Early on in the story of Creation, we are told that God created a garden in Eden and in the middle of this garden he planted two trees: Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life never really plays a role except for a brief mention just before Adam and Chavah get turfed out into the wife world but the Tree of Knowledge is central to the rise and fall of Man. As the story is well known and also documented in John Huston's The Bible I will not recount it here.
One of the most fundamental questions that arises on reading the story of the Tree is: did Man originally not know what good and evil was? Did eating the fruit of the tree give him that knowledge? And if he didn't know what evil was, how could he be punished for sinning when he meant no wrong?
The Ramban, in his commentary on the story, opines that the Tree of Knowledge refered not to absolute knowledge but to emotional knowledge. Before Man ate from the Tree, he was aware of the concepts of good and evil but made his decisions in a strictly utilitarian fashion. It wasn't about what he wanted but what was right and what was wrong which guided his decisions. What the Tree added to his psyche was the illogical facet of emotional choice. To wit: I know that I'll gain weight if I eat that bucket of chocolate ice cream and I know that gaining weight is bad so I shouldn't do it, but I want to eat the ice cream so I'm going to.
In medical parlance, this is often the difference between successful and unsuccessful attempts to effect lifestyle change. For example, almost every smoker knows that smoking is unhealthy and that quitting is the right thing to do. But the majority, for reasons of enjoyment or addiction, do not want to quit smoking so they continue to engage in a harmful activity that they will readily admit they should not do. Had Adam never eaten the fruit of the tree, he would never have started smoking because the benefit of the potential enjoyment would have been outweighed by the negative factors associated with the habit.
(In the regard, I find it fascinating that one of the midrashic traditions suggests that the fruit of the Tree was the grape. Like smoking, alcohol is an oft-misused substance. Unlike smoking, in small amounts it has proven benefits. Those who use it logically benefit, those who use it emotionally suffer!)
What is most important about the difference between wanting and needing is the effect on the person whose desires are thwarted. If I do not get something I need, I feel disappointment but then immediately consider alternative ways to achieve my goal. By contrast, if I don't get something I want, the negative emotional backlash is considerable. We are all aware of the reaction of a child whose wants are not met. We also know, although we don't like to remind ourselves, that adults are often no better, just more sophisticated in their disappointment. But on a deeper level, achieving a need never diminishes the important of that need in the person's eyes. Wants and desires, however, often change once we have achieve them. Consider the story of Amnon and Tamar in Shmuel Beis in which Amnon's need to "interface" with Tamar turned to hatred once he'd achieved the desired coupling. Or, as Spoke put in in Amok Time, "having is not as pleasurable as wanting."
So what does this have to do with the alleged targets I mentioned at the beginning of the post? Simply: everything.
It is a simple argument to make that one cannot prove God exists. I dealt with this a few posts ago in noting that this lack of proof is essential to Judaism as it causes us to rely on faith which is stronger than knowledge. Unfortunately, atheists often use this argument in a conclusive fashion: one cannot prove God exists, therefore He does not! (Chas v'shalom)
The fatal flaw in this argument, from Dawkins and Hitchens down to the littlest self-aborbed atheists out there is that the logic works the other way as well. If one cannot prove God exists, one cannot prove God does not exist either. All the books that Dawkins, Hitchens and those other pseudo-intellectuals try to foist on us suffer from this fundamental flaw. You cannot say God does not exist because you simply cannot prove it. Insisting on His non-existent makes you as close-minded and "religious" as those you would seek to criticize for being, um, close-minded and religious.
And the simple logic they all like to deny follows from there: there are now two options. If He exists then after I die I have to make a reckoning with Him. If He doesn't, I don't because after I die I'm wormfood and nothing more. If I acnkowledge God's existence and choose to give my fealty to Him, then I cannot lose. If I'm right, I get a good shot at a nice place in the Next World. If I'm not, well I won't know because I'll be dead and gone.
But if I, chalilah, deny His existence, then I'm only running with a 50% chance. If God's out there, He'll be mighty disappointed with my lack of belief. It's only on the chance He's not that I get away with it. And what do I get away with? Well, nothing really except a life of amoral, self-absorbed hedonism.
Given the two alternatives, what rational person would chose the atheist option? Well, if you think about it this way, no rational person would. But that's the point of the Tree of Knowledge. It's not about the rational opinion. It's about emotional opinion. Chazal tell us that our ancestors in Israel, the ones in the Bible who constantly turned to idols despite the repeated negative consequences their worship was associated was, knew that idolatry was useless and that only God was real. They simply liked the sexual freedom that the surrounding religions offered and used their defection from God to obtain that. (Maybe that's why JewishPhilosopher always uses that line?)
Modern atheists are no different. They delude themselves into a logical impasse - that my belief must be wrong because I can't prove its legitimacy but that their belief is right despite being unproveable - and then use that delusion to turn their lives into a meaningless, live-for-the-moment affair.
This, of course, is understandable. Some of them have been raised in homes where ritual observance of the minutiae of halacha was more important than showing love and affection. Some were educated by idiots who presented the beauty of the Torah in the worst possible life. And some are just selfish narcissists capable of nothing but searching after personal pleasure. After all, if a person is going to be wormfood after his death, he better get in all the pleasures he can while he's here, yes? But this delusion can only be maintained by the emotional choice trumping the rational choice and keeping it surpressed. Otherwise, the truth would have to shine through - they've made a huge mistake.
The way back to Eden, as it were, is through true cheshbon hanefesh. For those who were hurt by people who misrepresented Judaism to them, it is through separating their understanding emotional negative reaction from an objective assessment of what our faith and nationality offer. It is by ignoring the messenger and learning of the message itself. And what better time than this week, when we return once again to Chapter 1 of the truest Book in the world?