GOD IS GREAT! BUT, ADDING TO RELIGION CAN SPOIL EVERYTHING!

by Gerald Schroeder                       June 2022

gerald_schroeder@alum.mit.edu

In his widely circulated book, God is not great: why religion spoils everything, Christopher Hitchens makes a logical but incorrect parallel between God and religion.  God is God and religion is what people do in relation to God but which unfortunately often has a lot to do with the mindset of the person practicing the religion and very little to do with God.

As we view the development of religions, we see an overriding desire to “make it harder God, make it harder”. By making it harder to do what we think is the necessary way of serving God, there is the underlying assumption that the more strict is the more authentic. In this essay I survey the origin of this misconception so popular in understanding the relationship between the Creator and the created. For this, I am taking as a format the books of the Hebrew Bible, foundational texts of the Jewish and Christian religions, with the hope of alleviating, at least for some persons,  the need to “make it harder.”

The clearest biblical instruction regarding not to ‘make it harder’ is the warning in Deuteronomy 4:2 and repeated a few chapters later in 13:1. In each case there is a warning telling us to guard against changing the text. In both cases we read do not add to these words and do not subtract from these words. The order of that warning is significant. It is never do not subtract from these words and do not add to these words. Always ‘do not add’ precedes the warning ‘do not subtract.’

The Author of the Bible foresaw the need to guard against the inherent human desire to prove our affinity with God by showing how much extra effort we will endure to maintain the relationship.

Those warnings of not adding to God’s words appear in the 5th of the Five Books of Moses. Unfortunately, the advice would have been of benefit right up front, in the first book, Genesis. The very first transgression recorded in the Bible is indeed the transgression of adding to the law. If the biblical text is accurate, which I believe it is, then even today we live with the ripple effects of that mis-deed.

The text in Genesis tells us that God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a paradise on earth. They are the first beings with the soul of humanity (Genesis1:27), which makes them the first humans though not the first homo sapiens sapiens (Genesis1:26). At this stage, Eve has not yet received the name of Eve – Hava in Hebrew, a word having great significance. She is still called by the name that Adam initially gave her, “Woman,” eisha in Hebrew (the feminine form of eish – man in Hebrew).

The basis for the impending transgression is found when God informs Adam, and from the succeeding discussions it appears that God also informed Woman, that they may eat the fruit of every tree in the Garden of Eden in which they have been placed, with one exception: from the tree that is in the midst of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat.

Following the divine warning, we find Woman alone in the Garden. Suddenly she is confronted by what I will call the Seducer. In this confrontation between Woman and the Seducer we learn several important facts. First, we find a problem with Adam’s behavior. God had placed Adam in the garden to “guard the garden” (Genesis 2:15). Apparently, Adam did not guard it sufficiently because the Seducer had entered the garden. Then the Seducer brilliantly drew Woman into a discussion and with truly dazzling debating strategy, Woman was essentially lost. The Seducer asked her that indeed had God forbidden them to eat from the fruit of all the trees in the garden? Woman of course had to correct the Seducer’s error, and informed the Seducer that they may eat from the fruit of all the trees of the garden except only one, the tree which is in the midst of the garden, We must not eat of it, we must not even touch it, lest we die ( Genesis 3:1-3).

We, who have read the Bible’s text, know that God had said do not eat of that fruit. God had said nothing about not touching that fruit. The next thing we read is that the fruit looked very good, even desirable, and Woman ate of the forbidden fruit.

Let us analyze the back-story of this scenario, what likely occurred. The Seducer asks Woman, we cannot eat of any of the trees in the garden? Woman corrects the Seducer and says that we can eat of all the trees except the one in the midst of the garden. Not only can we not eat from that tree, we cannot even touch it lest we die. To Woman’s knowledge, ‘not eating the forbidden fruit and not touching the forbidden fruit’ are laws or commands from the creating God, and the transgression of either results in death by the will of God.

To Woman, the Divine Law is don’t eat and don’t touch the fruit. Therefore, what is the logic of what happened next that would result in Woman eating the fruit? The Seducer made Woman touch the fruit and what happened? Nothing happened; and therefore, Woman assumed that the entire law restricting their relationship with the forbidden fruit is false.

What we learn from this is that clearly Woman could not have been the one who introduced the threat of don’t touch the fruit lest you die, simply because if that was her idea, she would not expect any punishment for touching. The only person around that could have introduced that do-not-touch law is her man, Adam. He must have told her don’t touch the fruit, and warned her not in a way as if it were a safety fence of his idea, such as “don’t eat of it, and best that we don’t even touch it just to be safe.”  Adam introduced the added don’t-touch restriction as a law from the word of God, and when touching resulted in no disaster whatsoever, Woman must have deduced that the whole law was made up. Adam had added to the law. Make it harder God, make it harder – give us more restrictions!

The first “religious” transgression in the Five Books of Moses is adding to the law. And look at the results. We no longer live in the Garden of Eden which, as stated, represented a life of wonder and pleasure. This may explain why we live in a world in which we find significant good but also endure pain and trouble.

Not many chapters in the Bible had passed before we discovered that indeed religion can, and did, spoil everything.

Trying to make it better, Adam gives Woman a new name

Upon their eating of the forbidden fruit, God enters the picture and punishes participants. Adam is punished by having the earth lose its natural fertility and so he will have to work with great effort to bring forth the fruits of the ground. Woman learns that she will bring forth life but in birthing she will have pain. In this confrontation by God, Adam and Woman are punished but the Seducer is cursed (Genesis 3:8-19).

Up to this point in the episode, Adam’s mate is still named Woman – eisha. And then in the verse immediately following the forbidden fruit episode, with no interruption (Genesis 3:20), with no break in the Hebrew text, Adam re-names his mate, giving Woman a special name: “the man called his wife’s name Hava (usually translated as Eve) because she was the mother of all living. “

This is a strange text because Hava does not mean life or living. Hiiya means life. The meaning of Hava is found in Psalms 19:1,2  – The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.

The Hebrew word in the psalm for “reveals” is Ye’ha’veh, the root of which is hava, the name that Adam gave to Woman. This sudden change of name is highly significant. Adam realized that he had made a horrible error adding to the law. But it was too late to change that error. However, he could guard against this in the future by trusting the inherent wisdom of his mate. Adam’s choice of the name Hava indicates that he realized Woman had a profound understanding of reality, an understanding that reveals within a situation the deeper wisdom sequestered therein.

If biblical Hava and Adam are archetypes for woman and man, then we have here, in Adam’s newly discovered appreciation for Hava, a lesson ever relevant to all our own interactions between the sexes. [The author thanks Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for his profound insight into the meaning of Hava,]