Monday, September 26, 2011

Fence-making is the only thing that stopped you from having a magic domesticated snake

We picked up right where we left off in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, in the middle of a discussion of making a “fence” around one’s words to avoid accidental wrongdoing. It turns out that we’re not done with Adam and Eve, but first, we have a digression about the Emperor Titus. The Adam and Eve part from last week ended with a story in which the Tree of Knowledge prays not to be touched by the evil snake by reciting a verse from Psalms: “Do not let the foot of pride overtake me, or the hand of the wicked shake me.” Another interpretation of that verse is that it refers to Titus, who, according to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, used to bang on the altar and challenge God to wage war against him, so he is the “prideful foot” and the wicked one who shakes the Temple.

After that, we’re back to Adam and Eve. First, it repeats the snake’s conversation with Chava, in which he points out to her that touching the tree is safe and asks her to extrapolate that everything Adam said is a lie. This time, we have the added detail that she thought to herself “Everything my teacher said was a lie” and that she originally always called Adam “my teacher.” It’s also very possible that rabbi means “my master.” Either way, there’s a pretty unpleasant power dynamic, since Adam does not know much at this point either, but if it’s “teacher” there are still other nice things to say about the story. If it means “teacher,” it highlights the special obligation of teachers to tell the truth: because students trust their teachers so completely, it is much worse for a teacher to lie than for someone else to lie. In a class where I do not trust the teacher, I can’t trust any of the information she says, or even his fairness, and I definitely would not want to reveal anything of myself to that kind of teacher, so even one small breach of trust can ruin an entire class.

Next, there’s a list of the ten curses Chava received as punishment, and then, exactly the statement we had been hoping for! “From here we learn—even though a person needs to make a fence around his words, he shouldn’t make the fence greater than the main point, for if he does, it will not be able to stand. Rabbi Yose says: A ten hand-breadth fence that stands up is better than a hundred-cubit one that falls down.” Maya’s post last week explained why we love this so much, so I’ll just add that I think the difference between these two statements of the same principle is interesting. The anonymous opinion asks for proportionality—the fence should be smaller than the main point, so a larger point calls for a larger fence—while Rabbi Yose’s opinion is more pragmatic: how big the fence should be relates to how big you can make it before it will fall down. I prefer the anonymous one—Rabbi Yose’s implies that we should want the biggest possible fence, and I think there are many situations where that is not true. I would rather give bigger fences to things that require them and smaller fences when there is more room for leniency.

After that, there are some odd details about the snake. It originally wanted to kill Adam and marry Chava so that he could rule the world, walk upright, and eat good food. The negation of each of those corresponds to a part of his punishment. Then, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia laments that such a good servant as the snake went out of the world, because if the snake had not been cursed, everyone in Israel could have had two snakes in her house, and they would bring us precious stones, and nothing could injure them. You could even use them instead of a camel or other beast of burden for farm work. I don’t know what this is about. It doesn’t seem consistent with the pre-expulsion snake, who was humanoid, not inclined to be anyone’s servant, and had no connection with gems. It also seems a little absurd to lament that, of all things, about the expulsion from Eden. Isn’t it worse that humans are banished from paradise and cursed to endure pain and hard labor? Comment if you have any interesting ideas!

We stopped in the middle of the next section, so I’ll leave it for Maya, but get excited for some analogies with scorpions next week. 

1 comment:

  1. Expulsion from Eden is all about the beginning of hard work and enduring pain. However, if man had the snake, a servant who could bring precious stones and generally be a helpful kind of person, man could, in a sense, create his own Eden, in which he has fewer worries and can work or study on his own time rather than earn a living. The loss of the personal Eden, could be considered a worse loss than the communal Eden, for with the loss of the helpful servant, man must devote more of his time to earning riches then to Torah study.
    Of course this is entirely contingent on the first part regarding snakes being helpful servants. I'm still not so sure what that is all about. All I know is a commentary in which a snake had legs, nothing about precious gems or being invulnerable.
    Great thing you guys have created.