In modern spiritual movements, we are often advised to follow our "inner voice," to trust our intuitive knowledge. "Follow your bliss" was the slogan of one popular teacher, implying that our deepest happiness is also a path to truth and goodness.
We suspect such advice of superficiality. Yet on the other hand, women in particular are presumed to have a greater access to intuition, to deeper sources of "heartfelt" knowledge. Is this truth or illusion?
Many of us know the experience of receiving all sorts of good advice and yet feeling that it's not quite right. Recently, for example, I had to choose a doctor to treat an injury that was not responding to ordinary care. Why did I reject one person after just a phone conversation, another after one treatment, and then follow an obscure trail of advice to find the person I felt I could work with? How is it that we tell the difference between the deep knowledge of the heart, and the superficial feelings that revolve around protecting our egos?
When should we follow our intuition, our inner voice? How far should we follow it? Should we ever use it to challenge authority?
Certainly, in our lives we have many occasions to ask these questions: Choosing health care, choosing our children's schools, dealing with people in authority, and making decisions as to what organizations, causes or types of work deserve our valuable energy. Such matters are rarely prescribed in detail by Jewish law, and even our trusted advisers may differ. Making columns of pros and cons on a sheet of paper only goes so far.
This is a major issue of spiritual knowledge. Let us examine some of our biblical texts and see whether a careful look illumines any approach to the problem.
In the Garden of Eden
G-d caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, also the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad...
And G-d commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat, for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.
And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not embarrassed.
Now the serpent was cunning beyond any beast of the field that G-d had made. He said to the woman, "Did perhaps G-d say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" The woman said to the serpent, "Of the fruit of the garden G-d has said, 'You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, lest you die.'"
The serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die; for G-d knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like G-d, knowing good and evil."
And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and it was desirable to the eyes, and pleasant was the tree for intelligence, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her husband with her and he ate.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew they were naked...
Why did G-d forbid the Tree of Knowledge, and why did Eve fall for the serpent's enticement? We tend to assume that this is the Jewish version of the classic "problem of evil" which has been so central in Christianity. After all, it appears that Big Trouble resulted from this incident.
But that may be a misreading of the text. In reality, the curses that G-d later pronounced on Adam and Eve have nothing to do with evil as we usually understand it. We are not told that "from then on humans were greedy and violent" or that "human beings were materialistic and forgot about G-d." These traits appear soon enough in human history, but that is not what G-d decreed. Rather, Adam has to work, Eve has difficulty bearing and raising children, and their relationship is unequal. These are not essentially evil but simply represent the conditions of human life as we know it. The story explains why things are as they are, not in any direct sense the origin of evil.
But somehow, the knowledge of good-and-evil created the background for such conditions. What is this knowledge?
Another angle on the same question: Is it possible to interpret the incident as one of simple obedience: obedience to G-d is good, non-obedience is evil? But then why the whole issue of knowledge? Why is the tree called the knowledge of good-and-evil?
This is not merely a philosophical problem but a very real human one. Under what conditions do we go beyond mere obedience? If G-d did not create us to be robots, what is the basis for a truly thoughtful choice? When issues are not spelled out clearly in black and white, how do we choose the correct path? Certainly, in our changing times there are many issues like this.
What if we read this passage without the words "good" and "evil" bearing moral judgments? Let us assume they mean simple duality, opposites. In fact, "good" is used in the same passage to indicate the nature of the fruit of the garden's trees, and it is paired with words that connote "pleasant" and "delightful." "Bad" is a word that has not appeared in the text till now. To know good is to know pleasure, and bad is presented as simply its opposite, like sour or rotten fruit.
In this reading, Eve already had a knowledge of what was good, for she had been eating of the delightful fruits of the Garden of Eden. She had no knowledge of its opposite. She didn't know what could happen in a world of time, where fruit could be unripe or could decay into ugliness. No wonder G-d said, "On the day you eat of it, you will surely die." As Nachmanides and many others observe, this did not mean that they would actually die on that day, but eventually. We could also read it to mean, "you will enter upon the process of death," because time as we know it would begin.
The Tree, then, represents a world. The world of the Garden was a non-dual world, beyond our concept of time. The world of the Tree of Knowledge which was so tempting to ingest was a world of duality and temporality.
Why did Eve choose this world? The serpent enticed her, saying, "Your eyes will be opened and you will be like G-d, knowing good-and-bad (duality)."
What was the attraction of knowing something other than perfection? Eve saw that the fruit was good-to-eat and beautiful, but so were the other trees' fruits. The additional element was that this tree suggested the quality of intelligence. Samson Rafael Hirsch observes, in his commentary on Genesis 3, that the animal with "cunning" (as in "kenning," knowledge) came to point this out, because most animal-knowledge is instinctive, completely programmed into each individual of the species. The snake was trying to convince her that by following her animal programming--good to eat, nice to look at--she would also gain knowledge.
