equal, “God created Man in His image, in the image of God created He them; male and female created He them” (Genesis 1: 27). Genesis asserts that God created both man and woman in His image, there is no suggestion that women are weaker when it comes to rational faculties or are more easily persuaded. Indeed, when the serpent approaches the woman in the Genesis account, there is no clear statement made as to his reason; he simply had to choose one of the two humans and she happened to be the one available. Milton, alternatively, has Adam describe Eve as beautiful but lacking; she is in “outward show/ Elaborate, of inward less exact” (8: 538-539). Adam also states that Eve is “th’inferior,” (8:540), suggesting that her mind and inward faculties are unlike his, also, she does not resemble God as much as he does.

Milton makes much of Eve’s desire to leave Adam, intimating that this is the beginning of the fall- woman’s desire to separate from man. Although her argument is very rational and it is clear that she desires to fulfill God’s command to guard and keep the garden, it is the fact that she is discontent with her state of loving and being loved which suggests a flaw. Midrashic sources alternatively state that Adam and Eve had simply been assigned different sections of the garden, which is why they were not together at all times, or that they had just engaged in conjugal relations and Adam had fallen asleep at the pivotal moment (Evans 49). The compelling factor in Milton’s version is that Adam and Eve have been warned; they are aware that they have a foe but Eve still persists in going off by herself. Since this problem does not exist in the Genesis account, there is no excuse necessary to explain why Eve is by herself. However, Milton’s suggestion that a woman who goes off alone is flouting male protection and hence may embroil herself in a troublesome situation is a biblical concept. Dina, daughter of the Matriarch Leah, is described as having “went out to look over the daughters of the land” (Genesis 34: 1). Her mother Leah is also assigned this tendency to go out alone, considered forward and inappropriate by biblical commentators such as Rashi, in Genesis 30: 16, “Leah went out to meet him [Jacob].” Dina, of course, is kidnapped by the prince of the land, Shechem, and violated. To some extent, this stems from the fact that she “went out” alone. Milton appears to have taken this concept, as it applied to Dina and other forward women, and applied it to Eve.

This leads us to the snake and his wily conversation with Eve. Once Eve has separated from Adam, she is a prime target for Satan, who selects her because she is “opportune to all attempts” and less intellectual, strong and formidable than her husband (9: 481-485). Judaic lore agrees, stating that the snake was “too well acquainted with the character of the man to attempt to exercise the tricks of persuasion upon him” (Ginzberg 71), and therefore turns to Eve, “knowing that women are beguiled easily” (Ginzberg 71). In Milton’s account, Satan lures Eve’s eye by causing the snake to curl “many a wanton wreath” (9: 517) to attract her. He then begins to speak, astonishing Eve, who questions “What may this mean? Language of man pronounced/ By tongue of brute, and human sense expressed?” (9: 553-554) In Genesis, Eve expresses no such surprise. This is because, as the apocryphal work The Book of Jubilees explains,

    before the Fall all the animals enjoyed the gift of speech; it was only after the condemnation that was closed the mouths of all beasts, and of cattle, and of birds, and of whatever walks, and of whatever moves, so that they could no longer speak: for they had all spoken with one another with one lip and with one tongue. (Evans 31)

Therefore, the fact that the serpent speaks is not astonishing.

In Genesis, the serpent begins by inquiring, as though he were merely curious, “Did, perhaps, God say: ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” (Genesis 3: 1) In Milton’s version, however, Satan acts as a flatterer, praising Eve and her beauty, calling her “a goddess among gods” (9: 547) and otherwise complimenting her. In Milton’s version, Eve is initially won over because of her vanity; she stays to hear these words about herself, in fact these words “[i]nto the heart of Eve…made way” (9: 550). The serpent explains that he has attained these human qualities of speech and reason because he ate of the forbidden fruit. He leads Eve to the tree, upon which she explains that “of this tree we may not taste nor touch;/ God so commanded, and left that command/ Sole daughter of his voice” (9: 651-653). This is exactly what Eve states in Genesis, “Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden God has said: ‘You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3: 2). Where came this prohibition of touching, one immediately questions? When God commanded Adam (before Eve was created), He qualified, “but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2: 16). This question is discussed by the sages in the Talmud, where they blame Adam for incorrectly expressing the prohibition to Eve. Adam was the one who received the command directly from God, and jealously determined that he did not wish to share God’s exact words with Eve. Moreover, he decided to erect a “guard” around the prohibition, but when he did this, he did not tell Eve that he was the one who suggested that the two of them should not even touch the tree, allowing her to think that God had stated that this was the case. According to the Talmud, “[i]t was Adam’s exaggeration that afforded the serpent the possibility of persuading Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit” (Ginzberg 71). How so? Simply because the serpent was able to demonstrate that Eve did not die from simply touching or making contact with the tree; therefore it was clear that she would not die from eating of the fruit!

