Let’s consider Bereshis: Is ignorance bliss?


There was a time not too long ago when the three words, “ignorance is bliss,” would engender a long discussion. There would have been speculation about the origin of the statement. Nowadays, however, someone is sure to rush to Google and find out that the author was the 18th-century poet Thomas Gray who, in his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” wrote: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

An alternative topic for discussion, one which cannot easily be resolved by Google, is the question of whether such a statement is consistent with the philosophy of Judaism. Surely, one would think, Judaism values knowledge and looks down upon those who are ignorant, and certainly those who are deliberately so. Yet it is not so simple.

This week’s Torah portion, the first of the New Year and the beginning of the entire Bible, is Bereshis (Genesis 1:1-6:8). A multitude of topics are dealt with, ranging from the origins of the natural world to sinful temptation.

There is also material to help us reflect upon the nature of wisdom: “The L-rd G-d planted a garden in Eden … and placed there the man whom He had formed. … [He] caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Genesis 2:8-9).

Certainly the trees with nutritious and delicious fruit were planted by the Almighty for the benefit of mankind. But what about the tree of life? What about the tree of knowledge?

Until we read further, we have every reason to believe that they too were placed in the garden for mankind to enjoy. After all, mankind needs life, and one would assume that it needs knowledge as well.

A few verses later, however, we learn otherwise: “And the L-rd G-d commanded the man, saying, ‘of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die’” (Genesis 2:16-17).

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Why would the L-rd prohibit the consumption of the fruit that would grant man knowledge of good and bad? Would it not be to mankind’s advantage to know all that he possibly could about right and wrong? Was the Almighty somehow convinced that “ignorance is bliss”?

To sharpen these questions further, we must revert to a biblical text which we read in the synagogue just last Shabbat. I am not referring to the Torah portion of Sukkot, but to the astonishing Book of Kohelet, otherwise referred to as Ecclesiastes. The author of Kohelet, no less a wise man than King Solomon himself, urges us to contemplate the disadvantages of wisdom.

“I set my mind to appraise wisdom … and I learned that this too was pursuit of wind: for as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache” (Kohelet 1: 16-18). These words seem consistent with the philosophy of “ignorance is bliss.”

If increased learning leads inevitably to increased heartache, we can understand why the Almighty would strongly advise man to refrain from eating the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Few of us would choose to emulate the legendary Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, who famously declared: “Wisdom leads to heartache, but so what? It is worthwhile to experience heartache if it leads to a bit more wisdom!”

To drive home his point about the futility of pursuing of wisdom, King Solomon writes: “I came to the conclusion that that (pursuit of wisdom) too was futile, because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever…both are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool” (Kohelet 2:15-16).

With such verses echoing in our ears, it is not surprising that G-d forbids the first man from indulging in the tree of knowledge.

But as we study this week’s Torah portion more deeply, and sample some of the commentaries of our great rabbis, we realize that it was not every type of knowledge that was associated with the Tree, but just a certain type, as Nachmanides explains.

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Nachmanides insists that the knowledge in our text is best translated not as “knowledge of good or bad” but as “knowledge that one can choose between good and bad.” It is the ability to will something other than the will of the Almighty.

Nachmanides asserts that when man was originally created, his will was entirely consistent with that of his Creator. The very notion of contravening the divine will was alien to him. Consumption of the fruit exposed him to the knowledge that defiance was an option, that evil was also a choice that he could make.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch refines Nachmanides’s point: “If you eat the fruit of this tree of knowledge, you will come to decide for yourselves what is good and what is bad. Until now the L-rd defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for you. This fruit will cause you to rely upon your own ‘taste.’ A morality based upon human senses and not upon divine judgment will lead to moral ‘death’.”

Knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence are all positively valued by Jewish tradition. However, all of these wonderful traits can lead man to the worst of sins: hubris and arrogance. Man must realize that his knowledge is deficient, his intelligence incomplete, and his wisdom faulty.

Kohelet forces a wise man to confront his imperfection. The tree of knowledge must be avoided, lest we begin to think that we mortals can determine what is good and what is bad without input from our Creator.

This week, we begin the yearly cycle of Torah study. As we advance week by week, we will learn more about our Creator and much more about what He expects of us.