But humans can achieve a higher level of knowledge which does not depend on their animal nature. Eve intuitively was seeking this greater level--intuitively, because seeking a higher level is part of human programming. Intuitively also, humans seek that greater and deeper knowledge through moving into all realms of experience, from deep-sea diving to exploration of outer space. She knew that G-d had given a command, but what she did not understand--and could not have understood until she followed the command--is the purpose of observing such an external command. Neither she nor Adam knew that discipline of the natural human urges--in this case, to inquire into all realms of experience--would eventually lead to the higher knowledge she sought.
Thus the Midrash tells us that if only Adam and Eve had waited until the Sabbath, they would have been permitted to eat of the Trees of Knowledge and Life, and the purpose of creation would have been complete. This is an astounding concept: lf humans could follow G-d's commands on an external basis, for no apparent reason, they would develop a special capacity that would enable them to fulfill their potential for higher knowledge. That capacity was the ability to achieve penimiut (inwardness). With this, all experience would be integrated; without it, knowledge would remain external and fragmentary. With it, they could indeed become like-G-d. Without it, they would remain knowledge-seeking humans.
Adam and Eve followed the suggestion of the snake because their creation was not yet complete. The text suggests this by a play on the word for "naked," eirom, which later on is written with a yud and no vav, but here is written with no yud and a vav--in the same form as arum, "cunning." Adam and Eve being "naked" meant that they had access to animal-knowledge but were not yet ready for free choice.
Rashi points out that the story of the snake seems to be inserted here out of place. What should have followed, he says, is the story of how G-d made garments for Adam and Eve. We can understand this on a spiritual level: lf G-d had first given them their "garments"--the complete clothing of thought, speech, and action that would enable their souls to achieve full expression--the snake could not have persuaded them. But the snake--often portrayed in ancient literature as a powerful and positive spiritual ally to woman--spoke almost as Eve's inner voice. "Trust your instincts," the snake was saying, "trust your desire for knowledge."
But the suggestion came too soon, when humans had not yet experienced the repose of Shabbat with all its soulfulness, and were following only their drive to master experience. Likewise with many advisers who speak the same words today, the words come when a person is spiritually incomplete and cannot yet use the advice for good purposes.
The inner voice speaks from a place of non-duality. The animal knows no duality because it is completely programmed. G-d, the Creator of a world of multiplicity, knows duality but completely transcends it in total Goodness. Humans live in a world of duality and have to work on themselves to transcend it, until we can see things from a G-dly perspective, knowing that everything ultimately is Good. Only then can we trust the voice of inner knowledge.
The Example of Balaam
We can see the inner voice from another perspective later in the Torah, in the story of Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet who was hired to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22-24). Balaam was a true prophet who heard the voice of G-d directly. But he was also a person who desired fame and wealth. Thus, when the powerful king Balak sent emissaries to Balaam to engage him to curse the Israelites as they traveled near the land of Moab, Balaam was tempted. His dreams told him not to go, but his desire was so strong that G-d allowed him to travel to Balak's territory, so long as he spoke only the words G-d told him. An angel stood in his path wielding a fiery sword, but Balaam could not see it. His donkey veered off the path twice, then lay down refusing to move, and finally spoke to Balaam in order to wake him up. Only then did Balaam realize the seriousness of G-d's warnings.
It is significant that an animal appears again here--the first talking animal since the snake! According to Rashi, the donkey actually saw the angel; according to Nachmanides, it only sensed its presence. In either case, the donkey was able to perceive what Balaam, the human, could not.
Balaam, who had direct access to G-d's will through a prophetic inner voice, nevertheless thought he could manipulate the situation. The animal lived in a non-dual world; Balaam lived in a world of duality, where the spiritual existed separately from the material, and spiritual reality was a handmaiden to his egotistical desires. But the truth is that there is only one reality--G-d's--and even Balaam had to acknowledge that, at least verbally. When he said, "My mouth can only speak what G-d tells me," he was saying that his inner voice truly belonged to G-d. Later, when he entered into a prophetic trance, he could speak only blessings to the Jewish people.
One of the messages of this story is that there is truly an inner voice, one that speaks only truth and is completely in tune with G-d's will. Rarely are people gifted with hearing and speaking that voice, to the point that it will override even their personal will for evil, as in Balaam's case. Most of the time, the personal will with all its egotistical desires will override the voice. The lesson would seem to be that if even Balaam, who had direct, undeniable experience of the voice of G-d, could still fight it, cajole it, and try to use it for evil ends, how much more so for most human beings, who do not hear the voice so clearly.
Yet we are also given guidance on how to recognize our problems in knowing when to trust our inner voice. We see, for example, that even the master of the inner voice, the greatest prophet of all, Moses, did not have complete and certain access at all times to the great knowledge he had acquired in his prophetic experiences. We are told that when he got angry, he sometimes forgot a halachah (point of Torah law). However, he was extraordinary not only in his prophetic ability but also in his awareness of when he did not know, or could not be sure of, the path to follow.
