Original Sin – Bereshit 5783

D'var Torah | Genesis

Through the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, nascent Christian theology conceived of the idea of original sin. While Origen – one of the early Church Fathers – held an aberrant view, namely, that the sin occurred before the creation of the world, standard Christian theology maintained that the original sin was committed by Adam and Eve. As a result, humankind lost divine grace and all descendants of the first couple are stained forever. Each person born is consequently tainted by Original Sin. Only through Jesus are they saved.


Presumably, the Rabbis at the time of the Talmud were already acquainted with Christian doctrine, although thoroughly rejecting it. According to the Christian reading of Genesis, the serpent seduced Eve into having sex with Adam. That was the original sin. According to a variety of Midrashic texts, the Rabbis put forward an alternative view. The serpent seduced Eve into committing adultery with it. Sexual relations between husband and wife are both licit and normal. Adultery, however, is another matter. Commenting on this sin, the third century Palestinian scholar Rabbi Yishmael remarks: “At the time the serpent had intercourse with Eve, he introduced filth into her. When the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, their filth was removed” (Yevamot 103b). The inference seems to be that sin was transmitted from Eve and only removable later on: a concept akin to Christianity.


However, Professor Daniel Boyarin (Carnal Israel, p. 82) explains the vast difference between Rabbi Yishmael and Christian doctrine. According to Rabbi Yishmael, the woman is portrayed as the victim of the serpent’s sexual aggression that renders her and her descendants temporarily impure. And this temporary impurity had nothing to do with licit sexuality. The “filth,” then, is not that of sexual intercourse, but the lust for illicit sex. And if there was anything like original sin, it was redeemed by the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Human sexual relations carries no stain.


Professor Boyarin is even tempted to suggest that Rabbi Yishmael, far from accepting the concept of original sin, denigrates it, as if to say, if you believe in it, you have it. That is why Rabbi Yishmael repeats his saying three times. In other words, if Christianity would believe every human being is born with a stain, it is its choice and its problem. As for Judaism, each person’s sin is determined only by personal choices, not any inherited stain.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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