Eve has taken the blame for the expulsion from Eden, death and, in Christian theology, original sin. All this befell humanity because Eve was weak, unable to resist the serpent's seduction, and then Eve led Adam into sin. But Eve has gotten a bum rap.
The rabbis are close readers of the Torah, and so we find this in the Talmud:
God commanded Adam, "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." But Adam doesn't tell this commandment to Eve in the way that God had told it to him. He expands the prohibition, saying more than God had said to him. He said to Eve, "About the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, 'You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.' "
As soon as the serpent heard these words, he realized his opening. He spoke to Eve, and when she said God had prohibited touching the tree, he pushed her against it and said, "See, nothing happened to you — similarly, if you eat from it, you will not die."
According to this midrash, it was Adam's chauvinism that led to the disobedience in Eden. It's not just that Eve shouldn't have to bear all the blame for breaking the only commandment that God had given to them. In fact, we should see Eve as the hero.
Was It Really a Sin?
When we pay close attention to the text, we have to question the traditional understanding of the episode. We say that Adam and Eve sinned. It's true they disobeyed God's commandment, but nowhere does the Torah refer to this event as a sin.
We say that their sin brought death into the world, but, if that is the case, why does the Torah tell us that when God created the Garden of Eden, He placed the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and that eating from this tree could grant immortality? What purpose would it serve, unless death had always been part of God's plan?
Midrash Bereshit Rabbah says, "The Holy One went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one and declared, 'This one pleases Me; those did not please Me.' " Why did God need to keep creating and destroying worlds until He got it right?
It can't be that He needed to practice, or that, like some over-confident do-it-yourselfer, He didn't bother to read the manual. Certainly, from the very beginning, God could have made the world exactly the way He wanted it — or could He?
The Gemara in Berakhot says, "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven." That is, we have free will; God does not control our decision to obey or disobey commandments. So here's a radical suggestion: Perhaps God destroyed all the previous worlds because the protohumans did not disobey Him. They kept the commandment and did not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil — and so never became fully human.
God had to start over because the creatures He'd hoped would choose goodness did not take the necessary step to distinguish between good and evil. Without that knowledge, human beings were no different from animals.
God remained truly alone. There was no one in the world to live up to the Tzelem Elohim, the image of God, to be a moral being and able to freely choose between good and evil. Only when Adam and Eve ate from the tree that gave them that knowledge that God could finally say, "This world pleases Me."
That act brought evil into the world — we surely know what extraordinary evil human beings are capable of — but it also brought an immense capacity for goodness. And, above all else, God wanted a world in which his creatures would freely choose to pursue goodness and reject evil.
It is this world that pleased God, for it is this world in which God's children can become fully realized human beings. In this world, we know good and evil; in this world, we are free to choose goodness. In this world, we have moral responsibility — the gift of our mother, Eve.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.