Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Original Sin in Judaism?

[Adam und Eva, from Die Bucher der Bibel, by Ephraim Moses Lilien]

A comment I recently received asks:

I have an unrelated question to this post. Can you elaborate on the traditional Jewish understanding of the concept of original sin? (if there is one at all as this may be a later Christian development) Since sacrifice for sins plays an important role in Judaism, i was wondering if it started with the Genesis account and the eating of the fruit by Adam/Eve. (or maybe that story has an alternate explanation within Judaism)thank you for your time and your knowledge.

The short answer is that Judaism does not have a doctrine of Original Sin. Jewish theology emphasizes the freedom humans have to make moral choices. Humans are born with conflicting impulses (See my earlier entry, Yetzer ha-Ra: A Necessary Evil), but we are not born already "in the red," sin-wise, because of actions not our own.

The longer answer is this: Christian Scriptures have a notion of inherited sin (Romans 7; John 5:19; Luke 11:13) which evolves into the dogma of “Original Sin” in the Church. This worldview of sin that is inherited from earlier generations, either from the mythic progenitors, Adam and Eve, or from the devolution of the generations prior to the Flood, is not entirely de novo to the early church. They are drawing upon and elaborating on a thread of thought found in Jewish apocalyptic literature (see Jubilees I:12-13; 2 Esdras 7).

These Apocalyptic beliefs of inherited sin, however, are not adopted by Jews outside of apocalyptic circles. The Rabbis, who formulated Jewish thought based on the Bible, certainly do not adopt this position about the state of the human soul, either formally or informally. The punishments meted out to Adam, Eve, and their children, for example, are explicitly listed in Gen. 3 and "innate sinfulness" is not one of them. Jews have seen attempts to attribute the doctrine to other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Gen. and Numbers 15:37-41, but such interpretations strike us as eisogetical, retrojecting a later doctrine into these verses by over-reading them. These passages describe an "inclination" to sin, but that's a far cry from an innate depravity that prevents us from making good moral choices. Rather, the Torah assures us that we can, of our own free will, do what is required of us - Deut. 30.

The daily prayer, Elohai Neshamah, likewise affirms that "God, the soul you have given me, it is pure...", reflecting the absence of any Jewish doctrinal belief that the human soul is "sinful" or ontologically flawed.

Since this really kind of tangential to the stated focus of the blog, I refer all interested people to a more detailed discussion of this, which can be found on the website of my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Toviah Singer:

Zal g'mor - to learn more about Jewish traditions, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
I am wondering what humanity lost in our Fall. Are the only things that changed in man the curses laid out upon him as a consequence? Also, God seemingly expels man for becoming like him, lest he eat from the Tree of Life too. So was the snake's statement we would be like gods a lie or truth? What does this signify? The entire Fall of Man is confusing to me. And finally, what is up with the Snake? If there is no opposing force, was man in a roundabout way being tempted by God?

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
Please answer the question from Anonymous regarding the serpent and no opposing force.
I only learned today that Judaism does not acknowledge Original Sin, which while a bit ignorant, I am a practicing Roman Catholic looking to understand the world around me and that of my friends.

6:56 PM  

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