“Eve has been the victim of the greatest character assassination in the world,” said Bruce Feiler. Feiler was in conversation last week with Robin Young of NPR’s “Here & Now” at Temple Sinai in Brookline, hosted by the Jewish Arts Collaborative. The New York Times best-selling author aimed to rehabilitate Eve’s reputation, and as the title of his latest book suggests, tell the story of Adam and Eve as “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us.”
Feiler describes himself as an experientialist writer, the ultimate example of which is his successful first book, “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses.” That book was the ultimate travelogue, which Feiler noted was a grand adventure combining archeological detective work with a spiritual pilgrimage. For that book, there were places and landmarks already in place from the Torah to track down. For his latest work, Feiler had to create “the ultimate Adam and Eve road trip.”
This trip began somewhat serendipitously with a tour of the Sistine Chapel. Feiler and his identical twin daughters, tagging along on his wife’s business trip to Rome, viewed Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. The girls noticed God reaching out to Adam across the ceiling, but there was something else one of them saw—a woman under God’s arm. They all wondered if that woman could possibly be Eve.
Attempting to answer that question took Feiler to places that included Jerusalem, London, Seneca Falls, N.Y.—the birthplace of the women’s movement in America—and the Galapagos Islands, where a German couple created their own version of Eden. But before he set out, Feiler was intent on excavating the story behind 3,000 years of commentary, most of it unfavorable to Eve. “Almost everything we think we know about the story is incorrect,” asserted Feiler. According to him, at the heart of the two versions of the origin story recorded in Genesis is equality and love. Eve was not created from Adam’s rib, but from his side. The image speaks to an egalitarian relationship rooted in love.
The image of Eve side-by-side with Adam is also indicative of her independence and quest for knowledge. Here’s where Feiler parts with the conventional wisdom that Eve’s bite of the fruit was emblematic of the fall and original sin. Feiler said her actions influenced Adam to choose between duty and love, and he clearly chose love. “The story ends with the image of the two of them walking hand-in-hand out of Eden. God continues to protect them,” he observed.
John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” portrayed Eve as the central actor in the Adam and Eve story. Published in 1667, Milton’s interpretation of Eve wandering off in search of enlightenment and autonomy was radical at the time. Milton, said Feiler, recognized that men used the story to hold women back and was “smashing” well-worn canards about Eve and her intentions.
Feiler also held that “Paradise Lost” similarly influenced Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In Feiler’s reading, Dr. Frankenstein is God and the monster is Adam. After the monster flees into the wilderness, he learns to speak and read by studying “Paradise Lost.” From there, he understands that, like Adam, he, too, needs a mate. Loneliness is a potent theme in both “Frankenstein” and the Adam and Eve story. The first thing God said in the Bible about human beings is that it was not good for them to be alone. “That has a contemporary resonance,” said Feiler. “The biggest social crisis in America is loneliness.” Feiler suggested that relationships have to be recalibrated to recognize that couples can be both together yet independent.
The feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized this when she wrote “The Woman’s Bible” in 1895. Stanton asserted that the first chapter of Genesis reflected “a simultaneous creation of both sexes.” Men’s superiority to women had “no basis in scripture,” she said. Despite its best-selling status, Feiler reported that the book was a disaster for Stanton, who was rebuffed by her sister feminists. It took a century to resuscitate Stanton’s reputation.
One of Feiler’s more original interpretations of Adam and Eve’s love extends to their loss of Abel, who was murdered by his brother, Cain. Feiler’s investigation of that thread of the story took him to meet with Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers. He also went to meetings of a group called The Compassionate Friends, a gathering for families of murdered children. Contrary to popular perception, Feiler found that “the loss of a child is not fatal to a relationship.” Most couples, he found, stayed together after the tragedy of a child’s death.
Feiler is consistently convincing about the powerful lessons of constancy and forgiveness embedded in the Adam and Eve story. “This story,” said Feiler, “defined men and women and their relationships for 3,000 years. The story represents the evolution of women, as well as the overall impact it has had. At this moment in time, when relationships have become commodities, their story calls upon us to make ours a success. Adam and Eve is not an ‘I’ but a ‘we.’ Theirs is the first joint byline.”