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Dear Rabbi Singer,
Does the Jewish faith have a teaching comparable to that of “original sin” in the Christian tradition? By this I mean the teaching that all human beings are born with an innate tendency to disobey God. In my particular Christian tradition, water baptism is required for the removal of this sin. Would you please comment.
Thanks for your assistance.
The term “original sin” is unknown to the Jewish Scriptures, and the Church’s teachings on this doctrine are antithetical to the core principles of the Torah and its prophets. Moreover, your comment that your Christian denomination teaches that water baptism is essential for the removal of sin may rattle the sensitivities of more Christians than anything I am going to say. Nevertheless, you have raised a number of important issues that must be addressed.
Before answering your question, however, I will explain the Christian doctrine on original sin for those unfamiliar with this creed of the Church. According to Church teachings, as a result of the first sin committed by our first parents in the Garden of Eden, there were catastrophic spiritual consequences for the human race. Most importantly, Christendom holds that these devastating effects extend far beyond the curses of painful childbirth and laborious farming conditions outlined in the third chapter of Genesis.
This well-known Church doctrine posits that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, all of their descendants became infected with the stain of their transgression.
Moreover, as a consequence of this first iniquity, man is hopelessly lost in a state of sin in which he has been held captive since this fall. As a result, he is powerless to follow the path of obedience and righteousness by his own free will.
Rather, missionaries contend, because all are born with an innate and uncontrollable lust for sin, man can do nothing to merit his own salvation. In essence, man is totally depraved, and true free will is far beyond his grasp. “Totally depraved” may seem to be a harsh way for a Christian doctrine to depict mankind’s dire condition, yet this is precisely the term used by the Church to describe man’s desperate, sinful predicament. It is only through faith in Jesus, Christendom concludes, that hopeless man can be saved.
You stated in your question that the doctrine of original sin teaches that “all human beings are born with an innate tendency to disobey God.” While this statement is superficially correct, it fails to convey the far-reaching scope of this Church doctrine. Although Christianity does teach that the entire human race is born with an evil inclination, this tenet encompasses a far more extreme position than the one that you briefly outlined.
In fact, missionaries insist that as a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden, man’s unquenchable desire for sin is virtually ungovernable. In Christian terms, man is not inclined toward sin but more accurately is a slave to sin. As a result, the Church concludes, short of converting to Christianity, humanity can do nothing to save itself from hell.
Bear in mind, there is good reason for the Church’s uncompromising stand on this cherished doctrine. The founders of Christianity understood that if man, through his devotion and obedience to God, can save himself from eternal damnation, the Church would very little to offer their parishioners. Moreover, if righteousness can be achieved through submission to the commandments outlined in the Torah, what possible benefit could Jesus’ death provide for mankind? Such selfprobing thoughts, however, were unimaginable to those who shaped Christian theology.
Despite the zealous position missionaries take as they defend this creed, the Christian doctrine of original sin is profoundly hostile to the central teachings of the Jewish Scriptures. The Torah loudly condemns the alien teaching that man is unable to freely choose good over evil, life over death. This is not a hidden or ambiguous message in the Jewish Scriptures. On the contrary, it is proclaimed in Moses’ famed teachings to the children of Israel.
In fact, in an extraordinary sermon delivered by Moses in the last days of his life, the prophet stands before the entire nation and condemns the notion that man’s condition is utterly hopeless. Throughout this uplifting exhortation, Moses declared that it is man alone who can and must merit his own salvation. Moreover, as he unhesitatingly speaks in the name of God, the lawgiver excoriates the notion that obedience to the Almighty is “too difficult or far off.” According, he declared to the children of Israel that righteousness has been placed within their reach. The thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy discusses this matter extensively, and its verses read as though the Torah is bracing the Jewish people for the Christian doctrines that would confront them in the centuries to come. As the last Book of the Pentateuch draws to a close, Moses admonishes his young nation not to question their capacity to remain faithful to the mitzvoth of the Torah:
…if you will hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law; if you turn unto the Lord thy God with all your heart and with all your soul; for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you neither is it too far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say: “Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it that we may do it?” The word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.(Deuteronomy 30:10-14)
The Jewish people have drawn great comfort and encouragement from this uplifting promise. For the Church, however, Moses’ unwavering message creates a theological disaster. How could the authors of the New Testament reasonably insist that man’s dire condition was hopeless if the Torah unambiguously declared that man possessed an extraordinary ability to remain faithful to God? How could the Church fathers possibly contend that the mitzvoth in the Torah couldn’t save the Jewish people when the Creator proclaimed otherwise? How could missionaries conceivably maintain that the commandments of the Torah are too difficult when the Torah declares that they are “not far off,” “not too hard,” and “you may do it”?
