Project Genesis

Doctrine of “Original Sin” & Psalm 51:7

Question: I am curious as to what David is referring to when he says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” More specifically, I know Judaism does not believe in the “original sin” doctrine of Christianity, so what would be the reply to one who claims that this verse supports that doctrine?

Answer: Thank you for the insightful question. You are absolutely correct in your understanding that Judaism does not subscribe to the “original sin” doctrine in the way Christianity professes to. In order to understand the verse in question, it must be taken in the context it was written. This paragraph of Psalms is a discussion of man’s need to repent. The verse is written as a clarification of why each individual must be prepared to change the manner in which they have lived. As such, there are two primary ways to understand this verse: A) A parent passes their spiritual stature on to their children, much the same way they pass their genetic make-up on. As such, all human beings have an innate spiritual gene pool that carries the iniquities of their parents. That is, they are created with sin (the letter used to indicate ‘in’ can also mean ‘with’), meaning a proclivity towards sin. B) Alternatively, man is created with two distinct parts, soul and body. Each has natural tendencies towards opposite pursuits. The soul tends towards spiritual endeavors and anything that will bring it closer to God. The body, being purely physical, has desires and tendencies to purely physical pursuits. The latter can be directed towards spiritual goals, and thus satisfy both parts of the human being. However, the physical drives are present at conception, while the conscious awareness of the spiritual drives only comes later. As a result, King David writes that man is brought forth with iniquity (driving him towards sin).

Question: Just to clarify, do you subscribe to Reason “B” as being the Jewish interpretation of Psalm 51:7 and reject Reason “A” as being a Christian proof text for the doctrine of “original sin”? If “B” is the correct interpretation, then are all human beings subject to a body that drives them toward sin, simply by natural conception/birth? Is this bodily tendency toward sin unavoidable or do we have “free will” to choose whether or not we will commit our “first” sin, as well as choosing whether we will allow our soul to draw close to God? I am asking these questions in light of Deuteronomy 24:16 which indicates that one is only punished for their own sins, and not for those of their ancestors or progeny. Thank you again for your time.

Thank you again. Your question shows a thirst to understand. Both reasons “A” and “B” are based in traditional Jewish thought. Reason “A” is based on the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known as Rashi, (1040-1150 CE)). Rashi is considered the fundamental Jewish commentary on the Bible. Reason “B” is based on the commentary of Rabbi Meir Leibush, the Malbim, (1809-1879). Although I understand the initial tendency to understand Rashi as subscribing to the Christian theology of “original sin”, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As you sited in your follow up question, Deuteronomy 24:16 clearly indicates that no person is ever punished for their parents’ sins. However, that does not preclude the fact that who our parents are at the time we are conceived has an impact on who we are. That is, there is no accountability for the fact that I may have been created with a certain spiritual disadvantage, but I should, nonetheless, strive to be aware of this “baggage” in order to help in my striving for self-understanding and growth. It is impossible to change or improve without fully understanding what makes me tick!

With regards to the Malbim, he is not removing the concept of free choice. On the contrary, he is simply explaining the parameters of the possibility of free choice. (See Nefesh HaChayim, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin [1749-1821]) That is, in order for a “choice” to be made, there must be an equal possibility of either eventuality. If I enter a scenario with a distinct proclivity to one side over the other, I have no real choice to make. As human beings, we are initially aware of our bodies alone. Thus a child is not held accountable for the actions they do prior to coming of age. The choice is not real. After that point, maturity and development creates an awareness that allows choice. The body is clearly driven by one side of the coin, while the soul by the other.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

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