Faith Matters: All are welcome at Open Table: One effort to nurture respectful conversation among those who may see the world differently

Deerfield Academy Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life Jan Flaska in the school’s library.

Deerfield Academy Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life Jan Flaska in the school’s library. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By JAN FLASKA

Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life, Deerfield Academy

Published: 03-09-2024 7:00 AM

I often ask the students I teach to tell me which fruit was forbidden by God in the Garden of Eden. A quick, abrupt answer is speculative: “Apple!” A thoughtful answer obligates us to read the source, which states that it is not specified.

Now the real conversation begins: Where was the Garden located? What kind of fruits are native there? Two of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis still exist: Tigris and Euphrates. Cities such as Nimrod, Ninevah, Ur, Babylon and Kish are located today, and then, in present-day Iran and Iraq. Regional bazaars and markets give us a clue: Fruits sold are those that survive an arid climate and dry soil.

We ask why the apple has become synonymous with the forbidden fruit, and then explore the impact of beautiful paintings in a museum, authored by European artists, steeped in religious imagery, directed to a population that was, on the whole, less literate. The early careers of these artists in their youth included many painting sessions that re-created staged scenes with a bowl of European fruits as the subject. Now, I wasn’t there — in the Garden — but I love to speculate about the forbidden fruit being one of the most remarkable fruits in the world, a fruit I regularly seek out and always enjoy: the pomegranate.

What I’ve just illustrated to you is an effort to present the hard but important work of deciphering “babble” to secure wisdom through casual, thoughtful, respectful and hopeful dialogue. One voice could have carried the day: “Apple!” But, as I’ve now shared, I don’t believe there is a final answer on this question of “what fruit was it?” — even if, for some, God’s reputation to cultivate fruits outside of their temperate zones, among other miraculous acts, is Biblically secure.

A plurality of voices and a cacophony of opinions come together for fellowship every time Deerfield Academy students sit for a meal, engage in conversation during evening dorm gatherings, and find themselves around a figurative campfire in the presence of others. We work hard to manage the intrusion of phones, and it’s a difficult, but not impossible, task. With eyes up, attentive to the other, and present while in that setting, we muse and wonder, and share what we think and what we think we know.

In response to the heavy, but important, weight of recent conversations about Gaza, Israel and Palestine, or about immigration, and all its complications — regarding the value of life, the political actions of a nation, the empathy we feel for those on one side of a border, or the commitment we demand for those, perhaps homeless and struggling, already on “our” side of the border — we have created Open Table at every meal to invite community members into difficult but important conversations.

Open Table is offered at any time and by anyone. Students have had conversations about Gaza, immigration, faith, ableism, addictions and attachment. Anyone can come and stay silent. They can join the conversation or lead with experiences that provide context. Participants are welcome to stay for five minutes or the duration — which is usually around 30 to 40 minutes.

Open Table fills a space that might otherwise be vacant. Personal anecdotes are welcome, discomfort is embraced, and uncertainty is a badge worn well. Listening is obligatory; phones are absent. The community present at Open Table — which has been somewhere between seven to 15 participants at one gathering — come for many reasons, even if only to get a definition of a word like “ableism.”

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This is one effort to promote, nurture, and normalize respectful conversation among those who may see the world differently. Open Table takes tough conversations and offers them back to us in shared wisdom.

Whether we speak about the forbidden fruit as an apple or a pomegranate, we recognize that, on the surface, the rind is tough and thick, but, below the surface, in the fullness of its expression, once we breech that rind and take a bite, wisdom awaits.

Jan Flaska, M. Ed., M. Div., D. Min., is dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life at Deerfield Academy.