A Relationship with God Is Not Enough: Adam Needed Eve
The Ideal Contemplative Life: Maimonides’ Reading of Adam and Eve
Maimonides, towards the beginning of his Guide of the Perplexed, explains that before Adam ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, he lived a life with perfect metaphysical knowledge. He could contemplate the perfection of God and the majesty of the intelligible realm, and did not see the world in terms of good and bad:
Through the intellect one distinguishes between truth and falsehood, and that was found in [Adam] in its perfection and integrity. Good and bad, on the other hand, belong to the things generally accepted as known, not to those cognized by the intellect. For one does not say: “It is good that heaven is spherical” and “it is bad that the earth is flat.” Rather one says true and false with regard to these assertions… When he disobeyed and inclined toward his desires of the imagination and the pleasures of his corporeal senses… he was punished by being deprived of that intellectual apprehension…. [and] he became absorbed in judging things to be bad or good.
As soon as they eat the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve perceive that being publicly nude is bad, and they covered themselves. In this interpretation, before eating the fruit, Adam and Eve had a perfect existence in total harmony with God. Is this what a straightforward reading of the text suggests?
A Story of Loneliness
As the story opens (Gen 2:4b), heaven and earth exist, but as yet there is no rain and there are no plants. First, God waters the earth with a mist, and then forms the first man from the dust of the earth and breathes life into his nostrils. After that, God plants a garden in Eden to the east, and causes every tree to grow in it, putting the man in the garden and assigning him the task of tilling and tending it.
The man is given permission to eat from the fruit of every tree in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and bad (הַדַּ֖עַת ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע). At this point, God observes:
בראשׁית ב:יח וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂהּ־לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ.
Gen 2:18 YHWH God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”
This is the first time in the Torah that we hear that there is a problem. In the previous creation story (Gen 1–2:4a), we were consistently told that everything God created was good, and ultimately טוֹב מְאוֹד very good (1:31). Notably, in this second story, it is not the man who complains about loneliness—he has never yet experienced the alternative—but God who sees that something in creation is not right. The man’s need for companionship is ingrained, but the man does not yet know it.
God declares that he will make the man an ezer kenegdo, a difficult term to translate, which in context means something like “companion,” since what God notices is that the man should not be alone. Even in the ideal situation of the Garden of Eden, the most basic human unit is not an individual but a couple, or as we might say, a team. It is as if the Torah recognizes, with Aristotle (Politics 1253a), that man is by nature a social animal.
Since the animals and birds do not satisfy the man’s needs for a companion (vv. 19–20), God causes a deep sleep to come over him, takes a piece from his body and forms it into a woman.
בראשׁית ב:כא וַיַּפֵּל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן וַיִּקַּח אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר תַּחְתֶּנָּה. ב:כב וַיִּבֶן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַצֵּלָע אֲשֶׁר לָקַח מִן הָאָדָם לְאִשָּׁה וַיְבִאֶהָ אֶל הָאָדָם.
Gen 2:21 So YHWH God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. 2:22 And YHWH God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man.
God could have created woman the same way as he created man, by gathering dust from the ground and breathing life into her nostrils. Instead, God creates woman by taking a piece from the man’s body. This is what enables the man to say, upon awaking and seeing the woman:
בראשׁית ב:כג וַיֹּאמֶר הָאָדָם זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקֳחָה זֹּאת.
Gen 2:23 Then the man said: “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.”
Sex and Marriage
The text then offers an editorial comment about the nature of marriage:
בראשׁית ב:כד עַל־כֵּן יַעֲזָב־אִישׁ אֶת־אָבִיו וְאֶת־אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.
Gen 2:24 Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
Clinging together and becoming one flesh is clearly a reference to sexual intimacy. Before the sin, sex would have been a natural occurrence like eating or breathing, with no reason to hide or sublimate it, and no feelings of shame or guilt. In the words of 2:25:
בראשׁית ב:כה וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְלֹא יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.
Gen 2:25 The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame.
