Eve* is not merely the first woman to be mentioned in the Scriptures, she is the first woman. Thus, even more than other biblical figures, she is an archetype, the mother and precursor of women in general.
In a sense, every man, at some stage in his life, is Adam, and every woman is Eve. The Adam-Eve relationship is fundamental to every life pattern. We come back again and again, in a multiplicity of guises and forms, to these two prototypes, for Adam and Eve represent the complete course of human life: in other words, they project an image not of men in their individuality and particularity, but of man as a species, of humanity as humanity. So it is that the mystics taught that all human souls are not only descended from Adam but are actually dependent upon him, are components of his being. Adam is that man who includes all men. Adam and Eve are not merely archetypes but the very stuff of mankind, and their story is the story of the human race.
Such an interpretation of the story of Eve opens the way to a comprehensive view of women, for, as I have implied, every woman is part of Eve at one time or another and in some way or another plays Eve’s role over and over again. This is not to say that Eve is necessarily to be held up as a model. Not even the most exemplary female figures in Jewish history are without flaw. The four matriarchs themselves – Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel – who are in many respects the paragons
of Jewish womanhood, have not been immune to criticism by the Talmudic sages or by the leading lights of other generations either. Indeed, none of the great biblical personalities comes across as an unambiguous or one-dimensional embodiment of sweetness and light. All are real, live people with their triumphs and failures, strengths and temptations, inhibitions and struggles. At times, it is an individual’s very failing or flaw which is intended to be constructive. All these personalities in the Bible are, in some sense, object lessons, although they are not necessarily to be imitated. On the contrary, the purpose of a given narrative is often to warn us against the mistakes of our ancestors, however great and important and even superior to us the latter may have been. Thus, for example, Eve’s story is the story of a woman, with all woman’s grace and beauty, on the one hand, and all her capacity to corrupt and be corrupted, on the other. Eve is both a positive example and a warning concerning female power and the female role in the world.
The story of Adam and Eve is multifaceted, and I shall touch on only a few aspects of it. The first thing that is important to understand about Eve is the seemingly simple matter of her creation, which in turn, reflects a certain notion of her relationship to Adam. The Talmudic sages agreed that Eve was not simply born from Adam’s rib, as we are somehow accustomed to think, but that Adam and Eve (or rather ha’adam harishon, "primordial man”) came into being a single creature with two faces or sides – the one, male; the other, female. The biblical word tsela, usually understood to mean "rib,” could be taken in the sense of "side” as in the phrase tsela’ot haMishkan ("the sides of the Sanctuary”). Woman was created from Adam’s tsela because she was to begin with a tsela, or a side or aspect of primordial man, who thus came to be two distinct persons.
This notion is reinforced when one looks beyond the story of the creation of man, to its implications as they are spelled out in what follows. The idea of creation as separation recurs both in the Scriptures themselves and, afterward, throughout Jewish literature. Hence, the upshot is that the relationship between men and women in all times and places has the character of the quest for something lost, to use the Talmudic expression. Male and female are essentially parts of a single
whole, originally created as one being; but for various reasons – principally the establishment of a different, more complex, and perhaps deeper kind of connection between the two – the whole body is divided.
The two half bodies are constantly in search of one another and find no fulfillment until they are rejoined, in a new and different unity. The words of scripture that follow – "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) – relate primarily to the event of the division. The implication is that, while the filial tie is very strong – indeed, virtually unbreakable – there is another tie, hidden, but nonetheless present at
birth: the tie with a future partner. This tie is even more fundamental to the child’s being than the tie with his parents, so that he eventually abandons them and goes in search of his lost "better half.” His quest is for his own completeness, for the wholeness of his own flesh which he lost when, in the second creation, he was divided, as it were, into two.
What he seeks is a return to his primordial oneness.
According to this view, the male-female relationship was originally intended not as a means of procreation but rather as something more basic and primary. Procreation is a secondary function: in the story of the Creation and of Eve, childbirth makes its appearance late, as a surprising new dimension to the relationship between men and women. In a sense, the birth of a child is a kind of bonus, a new creation, a new man, wondrously brought into being by the very act of reunification. The primordial oneness in itself appeared to be sterile; but, in recovering that oneness, the two uniting parts create out of themselves something that has had no earlier existence. And, indeed, the narrative describing the first childbirth and the first children emphasizes the marvel of this new creation, this new world. The basic male-female tie is not a function but
an essential bond, the reunification of two essences. As a consequence, the family, too, comes to be seen as being of intrinsic primary value for man and not merely as a social device for meeting one need or another.
The story of the separation, of the halving of the original human personality, sheds light on a basic difference between man and other living creatures. The latter are from the outset divided into male and female. Hence, the relationship between the two sexes is, in their case, based upon the task of reproduction rather than on any inherent meaning in the relationship. To borrow a phrase from the medieval sage Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, "No bull takes a cow to wife.” The bond is accidental, opportunistic, and functional in a way in which the human conjugal tie cannot be.
