Q. I know that Christians and Jews share many religious beliefs and are very close to each other in spiritual brotherhood. But Christians basically believe that they are created sinful and unclean and, therefore, need a Redeemer, Jesus, to take the sins of believers on Himself so that they may come to God’s Kingdom when they pass over. Since Jews do not have this Redeemer, how do they become pure enough to enter God’s Kingdom? I realize there is the Law, but human beings, being who and what they are, cannot keep these laws sufficiently to reach purity and freedom from sin. Christians also believe that they are able to receive the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit directs their lives and brings them to true belief in God through Christ. How does Judaism look at the Holy Spirit and is the Holy Spirit considered to be active in bringing Jews to true belief? I can answer this question myself, from a Christian point of view, but that would be a one sided answer. I would very much appreciate learning what Judaism teaches in this matter. Thank you very much.
Answer: You are correct in assuming that most Christians believe in Original Sin, to a greater or lesser degree. As to whether Jesus himself really believed in Original Sin or not, I have serious doubts. In one of the Gospels, we read about how Jesus’ disciples once asked Jesus, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 1:1). However, Jesus gives one of the most profound rabbinical answers imaginable, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3).
As a Jew reading the Gospel narrative, it seems to me that Jesus explicitly disapproved of any idea that man suffers from an inherited sin. By extension, every human fault we are born with serves a spiritual purpose so that we may glorify the Creator despite our natural shortcomings. Nowhere does Jesus ever speak of anything resembling the idea of a prenatal sin.
Now the idea of pre-natal sin is discussed in a number of places in rabbinical literature. In one case, Esau is described as possessing a sinful nature even though he was not yet born. “When Rebecca passed by the pagan shrines, Esau would run and struggle to come out (Gen. Rab. 63:[39c]; Rashi cites this midrash in his commentary on Genesis 25:2). The Talmud in Sanhedrin 91b also discusses the question. “Antoninus also enquired of Rabbi, ‘From what time does the Evil Tempter hold sway over man; from the formation [of the embryo], or from [its] issuing forth [into the light of the world]?! — ‘From the formation,’ he replied. ‘If so,’ he objected, ‘it would rebel in its mother’s womb and go forth. But it is from when it issues.’ Rabbi said: This thing Antoninus taught me, and Scripture supports him, for it is said, At the door [i.e., where the babe emerges] sin lieth in wait” (Gen 4:7). Outside of rabbinical literature, in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, we find that the author writing, “Now I was a child good by nature, and a good soul fell to my lot” (Wisdom 8:19).
In some latter midrashic texts, there is a story told of Elisha Ben Abujah, the famous teacher of Rabbi Meir, who departed from the faith, and became a horrible apostate; and, amongst other reasons of his apostasy, this is rendered for one: “ There are which say, that his mother, when she was big with child of him, passing through a temple of the Gentiles, smelt something very strong, and they gave to her of what she smelt, and she did eat; והרה מפעפע בכריסה כבכריסה של חכינה and the child in the womb grew hot, and swelled blisters, as in the womb of a serpent’ ? Elisha’s apostasy is evidently due to a sin of her mother (Midrash Koheleth and Midrash Ruth, chap. iii. 13).
On the other hand,the belief that a parent’s sins could be visited upon the children is not an altogether foreign notion in the Tanakh. Consider, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 20:5: 34:7, Num. 14:18). Of the wicked man the psalmist says: “May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out” (Psalm 109:14).
Still and all, Jesus takes an altogether different approach from the views expressed by the Sages in both the Talmud and in the Midrash. Jesus in this case rejects the common view that God may have punished the child because of the mother’s sins, even though such an attitude was undoubtedly common among Jesus’ contemporaries.
As a sidebar, it is worth adding that many Christian scholars have considerable doubt as to what Jesus actually said, or didn’t said; the work of the Jesus Seminar is most instructive in this manner. Clearly, the notion that man is born in sin has more to do with the theological teachings of Augustine, who perhaps—with the exception of Paul—developed the Christian doctrine of man and sin probably because of his own inner conflict.