Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Adam Did Fall Did Sin We All? The Fall of Man and Original Sin [not in] Judaism

Once again recently (it happens quite a bit here in Texas), I ended up discussing the culpability of Adam and Eve in light of the death of Jesus. For traditional Christians, of course, the "Fall of Man" or the "Fall from Grace," is a massively important doctrine.
[Eden story from a medieval Jewish manuscript]

This "Fall" is more than the story of the expulsion from Eden as described in Genesis, mind you. Like all religions (Jews do it too), Early Christianity, starting with Paul, attached and extrapolated all kinds of extra-biblical claims to the obvious meaning of Gen. chapter 3 (we all will die, we will have to labor for our food, women will suffer during childbirth, we hate snakes).

For Christians, the two most important add-ons are that of
a) "original sin" -- that the sin of disobeying God attaches not just to the first couple, but to all their offspring (i.e., us), and
b) that the punishment for that is "eternal damnation," not just death in this world (as Genesis states, explicitly), but "death" in the next world, in the form of eternal exile from God into a suffering afterlife.

The Christian solution, of course, is Jesus. But for Jesus to be the cure, then the illness, original sin, needs to be "real." That, it seems, includes the idea that Adam and Eve were real, historical, flesh-and-blood people. A mythic first couple won't serve. A metaphor simply cannot carry the weight of justifying the kind of real, metaphysically transformative sacrifice Christians credit to Jesus. Thus the constant kerfuffle over the historicity of Genesis.

Jews, too have argued over the literal truth of Genesis 1-4, though not so much in the Modern era. While there is a small bundle of naive, anti-modernist ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jews who cling to the historicity of Genesis, the vast majority of Jews, building on our own 2000 year old tradition of metaphoric interpretation, generally view the Eden narrative as important, but not factual.

Key to our relative equanimity about this is that Judaism does not have a doctrine of "Original sin." We simply do not read human nature through "Fall-colored glasses." How can this be? Well first, we don't pile on a lot of additional punishments to the ones listed in Gen. 3. Even if we assumed that Eden was a historical event, we don't think all humanity bears the guilt of past people's crimes, though we all must live with the consequences that flow from the decisions of earlier generations (who can undo the past?).

Moreover, there are key linguistic features in the story that suggest that even the author of Genesis did not take the expulsion from Eden so literally. The key feature being "names." The first couple actually have none. The English Bible would have you believe they were named "Adam" and "Eve." But the Hebrew actually says, ha-adam "the earthling," and he first calls her ishah, "woman." Later he redubs her chavah, "live [giving]" (3:20) after she proves the capacity to be, well, life-giving. But this hardly a name, as the animals (who already showed their capacity to reproduce) are called chayah, "living [creature]." One letter now distinguishes her from other reproducing creatures - hardly a personal name. And "the earthling" never loses the definitive article (the) from his name, demonstrating that it is a common, rather than proper noun (it's not his name). Hebrew works exactly like English in this regard. We say "David" rather than "the David," because a proper noun is innately definite. The point? These two figures are meant to be "everyman" and "everywoman," universal "types" of humans, rather historical ancestors. That's why its no continuity problem for the author to introduce Cain's wife in Chapter 4 - it's a mythic account of a universal human experience, not a  historic event.

Moreover, Jews have never required the kind of metaphysical heavy lifting from the Eden story that Christianity has. There is a simple reason for that - we take our cue from the rest of the Hebrew Bible. While it's position in the first four chapters gives it great prominence, the fact is that Adam, Eve, Eden, and the expulsion get virtually no play in subsequent biblical texts. You would think that if Eden and its loss defines what it is to be human, and the true condition of human nature, that the prophets would allude to it fairly frequently, as in "You are just like your ancestors, Adam and Eve..." or "Because of what God decreed in Eden...." But no. The figures "Adam" and "Eve," ha-adam and chavah, never get a mention throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Never (well, maybe once, just to cover my bases, but my research indicates never). So much for a defining story. And Eden, well... It does get passing mention, mostly in Ezekiel, as the location of the ideal mythic past. But getting expelled? Nope. God's continuing wrath and alienation over the sin of Eden? Never.

What are we to make of this silence? It means one of two things, either
a) The authors of the rest of Bible don't know Gen. 1-4 (i.e., it was written only after they wrote their books), or
b) they didn't think it was a big deal story.

We can see a big deal story they do care about - the Exodus. The rest of the Bible: the prophets, the historical books, the Psalms, are constantly alluding to the Exodus. THAT'S the story that matters. THAT'S the story you need to teach to your children.

And that, by the way, is the biggest theme that post-biblical Jews extrapolate from the Eden story - it's a foreshadowing of our exile from the promised land, our harsh work and difficult labors (in both sense of the word) in Egypt. Eden is a sign for us, but one of both regret and hope. Jews take from Eden not the notion of human "sinfulness," but that human life and human history is a series of exiles and homecomings.

To read more, buy my book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050