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Garden of Eden serves as common ground
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Garden of Eden serves as common ground

Expressing the belief that Christians and Jews can find more similarities than differences in the way they interpret the story of the Garden of Eden, Father Robert Schecker welcomed an interfaith audience of more than 150 to The Church of the Nativity in Rumson on May 20.

The strong turnout, mostly parishioners or members of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue located directly across the street from the church, engaged in a lively discussion on sin, responsibility, punishment, and change.

“How we understand the story of creation has deep implications for how we relate to the natural environment in our own day,” said CBI’s Rabbi Jeff Sultar, who organized the program with the help of Schecker and members of the CBI Adult Education Committee.

While recognizing some differences in interpretation, he said, people of both faiths can still agree on a “shared responsibility to care for the environment.”

The program format called for tables holding eight or nine, with each table including people of each faith. After reading Genesis, chapter 3, these small groups spent about 15 minutes separately discussing the issues raised by the eating of the forbidden fruit.

Injecting a little humor — and temptation — into the event, the organizers had placed both apples and grapes on each table. Informal observation suggested that the apples went untouched.

Public sharing followed the table discussions, with many participants suggesting that disobedience was the first sin. But voices also came forward with a number of other choices, including pride, covetousness (“wanting something we should not have”), greed, desire, and even “curiosity.”

Schecker, who will retire June 30 after 11 years in the church’s pulpit, praised the mixed-faith participants for listening to each other. He offered an ancient literal translation of the word disobedience — “dis” meaning not, and obedience from a root meaning “to listen.” In this instance, he said, the problem was “not listening to the word of God.”

Some favored Eve as the culprit who committed the first sin, but others opted for the serpent. One participant asked, “Why did God set it up this way? Did God know that humans would fail the test?”

Sultar, meanwhile, said, “In Judaism, the story of the Garden is not about sin but about exile. In fact, the word sin does not appear in the Torah until Cain kills Abel.”

He said the message of the Garden of Eden is that humans are separated from God and must find their way back.

Both Schecker and Sultar alluded to the Genesis verse in which God tells Adam and Eve, “Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Schecker said, “Having been made in the image and likeness of the creator, we share with the divine the stewardship of God’s creation.” Humans, he said, are “God’s representatives on earth.”

Sultar noted that Adam, the name of the first human, is closely related to the Hebrew word for earth — adama. To illustrate the concept of stewardship, the rabbi cited Genesis, chapter 2, verse 15, which states, “The Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.”

Dr. Yona Shulman, chair of CBI’s Adult Education Committee, said that the event was the second in a series of interfaith programs between the synagogue and the church. At the initial program, held at CBI in the spring of 2014, a packed sanctuary heard Prof. Carol Rittner, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, speak about “The Popes and the Jews.”

Both Schecker and Sultar said they were delighted with the level and quality of audience participation at this year’s more interactive event.

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