Milton and the Midrash both allow the serpent to engage in clever, devious conversation, but these conversations appeal to different human traits and characteristics. Milton’s serpent appeals to Eve’s ambition, vanity, pride and courage. The Midrashic, Judaic serpent, appeals to Eve’s reason. Milton’s serpent slyly attacks Eve’s pride by indignantly questioning “Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast is open?” (9: 691) Then he appeals to Eve’s courage, suggesting that God meant his prohibition as a test; would God not “praise/ Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain/ Of death denounced?” (9: 693-695) He tries her ambition, explaining that the only reason God has forbidden the fruit is to keep the mortals “low and ignorant/ His worshippers” (9: 704-705). The serpent even suggests that death is merely the death of the human, but that makes way for the rise of the god! (Milton 9: 714)

The Midrash’s serpent, alternatively, appeals to reason and thus practical demonstration. In the conversation brought down by the Midrash, the serpent begins with a practical demonstration. He pushes Eve against the tree, then says “Thou seest that touching the tree has not caused thy death. As little will it hurt thee to eat the fruit of the tree” (Ginzberg 71). The serpent then explains that once Eve eats from the tree, she shall be like God. Just as he creates and destroy worlds, so will she be able to destroy. In fact, God Himself ate of the fruit before creating the world, and He forbids you to eat out of fear that you too will possess the power to create and destroy worlds. “Everyone knows that ‘artisans of the same guild hate one another,” he slyly inserts (Ginzberg 71). Again appealing to reason, the serpent explains that in the six-day series of creation, the later the creation, the more over which it has dominion.

    The heavens were made on the first day, and they are kept in place by the firmament made on the second day. The firmament, in turn, is ruled by the plants, the creation of the third day, for they take up all the waters of the firmament. The sun and the other celestial bodies, which were created on the fourth day, have power over the world of plants. They can ripen their fruits and flourish only through their influence. The creation of the fifth day, the animal world, rules over the celestial spheres. Witness the ziz, which can darken the sun with its pinions. But ye are masters of the whole of creation, because ye were the last to be created. Hasten now and eat of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, and become independent of God, lest He bring forth still other creatures to bear rule over you. (Ginzberg 71-72)
Now that the serpent has rationally demonstrated why Eve must eat the fruit (for he is quite right; God could create another creature to rule over Adam and herself), he engages in another practical demonstration, violently shaking the tree and eating of the fruit, showing her how he did not die. This is in contradistinction to Milton’s serpent, who claims he ate of the fruit, but never actually eats it in front of Eve. At this point, the Midrashic Eve was convinced, though still tentative- and reaching for the fruit, she only ate the peel at first, then the fruit itself (Ginzberg 72).

The differences between the two serpents clearly explains the difference between Milton’s point of view and the Judaic/ Midrashic point of view. Milton argues that the Fall symbolizes the fall of “right reason” in favor of sophisticated emotional lures, whether they be practiced through flattery, one’s own ambition, pride, or a misunderstanding of courage. The Midrash, however, and Judaism more specifically, sees reason as problematic in the episode with the serpent, for Eve is persuaded through using her reason, that is, through touching the tree and seeing she does not die, watching the serpent eat the fruit and seeing he does not die, paying attention to the argument that God could potentially create a new creation to rule over her and desiring to free herself from that, to eat the fruit. In Milton’s view, the Fall is the war between right reason and emotional ties; in the Judaic/ Midrashic point of view, the Fall is the war between reason and obedience to God.

Once Eve eats of the fruit, Milton describes the earth by claiming that she “felt the wound, and nature from her seat/ Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe/ That all was lost” (9: 782-784). Judaic and Midrashic sources directly oppose this view, stating that the reason the ground is later cursed in Genesis 3: 17-18, “accursed is the ground because of you…thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you” is because it “did not show thee thy guilt” (Evans 53). The ground, from the Judaic point of view, did not heave a sign of woe or crack open or in any other way protest or revolt; it is guilty because of this, and hence liable to punishment.