This staggering problem did not escape the attention of Paul. Bear in mind, the author of Romans and Galatians constructed his most consequential doctrines on the premise that man is utterly depraved, and therefore incapable of saving himself through his own obedience to God. In chapter after chapter, he directs his largely gentile audiences toward the cross and away from Sinai, as he repeatedly insists that man is utterly lost without Jesus.
Yet, how could Paul harmonize this wayward theology with the Jewish Scriptures in which his teachings were not only unknown, but thoroughly condemned? Even with the nimble skills that Paul possessed, welding together the Church’s young doctrine of original sin with diametrically opposed teachings of the Jewish Scriptures would not be a simple task.
Employing unparalleled literary manipulation, however, Paul manages to conceal this vexing theological problem with a swipe of his well-worn eraser. In fact, Paul’s innovative approach to biblical tampering was so stunning that it would set the standard of scriptural revisionism for future New Testament authors.
A classic example of this biblical revisionism can be found in Romans 10:8 where Paul proclaims that he is quoting directly from Scripture as he records the words of Deuteronomy 30:14. Yet as he approaches the last portion of this verse, he carefully stops short of the Torah’s vital conclusion and expunges the remaining segment of this crucial verse. In Romans Paul writes,
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach).(Romans 10:8)
Predictably, the last words of Deuteronomy 30:14, “that you may do it,” were meticulously deleted by Paul. Bear in mind that he had good reason for removing this clause – the powerful message conveyed in these closing words rendered all that Paul was preaching as heresy.
This startling misquote in the Book of Romans stands out as a remarkable illustration of Paul’s ability to shape Scriptures in order to create the illusion that his theological message conformed to the principles of the Torah. By removing the final segment of this verse, Paul succeeded in convincing his unlettered gentile readers that his Christian teachings were supported by the principles of the Hebrew Bible.
But the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach)
The question that immediately comes to mind is: How can Paul deliberately remove a vital clause from Moses’ message and still expect to gain a following among the Jewish people? While considering this question, we can begin to understand why Paul attained great success among his gentile audiences and utterly failed among the Jews who were unimpressed with his contrived message.
Although both Paul and Matthew quoted extensively from the Jewish Scriptures, it is for this reason that they achieved a dramatically different result. Paul was largely a minister to gentile audiences who were completely ignorant of the Jewish Scriptures (the only Bible in existence at the time). As a result, they did not possess the skills necessary to discern between genuine Judaism and Bible tampering. These illiterate masses were understandably vulnerable, and as a result, unflinchingly consumed everything that Paul wrote. In fact, throughout the New Testament it was exclusively the Jewish apostates to Christianity who challenged Paul’s authority, never the gentile community. Matthew, on the other hand, directed all of his evangelism and Bible quotes to Jewish audiences.
Jewish people, however, were well aware that Matthew manipulated their Bible. As a result, the first Gospel completely failed to reach its intended Jewish readers. It required little more than a perfunctory reading of the first few chapters in the Book of Matthew for Jewish people to conclude that there was no prophecy in Isaiah that foretold a virgin birth. Likewise, the Jewish people were doubly unimpressed with Matthew’s claim that the messiah was to be a resident of Nazareth, when no such prophecy existed. The people of Israel grasped that Matthew willfully corrupted their sacred Scriptures. Consequently, the author of the first Gospel failed in his effort to convert his targeted Jewish audiences to Christianity.
Ironically, therefore, no individual in history who was more responsible for the strong resistance of the Jewish people to the Christian message than the author of the Book of Matthew. In contrast, the person most responsible for the Church’s unparalleled success among the gentiles was unquestionably the apostle Paul. Not surprisingly, throughout the biblical narrative, gentiles were unable to discern between spiritual chaff and wheat, truth and heresy. Accordingly, the Jews were repeatedly warned never to emulate them. Tragically, some of our people missed this crucial message.
Paul, however, should have been tipped off that his teachings on original sin were misguided, and his broad-brushed characterization of humanity was without merit. In fact, the Jewish Scriptures repeatedly praised numerous men of God for their unwavering righteousness.
For example, the Bible declared that men like Calev1 and King Josiah2 were faithful throughout their extraordinary lives. Moreover, because of their devotion to their Creator, Abraham and Daniel were the objects of the Almighty’s warm affection as He tenderly referred to Abraham as “My friend,”3 and Daniel, “beloved.”4 These extraordinary men of God did not merit these remarkable superlatives because they believed in Jesus or depended on a blood atonement. Rather, Scripture testified to their faithfulness because of their devotion to God and unyielding obedience to His Torah.
Job’s unique loyalty to God stands as a stunning enigma to Christian theology as well. Here was a man who was severely tested by Satan and endured unimaginable personal tragedies, yet despite these afflictions, Job remains the model of the righteous servant of God. While in Christian theology Job’s personal spiritual triumph is a theological impossibility, in Jewish terms it stands out as the embodiment of God’s salvation program for mankind. Job didn’t rely on Jesus to save him and he certainly did not turn to the cross for his redemption; rather, it was his obedience to God that made his life a paradigm for all humanity.
