What Do You Really Know About Adam and Eve?
At this time of year, Jews around the world are beginning again their yearly communal reading (and study) of the Five Books of Moses. Every week, the focus will be on a different section of the Torah so that the entire work will be covered, in order, during the year. The result is that a significant number of Jews have become familiar with much of the Torah narrative. This is, of course, reinforced by the fact that the Five Books of Moses are a major part of any Jewish educational system, from adult education to day school to Sunday school. It is also – and, perhaps, even more so -- because these Bible stories are existent throughout our society. In the Western World, who doesn’t know the story of Adam and Eve? The question is: do you really know the Jewish story?
Most people do not recognize that there is a challenge in that our holy books were adopted by other religious systems. Works are read within a certain context and any narrative can be understood in a variety of ways depending upon the perspective of the reader. These distinctions in outlook may also not be so clear. Consider, for example, the story of the Garden of Eden. If I asked someone to tell me the difference between the Christian rendering of this story and the Jewish one, no doubt, the answer will focus on the concept of Original Sin. This is a fundamental concept of this story within the Christian perspective while this idea has no role in the Jewish understanding of this story. Of greater import is, actually, why this concept could not even arise in the Jewish reading of this story. The Jewish perspective could never yield the Christian reading of this story. Do you know why? Then, again, the question: do you really know the Jewish story?
Of course, the words are the words; any reading has to – at least, in some way -- fit into the text. Within any text, though, there is some inherent flexibility which allows, within certain parameters, a reader to understand the text’s meaning one way versus another. The greater call in approaching a Biblical story such as the Garden of Eden is, thus, to recognize how the presentation of the story one is hearing is affected by such perspectives. The further call is to know how this reading connects with one’s own perspective. Recognizing this flexibility potentially inherent in a text, one may also wish to find further substantiation for one’s own perspective. In the case of the Garden of Eden, for example, do you know, that the word chet [sin] is not found even once in this entire narrative? (This word is actually first found in connection to Cain and Abel.) The key is to know that just because you hear the story presented a certain way in one venue does not mean that such a presentation is acceptable in another venue.
So, what are some factors inherent to the Jewish perspective of the Garden of Eden story. These, of course, would be necessary in understanding the story from this perspective and also warn us to be careful of other renditions of this story. Let me just state two. One is the recognition that Adam and Even were two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. The challenge they faced has to thus be recognized as a deeply intellectual one and not one that reflects simple foolishness, pettiness and/or immaturity. There is indication of Adam’s intelligence in that God asked him to name each of the animal species with discernment – a challenging intellectual exercise. As such, any portrayal of the story that misses the idea that we are talking about a thoughtful challenge that would require contemplation has problems from a Jewish perspective.
A second factor would be the Jewish value of growth. Of course, Adam and Eve were created imperfect for if the value of Creation is found in human growth, it has to start with the need for human growth. The whole story begins with God creating human beings to achieve and, as such, an allowance for failure in the human being -- if, at first, he/she does not succeed -- must have been part of the plan. Any idea that the human being has to be saved rather than given the opportunity to improve oneself and grow has problems from a Jewish perspective. And there are, of course, other factors that point to the necessity of understanding the distinction of a Jewish understanding of this story – and we often don’t know them and thus miss this important perspective. (One interested in seeing a Jewish rendering of this story , please see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Tree of Knowledge, Nishma Journal 7,8 & 9
– see on line at http://www.nishma.org/articles/journal/tree3.htm
The overall point is really simple. Everyone quotes the Jewish Bible and because we hear a story from one source, we simply believe that that is the way everyone hears the story. What we don’t recognize is that a story is always presented from a certain perspective and this can yield a very specific understanding of a story which may not be shared by all. Given the predominance of the Christian perspective of the Jewish Bible stories within our society, it is important that we be aware of this. Just because you heard the story one way – after all, it’s in the movies and on t.v. – doesn’t mean you know the Jewish story.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Hecht is the author of the Blog entry “Why Be Jewish?” which was selected as one of the three best for the first quarter of 5779. You can find a link to it at the top left of the Jewish Values Online home page, under Jewish Values Online Blog Awards 5779.
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My girlfriend runs a business selling hand-spun tzitzit (fringes for a ritual prayer shawl). Recently, a customer asked her if he could send her his tallit (prayer shawl) and have her tie the new tzitzit directly onto it. She agreed, but was surprised to find, when the tallit arrived, that it was a Messianic (a non-Jewish, fully Christian group that usurps Jewish ritual and incorrectly incorporates it into non-Jewish worship) tallit, complete with a New-Testament quote on the atarah (the neckpiece). Would it still be OK to sell tzitzit to this customer? On the one hand, we're profiting from an arguably idolatrous practice, but, on the other, she's helping a (presumably) fellow Jew (albeit an apostate one) fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit. What Jewish values are at work here? And what should we do?
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