Eve’s immediate thought after eating the fruit is:
    [w]hat if God have seen,
    And death ensue? Then I shall be no more,
    And Adam wedded to another Eve,
    Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
    A death to think. Confirmed then I resolve,
    Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe... (Milton 9: 826-831)

Here the Midrashic/ Judaic viewpoint is in full agreement:
    As soon as she had eaten thereof her teeth were set on edge, and she saw the angel of death with drawn sword standing before her. She then said in her heart, ‘Woe unto me that I have eaten of this death, for now I will die; and Adam, my husband, who has not eaten of it will live for ever and God will couple him with another woman. It is better that we die together, for God created us together even unto death. So when her husband came she gave him some of the fruit to taste. (Evans 50)
In a most interesting development, however, Milton’s Eve does not tell this to Adam when she comes to entice him to eat the fruit, but rather explains that she wishes him to join her in her pursuit of the Godhead. As Evans writes, she goes to meet Adam with “countenance blithe” and “urges him to eat the fruit in order to attain divinity” (Evans 284).

    Thou therefore also taste, that equal lot
    May join us, equal joy, as equal love;
    Lest thou not tasting, different degree
    Disjoin us, and I then too late renounce
    Deity for thee, when fate will not permit. (Milton 9: 881-885)
Evans explains that Eve is utterly devious when she speaks like this; she does not appeal to Adam’s love or valour, but rather suggests a system of hierarchy where she will be the superior due to her new sense of vision. In her soliloquy, Evans explains, Eve had thought to keep the “odd of knowledge in my power” so that she might be “sometime Superior” to Adam (Evans 284). Now she tells Adam that she wishes him to have the fruit so that they can be equal, slyly hinting that “if Adam does not follow her example he will lose, not her love, not ever her respect, but his authority over her” (Evans 284). This interpretation works very well with God’s subsequent curse in Genesis 3: 16, “Yet your craving shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Just as Eve’s insinuation was that Adam would lose his authority over her if he did not eat the fruit, now God punishes her by stating that not only will Adam always rule over her, but she will desire it; her “craving” shall be for her husband.

Adam, to give him credit, “pays absolutely no attention to Eve’s arguments or the premises upon which they were based” (Evans 288). Godhead is not what matters to him- Eve is. He takes up the points Eve initially debated, those regarding the fact that God could potentially create another wife for him, which would sadden him (Evans 284). Adam is considerably more gallant in Milton’s version of the tale; he chooses Eve over God, and “prefaces his accusations against Eve with an anguished statement of his dilemma,” for he explains that his choice is “Either to undergo/ Myself, the total crime, or to accuse/ My other self, the partner of my life” (10: 126-228). This is very different from the Adam who petulantly states, “The woman whom You gave to be with me- she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3: 12).

In another great distinction between the biblical version of the tale and Milton’s work, Milton chooses to gradually allow Adam and Eve to fall prey to sin, rather than having their eyes open at once. The Bible is very straightforward, stating that Eve ate, she gave to her husband to eat, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked…” (Genesis 3: 6) Milton, however, favors a gradual buildup, changing the “crude transformation in Genesis” to “a psychologically credible sequence of events by the imaginative use of traditional legend and exegesis” where he takes the Rabbinic idea that the forbidden fruit was grapes and uses that to suggest that Eve is inebriated, intoxicated as though with wine, brings her husband over to her cause; they slake their lust and then feel “subsequent guilt and shame, which now appear as the inevitable concomitants of the mood of triste post coitum combined with a hangover” (Evans 288).

What, then, is un-Judaic about Milton’s approach to the Fall? Most of his elements are based on Judaic principles even if they are not Judaic to the letter of the law. Milton states that Satan donned the form of the snake; Midrashic literature states that the angel Samael rode on the snake. Milton suggests that the snake engaged Eve in a fascinating, provocative conversation; the Talmud and Midrashic literature suggest this as well, only qualifying that it was reason that was Eve’s downfall rather than emotions. Milton suggests the fall begins with Eve leaving Adam to go her own way; while the Bible does not suggest this with regard to Eve, it is an accepted idea with regard to other female biblical figures. Judaism and Milton differ as to the reason the snake is able to speak, the actual identity of the fruit, the Earth’s reaction to the Fall, and the speed with which the participants become aware of their sin. The greatest and most important difference between Milton and Judaism is that of the warning- in Milton’s version, Adam and Eve are warned and ought to be on their guard; in Judaism, they are not warned but simply must obey, another example of the Judaic ideal of obedience vs. reason as opposed to Milton’s reason vs. emotion. Other than this, however, Milton has cleverly and masterfully adopted, adapted and applied Judaic exegesis in order to create the rich, beautiful tale that is the fall of the two most extraordinary beings on earth- Adam and Eve.