Paul’s unfounded doctrine of original sin sullies the exemplary legacies of these and many other great men of God. Moreover, Christians must ponder whether it is an insult to the Creator to label all of God’s human creation depraved.
Quite unwittingly, Luke committed a striking theological blunder that severely undermined Paul’s teachings on original sin. In the first chapter of The Book of Luke, the evangelist sought to portray Elizabeth, who is the cousin of Mary, and her husband Zechariah, as the virtuous parents of John the Baptist. Yet in his zeal to characterize the baptizer’s mother and father as saints, Luke writes,
“Both of them
[Zechariah and Elizabeth][/Zechariah] were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.”(Luke 1:6)
The question that comes to mind is how can missionaries possibly harmonize Paul’s claim that every person born into the world is a slave to sin, when Luke insists that Elizabeth and Zechariah were to be regarded as “blameless”? This is a stunning gaffe for Luke to make when it was he who eagerly promoted Paul in his Book of Acts. Luke’s assertion that this couple observed “all the Lord’s commandments” radically contradicts Paul’s central teaching that no one is capable of keeping the mitzvoth of the Torah. After all, according to Christian theology, Luke’s claim that Zachariah and Elizabeth were sinless, is untenable. There can be no doubt that in an effort to portray the parents of John the Baptist as saintly – in a similar manner that their cousin Mary was portrayed in the same Gospel – Luke abandoned Christian theology and forged his story to cast Zachariah and Elizabeth as sinless as well.
Paul never lived to read the Book of Luke, yet throughout his epistles Paul sidesteps any statement in the Jewish Scriptures that could undermine his teaching on original sin. For example, immediately after the sin of Adam and Eve is narrated, the Torah declares that man can master his passionate lust for sin. God turns to Cain and warns him,
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? If, though, you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you shall master over it.(Genesis 4:6-7)
For the architects of Christian theology, including Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, this declaration of man’s ability to restrain and govern his lust for sin is nothing short of heresy. Moreover, the fact that the Torah places the comforting promise immediately following the sin in the Garden of Eden is profoundly troubling for the Church. How5 can depraved humanity control its iniquity when the Book of Romans repeatedly insists that man can do nothing to release himself from sin’s powerful grip? Yet notice that there is nothing in the Eden narrative that could be construed as support for Paul’s teaching on humanity’s dire condition. On the contrary, in just these two inspiring verses, the Torah dispels forever the Church’s teachings on original sin.
There is one final point to be addressed in a passing statement you raised in your question. I was somewhat puzzled by your comment that your brand of Christianity teaches that “water baptism is required for the removal of this sin.” It is not uncommon for Christians to relate some personal tidbit about their religious beliefs somewhere in the course of their question. What was so surprising about your comment, however, is that your Church has simply replaced one commandment with another. On the one hand, your Church teaches that the commandments explicitly ordained by the Torah are to be abandoned by believing Christians. Yet in the very same breath, your Church then introduces this brand new commandment declaring that its parishioners must undergo a water baptism to be saved. It would seem more logical that if you were going to observe commandments, you ought to consider devoting your loyalty to those mitzvoth ordained by God, rather than those introduced by your pastor and deacons.
The notion that man is saved by emersion in water, or forgiven through human blood is unknown to the Jewish Scriptures. The Almighty does, however, clearly lay out His sovereign plan for His covenant people when he declares, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) What is this “life” and “good” of which the Torah speaks? Missionaries insist that the Jewish nation must convert to Christianity and believe in a crucified messiah in order to be saved. The Torah, however, disagrees. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the Almighty unambiguously declares that the children of Israel are to draw near to Him with intense love and faithfully keep His commandments. This is the desire of the Creator. Moses beseeches the children of Israel,
I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.(Deuteronomy 30:16)
Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, remained intensely loyal to God’s commandments and, as a result, the Torah regards our first patriarch as the paradigm of faithfulness.
I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands, and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.(Genesis 26:4-5)
The Almighty did not give us desires that we cannot govern or commandments that we could not keep. The Torah was not delivered to angels or animals. It was given to the children of Israel long after our first ancestors transgressed in the Garden of Eden.
Why would God command His people to observe a Torah that He knew we could not keep, promise us that we can full the mitzvos, and then punish us for not being obedient to commandments that we couldn’t keep in the first place? Would any loving parent raise his child that way? With warmth, the prophets of Israel beseech those who lost their way to turn back to the Merciful One.
In Jewish terms, sin is not a person, it’s an event, and that event happened yesterday. Yesterday ended last night, and today is a new day.
Best wishes for a happy Purim.
Very sincerely yours,
Rabbi Tovia Singer