Yitro 5784 – Original Sin?

D'var Torah | Exodus

Jews even moderately familiar with Christianity know that one of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity is that a feature of Christian dogma is the concept of original sin. How shocking it is, then, that according to second century sage, Rabbi Yohanan, when the serpent seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden, he infected her with contamination that was removed only at Sinai (Yevamot 103b). This sounds suspiciously like original sin! But before wading into the question of whether Judaism borrowed from Christianity or Christianity borrowed from Judaism or that both Judaism and Christianity borrowed from a common source, a thoughtful analysis of what Rabbi Yohanan actually says is in order.

The Christian concept of original sin refers to the hereditary stain with which all people are born as a result of Adam’s sin of disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. The stain is universal. It affects every human being. The stain is unending. That is to say, the stain does not disappear at any time. So long as humanity persists, so does the stain. And the stain can only be removed through baptism. Importantly, the sin is directly attributable to Adam. Rabbi Yohanan, in contrast, restricts the contamination to the period up to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is the acceptance of Torah that eradicates contamination. And on Rabbi Yohanan’s view, the sin is ascribed to the serpent – not to Adam or Eve. Over all, the distinctions are quite significant.

Having seen that Rabbi Yohanan’s statement has little in common with the Christian concept of Original Sin, the better question is what was Rabbi Yohanan’s message? Rabbi Yohanan seems to be saying that the Torah is the antidote to moral infirmities. The cunning serpent seduced Even into believing that she could behave evasively and escape any consequences. That “sickness” is, sadly, universal and persistent. Sinai changed everything. With the giving of the Torah, Jews are held to standards of duty and responsibility which repudiate earlier behavior.

To Rabbi Yohanan, the event at Sinai was transformative. It was a new beginning. The conduct of the first human beings has been reformed to create better human beings.


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

Rabbi Allen on Twitter