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Talk of reclaiming the Jewish bookshelf - the canonical texts that are the heritage of every Jew - is in the air. I cannot imagine a better guide on that path than Rabbi David Fohrman.
Rabbi Fohrman has been teaching mixed groups of secular and religious Jews for years. And he has now produced a rare work that will equally delight those who have been studying Torah with the classical commentaries all their lives and those lacking even knowledge of Hebrew.
The Beast that Crouches at the Door is a close reading of two of the best-known biblical stories: Adam's and Eve's eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Cain's murder of his brother Abel. The book is philosophically deep, psychologically acute, hypersensitive to the nuances of the biblical text, and reads like a mystery. Each short chapter ends with the reader hanging on the edge of a cliff, eager to proceed.
By focusing on stories whose basic outlines are familiar, Fohrman demonstrates how we are all prone - learned and unlearned alike - to the "lullaby effect" when confronting well-known texts. No one ever thought to ask why a baby would be comforted by a song about a cradle crashing down from a tree top. And similarly, we fail to note obvious questions in the biblical texts.
Fohrman forces us to pay attention. We would be appalled by a mother who responded to two children eagerly offering her their drawings: "Rachel, yours is beautiful; your use of colors is exquisite. Ya'acov, your stick figures are beneath contempt." And we would be even more horrified if she failed to apologize or offer any consolation to Ya'acov after he burst into tears of humiliation.
But isn't that just what God did with the offerings of Cain and Abel? Well, actually it's not. But Fohrman is not afraid to ask the question.
NOR DOES he shy away from the big philosophical issues. Why would a perfect God need to create the world? If Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good and evil, why were they punished for eating from the fruit of the tree? And if they did have such knowledge, what changed as a consequence of their eating?
He does not even fear arousing feminist wrath, noting the parallel between God's curse of Eve - "your desire will be to your husband, yet he can rule over you" - and His words to Cain just before he murders Abel - "its [the yetzer hara's] desire is unto you, yet you can rule over it." Does the Torah mean to analogize woman to the evil inclination? Again, no. Fohrman cites a midrash that links the two desires mentioned above to the desire of rain for the land and God for humanity. Clearly, the midrash did not mean to analogize God to the yetzer hara. Rather it hints at a type of desire that emanates not from the absence of something but from an overflow that seeks to join and give to another.
In that reading, the yetzer hara is not a devil in a bright red suit whispering in our ear but the sum total of our desires, passions, and ambitions - particularly the desire to create. (Yetzer is a variant of yotzer, to create.) Thus our sages describe Torah as the spice giving direction and taste to the yetzer hara, which is the "meat" of life.
The Beast that Crouches at the Door is an extended meditation on what it means to be human and the nature of desire. The primordial snake, in the biblical account, stands upright, reasons and speaks. In what sense, then, was he not human? The key lies in his question to Eve, usually translated, "Did God really say that you may not eat from any of the trees of the garden?" Fohrman, following Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, offers a more literal translation: "Even if God said do not eat from any of the trees of the garden... [so what]?"
The snake argued that the same God who commanded Adam and Eve not to eat also imbued them with their desires and instincts, and that the latter are a no less authentic voice of God. And so it is for animals - they really do "listen" to God by following their instincts. Only humans hear God's word and are commanded to take their desires and fashion them into something more than unbridled instinct.
The snake's argument will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the works of Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. The view of man as nothing but a more sophisticated, pleasure-seeking animal has entered the zeitgeist.
THE KEY clue buttressing Fohrman's interpretation of the snake's argument is an anomaly in the biblical text. The snake's dialogue with Eve follows a seeming digression describing Adam's naming of all the animals and attempts to find a partner among them. Chronologically that section should have preceded the creation of Eve.
It is interjected out of order, Fohrman argues, to provide the motivation for the snake's efforts to convince Eve to eat of the Tree. The snake wanted to reclaim Eve for the animal kingdom that Adam had rejected. In the words of our sages, he wanted to kill Adam and marry Eve.
In a subtle analysis of Eve's misstatement of the divine commandment with respect to eating from the tree, Fohrman explicates the various ways desire gains the upper hand: by overstating the importance of the object of desire - Eve moves the tree to the "center" of the garden; by minimizing the significance of what is permitted - Eve omits God's permission to eat of "all" the other trees; by overstating the extent of what is prohibited - Eve adds a prohibition on "touching" the tree; and by trivializing the consequences of giving in to desire - Eve does not mention that death will become an immediate and inevitable reality on the very day of eating.
Adam's and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit, and the diminution in the distinction between human and animal that follows, led directly to Cain's murder of Abel. The biblical text emphasizes the thematic connection. The consequences of Cain's act parallel the punishment of Adam, only in an intensified form. Adam hides from God; Cain senses he will spend the rest of his life hiding from God. Adam is exiled from the garden: Cain proclaims that he will be a wanderer all his days. Adam is cursed that he will henceforth bring forth food from the ground by the sweat of his brow; Cain is told that the land will not give of its strength to him at all.
Cain senses his descent further toward the animal kingdom. He is afraid that all who find him will kill him, and the greatest of the biblical exegetes, Rashi, explains that his fear is specifically of the wild beasts, for the animals' natural awe of a human being has now been lost. Our sages tell us that Cain was killed by his seventh generation descendant Lemech after being mistaken for an animal.
Such delights fill every page of The Beast that Crouches at the Door. I cannot think of a better way to begin the new cycle of the Torah than with a copy of this book.