Friday, October 21, 2022

The Creation of Failure


How do we tell the story of failure?

In 1923, Franz Kafka and his companion, Dora Diamant, went for a walk in Berlin. While out, they met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told the girl not to worry, because the doll had actually gone away on a trip; in fact, the doll had written her a letter. When the girl asked for the letter, Kafka explained that he didn't have it with him, but that if she would return the next day, he would bring it to her.

And so it began. For three weeks, Kafka would compose letters from the doll to the girl, to keep her informed about the doll’s “travels.” Dora Diamant explained that Kafka gave these letters the same attention he gave to his other literary works. But then came the question: How would Kafka end this story, and bring the letter writing to a close? Dora told the French essayist Marthe Robert that Kafka “married off” the doll: He (Kafka) searched about for a long time and finally decided to have the doll marry. He first described the young man, the engagement. . . , the preparations for the wedding, then in great detail, the newlyweds' house. Having moved away with her husband, the doll could no longer write or visit the little girl. And finally, after the letters concluded, Kafka made sure that the little girl received a present of a new doll.

This fascinating story contrasts sharply with the bleak, pessimistic character of much of Kafka’s writing. But it offers a powerful example of the mindset needed to find a way forward when everything seems to have come to an end. And at some point in life, all of us are searching for our missing doll.


Mindsets stand at the center of a critical debate regarding this week’s Torah reading. The Tanakh begins with a debacle. Adam and Eve, in their first hours, violate the one and only commandment they are given, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Because of this transgression, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to lives filled with death, disease, and difficulty.

This story of sin and expulsion appears to be an absolute tragedy. Humanity is cast out of a utopia into an unmapped reality, left only with dreams of a paradise lost.

Some took up the quest to return to paradise. Brendan of Clonfert, a 6th century Irish monk, gathered 16 fellow monks on a boating expedition to search for the Garden of Eden. (They may have discovered Newfoundland instead.) Who wouldn’t want to escape this vale of tears?

Others took an exceptionally pessimistic reading of this text. The Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo sees this “original sin” as something that taints all of humanity. The sin of Adam and Eve is hereditary, and every person is cursed from birth. Augustine asserts that “no one is free from sin in (God’s) sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day.” Since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, human nature is so badly corrupted that every baby is a born sinner.  

It is important to emphasize that Augustine sees free will itself as suspicious, something that can lead to disobedience. He writes that even before the sin, man should not have exercised his free will. Obedience to God, not autonomy, could have been Adam's true glory: "...since man has been naturally so created that it is advantageous for him to be submissive, but disastrous for him to follow his own will...

Augustine lobbied hard for his view to be adopted by the church; there is a rich history of the political intrigues he undertook to promote his view of original sin. Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine’s who championed free will, was condemned and banished by the church; and to this day, Augustine’s view has remained dominant within most Christian denominations, and has had a profound influence on Western thought.

In Jewish theology, free will is a foundation of faith; the 613 commandments are meaningless unless a person can choose whether or not to do them. And because of this, many Jewish thinkers take great exception to the idea of “original sin.” In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that “The dogma of original sin is a most regrettable error of an alien faith…to say that because of “original sin” sinfulness is innate in man, that man has lost the ability to be good and is now compelled to sin – these are notions against which Judaism raises its most vigorous protest.…To this day, every newborn infant emerges from God’s hand in purity, as did Adam in his time; every child comes into the world as pure as an angel, to live and become a man. This is one of the cardinal points in the Torah of Israel and in Jewish life….Man as an individual and mankind as a whole can, at any time, return to God and to Paradise on earth.” The sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden are tragic failures, but they don’t define humanity.

All of the above describes a fairly straightforward debate: Can humanity overcome this initial sin? One side maintains that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge fatally corrupted humanity forever; the other says that each human being is born innocent, and has complete free will. Failure can always be overcome.

But what if failure is part of the plan? There is a fascinating third view, that says the sin of the Tree of Knowledge was actually what God wanted to happen. 

The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeshev 4) says so explicitly, and reports that Adam complained to God that sin was merely a ruse to throw him out of the Garden of Eden. Eden was always a way-station, and Adam and Eve were never meant to live there.

Bezalel Safran has argued persuasively that the Ramban saw the sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden as preordained, and notes that the Ramban makes several baffling comments about this passage that can only be understood in this manner.

The Ramban says Adam and Eve were created to be perfect, and had no free will; they would have done what was good automatically. This explanation is baffling for two reasons; one, it denies free will, which as already mentioned, is a fundamental belief of Judaism. Second, if Adam and Eve had no free will and could only do what was good, how did they sin by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

The only possible answer is that God programmed the initial sin of Adam and Eve, so they could acquire free will by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The Ramban drops several other hints to this effect. One significant hint has to do with the aftermath of the sin. It says that “Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.” The Ramban quotes the Midrash, which explains that the divine presence was leaving, in response to the sin. Remarkably, the Ramban offers the opposite explanation; God was arriving to speak to Adam and Eve because of the sin! But why would two sinners be deserving of experiencing a special revelation?

These unusual comments, when pieced together, offer a very different interpretation of this passage. Adam and Eve were created perfect, and could have remained so. But only imperfect people can transform and grow; only with failure could Adam and Eve actually experience life.

And that is why God had to create failure. In order to enter the drama of history, with all of its imperfections, Adam and Eve would have to leave paradise.

The Ramban’s view is the polar opposite of Augustine’s theory of “original sin.” Augustine sees the fall of man as final and fatal, a curse from which humanity can never recover. The Ramban says that, on the contrary, it was God who forced humanity to fail, to leave behind perfection; it was God who engineered this sin, and opened the door for free will and personal growth. Our exit from paradise, as painful as it may be, was part of God’s plan, and allows us to live an authentic life. 

What I find most compelling about this debate is that it represents two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. The mindset of Augustine’s view, which sees humanity as fundamentally broken, is so different from the Ramban, who sees this sin as the foundation of spiritual growth.

Mindsets determine how we react when we are broken and imagine ourselves to be beyond repair, when paradise has suddenly disappeared. To see the world as fundamentally corrupt leads to a pessimistic mindset and a passive acceptance that little can be done.

But the Ramban offers us a different mindset. Failure is woven into the very fabric of our reality; but that is very much a part of the plan. It is left to us to find a way to overcome failure. Even after the doll is gone, we must find a way to write a new story, and search for new beginnings.

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