My rabbi is currently in Jerusalem, so I was asked to lead the torah study before the morning service. (That day's torah reader led the whole service, which worked well.) We're currently in the second chapter of Genesis (the group progresses a few verses a week; last time it took 20 years to get through and that's fine with us), so this week we talked about the special trees in Gan Eden.
I hadn't realized in advance that our primary chumash, Plaut, translates the one as "the tree of knowledge of everything". That seems pretty loose to me; the conventional translation is "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (or sometimes you see "bad"). There was a footnote: the translator understood "good and bad" as describing a spectrum, not binary choices. Interesting, but not really the focus of our conversation.
We talked some about how eating from the tree of life was permitted so long as they didn't eat from the other one, and that man (or Adam and Chava; not clear to me) could have been immortal but ignorant. I asked the group if there were things that it would be better we didn't know; is ignorance desirable? No one took up that argument; everyone was on board with chowing down on knowledge. (I am too, for the record, with the exception that there are things about individual people or communities I don't need/want to know. But I don't think that's what this is about.)
So what exactly is this "knowledge", anyway? Is it a moral knowledge, the identification that some things are "good" and some "bad" (and we should use that knowledge to moderate our behavior)? That is, is this the tree of ethics? Several people supported that view. Someone brought the Rambam (Maimonides) that it gave (if I understood this correctly) the will to set aside the best outcome for a desirable one. If I've got this right, the Rambam says that pre-fruit we were logical, taking the actions that were best for us, but eating from the tree brought free will into it (so this knowledge could only make things worse). So, according to the Rambam and to use a light example, it was only after eating the fruit that it was possible to say "I know this bowl of chocolate ice cream is bad for me but I'm going to eat it anyway"; previously, we wouldn't have eaten the ice cream.
The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the "knowledge" is our inclinations; this is (again, if I understand correctly) where the yetizer tov (good inclination) and yetzer ra (bad inclination) come from. Before that, he says, the base state was for people to be good. I didn't get to push the conversation in that direction; that the base state is good rather than neutral seems controversial to me. Another time. (I won't be there next week, but I can send the suggestion along, maybe.)
Aside: the rabbis have quite a bit to say about the desirability of having the yeitzer ra in the world. We need it to be there but we're supposed to dominate it. (There's a midrash where people imprison and are going to kill the yeitzer ra, but there are bad consequences so they don't.)
You know what Rashi has to say about this tree? Absolutely nothing. That surprised me.
Other interesting things were said, but I haven't managed to retain them. Overall, I think the session went well. It was also a slightly larger group than normal, which is doubly surprising because when it's known my rabbi won't be there attendance usually drops off.
Apropos of nothing, I learned yesterday morning that another congregant is going to the kallah, so instead of driving myself I now have a ride. Nice! (I knew that her daughter's family was going; the husband is in the ALEPH rabbinic program so he pretty much has to. But that means he's staying another week after the kallah, so I didn't try to hook up with them. Turns out the whole gang is going, everyone but him is coming back after the kallah, and he's finding his own way back a week later.)