Bereshit: "Ignorance is Bliss?"

"Ignorance is bliss." There was a time not too long ago when the mention of these three simple words in the midst of a friendly conversation would have engendered a long and interesting discussion, perhaps even a debate. There would have been speculation about the origin of the statement. Who was it that said "ignorance is bliss"? Was he really advocating ignorance?

Nowadays, however, such lengthy discussions are not likely to occur. Instead, someone is sure to access Google and find out instantaneously that the author of the statement was the 18th century poet, Thomas Gray. In his poem "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (composed in 1742), Gray wrote: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

An alternative topic for a friendly conversation, and one which cannot easily be resolved by consulting Google, is the question of the degree to which statements such as "ignorance is bliss" are consistent with the philosophy of Judaism. Surely, one would think, Judaism values knowledge supremely, and looks down upon those who are ignorant, and certainly those who are deliberately so. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, matters are not so simple.

This week's Torah portion, the very first of the New Year and the very beginning of the entire Bible, is Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8). A multitude of topics are dealt with, ranging from the origins of the natural world to the sinful temptations to which mankind readily succumbs. There is also material in this Torah portion to help us reflect upon the nature of wisdom.

I refer to this passage: "The Lord God 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 beautiful trees with their 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 so that mankind could enjoy them. After all, mankind needs life, and one would assume that mankind needs knowledge as well.

A few verses later, however, we learn otherwise: "And the Lord God 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).

Why would the Lord prohibit the consumption of the fruit of the tree which 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, good and evil? Was the Almighty somehow convinced that "ignorance is bliss?"

To sharpen these questions even 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 read last week which dealt with the festival of Sukkoth, but rather to the fascinating biblical Book of Koheleth, otherwise referred to as the Book of Ecclesiastes. There we come across numerous verses which make us consider that “ignorance” may indeed be “bliss.” The author of Koheleth, no less a wise man than King Solomon himself, urges us to contemplate the disadvantages of wisdom and to consider the possibility that wisdom is a curse and not a blessing. Let me provide you with just a sample of the anti-wisdom statements to be found in this astonishing biblical book:

"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." (Koheleth 1: 16-18) These words would 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. Very few of us would choose to emulate the example of 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 a life spent in the pursuit 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!" (Koheleth 2:15-16).

With such verses still echoing in our ears from last week's reading of this most provocative biblical book, it is not surprising that God 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 of Knowledge, but just a certain type of knowledge, as Nachmanides explains.

Nachmanides insists that the knowledge in our text is best translated not as “knowledge of good or bad” but rather 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 the will 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 of the Lord was an option, that evil was also a choice that he could make.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch refines the point made by Nachmanides as follows: "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 Lord 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'."

I offer the following conclusion: 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, to hubris and to arrogance. Man must realize that his knowledge is deficient, his intelligence incomplete, and his wisdom faulty. Koheleth 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.