The Genesis:3 Project
But God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor touch it, or you shall die.” Genesis 3:3
One of my personal flaws, which I worked very hard to correct, is a tendency to exaggerate. Mostly, it takes the form of harmless but completely unnecessary overstatements of fact. For example, if I waited in a line for 10 minutes, I might report it after the fact as close to half an hour. Nonsense, purposeless, ridiculous. Even as I say such a thing, I am thinking, “What’s the matter with you? And what difference does it make?”
I pretty much overcame this verbal tic a long time ago, but I was reminded of it when I considered Eve’s response to the serpent in the Garden. The cunning snake, who seems to have had legs at this moment, purposely under-reports God’s instructions as he tries to persuade the woman to eat the forbidden fruit. “Didn’t God say you could eat from ANY tree in the Garden?” he asks.
Well, yes God did, as a matter of fact. God said those words exactly, but the snake lopped off the exception that made all the difference: that one tree.
Why didn’t Eve just call out the snake on the deception? “Nice try, buddy. You know there was more to it than that!” Instead, she elaborates, annotates, exaggerates. She reports that she may not eat it “nor touch it.” God never said “touch.”
What Eve does prefigures the challenging proclivity of religious traditions to attempt to out-pious each other. In Jewish tradition, this proclivity is itself defended in pious terms. Sometimes it is defended with the phrase “build a fence around the Torah.” The practice heaps extra requirements and observances on simple instructions. Anyone who observes kashrut, the dietary laws, knows that fence around the simple instruction “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and other places) includes the complete separation of all kinds of meat from all kinds of dairy, as well as a thousand-year argument about how many hours to wait between eating meat and dairy.
Sometimes it is defended with the phrase “beyond the letter of the law.” The practice sets up the expectation, if not the requirement, that if you were really serious about the observance, you wouldn’t settle for the bare minimum. Take the example of Rabbi Yochanan, the third-century sage, who blamed the entire collapse of Jerusalem 150 years earlier on a population that ONLY observed the letter of the law and would not go beyond.
These tendencies are not all bad, mind you. To set a minimum standard of interpersonal compassion may allow some people to feel good about not helping some who are in need. And my entire profession – the rabbinate – relies on the construction, repair and repositioning of fences.
But here’s what is really wrong with what Eve does: when the exaggeration proves false, the truth becomes suspect. And when the exaggerations compete – do I wait 1, 3 or 6 hours for ice cream after a burger? – the essential truths are perceived as relative and matters of personal preference. The fence that protects the fence is not protecting the Torah.
And when going beyond the letter of the law becomes an expectation rather than a (commendable) choice, the rule itself is supplanted and integrity is placed beyond reach.
And here’s the thing – sooner or later, you get found out. Fact-checking is not a recent occupation. Anyone who read chapter 2 before chapter 3 knows that Eve made something up. Caught up in her own completely unnecessary overstatement of fact, she either must brazen it out (and be proved wrong) or own up to the deception.
Faced with a snake, now a legless metaphor, too many religions and other belief systems are unwilling to trust the truth of their values as sufficient to withstand the doubter, scoffer or antagonist. Out of such ironic lack of faith in their faith, and perhaps with the best of intentions, the defenders of the faith build fences and move the lines that make faith all the more difficult. (That’s a lot of “faith” in one sentence!)
I don’t want to be guilty of exaggeration again. Not every fence is gratuitous and not every venture beyond the requirement is hyperbolic. In fact, so much of what is familiar about Jewish tradition exists in the human expansions of the divine instruction. I may object to excess, but I am not a minimalist.
And the same is true for America. We have just been through an exhausting year of campaigning and now we are waiting to discover if fences and walls are about to be erected and how far beyond the letter of the law we intend to go. The truth, I believe, stands on its own. Don’t fear the snake.