Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography podcast:
One of the major philosophical differences I have noted between Christianity and Judaism is our concept of the nature of man, what he is capable of, and what he needs in order to elevate himself above the darker aspects of his nature.
When I first encountered this difference I was skeptical. I was educated from a strong Jewish perspective, so I was aware that anything anybody said about Christianity was sure to cast it in a negative light. Therefore, I thought that maybe those who had taught me about this aspect of Christianity had been exaggerating it. But the more I learned about the fundamental principles of Christianity, the more I realized that this difference does exist; and that maybe the fact that I see it as a negative aspect attests to how deeply ingrained the opposite idea is in my belief system.
The root of the disagreement is in how we interpret the results of what Christians call the Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve.
Both Christians and Jews agree that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it fundamentally changed the nature of man, his purpose and goals, and the nature of the world in which he lived. We also both believe that the sin caused some kind of intermingling, or “tainting,” of humankind with evil. But what Christians believe this means is that man can never redeem himself from his inherent evil; that it is part of his essence, from which he can never escape on his own. The only way to redeem oneself from it, Christianity says, is “salvation through Christ.” That is, that God manifested Himself in His son–Jesus–who then suffered and died on the cross to atone for that original sin. All you have to do to redeem yourself from evil, then, is to accept Jesus. (Obviously, different streams of Christianity have different ideas about exactly how to do that and what it means, but that’s the basic idea.) That way, God will grant you salvation and grace.
It took me years and a lot of reading to fully wrap my head around that concept, because it is just so foreign to me.
So here’s what Jews believe about the sin of Adam and Eve.
The Tree of Knowledge is actually not exactly an accurate translation of what the tree is called in Genesis. In the text, it is called “עץ הדעת טוב ורע,” “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the word for “knowledge,” “דעת,” does not simply mean “knowledge” as in wisdom, awareness, understanding, or the retention of information. “דעת” implies a deep intermingling, synthesis, and connection. When the Torah says a man “knew” his wife and then she became pregnant, it’s not just a euphemism; “knowledge” in that context is describing a deep connection. A more accurate translation of the name of the tree, then, would be “the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.”
So the effect of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil was not simply to give man “knowledge,” but to cause an intertwining of good and evil within man. Before eating from the fruit of the Tree, evil did not exist within man. It was embodied in the snake, which was an external source of doubt and rebellion against God.
In Judaism we have a concept of the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination”–yetzer tov and yetzer ra respectively. This is what we call these opposite forces that exist within us, the yetzer tov pulling us to strive for Godliness, and the yetzer ra pulling us towards our base desires. We believe that man lives with a constant conflict between these inclinations. The real essence of our soul, our higher self, is really the yetzer tov; that is how God originally created us. The yetzer ra was the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree. It was no longer externalized as the snake. It became an integral part of the nature of Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit.
Our goal, our purpose, in life and in the world, is to overcome the yetzer ra–first within ourselves, and then outside ourselves, in the world at large. We believe that man is capable of this–that indeed, this is the mission God endowed us as people and especially as Jews. We do not need God’s salvation to overcome the evil within us, Judaism says. It is a constant struggle, but we believe that our job is to do it ourselves.
That said, God does help us out in a number of ways. The most important way, according to Judaism, was the giving of the Torah. The Torah is essentially a guidebook on overcoming the yetzer ra on a personal and societal level, and that is really the purpose of the mitzvot–to help us attain that goal. That is why the Torah is represented in the Garden of Eden, and later symbolically referred to, as the Tree of Life. The “fruits” of the Torah–the mitzvot–are the antidote to the fruits of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.
Jews and Christians agree that there were additional punishments God gave Adam and Eve because of their sin. He banished them from the Garden of Eden; he made them mortal; he cursed both Adam and Eve with the difficulty of labor–Adam, laboring for bread, and Eve, laboring for children. My interpretation of the significance of these punishments is that they were direct consequences of the synthesis of good and evil within man. God created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon it. But now, because good and evil were hopelessly intertwined, man would have to work hard to overcome the evil and attain the Godliness that he was created to receive. He could no longer sit in paradise and bask in God’s light. He needed to search for it and work for it, in a world where it was no longer obvious and tangible.