It thus becomes clear that the story of the creation of Eve from the tsela is more than just an incidental account; it is essential to an understanding of human marital and familial ties and to the whole elaboration, later, of ways of strengthening them. The great body of Jewish marital law and custom in all its detail is nothing more than an expression and a spelling out of the original role of the first woman, Eve. To this very day, a nuptial blessing – "May You cause the bride and groom to rejoice as You did Your creation in the primeval Garden of Eden” – reminds us of this motif. In effect, every wedding is a return to the primordial state of Adam and Eve.
Another important element in the Eden story is the role of Eve as arch-temptress and hence the one responsible for the expulsion from the Garden. The story of Eve’s temptation raises many questions which have troubled students in every age – among them the question why this particular sequence of events and why it was Eve who tempted Adam.
One of the most significant explanations turns upon a peculiarity of this first human generation which was afterward rectified. Adam, it seems, had been commanded directly by God, while Eve received the commandment only through Adam. From this circumstance, a far reaching conclusion can be drawn: obedience to the divine imperative, whether negative or positive, must be based upon a direct personal relationship. When, in the absence of such a relationship, obligation is mediated through some third party, failure is invited. The story of the theophany at Sinai, which in its inward form, describing the "creation” of Israel, recapitulates the story of Adam’s creation, is nonetheless essentially a reversal of the expulsion from Eden. Here the commandments are given quite differently: the whole house of Israel, men and women alike, step forth to receive the Torah together. The Rishonim (medieval rabbinic commentators) even find hints that the Torah had to be accepted first by the women (the "house of Jacob”) before it could be accepted by the men (the "house of Israel”). There is thus a rectification of the original pattern, based – at least in part – on the need for directness in a true relationship.
There are other explanations as well which, at the very least, provide food for thought. A problem that engaged the sages of the Talmud in a variety of ways was what they called "the added measure of understanding given to women” – women’s intuition, which implied, among other things, that they have an extra degree of curiosity. The incident of the Tree of Knowledge turns, after all, partly on the arousal of curiosity, the temptation to know too much. Curiosity is not in itself considered to be bad or conducive to sin, but inquiry beyond permissible limits is always dangerous and sometimes corrupting. Hence, the attempt to set a variety of limitations upon women’s inquisitiveness.
From another point of view, also much discussed, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge is connected to the special character of the malefemale relationship. The subject of this sin is, of course, very broad and includes within its purview questions of knowledge versus innocence, life, and death.
Human beings are the only living creatures whose sex lives are not circumscribed by a reproductive code. We are indeed emancipated to a unique degree from the cycle of nature; it is conscious relatedness and emotion that are decisive for us, not biological instinct, which serves merely as an underpinning.
The question of knowledge (da’at) in this context and certainly of the Tree of Knowledge must be seen in the light of the use of the same Hebrew root to describe the relationship of the first human beings to each other: "And Adam knew (yada) Eve his wife” (Genesis 4:1). The Tree of Knowledge thus represents not so much the loss of the primal innocence of Eden, but rather the loss of one set of relationships and their replacement by another, quite different set. Instead of the sort of practical, instrumental male-female connection that prevails in the rest of nature, we have the advantage of a tie that is largely free of stubborn biological determination. On the other hand, this very freedom gives rise to the evil impulse, a wild desire which knows no inherent bounds or limitations, including its own original function. Other human instincts – hunger, thirst – are clearly related to specific functional ends and reach satiation when those ends are achieved; the sex drive appears to have no aim other than its own gratification. It is thus distinctively human desire, with its unique potential for achieving intimacy as well as for wanton aggrandizement, that the Tree of Knowledge introduces into the world.
The existence of sexual prohibitions in every culture reflects the universal sense of the strangeness of this distinctively human pattern; and thus the sin of the Tree of Knowledge is described as stemming, not from hunger or thirst, but from a "lusting of the eyes,” an attraction to the beauty of the fruit as an end in itself. It is pure desire, with no utilitarian purpose. The appearance of such desire is specifically linked with the woman, for whereas in all other species reproduction depends
upon the susceptibility of the female, much more than the male, to a cycle of sexual readiness, in the human female alone such a cycle (as distinct from the reproductive cycle per se) no longer exists, and sexual activity is a constant possibility. The sin of the Tree of Knowledge thus begins with the woman, for it is she who reveals in her own make-up the possibility of emancipation from the cyclical, mechanical workings of instinct. Had man remained within the bonds of instinct, of urges built into his own biology, he might have remained in the Garden of Eden in a world of much beauty and contentment but also of limitation. Through the Tree of Knowledge, a new world came into being with the free play of desire. There emerged also freedom of choice. The sin of the Tree of Knowledge is both the first sin and the key to this new world. Only after many generations, after thousands of years, has the human race, in the fullness of its freedom, begun to reconstruct for itself functional frameworks that might belatedly rectify the first sin, give it positive meaning and thus annul it qua sin, turning it rather into a purpose and a task.