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Trouble in Eden

By Yaakov Y. Kermaier

The Bible, say the sages, has seventy faces.  Her beauty is complex and subtle, appreciated differently in each era and place.  But, while every believer finds self-affirmation in the Bible, it is more difficult to discern and accept the Bible’s rebuke.  We want to see her smile; we also need to see her frown.

With this premise in mind, let us begin searching for the Bible’s 21st-century American face “in the beginning.”  The opening chapters of Genesis describe the creation of the world, followed by man's placement in and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  These passages speak fundamental truths about not only the world created then but the world we seek to fashion now.  What were the salient characteristics of the Garden of Eden, and what went wrong?  Why does it matter to 2012 America?

Charles Murray’s scholarly and arresting new book, Coming Apart, informs—with no such intention—our modern study of Genesis.  America, argues Murray, “is coming apart at the seams—not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.”  Over the past 50 years, America has developed a “new lower class,” which no longer lives by the principles that made America exceptional, and an isolated “new upper class” that still lives by these values but lacks the confidence to promote them.

What are the elements that, according to Murray, have long defined America’s civic culture?  Not by chance, they are the same four principles as those of the biblical Eden: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and faith.  The four consecutive verses of Genesis 2:15-18 speak for themselves; no homiletical embellishment is necessary.

On industriousness, Genesis 2:15: "The Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and preserve it” (l’ovdah ul’shomrah), not to rest and relax in the lush environs.  Despite—or perhaps because of—Eden's abundant resources, God charges Adam to labor and safeguard it.

On honesty, which, says Murray, is chiefly expressed through what Francis Grund called “unbounded respect for the law,” Genesis 2:16,17: “And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, ‘from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad do not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you will surely die.’” God trusts Adam to obey this law; if he betrays that trust, life as he knows it will end.

On marriage, Genesis 2:18: "The Lord said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone; let us make for him a partner.’”  The Bible has described everything in God’s new world as “good” until this verse.  But here we are told that in the midst of all the good, something is awry.  The phrase "it is not good" jars.  The Founder, like America's founders, “took for granted,” as Murray says, “that marriage was a bedrock institution of society.”

And of faith these verses have no need to speak explicitly.  God Himself communicates with Adam, empathizes with Adam’s loneliness, brings Adam a soul mate.  To Adam, God was as palpably present as the flora and fauna surrounding him.

Murray's four essential American virtues should resonate strongly with Jews and Christians because these are also the four essential virtues of the Bible's archetypical society.  With the insight of Coming Apart, a foundational passage of all biblical faiths takes on greater contemporary relevance and urgency.  What disturbed the peace in Eden?  What is eroding America’s distinct way of life? 

“Now the serpent was cunning . . . .”  Do not fear eating the forbidden fruit, he tells Eve, for “on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and bad” (Genesis 3:1-5).  Imagine: You simply eat the fruit, then live effortlessly, always sure of which road to take.  Murray might argue that the serpent was luring Eve into the primeval prototype of the European welfare state: a world stripped of tough choices, with only a single path to travel. 

Eve succumbed; Adam joined in the folly.  They expected contentment and elevated self-esteem.  Instead, “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7).  The outcome, Murray would say, was no surprise: “People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned,” and “the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing.”  In retrospect, it may have been better not to station Adam in Eden in the first place: If he and Eve had tilled their own garden, they likely would not have exchanged their life of responsibility, risk, and satisfying achievement for a safe, but shallow life free from serious deliberation and consequential decision-making. 

Coming Apart's central argument is that real happiness is achieved in just four domains—family, vocation, community and faith.  These four are based upon the parallel founding American virtues: Marriage (which anchors family); industriousness (which brings vocational success); honesty (the raw material of social trust and community); and faith.  America’s burgeoning welfare state intervenes in these domains, stripping citizens of responsibility and diminishing their satisfaction in life.

Murray hopes Americans will learn the lessons of the financial and intellectual bankruptcies of the European welfare state.  He further hopes for a civic “Great Awakening” that will save the “American project.”  But hope is not a plan.  In the meantime, we need to ask: How can we, in our own arena—religious communities—alter America’s dangerous trajectory?  Do we, through our programs and services, promote stronger marriages and families?  Do we nurture a real sense of community, rooted in trust and honesty?  Do we clearly communicate to our youth the moral imperatives of hard work and ambition?  Do we foster genuine faith and religious purpose?

Happiness is not the primary objective of religious life; living according to God’s will is.  Still, happiness is an important goal in both biblical and rabbinic literature, and religious communities are ideally equipped to promote not just the element of “faith,” but all four foundational virtues, which together lead to happiness.  In particular, Murray’s frustration with the insecure “new upper class,” which doesn’t preach what it practices, can best be addressed by religious communities:  Is there a better place to combat the moral relativism that prevents those who live by the four virtues from speaking their minds?  Strong communities nurture clarity and courage in individual members.

Faith communities that promote their efforts as both religious and American will inspire the patriotic to greater religious participation and the faith-focused to greater civic participation.  Establishing the essential sameness of our country's and our Bible's foundational virtues could unite different faith groups in a powerful alliance for God and country.  Religious communities will not, on their own, cure America’s woes.  We are, however, uniquely positioned to influence the “new upper class” and, I believe, have the best shot at infiltrating the "new lower class" as well.

Exceptional America, argues Murray, is disintegrating.  Students of Genesis can help restore the virtues that make our Land of Liberty unique among nations.

Yaakov Y. Kermaier is Rabbi of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Synagogue.