This becomes clear in the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad (Numbers Z7). Their father had died, they had no brothers, and they questioned who should inherit his property. Although the solution might seem obvious in today's world, it was not so clear then. Whatever answer Moses gave would have enormous implications for future inheritances, for the continued existence of the twelve tribes, and for the patterns of tribal life in the Land of Israel.
Moses did not know, and so he went to ask G-d. But what exactly was the problem? Was his mind not able to figure it out logically, based on all that he knew of inheritance law and G-d's plan for the twelve tribes? lf it was not a matter of understanding and logical reasoning, then what?
It seems most likely that Moses understood that his own presuppositions might get in the way. He was a Levite, and his tribe had no stake in the inheritance of the land, because the Levites, consecrated to Temple service, were not promised a land grant. He was part of a society which had heretofore recognized only male heirs, and being male, he had accepted that as part of the fundamentals of life. He apparently had no daughters, and thus did not have firsthand knowledge of the bonds between a father and daughters. All these factors affected his perception of the Law he had been given.
In his greatness, Moses immediately perceived that he could not render correct judgment without a fresh consultation with G-d, entering into the prophetic experience from which he could perceive truly. Without this, even his great knowledge would be unreliable. Likewise, we see again and again in Jewish history that even our greatest rabbis and scholars do not make decisions without diligent study, consultation with others, and prayer. Our access to knowledge must be continually renewed and corrected.
As the Midrash Sifri points out, G-d knew that the daughters of Tzelafchad were correct, but men did not--essentially because they were men. This also points to the possibility of a certain kind of evolution in the Torah. Not that the Torah essentially changes, but that we are asked continually to re-examine our knowledge and its basis. The Torah wants us to grow in all dimensions, and even our surest claims to knowledge must continually be questioned.
These stories tell us a great deal about the process of human knowing. First, we are given different "voices" for our guidance. One is the instinctual voice, the voice of pleasure. This imbues in us a love for the world and for other people, but it is not a reliable guide, for it connects us only to the animal level of our souls. This is the voice we are following when we make a choice for reasons of convenience or because others will approve of it. For example, sometimes we choose an extracurricular class for a child not because it's the best for her, but because other mothers are sending their daughters there. Sometimes we even make major choices in life with such criteria, even though we all recognize them as superficial.
Second, we are given the external voice of G-d's commands. This has two functions: First, it guides us in most practical, everyday issues. Second, when we practice listening to this voice by studying and following Torah, we attune ourselves to a higher vibration. Specifically, we open to a higher and more G-dly vision that enables us to see the world as spiritual reality.
The power of Torah and mitzvot to help us accomplish this cannot be underestimated. They enable us to acquire the "garments" of thought, speech, and action that complete us, so that we are less vulnerable to a merely animal "cunning" and can truly see with clarity.
This is a voice we can follow with assurance most of the time. But sometimes we depend on it too much, and do not really examine the alternatives that are open. For example, we may contribute our money or energy to the same causes year after year, as regular mitzvot, without reviewing our choices in light of new priorities and, hopefully, a deepening understanding of the needs of our people.
So we actually are being asked to develop a third, more complex and ultimately more mature voice, a voice acquired through learning and imbued with humility. G-d wants us to develop this voice. The Divine call that Eve felt was to "become like G-d," and we are later told, "Be holy as I am holy" and "Walk in My ways." We are not to become merely mechanical followers of G-d's will. We have to learn and learn more deeply, and always be willing to question the state we have achieved.
This is the essence of what is called "critical thinking." Too often in our society, critical thinking means to criticize others and tear apart their arguments (as in most talk shows and editorial pages). This is not the true purpose of critical thinking. It is intended to be turned upon oneself--to examine where we stand and whether we have become arrogant in our opinions and beliefs. True growth means to be able to shed our belief systems and opinions in the light of still higher truth.
Most of all, this voice has to find its source in prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, from the root meaning "to judge oneself," means to examine not only one's actions, but also one's beliefs. We can surrender each day the opinions and beliefs we held up to the previous day, and ask for the wisdom to see them in a higher light.
We can reexamine them in the light of G-d's demand for loving kindness and just action in the world. Each day, we can ask G-d to help us be open to new thoughts, to meet wise people, and to be able to hear more deeply what they have to teach us. When we say in our prayers, "In His goodness He renews every day the works of creation," we should remember that this applies not only to the material world, but also to our opinions, allegiances, and habits.
For Moses, even having the voice of prophecy did not make him proud, and so he had access to higher truth. For us, when our past achievements and good attributes do not make us arrogant, when we can turn to G-d to acknowledge the limitations of our understanding, we can also begin to listen to the inner voice.
Do we have intuition? Can it lead us to truth? Yes, we do and it can. But the workings of an inner voice in our life depend on our knowing that we do not know. Then we can combine the external knowledge that comes from those who know more, and the inner resources we open up through prayer and surrender, into a voice that speaks a greater truth.