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Why Don’t Jews Believe in Original Sin?

This is a delicate question, as it exposes one of the fundamental differences between the Christian outlook and the Jewish one.

As far as I understand the Christian concept, it runs something like this: Ever since the expulsion of the first man and woman from Eden, the world has been “fallen” and all subsequent human beings have been born inherently sinful, guilty from the moment of birth as a result of the first man’s disobedience of G-d’s commandment not to eat of the ‘Etz haDa‘ath Tov vaRa -- usually translated “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The only way to escape condemnation and eternal damnation for this inherently sinful nature is to accept the blood sacrifice of the Christian savior. In this fashion one can gain salvation, purely as an act of Divine grace, without dessert or merit on the part of the human being.

To my mind, there is a basic flaw in this reasoning. Christians often picture Jews as believing in a dour, harshly judgmental “Old Testament” G-d, despite dozens of statements in Tanach (the proper name for what Christians call the “Old Testament”) expressing G-d’s love of Israel and indeed, all humanity. They juxtapose this to the “loving G-d” of the “New Testament.” This invites the question: What about the billions of human beings who were born and lived their lives without knowing anything whatsoever about the Romans’ execution of a carpenter in Judaea some 2,000 years ago? If G-d is indeed rachum vechanun, “merciful and gracious,” as the Bible asserts (cf. Exodus XXXIV ,6), how could He allow such a state of affairs to go on?

This view of an inherently evil world is often expressed in almost Manichaean terms, with the world dominated by an evil being -- “the Devil,” “Satan,” a “fallen angel” -- in opposition to G-d.

So what, in fact, do Jews believe?

Consider the terms tov and ra, conventionally translated, as I wrote before, as “good” and “evil.” At every stage of the world’s creation, G-d pronounced it tov before proceeding to the next stage. On the creation of mankind, He pronounced it tov me’od (“very good”), and there is no indication thereafter that He changed his mind.

Ra does not actually mean “evil” in the English sense of the word. Some glimmering of its actual meaning can be ascertained from some of the other ways that the root is used. For instance, in Psalms II, 9 King David beseeches G-d to deal with his enemies: Tero‘em beshevet barzel (“You should smash them with an iron rod”), or in Isaiah XXIV, 19 the prophet begins his description of an earthquake: Ra’o hithro‘a‘a ha’aretz ("the Earth is completely shaken”). From these, we can see that it means something like “unstable, broken, dysfunctional” and therefore “bad.”