JEWISH TRADITION HAS always emphasized that we are created B’zelem Elohim, in God’s image, and we all have the spark of Divine within us. Thus, Judaism has never seen humans as inherently sinful.
We understand that people can be bad and do evil things, but it is not an instinctive failing in humanity.
Jewish tradition teaches that everyone has a yetzer hara and a yetzer tov, a bad and a good inclination, and from moment to moment we make choices as to how we will act.
Sometimes we let the bad impulse lead us, but that does not make us fundamentally sinful.
In fact, the concept of Original Sin is completely foreign to Jews.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner says in “To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking,” “For Judaism, sin is a deed, not a condition … a sin is not an offense against God, an act of disobedience. A sin is a missed opportunity to act humanely.”
The Hebrew word for sin is “chet,” an archery term which means to miss the mark.
When one misses the target, one can try again and correct the error.
The most important way to make amends for a wrongdoing is to go to the person(s) we have hurt and sincerely apologize.
If we have broken an essential rule given in the Torah, we offer our repentance to God, but we cannot ask God to forgive us for a wrong committed against another person.
How would it help someone if we quietly ask God for forgiveness, and they never know? It might be easier for us and make us feel good, but it doesn’t give them closure.
It is sometimes assumed that the idea of Original Sin is a part of all faith traditions, especially the Abrahamic ones, which is not the case.
So where did this idea begin?
It developed from the creation story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. The story teaches that their disobedience in eating an apple, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, caused them to be expelled from the Garden.
In Romans 5:12, 18-19, Paul put forth the idea that all humans inherited Adam’s sin.
There was little elaboration of this concept until the second century when Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, taught that Adam’s sin was the source of human sinfulness, mortality and enslavement to sin, and all human beings participate in his sin and share his guilt.
Augustine went further, arguing that all humans inherit Adam’s sin, and as sinners, humans are utterly depraved in nature, lack the freedom to do good and cannot respond to the will of God without divine grace.
By the fourth century CE, the story of Adam and Eve had become the story of a fall from grace that could only be redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The story evolved into one of the devil working through woman to bring down man and all humanity, thus tainting everyone with Original Sin.
The serpent is identified explicitly with Satan in the New Testament book of Revelation, being called “the ancient serpent.”
In Judaism, there is no devil, no evil being that has independent agency. Satan is merely a fallen angel under God’s direction.
In all the discussion of apples, the devil and sin in the telling of the Garden of Eden story, it is interesting to note that there were no apples (the fruit was probably either a fig or pomegranate) in the Near East, no mention of the devil and sin is not discussed until the fourth chapter of Genesis, when the story of Cain and Abel is told.
As Jews begin to prepare for the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pledge to make changes in our lives and start anew.
We approach those we have hurt and apologize, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we ask for forgiveness for any sins we may have committed against God and the community as a whole.
Since we are created B’ztelem Elohim, we pray directly to God, needing no intermediary to intercede for us.
After these Days of Awe, we begin reading the Torah all over again, starting with Bereishit, the first portion in Genesis, which tells the story of Creation and the Garden of Eden. Bereishit, means “in a beginning,” a fitting way to start our new year.
The Kabbalists say that as beings with the spark of Divine within us, we can bring about the repair of our world and return it to the harmonious one God intended.
Thus the gates to the Garden will open to us again, creating paradise here on earth.
It’s up to us.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.