Works Cited

Evans, J.M. Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition. New York: Clarendon P, 1968.

Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. 2nd ed. Vol 1. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003.


e-kvetcher said...

>Milton, caught as ever between two extremes, his existence as a great literary figure and his existence as a devout Christian, desires to make the Fall appear logical to mankind

Can you explain why these are two extremes? Of what scale?

Also, what does his Christianity have to do with "making the Fall appear logical to mankind"?


Chana said...

So I wrote this paper for Professor Weidhorn's class and his take on Milton was that he was an extremely devout Christian (this is as opposed to Professor Silver, who sees Milton as being somewhat heretical.) These two sides to Milton are extremes in this case because as a Christian, he needs to pay proper respect to the source material/ figures at hand (biblical and sacred, obviously) but at the same time he wants his work to be gripping and fascinating with human and real characters, which could (but does not have to) mean treating the source material with less reverence. So he had to figure out how to connect both aspects of his personality/ beliefs in order to create this work.

His Christianity is the impetus behind his writing this work; he explains at the beginning that it is his desire to "justify the ways of God to man." He attempts this by trying to make the Fall appear logical to mankind.

And no problem!

e-kvetcher said...

I wonder if the fact that he lived in the "Age of Reason" had also something to do with his appeal to Reason.

take on Milton was that he was an extremely devout Christian (this is as opposed to Professor Silver, who sees Milton as being somewhat heretical.)

I think it is a documented fact that Milton held 'heretical" beliefs from the POV of mainstream Christianity. (very similar to Newton, btw). However, he probably considered himself just as Christian as the next guy, certainly no less devout, much like Reform Jews today consider themselves no less devout than Orthodox. Though I assume your professor probably meant "devout mainstream Christian".

Nice work.

e-kvetcher said...

Nice work.

Or some may say "Very nice work" :)

Daniel said...

Speaking of "devout Christians," let alone "mainstream Christians," in seventeenth century England is fraught with difficulty. You really need to establish terms of reference first. Remember that Milton had lived through a long and bitter civil war fought, in part, over what true Christianity was. This was a question of extreme relevance for Milton; he held a government post under the victorious (Puritan) Commonwealth.

e-kvetcher said...


I think you and I are on the same page. When I say "mainstream", I am referring to the major branches of Christianity, such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, vs the more marginal groups, not necessarily in the context of England of that time.

haKiruv said...

I'm under the impression that the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are the same. It's that Adam seperated it in his mind and fully consumed fruit from just one side, causing the unity to vanish, which made evil.

My understanding is that this has nothing to do with Adam's reasoning. For instance, if Adam and Eve were tempted, reasoned, and yet denied to eat, then under your hypothesis the temptation/reasoning alone was the sin and not their answer/action. Thereby Adam and Eve caused sin by the mere entrance of the serpent's statements. So, it doesn't make logical sense to argue from that perspective. It also doesn't hold, because saying that temptations are the cause of evil seems so erroneous. And that is actually a Christian concept: "The devil made me do it". Rather, I've found that in Judaism it's the person that causes evil. It's when we're tempted and overcome our temptation, that we survive and not fall.

To me, evil doesn't seem bound by reasoning, but rather a seperation from what was initially in union.

It's not the questioning and reasoning that is evil, but rather the seperation that is caused by the conclusion. This "Otherside"(cheesy RHCP reference for you) is where Adam was going, where evil can only achieve reality by human interaction: from the Sitra Achra.

Also, writers like Gershom Scholem provide loads of evidence and passages that disagree with your view of the Judaic View. Not to mention, Christianity had it's roots in Judaism.

Charlie Hall said...

One can be both devout and heretical; I think Milton is indeed such an example (from the Christian perspective). I'd love to hear Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's take on this.