Biblical scholars today agree that Genesis contains two different traditions about the creation of the world and human beings.
The first, found in chapter one, describes a creation by divine fiat in which the first human beings, male and female - who are nameless - are created at the same time and given dominion over all of creation. The second story (beginning in Genesis 2:4) describes a creation performed not by word but by physical action. A man is formed from the dust and only later is woman created from the body of that man. It is in this second account that we find the story of the Garden of Eden and the sin of Adam and Eve. Although in many ways the first story is the loftier and the more inspirational in its cosmic magnificence, the second story probes deeper into the mystery of human life and the human psyche. It has served to answer some basic questions about human life, although it has been interpreted very differently by different religions.
It would seem obvious that this story was needed in order to provide an answer to the question of why life is so difficult in a world that is supposedly so good. It teaches that this was not God's plan, but rather a result of human disobedience. Woman was punished with pains when giving birth, while man was punished by having to work hard in order to make the earth produce food. Indeed the earth itself was cursed because of human sin.
Christianity, unlike Judaism, has based itself and its view of sin and salvation on the story of the first sin. All human beings suffer because of it. Judaism has taken a much less severe view. In the Torah itself there seems to be an indication of mitigation of the punishment. Concerning Noah, utilizing a play on the letters of his name, the Torah says, "This one shall comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands concerning the earth that the Lord has cursed"(Genesis 5:29).
Rabbinic interpretation seems to have gone out of its way to lighten the seriousness of the sin and the severity of the punishment. For example, it interprets the words "In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread" (3:19) not as a curse, but as God's answer to Adam who, when he hears that he will have to eat the grass of the field (3:18) complains, "Shall my beast and I eat the same way?" God responds, "No you can stand up and eat in the sweat of your face."
Similarly the midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were expelled before Shabbat so that they could spend the first night out of Eden on Shabbat, when they could enjoy the joy and rest of Shabbat (see Avot D'Rabbi Natan). It is not accidental that there is no reference to the sin of Adam in the traditional liturgy. There is one reference to Adam and Eve in the Sheva Brachot recited at the marriage ceremony and the Birkat HaMazon recited at wedding feasts, but it is a positive one. The blessing asks God to permit this bride and groom to rejoice just "as did your creations in the Garden of Eden of old." So the one time we refer to them is not after the sin, but before it.
The sin of Adam and Eve is mentioned in the piyut Ametz Koah which is recited on Yom Kippur. This poem recalls the way in which the service was conducted by the High Priest in the Temple. Based primarily on the Mishna's description of Yom Kippur in the Temple, it begins with a prologue describing the creation and the history of humanity from Adam and Eve through the sons of Jacob, when Levi was "separated to be sanctified above all" as High Priest and serve in the Temple on Yom Kippur to attain atonement.
It describes the creation of Adam, the command that he not eat of the tree of knowledge, and then tells how he disobeyed and was punished, as was the woman and the serpent. Adam's sin, however, is not singled out as the cause of all guilt. Rather it is the first in a series of human failings. The poem goes on to describe the sin of Cain and that of the generation of the flood, continuing with God choosing Abraham. The poem places the Yom Kippur service within a context. Human beings from the beginning have disobeyed and therefore require a way of atoning, which Yom Kippur provides. Adam and Eve were the first, but not the last.
In many ways Ametz Koah is reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost - but with a difference. Milton writes: "Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the world, and all our woe." For Ametz Koah and for Judaism in general, Adam and Eve did not bring about "all our woe." They are merely symbolic of all human beings who begin as innocents but soon fall into disobedience and sin. Without this story, our understanding of human life would be the poorer.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.