When “The Passion of the Christ” came out 10 years ago, Mel Gibson took heat for pitching the movie as though it were faithful to the original story. Although the characters spoke Aramaic to imply historical accuracy, Gibson took significant liberties with the Gospels, slathering the Passion story with layers of extra-biblical Catholic folklore, including some of the movie’s most anti-Jewish parts.
Leaving aside the entirely justified concerns about anti-Semitic imagery and what “accurate” might possibly mean, Gibson’s choice to flesh out the story points to something powerful in biblical storytelling: It is terse, often elliptical and regularly refers to cultural realities beyond our experience.
The power lies in the fact that those pregnant gaps beg us, the readers, to supply some narrative filler — some midrash — which we then weave into the tapestry of the original story, forever changing it and effectively co-authoring it.
No such gap captures my imagination more than the silence between the two halves of Genesis 3:6. Eve has been seduced by the serpent, and her curiosity brings her to the point of no return: “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating, easy on the eyes, and a pleasant way to gain insight, so she took one of its fruits and ate it.”
Then, without a minute to breathe — in the very same verse — she faces and crosses yet another Rubicon when “she gave it to her man with her, and he ate it.”
From Adam’s perspective, his choice was similar or roughly analogous to Eve’s first choice to eat the fruit. He knows that the fruit has power beyond his imagination, but he cannot … imagine it. As a result of his ignorance, his choice depends, like Eve’s original decision to eat the fruit, on the character who presents him with that choice in the first place.
Which brings us to Eve and her second choice, namely, the choice to share what she just ate. And this second choice takes us to an entirely different realm.
Eve’s total perspective changes in the instant between eating the fruit and choosing to offer it to her husband. And we know more or less how it changes, because Torah describes that shift after the fact, in the next verse, as applied to both Adam and Eve. “The eyes of both of them opened, and they realized they were naked. So they stitched a fig leaf each, and made girdles for themselves.” We watch our ancient parents fumble together through the experience of instantaneous self-awareness, shame and mortality.
But what took place in the moment immediately prior to their shared trauma, in the time it took Eve to swallow and then pass the fruit to Adam? Weren’t they, in those brief seconds, different species? At the least, Eve grew up while Adam, “her man,” remained a child. And if Eve faced her own death and acknowledged her own sexuality in that fleeting moment, what motivated her to put Adam in the same position?
Rashi and those who follow him cite Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, and they freely attribute selfish motives to Eve. According to this midrash, Eve realizes that she will at some point die, and she doesn’t want to leave immortal Adam free to take another wife after her. In one fell swoop, Eve brings Adam up to date and evens the playing field. Mortality? Check. Sexuality? Check.
Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the 19th century German rabbi who aggregated opinions from across the tradition, emphasizes the eating as an act of evolution. As the serpent has promised, after eating the fruit “you will be like God: understanding good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Mecklenburg focuses on their becoming humans as defined by their capacity for moral assessment and choice. This quality, he says, separates — and elevates — them from animals, “who act solely on the basis of instinct, lacking judgment and, hence, the power to motivate their own actions on the basis of free will.”
From this point of view, Eve chooses, in that moment of truth after eating, to share with Adam in a more generous way than described by Rashi. Enabled by the encompassing power of free will, Eve could have manipulated, managed and ultimately controlled an ingenuous Adam. Rather than choosing sheer dominance, however, she proposes to share the power that comes with the fruit — including its costs.
Other midrashim and myths abound. No less than Mel Gibson does, our tradition imposes imagined material onto this story, precisely because it is as incomplete a tale as it is a defining one. We cannot leave Eve’s character unresolved, because our own character flows from it.
For precisely that reason, as I see it, Eve’s choice means something different yet again. Overwhelmed, in the instant of swallowing the fruit, by a new and challenging vision of herself, her first reaction is one of panicked loneliness.
This much, I suppose, is intimated by Rashi. But something else happens as well. She realizes that, even though she has indeed become God-like, this state of being means nothing in solitude. The panic recedes, and the imperative for partnership emerges.
For good or ill, Eve raises the stakes; but once that step is taken and there is no return, it falls to her to imbue it with value and possibility. At some instant, the consumption of the fruit taught her that she was completing God’s work of creation, bringing her in closer proximity to God, but also, necessarily, to her sole counterpart: exactly to the place of mutuality, where humanity itself resides.
Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus.