Levi Gersonides (1288-1344) argues that the snake in the Garden of Eden represents human imagination. Eve imagines what the forbidden fruit will taste like and what she’ll become in the wake of tasting it. Her untethered imagination reports that if she eats the fruit, she will be as a god.
Each human sense has an organ associated with it. For sight there are eyes; for smell, the nose; for hearing, the ears etc. The snake is a symbol for the human imagination. In the wake of the first human sin, God removes its legs. The Torah thereby indicates that the imagination will not have its own sense organ on which to stand.
Your imagination is constrained by the things you have experienced. Although you can imagine things you have never seen before, you can only do so using things that you have directly experienced as ingredients. You can imagine a unicorn only because you have seen animals with horns and you have seen horses and you have seen the colour white. Your imagination has no legs of its own. It rests on the ground, eating the dust of your real-life experiences.
The imagination allows us to envisage a future that is different from the past. This is essential, in order to strive towards a better tomorrow. Nevertheless, God ties our imagination to the deliverances of our experience. Even our dreams and hopes need grounding in reality. We should never again allow our imagination to ensnare us with visions designed only to excite the ego.
Rabbi Dr Lebens is senior research fellow in the philosophy department of Haifa University