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A Return to Simplicity
By: Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisrael

Sophistication can make us forget the meaning of simple words such as "I love," "I hate," "I believe," "I am afraid," "I am a Jew." It forces the most basic things not only out of the discussion, but even out of the very process of thinking. Instead, we get dragged into a heap of complex talk that is detached from reality, genuine experiences and emotions.

Unlike sophistry, sophistication is not an attempt to mislead a thought. Rather, sophistication may be likened to the continuous activity of cutting down flowering, fruit-bearing trees, pulverizing them into paper, and replacing them with paper trees and flowers. The sophisticated person converts living things into complicated, "wiser" surrogates-and in the process, loses touch with the basics.

Today, a curse of sophistication has occurred, particularly among those who want to be considered educated. Before sophistication, a person could see a painting and say, "This is beautiful!" One can no longer say such a thing, just as one can no longer say that something is horrid. Rather, one needs to explain precisely to which era this painting belongs, what genre is used, how this painting relates to works of other painters, and whether the brush strokes go from right to left or from left to right. After all that, a person ceases to know if the thing itself is beautiful or ugly.

This has also occurred to religion by an increasing number of people who speak a highbrow language and write highbrow poetry and literature. Judaism gets explained in a metaphysical way and in a kabbalistic way, in a poetic way and in a literary way. All these explanations brush aside the simple reality of speaking, thinking and experiencing the most fundamental things that-even if somewhat "primitive"-are real.

In the Torah, the only place in which there is a term perhaps akin to "sophistication" is in Genesis 3:1: "The serpent was more arum than any beast of the field." In contemporary terms I would translate this as, "The serpent was more sophisticated..." Indeed, he was neither wise nor clever, but he was sophisticated, the very first sophisticated being in the world.

This serpent was not a simple creature of the reptile family. He was extremely elegant, charming and sophisticated. And there was Eve who, as the Talmud attests, was a beauty, but apparently totally uncultured. Now, these two have a dialogue. The serpent offers Eve to eat of the fruit, and she replies, in the simplest of terms: "It's forbidden!" But "forbidden" is passé; sophisticated people are no longer familiar with such terms. So now, instead of speaking about the issue itself, the serpent starts discussing the motivation of He who forbade: "Did G-d really say that you may not eat..."What was it that made Him say such a thing?

Poor Eve! Prior to that encounter, some things were permitted and others forbidden. Now, she no longer knows. The serpent lures her to enter a world that is much more complicated, more sophisticated, and tempts her to "eat it."

The serpent does not walk in a straight line; it is incapable of that. Serpentine gait is one of the most beautiful things there is, something between a wave and a dance. But it is a serpent, and it kills. The fruit of the serpent is a total annihilation of human relations, of understanding and feeling simple things.

Once upon a time, everyone-simple and educated people alike-knew that one should awaken in the morning and daven shacharis (recite the morning prayers). People may not have known why. Nobody provided them with subtle explanations about the vibrations and metaphysics, but they knew that they had to get up and get moving. Now, people no longer are aware of that, because they are sophisticated.

"A little folly is dearer than wisdom and honor" (Ecclesiastes 10:1). here is grandeur in honor and splendor in wisdom, but both may freeze and die due to lack of inner vitality. "A little folly" of simple, naïve, innocent emotion-love, fatherliness, compassion-is what gives wisdom and honor the tiny, yet so absolutely necessary, seed of life.

What prevented Adam from putting forth his hand and eating from the Tree of Life?
I imagine that the Tree of Life was not more difficult to reach than he Tree of Knowledge. But Adam was no longer capable of recognizing the Tree of Life. He probably thought to himself: "The Tree of Life cannot possibly be that wretched little shrub over there; it must be something a lot more splendid and sophisticated." This is why humanity is still so far away from the Tree of Life.

There is a need to reconnect with the simple things, with the basic points of truth that we can grasp, and that are the roots of existence. Simple things: "good," "bad," "beautiful," "ugly," "I love," "I hate," "this is my religion," "this is my homeland." I know that hese concepts are not in fashion these days. Nevertheless, if we want to live, let us avoid the serpent of sophistication and hold on to the Tree of Life.

Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz was hailed by Time magazine as a "once-in-a-millennium scholar." He has been a resident scholar at Yale and Princeton, and has received the Israel Prize, the highest civilian honor for excellence in the sciences, humanities and arts. More than 2 million copies of his Steinsaltz Talmud (Random House) have been sold.