Judaism’s Rejection of the Original Sin
In the bible, the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis serves as scriptural evidence of humankind’s first transgression of God’s command resulting in the expulsion from paradise1. Christians claim that humans are tainted from the fall and many scholars reinforce the idea of a recovery narrative, which depicts the bible as following a pattern of decline and recovery, thereby reinforcing the belief that something was once lost and must be recovered. After mankind’s fall from the state of perfection, Christians believed that Jesus was their savior and would consequently sacrifice himself in order to redeem man. Through the act of disobedience in Genesis emerged the concept of the original sin, which stipulates that humans are born sinners and that sins pass from parent to child as an inherited characteristic2. Jewish believers, however, often criticize this notion and although they acknowledge that the human race came under the dominion of sin, which would affect their subsequent environment, Judaism, unlike Christianity denies that man is born into this world in a state of sin3.
Judaism affirms that the act of sinning is not part of the human condition but rather represents a conflict between two opposing inclinations (a good and an evil tendency) and that man has the ability to resist sin and can overcome the evil inclination by willing himself to become a righteous person.4 Therefore, Jewish people believe that man is inherently good/pure and that people have the ability to choose which impulse to act upon (the yetzer tov or the yetzer ra)5. The concept of the original sin is said to be especially difficult for the Jews to grasp since they refused to believe in the idea that the patriarchs and the prophets that were responsible for building the very foundations of their religion would not be allowed to enter heaven due to their inherited sin. For this reason, the culpability of Adam’s sin seems to have been (and may still be) considered blasphemous by many Jewish believers.6 As such, Jews do not prescribe to the original sin. This belief provides a sharp contrast to the Christian doctrine highlighted by Augustine’s claim: “[…]But man, corrupt by choice and condemned by justice, has produced a progeny that is both corrupt and condemned […] Our nature was already present in the seed from which we were to spring. And because this nature has been soiled by sin and doomed to death and justly condemned, no man was to be born of man in any other condition.”7 Augustine’s view and by extension the Christian view (for the most part) invokes an argument concerning the source of human evil and emphasizes the concept of the original sin, which is essential to Christianity. Indeed, fifteenth century writer Abraham Farissol indicated that the rejection of the original sin would crumble the very foundation of the Christian belief and the image of Jesus as their savior.8 Jewish believers and other scholars, on the other hand, refute this premise. Scholar Park McFayden criticizes the notion of the original sin by claiming that if men were born sinners, then humans would be universally guilty by default.9 Therefore, it would be hard to distinguish sinners from their victims since both would have been equally tainted by sin. In his view, the doctrine contradicts the logic behind the idea of a divine justice. McFayden also claims that if there was such a thing as collective guilt, we would be burdened by acts we have not committed and would thus be restricted from the freedom of making our own moral choices10. In order for a choice to be made, an equal possibility must be presented of either eventuality. Therefore, if humans are born in a state of sin, we have a proclivity to one side without being given the opportunity for choice. It is also important to note that by analyzing the story of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Bible, one may notice that there is no clarification or description of the presence sin in the world: “The Old Testament is certainly deeply conscious of the actuality and pervasiveness of sin and evil. But nowhere in the Hebrew canon is the existence of the profundity of evil accounted for on the groups that Adam’s disobedience originated it or made it inevitable”11. It remains questionable that Genesis serves as discussing the origin of evil. Hence, even though the Old Testament makes many references to evil deeds and the failure to obey God, it can be argued that such acts are “actual” evils rather than evils that were inherited by Adam. Historically, many medieval Jewish authors were compelled to argue against the existence of the original sin, which had become a matter of increasing concern among the Jewish community at the time. 12Author Joel Rembaum argues that many Jewish medieval scribes were aware of the biblical passages used by Christians as a means of evidence to prove the existence of the original sin. Gen. 2:17 is often used as a point of reference by Christians where it is thereby stated that “ you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die”13. This more literally translates