When people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.
From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
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.
“Bible scholar to put Jewish spin on original sin”
On many occasions, my wife has told me that a major difference between Jewish and Christian beliefs is “original sin”. Last summer, I attempted to discuss the Jewish perspective on original sin in a three-part series on this blog, starting with Overcoming Evil. I found that the Jewish presentation of the first “sin” by human beings is remarkably different than that of the church.
The typical Christian perspective is that humankind inherited the initial rebellion of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. As a result, we are all born in a “fallen” state, with the primary desire to do evil. Judaism, by contrast, has a more complex set of beliefs based on the original “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” event. The upshot is that people have an equal capacity for good or evil and that we constantly make choices as to which “inclination” we lean toward. People are neither ultimately good or ultimately evil.
Frankly, even a casual review of human history seems to reveal the nature of the human race as rather dismal, but that’s just my point of view.
The brief interview with Alan Cooper at jweekly.com reveals that the difference in perspective on original sin between Christianity and Judaism may not be based solely on theological understanding.
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?
There’s two things to note here: the choice of how to view basic human nature, and the choice of theological interpretation of the first act of disobedience by people toward God. For the past 2,000 years, Christianity and Judaism have been defining and redefining their viewpoints in relation to each other and tending to present more what separates them as religions rather than what makes them alike. I spent some time talking about this concept of definition and “otherness” in yesterday’s morning meditation. Judaism seems to have a more “optimistic” perspective on human nature while Christianity comes off as decidedly more pessimistic. Yet, as the Cooper interview reveals, those differences may not be all that clear cut.
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.
The fact that even Cooper calls the phrase “pollution of the serpent” surprising seems to indicate that it’s not a concept that is commonly understood in today’s Judaism. Of course, Cooper also points out that 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.”
I’m sure Cooper didn’t intend to address the idea of “Messianic Judaism” or those Jews who claim a faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah within a wholly Jewish context, but his last comments in the interview are extremely relevant to that group.
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?
This continues to illustrate a major separation point between Christians and Jews and a continuing wedge between Jews who are Messianic and the rest of Jewry. Cooper says that he, and by inference any modern religious Jew, would no longer follow the Torah if they came to believe that they were saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. In contrast, many Jews who live as observant religious Jews and who are disciples of Jesus as Messiah, attempt to integrate the core tenants of Christianity while also accepting the Torah lifestyle, seeing grace and law as coexisting rather than mutually exclusive.
If we look at the doctrine of original sin as one that was created to define a difference between Christians and Jews, the question comes up as to whether “original sin” is even valid. It is scripturally based on Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 and according to Wikipedia (quick and dirty research here), “began to be developed by the 2nd-century Bishop of Lyon Irenaeus in his controversy with the dualist Gnostics.”
Apparently, not all Christians accept the idea of original sin and some believe that there is “nothing inherently sinful about our emotions or bodily pleasures. Sin is a commitment to what pleases us without regard to God’s will.” This fits a little better with how Judaism sees original sin, but it also introduces the idea that both Christian and Jewish theology, and particularly the points where they differ, may be driven by the need for Christianity and Judaism to be different from each other, in order to establish their distinctiveness and their separate paths to salvation and to God.
A significant number of the Gentile Christians who align with the Messianic movement do so because they see the church as apostate and pagan and view Messianic Judaism as more “pure” and much more closely aligned with what Jesus originally taught and the worship practice of first century “Jewish Christianity”. In fact, we see that all of our modern religious interpretations have been somewhat muddied by twenty centuries of religious haggling and jockeying for position by Jews and Christians. Even the traditionally observant Jews in the Messianic movement aren’t so much returning to the past as attempting to forge a Jewish future as adherents to the Messiah, and in doing so, defy Cooper’s assertion that praying with tefillin and observing Shabbat are inconsistent with the behavior, teachings, and grace of Christ.
The “antidote to the pollution of the serpent “ for a Messianic Jew or for any Jew is the Torah, but the Torah, however significant, is not meaningful when isolated from faith in God. That faith is exemplified in Abraham and the seed of Abraham, the Messiah, is the living Torah and the reversal of the poison that struck the heel of man in Genesis 3:15. For the non-Jew who does not have Torah, we can still be grafted into the “antidote” by adopting an Abrahamic faith in the Messiah of the Jews who allows us to be accepted by the same grace and to be nurtured by the same love of God (Galatians 3:28).
As fascinating as I find my studies into religion, it is not what I have learned that sustains my faith. It is God speaking to me in the lonely spaces and the empty regions of my soul, when people continually fail and the poison proceeds to work its way through my veins, that enables me to take another step forward, when everything else in the universe tells me to give up.