Q: There is evidence in the Bible that sex (not an apple) is the forbidden fruit tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What do you think? — From R in Berkeley, California
A: I am not on board with the interpretation of the forbidden fruit as sex and, thus, the conclusion that God has a hostile view of sex. Let's go back to the Garden,
"And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." (Genesis 2:9)
So there were two trees in the Garden of Eden. One is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and one is the tree whose fruit yields eternal life. The law not to eat is confusing but specific:
"And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
Then Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God had no choice but to expel them,
"And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis 3:22-23)
If Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of eternal life, they would have no reason to procreate through sex because they would never need to replace themselves in the world through sex. The command that sex is holy is the first command uttered by God to man in Genesis 1:28,
"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Yes, sex is tied to procreation, but it is clearly holy and both a gift and a commandment from God. In fact, in Genesis 1:22 God gives the same command of "be fruitful and multiply" to the animals.
The conflict over sex occurs later in the history of Judeo-Christian interpretations of the biblical text. For Christians who were influenced by the Greek world, matter (the body) was of lower importance than form (the soul). Since sex is a bodily pleasure it was considered by certain Christian interpreters to be a lower pleasure than the purely spiritual pleasures of the soul. This produced a more favorable view of celibacy in Christianity. Both Judaism and Christianity, however, in their formative texts maintain the biblical view that the main purpose of sex is procreation and not just physical pleasure.
In sum, we human beings are made in the image of God, but we are also animals with animal urges. It is the balance of our spiritual side and our animal side that sets the limits for the journey of our embodied but holy lives.
From the mailbag
My story about the family who named their child after their dead dog brought notes like these:
From N: The naming tradition that you mentioned — naming after a dead person — is not observed by the Sephardim (Jews from Mediterranean countries as opposed to the Ashkenazim Jews, who came from Central and Eastern Europe). I am of mixed heritage. I have an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic mother. I am named after my (then living) grandfather and my deceased grandmother.
And from L: Please offer an apology to your readers; you misquoted Jewish law about the naming after the living. I am named after my living grandfather as it is the custom of Sephardic Jews. As many learned rabbis have informed me, that it is a custom, not a law, that Jews do not name after the living. I'm a longtime reader of your column and look forward to it every week.
A: Thank you, N and L, for reminding me of the custom that I know well requiring Jews to name babies after deceased relatives. You are correct that the custom is only applicable to European Jews who do, however, represent the vast majority of American Jews. I am still deep into my research about the custom of naming babies after dogs, deceased or living, and will let you know how that research turns out.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.