While this sounds like quite a bummer, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points something out in his work, “A World of Love,” that reveals the unique power of a world in which good and evil can mingle. In the spiritual world, he says, proximity is determined by similarity. That is, if we wish to become close to God spiritually, we must become more like Him. The less we are like Him, the farther away from Him we are. By that understanding, in the spiritual world, nothing could possibly be farther away from good than evil. They are completely opposite and therefore can never engage with one another.
But spiritual matter can be anchored to physical matter–such as a soul to a body. And in the physical world, things that are evil can exist in very close proximity to things that are good. In that sense, then, this world, in which good and evil intermingle, is the only place where good can overcome evil. Our world is sort of a battleground between these two opposite forces, and we, human beings, are the soldiers on either side; it is up to us to choose which side. This battle wages within our hearts, but as you can clearly see, it also wages fiercely outside us, between different groups of humans who are making different choices about how to relate to the good and evil within themselves.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas more deeply, I highly recommend giving “A World of Love” a slow and careful read. It can be read online in its entirety here, or you can buy a copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “If You Were God,” which includes this essay along with “If You Were God” (which I have referenced before and is also mind-blowing) and “Immortality of the Soul.”
But for now, back to human nature according to Judaism and Christianity.
The reason I was inspired to write about this was a little post on Brain Pickings about Dr. Viktor Frankl. Now, if you have never heard of this man or his iconic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning“… well then I don’t even know what to do with you because if anyone on earth should have read that book it’s you! Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp with a focus on his observations regarding the effect of the inmates’ attitudes on their survival, and goes on to describe the psychotherapeutic method he developed as a result of his observations, which he called “logotherapy.” His overarching idea is that more than anything else, man strives for a sense of purpose and meaning to his life, and that when he feels that his life has meaning, he can withstand even the most horrific conditions. And no one is more qualified than a survivor of Auschwitz to attest to that.
…Seriously. If you haven’t read it, get on that, pronto. It’s pretty short.
Anyway, the post on Brain Pickings brought a five-minute video excerpted from a lecture of Dr. Frankl’s, in which he says, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him… we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way–because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”
No wonder the Nazis tried to get rid of him. What a quintessentially Jewish idea.
Humans are not static; we are constantly evolving. You can’t give a precise measurement of a person’s goodness or potential, because these things are in constant flux. And when we believe in each other and in ourselves, believe that we are all capable of being better than we currently are, we create a supportive reality for ourselves to actually attain that potential. In essence, he is saying that the higher our expectations and hopes for ourselves, the higher we can reach.
That is why I find the Christian concept of the Original Sin and the inherent sinfulness of man so discouraging. Because in a sense, Christianity is telling us that we cannot make ourselves more than we are; only God can do that. And I much prefer to believe that I have the ability to overcome my darker nature and become a better person. But I can see something comforting in the Christian idea, too. When you don’t have the capacity to redeem yourself of sin, you don’t have that responsibility, either. You can (and indeed, must) hand it over to the priest, or to Jesus, or to God. We Jews don’t have that option. We have to take full responsibility for ourselves and our natures. A rabbi can only council us, he can’t absolve us of sin. God will only cleanse us of sin if we are willing to change ourselves, as I explained in my letter on teshuva. We must constantly struggle, believing that we have the capacity to overcome. This (among many other things!) makes Judaism a much more challenging and demanding approach to life. And obviously I am totally biased, but in my view–it’s well worth it. The reward of achieving something you have worked for is sweeter than any gift someone could give you.
ETA: Josep wishes to register his indignation at the very suggestion made in this post that he may not have read Man’s Search for Meaning. 😉 It was assigned as required reading when he was in middle school, around the time they took him to see Schindler’s List, and he remembers it as an extremely emotionally harrowing read.