Rashi goes so far as to say that before the sin, the serpent saw the man and the woman having sex together and became jealous of the man. On a more peshat level, R. Moses Nachmanides (1194–1270) explains that committed sexual relationships is a distinctive feature of humanity (Gen 2:24):
והנכון בעיני כי הבהמה והחיה אין להם דבקות בנקבותיהן אבל יבא הזכר על איזה נקבה שימצא וילכו להם ומפני זה אמר הכתוב בעבור שנקבת האדם היתה עצם מעצמיו ובשר מבשרו ודבק בה והיתה בחיקו כבשרו ויחפוץ בה להיותה תמיד עמו
The correct interpretation appears to me to be that in cattle and beast the males have no attachment to their females. Rather, the male mates with any female he finds, and then they go their separate ways. It is for this reason that Scripture states that because the female of man was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, he therefore cleaves to her and she nestles in his bosom as his own flesh, and he desires to be with her always.
In short, the passage implies that even after the sin, human sexual contact is the basis of a lasting and necessary relationship. By clinging together, the man and woman become one flesh, just as they were before YHWH separated the woman from the man.
According to the story, we live after the sin and the consequent punishments, which change many details of human relationships. Even so, the need to reach out to another person, even to cling to them in a moment of intimacy, is still necessary for God’s creation to be become everything it was meant to be.
Maimonides’ Inversion of the Story’s Point
Returning to Maimonides, even if we were to accept that Adam did have perfect metaphysical knowledge before he sinned, the text would be telling us that such knowledge is not enough. In addition to contemplating eternal truth, Adam needs a companion to cling to. The animals and birds are not sufficient and neither is God, for despite having unmediated access to God, Adam is still alone. As we saw, it is God who remarks on Adam’s loneliness and God who creates the only thing that will help him: a woman to whom he can cling.
Maimonides is blind to this point since, like many philosophers, he viewed human perfection in hierarchical terms. The highest perfection is the development of the intellect. Everything else is valuable only to the degree that it helps achieve this end.
According to Plato’s “ladder of love,” love or desire (eros) is first awakened by the sight of physical beauty, but it soon finds greater satisfaction in the beauty of physical laws (what Maimonides classified as convention), then upward to the beauty of the sciences (what Maimonides classified as truth). Finally, the soul reaches its greatest satisfaction in the contemplation of Eternal Beauty, i.e., God.
For someone who has made it to the top of this ladder, it would be irrational to go back down and seek satisfaction in the beauty of a single body, in this case, Eve (or Adam). For Maimonides then, the highest level of human perfection, what he calls the rank of prophets, consists of people who have renounced everything other than God, including human companionship and sexual satisfaction. For the most part, they are happiest when they can contemplate God in solitude and isolation, and they “begrudge the time” when they have to turn away from God and deal with other things. Logically, then, Adam and Eve, who existed on the spiritual ladder’s top rung, would have preferred solitude to each other.
Note what has happened: While the text says that isolation is not a good thing, Maimonides talks as if it is. While the textual Adam needs a woman to whom he can cling, Maimonides thinks that when men reach a state of perfection, they are ashamed of “secret conduct with their wives” because it distracts them from thinking about God.
Two Halves of a Whole
A mid-first millennium C.E. rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah (8:1), picks up on the natural meaning of the story by invoking Aristophanes’ account of the primordial hermaphrodites. The midrash begins with a verse from the first creation story, which says זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם “male and female He created them” (1:27). Noting the plural, suggests the first man was created as a hermaphrodite:
אָמַר רַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס בְּרָאוֹ הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: ״זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בְּרָאָם״.
Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne/androginos, as it is said: “male and female He created them.”
Thus, when God takes a piece from the man’s body in the second creation story, it means that God sliced this being in half. (The rabbis, unaware of source criticism, read these two stories as a single story.) When a man and woman fall in love and cling to each other, it is as if they were incomplete before but have now become whole.
We need not interpret “one flesh” as the midrash does, bringing back together of the male and female sides of a hermaphrodite, to see that the passage conveys an important truth: the need for human companionship is intrinsic as shown by the fact that God recognizes it even in an ideal environment.
We know that once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, we will get lust, rape, adultery, and polygamy, not to mention a society in which women are assigned a subordinate role. But this should not prevent us from looking to the ideal to gain a valuable perspective on the environment in which we find ourselves. Men do not have to dominate women. The need for a man and woman to cling to each other, should not be viewed as a weakness. On the contrary, it is needed for God’s creation to become everything it was meant to be.
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Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).
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