The Pastors’ Convention

It was with some trepidation that I arrived at the regional Lutheran Pastor’s convention in the quaint German town of Preetz. I had been invited by Pastor Anke Wolff-Steger to keynote the convention with a sermon on the Garden of Eden. Because Pastor Wolff-Steger had invited me to preach on this topic at her church a year ago, she knew the gist of what I would say. The pastors in attendance did not, and I knew some would be taken aback.

I reviewed quickly the classical Christian interpretation (surely they did not need me for that) that Eden marked the “Fall of Man.: We had everything we could possibly in the garden, but Eve ruined everything by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, the one tree from which God warned the first couple not to eat and then convincing Adam to eat as well. In so doing they plunged humanity into a state of sinfulness, but belief in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death on the cross, ascension to heaven and resurrection saves us from that degraded state.

It was a surprise to no one there, of course, when I said that Jews do not believe that. For traditional Jews eating from the Tree of Knowledge was a profound act of disobedience, and we live with the consequences, a life of limited duration, pain in childbirth and the need to work for a living. But we do not exist in a state of sinfulness, and therefore we have no need for Jesus to save us.

Then I shared a perspective on Eden that I include in my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, the essence of which I first learned from my beloved Bible professor at HUC, Chanan Brichto, of blessed memory:

Eden was a nice place to visit but not to live. It was a world of no birth, no death and no sexuality. Indeed sexual knowledge is precisely the knowledge the first couple discovered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge.

Eve is not the villain of the story but the heroine. She is not interested in an endless life of ease without challenge or purpose. Although she did not know what life outside the garden would be like, she was willing to risk that uncertainty for a life filled with meaningful achievement, satisfying relationships, and the ability to bring new life into the world.

I can relate. After a long year of work, I would love to visit Eden, a place where all my needs are provided and I can lie on a pristine beach with fresh ripe fruit hanging over my head.

I would love it for about a week, maybe even ten days. After that I would seek out a challenge that would bring meaning to my life.

That is how I imagine Eve felt when she chose to eat the fruit. We should see Eve as a hero whose bold action enables us all to live lives of meaning and purpose.

However differently we interpret the story of Eden, I concluded, we can agree on one thing. None of us live there any more. We all live in this imperfect world. Therefore God calls on each of us to work as best we can to make the world a better place.

After breakfast we spent an hour studying the texts in small hevruta groups. I truly believe studying Torah or Bible together is one of the most productive and honest ways to experience inter-religious dialogue. As we studied one of the pastors challenged me: “How can you call Eve a hero when she defied a direct command from God.”

I responded that rather than a command I see an admonition in the text. God warned that there would be consequences for eating from the tree, and Eve was willing to take the risk. I added that I don’t believe this is the only reasonable interpretation of the story, but I think it is reasonable for you to give it some thought. Sometimes when we first hear an idea it jars us, but then it begins to make more sense over time.

Her response was a quizzical look, but as I left the gathering I noticed that she had purchased my book and had begun to look through it. I could not ask for more.



Rabbi Fuchs’ book is now available in audio format and has just been released in a German edition.

A Visit to Eden

These are days of great concern for Jews around the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is a real and alarming concern, yet, this past weekend I was able to put those concerns on hold.

In What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, I point out that the carefree world of the Garden of Eden is a world from which we’ve all been expelled. But this weekend as the guest of my dear friends, Elaine and Sheldon Kramer, I came close to an actual visit: Shabbat Eve services and the privilege of leading Torah study at Temple Isaiah in Maryland, the Bar Mitzvah of 79-year old Milt Kline, whose family I have known for 41 years, and yesterday morning cheering at the finish line of the IRON GIRL TRIATHLON for the Kramer’s daughter Missy, at whose Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation and wedding I officiated. This, coupled with the opportunity to discuss, sell and sign some books, has me feeling blessed, indeed!

During his Bar Mitzvah service Milt read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy (7:12-17) reaffirming the centrality of our Covenant with God. That Covenant, as God charged Abraham in the book of Genesis requires us to:

  1. Be a blessing in our lives (Genesis 12:2).
  2. Walk in God’s ways and be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1) meaning, we must embrace and exemplify God’s teachings.
  3.  Fill the world with צדקה ומשפט Tzedakah u’Mishpat, righteousness and justice.”

The rest of the Torah concerns itself with expounding on and elucidating the details of those Covenantal imperatives.

At Milt’s Bar Mitzvah, it was my privilege to address the congregation through him. Milt’s simcha also provided the opportunity to illustrate the parallels between the passage Milt read and the key Covenantal details about which his children, David and Lisa, read during their respective Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies nearly 40 years ago.

David’s Torah portion emphasized one of the most important of all Covenantal principles:   לא תוכל להתעלם Lo too-chal l’heet-ah lame You must not remain indifferent.” You see, in Judaism there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  When we see injustice, we must acknowledge it, and then take the necessary measures to eradicate it.

At her Bat Mitzvah, Lisa examined the early observance of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).  In that passage, the Israelites symbolically transferred their sins onto a scapegoat that carried them into the wilderness. Today, as Lisa taught, we have no scapegoats.  We must take responsibility to examine our lives with the intent of repenting for deeds of which we are not proud, with the resolve to do better going forward.

My late Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language training) teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, taught us that it is not just a credit to the Jewish people to have invented a day like Yom Kippur.  It is a credit and gift to all humanity to take a full day each year to engage in solemn חשבון  הנפש (Heshbon ha-nefesh) introspection. We are commanded to eschew all earthly pleasures (i.e., eating, drinking and sexual activity) to focus entirely on the duty of self-improvement.

I also noted that Lisa’s Haftarah (portion read from the prophets) was an angry rant from the prophet Ezekiel proclaiming that the people of Judah would suffer hardship and exile because they abandoned the covenant. (See Ezekiel 22:29-31).

It was wonderful to observe, then, that Milt’s Haftarah, 36 years later, brought the journey full-circle with a message of forgiveness, return and hope. “For the Eternal One has comforted Zion …and has made her desert like the Garden of Eden … joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of joyous song!” (Isaiah 51:3)

Yes, there is a real world of pain and suffering out there that invites pessimism and despair, but our tradition exhorts us—commands us—to look with hope toward the future.  No matter how bleak things appear, we trust in the promise that the wilderness in which we live can be transformed into an Eden, in which joy and gladness negates suffering and pain.  

That is the hope I embrace and cherish as I return to ‘the real world,’ strengthened by my glorious respite in Eden.