A substantial chunk of people alive today are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve. The motifs and concepts evoked by its imagery are incredibly powerful, and the lessons it imparts convey deep meaning. Yet ask what those lessons are, and you’ll probably hear a lot of different answers.
Consider this. When Adam ate the fruit, the original sin (itself a gargantuan motif) – how did it change him?
It is hard to overstate how enormously consequential both the question and answer are.
In Christianity, the Augustine school taught that man’s original sin fundamentally corrupted the state of humanity from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience, the fall of man. Humans are bad and sinful, and we can’t do anything but hope God saves us.
To Judaism, the Augustine theory is untenable and poses insurmountable theological problems, and so it is critically important to reject it entirely. If a human is fundamentally sinful or bad by nature, then not only is sin inevitable, but the idea of religion or morality is a cruel joke. It turns God into a grotesque caricature – how could a just and fair God punish us for sinning if doing right is simply beyond our power? If humans can’t choose to be good, there’s no free will, and so no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them. If you are fundamentally bad, then it’s not your fault, because being good is impossible. Interestingly, a theologian named Pelagius noted these objections and was excommunicated as an arch-heretic for well over a thousand years.
The proper Jewish perspective is that humans are untainted by original sin and freely capable of choosing between good and evil. The idea of free choice underpins all the laws and stories of the entire Torah. Arguably, it underpins the entire idea of creation – as much as the almighty God could want anything from an as puny thing as a human, what could we even do for God if we don’t have the ability to choose?
More fundamentally, the idea that humans are bad and sinful in a perpetual state of evil that is somehow separate from God or God’s master plan, is a form of dualism. Dualism is the belief in two opposed powers, which borders on idolatry, contrasted with monotheism, the belief in one singular power.
As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, dualistic thinking is immature and dangerous, because it means all bad things are caused by a thing God hates, or the enemy of God, or Satan. In ourselves, it causes terrible and unwarranted guilt and shame, and in societies, it causes fractious rifts among people, who see each other as the enemy and the other.
R’ Shimon Bar Yochai suggested that if God wanted to give the Torah to humans, then God might have created humans with two mouths; one for words of Torah and holiness, and one for talking and eating. The implicit presupposition of the question is that maybe dualism is the correct view, and we ought to protect good from evil. Yet we know we only have one mouth, for all the good and bad things we can do, because dualism is the wrong way to look at the world.
We’re not supposed to be angels – God isn’t short of them and doesn’t need our help making more. We might not be much, but we’re precisely what we’re supposed to be. Maybe we have an aspect or inclination to do the wrong thing sometimes or perhaps often – יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. But it’s not that we are essentially and intrinsically bad; it’s still just an inclination – a יֵצֶר. This is arguably the point of the flood story, which begins and ends with God lamenting how bad people can be. It’s not that humans stopped being bad; it’s that God recognizes that human badness is inseparable from the other things God wants from us. We can learn to resist and even overcome this inclination, which is the entire point of creation, of Judaism, and the Torah.
In fact, one of the most influential ideas in Judaism, mentioned in the book of Job and popularized by the Baal Shem Tov, is the idea that our souls are a small fragment of godliness, and God as well in some sense – חלק אלוה ממעל. This motif is formidable – not only is God a piece of us but equally, we are a piece of God.
There is a part of the soul, whatever it may be, that is fundamentally pure and incorruptible – אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא.
Adam sinned, sin exists, and we make mistakes. But it’s not that we are bad because of dualism; it’s because of the duality of all things. What changed wasn’t that Adam became bad, but in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became more knowledgeable and aware of good and evil.
There is a little bit of something in everything. In the good, there is some bad, and in the bad, there is some good. There is fullness in the emptiness, sadness in the happiness. They are complementary parts of a reciprocal interaction that are present in all things, including ourselves.
We take the good with the bad.