What does Adam have to tell us about getting along? Plenty, based on the responses of clergy from three different faiths who gathered in South Orange for the second in a series of interfaith ”trialogues” being held at the Baird Center.
The Nov. 7 event drew about 50 people, mostly from the congregations of the rabbis, minister, and imam who took part. Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange moderated the panel.
“Adam is a point before theology,” said Rabbi Alan Brill, who holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. “Adam in Jewish tradition represents the general human condition.”
Similarities and differences among the three religions emerged as each panelist described how his religious tradition understands the figure of Adam (and, in some cases, Eve).
For Pastor Rick Boyer of Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, Adam represents the sinner who has not reconciled himself to and is out of relationship with God. According to this reading, he said, Jesus is the “second Adam,” who reconciles with God.
Imam W. Deen Shareef of Masjid Waarith Ud Deen Mosque in Irvington explained that in Islam, “everybody born is Adam. Everyone has all the future possibilities associated with the growth of human beings.” He added, “Adam is a singular figure, but plural as well.”
The religious leaders wove their way through text and theology, discussing the meaning of the Garden of Eden, eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and what Adam and Eve really represent.
For example, in Islam, according to Shareef, Adam — rendered in the plural sense —represents a divinely inspired republic; in Christianity, in the singular, he is the fallen original man, the one who forgets his obligation to God. In this reading, Jesus is the Adam who obeys God without mistake. Mohammed, like Jesus, is also Adam — but an Adam who understands the word of God and the Quran and dwells in the Garden of Eden, a garden of spiritual excellence.
In Judaism, said Brill, Adam represents the moment we move “from original harmony to self-interest.”
The main difference among the traditions, is that in Judaism, the fall is about the evil inclination more than sin. “The snake represents something in all of us that makes us choose evil instead of good,” Brill said. “The lesson of eating from the tree is to try to choose good.”
Audience members took up the spirit of interfaith cooperation, starting conversations and introducing themselves to one another.
More than one posed questions about the history of hostility among the religions. Boyer was frank in his response.
“It’s an expression of brokenness, an expression that reconciliation has not happened, even among people of faith,” he said. “In Christianity we believe in sin and truth, and there is often a desire to annihilate whatever is not our truth.”
Shareef distinguished between the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the “tree of self-interest.”
“Too many are eating of that tree of self-interest,” he said. “Religion itself has strayed. Sometimes religion is more political than spiritual.”
Brill struck the most pessimistic note, pointing to strife already occurring in familiar biblical stories.
“In the Bible, we already have 12 tribes. In the Kingdom of Judah they were already fighting. They were interested in power and greed, not in good leaders,” he said. “It was nice in the garden. But we left and now we are in the realm of taxes, armies, buildings. That is part of the realm of the world we live in.”
And yet, for all its religious violence, the last decade has seen a surge in interfaith outreach.
“There has been more dialogue in the last decade than in the previous century,” Brill said. The idea of freedom of religion is not enough anymore, and we are working to find an answer for the 21st century.”
At least some members of the audience weren’t satisfied with the annual trialogue as their only opportunity to get together.
As one man said to Roston, “Sister Rabbi, this group of righteous people needs to find a way to take this energy to the street.”
Roston reminded the group that the three communities had join in building a home in Newark, known as the Abraham House, through Habitat for Humanity. She said plans are in the works for more informal social gatherings as well as a continuation of the trialogue.
Brill urged the group to include members of Asian religious communities next time.
Roston cautioned the group not to underestimate the impact of the day’s gathering.
“Remember the power of being with each other and learning together and having your tradition resonating from the words of leaders of a different religion,” she said. “You will go out changed.”
The event was sponsored by South Orange’s Congregation Beth El, Masjid Waarith Ud Deen Mosque, and Prospect Presbyterian Church.