It’s widely assumed that Jews do not believe in the doctrine of original sin. The notion that infants are born carrying the burden of Eve’s taking a bite of forbidden fruit is considered one of the main theological distinctions between Jews and Christians.
But Alan Cooper, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, says it’s not that simple. In San Francisco for the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference, Cooper will discuss various Jewish approaches to the question at a Monday, Nov. 21 talk at Congregation Emanu-El.
His talk — titled “Do Jews Believe in Original Sin?” — is the synagogue’s annual Arthur G. Weiser Lecture for Interfaith Understanding.
In a phone call, Cooper provided a taste of what he’ll be speaking about.
Q: What exactly is the doctrine of original sin?
A: It’s a question related to the perfection of creation. If the first humans were created without blemish or sin, then they’re entirely responsible for the fall, in which case you can’t blame God.
Another reading is that God created a latent potential for both good and evil, and it’s up to us which we’ll activate. That’s a stereotypical view of an important difference between Judaism and Christianity, with the latter view ascribed to Judaism.
Q: How did you come to be interested in the notion of original sin as it relates to Judaism?
A: Ever since I’ve been teaching at Jewish seminaries, one of my principal responsibilities has been to teach traditional Jewish biblical commentary, both in the early rabbinic period, and even more so in the medieval and early modern periods. What stands out is that Jews are always processing external influences, either attacking or internalizing them, or somehow adapting them in what the late Gershom Scholem called “creative assimilation.”
One of the most interesting features of traditional Jewish thought is the question of limits. What can you adapt from your environment and where do you draw the line? The doctrine of original sin is a peculiar case of something that is sometimes attacked and sometimes adapted.
When Jews nowadays ask themselves what are the basic ideological differences between Judaism and Christianity, one of the most prominent differences that many Jews will cite is the doctrine of original sin, which really gets down to basic anthropology. What is basic human nature according to Jewish teaching and according to Christian teaching, and what are the religious consequences of adopting one view or the other?
Q: Is it accurate to say that Jews do not believe in original sin?
A: It’s unfair to characterize a uniform Jewish view on just about any topic. As soon as you start talking about different periods [in history], it’s almost impossible to answer any question unless you specify what Jews, where and when. Essentially, uniformity of Jewish thought is impossible to find.
Q: How are notions of original sin relevant to the average “Jew in the pew”?
A: While the theological or philosophical debates don’t necessarily engage the average “Jew in the pew,” I think that most people are curious about human nature. Is it essentially good, evil or neither? And why is it the way it is? At a moment when traditional explanations of good and evil are being challenged by the insights of neuroscience, it’s worth considering whether the religious accounts retain their value and utility.
Q: Can references to original sin be found in Jewish textual sources?
A: There are a couple places in the Talmud where it’s asked, “When did the pollution of the serpent cease?” The very phrase “pollution of the serpent” is surprising, and is probably reflective of what it would mean if Jews were to adopt a Christian premise of human nature.
Even if we agree with Christians that humankind was born in a state of grace, fell, and now requires divine salvation, where we find that salvation is very different. For Christians, it’s Christ, and for Jews, it’s Torah. The Christians tell the Jews that the law doesn’t save you, and the rabbis say that, in fact, the law is the only thing that can save you. The only antidote to the pollution of the serpent is Torah.
If I go over to the other side and accept Jesus and I’m saved, why would I keep putting on tefillin and observing Shabbat?
Alan Cooper will lecture on “Do Jews Believe in Original Sin?” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St, S.F. Free. www.emanuelsf.org.