from the Hebrew text to “dying thou shall die"14. Many Christians argue that the use of repetition of the word “die” or “dying” alludes to the fact that the body physically decomposes and the soul after death is tainted (and thus “dies”). Hence, the passage is said to be associated with the physical death and the spiritual punishment that would follow. Christians believe that the spiritual punishment would be transmitted from each generation until the necessary corruption of man’s nature and the “polluted” soul of the patriarchs would be freed and atoned through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jewish medieval scholars refuted this argument by stating that the use of repetition is a way of describing man’s two primary punishments for disobeying God: his death (loss of immortality) and the hardships he was to endure before his passing, which is highlighted by Gen 3:17 : “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”15As such, the Jewish interpretation contradicts the Christian understanding of the passage in Genesis.16. Furthermore, Deut: 24:16 is another passage used by Jewish critics to argue against the idea of the original sin. In this passage, it is written that “parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”17 This quotation states rather clearly that no human shall die for the sin of another, which seems to contradict the very existence of an original sin. Instead, this passage implies that humans shall reap what they sow. On a similar note, an argument can be made to demonstrate that the good and righteous are not confined to fast in the fires of hell*. For instance, Enoch is an example of a biblical character that was taken by God to enter heaven even before the mention of Jesus in the bible. Enoch, the descendant of Seth, was said to have been a righteous man and had the opportunity to walk with God (see Gen 5:22). He thus had a special relationship with God, having listened and talked to him. Genesis 5:24 suggests that Enoch was taken by God to be sent directly to Heaven, which is describe in the lines “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him”18. Evidently, Enoch did not need atonement for his sins by the sacrificial death of Jesus. Therefore, he seems to have been untainted by Adam’s sin before he entered paradise, which insinuates that humans have not inherited an evil soul. Moreover, Author Joel Rembaum adds another argument by stating that if the forgiveness of sins inherited by Adam was crucial in order to have a chance at heaven, then one would assume that Moses and the prophets would have mentioned the importance of believing and following Jesus Christ.19 However, that is not the case, and Jesus is not considered the long awaited messiah in the Jewish religion. Another biblical passage that is noteworthy and often used by Christians to prove the existence of the original sin is a verse quoted by David who claims that “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” in Pslam 51:520. At first glance, it may seem that David’s statement is supporting the doctrine of the original sin but by reading the statement within a larger context, it becomes evident that the quotation does not support the idea of an inherited sin but rather appears to focus on man’s need to ask for forgiveness and to change his way of life. Therefore, the verse can be understood as David claiming that children often inherit their parents behavioral tendencies and thus if your mother was a sinner, you would be more likely to sin as well. On the other hand, this also suggests that if your mother was a righteous person, then you would be prone to be a righteous person too. Thus, this verse seems to imply that although humans have not inherited the sin of Adam, our gene pool can determine our behavioral predisposition to sin. Hence, while many Christian churches adhere to the concept of an ancestral sin, Judaism continues to hold that that although man may have an inclination towards evil, children are born sinless. Even though much of the Christian faith was built on a more ancient Jewish tradition, many elements of the Christian and Jewish faith diverge. Despite their differences however, both religions believe in our Heavenly Father and Creator and uphold the importance of kindness, generosity and a strong sense of community.
Alan Cooper. A Medieval Jewish Version of Original Sin: Ephraim of Luntshits on Leviticus 12. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Darlene F. Weaver. How Sin Works: A Review Essay. n.d: Journal of Relgious Ethics Inc, 2001.
James Barr. The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality. Minneapolis: First Fortress Press, 1993.
Joel E. Rembaum. Medieval Jewish Critism of the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1982/1983.
Léo Moulin. Les Gauches et le péché original: Essai de method comparative. (n,d: Librairie Droz, 1981.
New International Version. [Colorado Springs]: Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
Yetzer hara [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved April 8, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/yetzer%20hara