Rabbi Soloveitchk on Original Sin

At this point, as I mentioned before, I am more than a year behind in posts. Last September (2011), I gave a talk at another university on how to formulate similarity and difference between Judaism and Christianity as not just same or different. When I got home, the Dvar Toah of the week was from Rav Hershel Schachter on Original Sin. I had payed attention to Rav Soloveitchik’s use of the term before but it seemed stranger in the current context. So I collected some sources and am just getting to it now. In Lonely Man of Faith and From There you Shall Seek he has allusions, however in The Emergence of Ethical Man the topic is presented fully.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has as one of his background premises that “If not for sin then experience of God would be without disappointment. Instead, life after the Fall is one of defeat, resignation, and struggle.

What was wrong with the choice to eat from the tree if it is referred to as good? He suggests that the concept of “good” can mean two very different qualities: good as an ethical quality and good in the esthetic sense. In the Fall, “[t]he ethical motif collided with the orgaistic esthetic one and was defeated.” In other words, to be fully human is to be able to choose between the esthetic and the ethical- and the wrong choice, sensuality “unhallowed by ethical appraisal” constitutes “sin.” While Christianity suggests that man is forever tainted by this sin, Soloveitchik sees them as the beginnings of man’s split personality. Man’s ethical side is his “prosecutor-judge” that seeks to correct his esthetic side.

In another place, however, Soloveitchik explains that, “The Biblical account of the original sin is the story of a man of faith who realizes suddenly that faith can be utilized for an acquisition of majesty and glory and who, instead of fostering a covenantal community, prefers to organize a political utilitarian community….The history of organized religion is replete with instances of desecration of the covenant.”

The Emergence of Ethical Man

The Emergence of Ethical Man is in many ways it is responding to and building upon the book The Divine Imperative by the Christian neo-orthodox thinker Emil Brunner. (see my Van Leer paper- here)

In this work, Rabbi Soloveitchik has a unique approach to sin, one not commonly seen in Judaism. Soloveitchik acknowledges the doctrine of Original Sin, and incorporates it at length into his philosophy of the nature of man. The Original Sin, is important not because it separates man from God (as it is in Christianity), but because it presents an alternate view of God, a demonic God-a gnostic reality.

Before the serpent, Adam and Eve perceived God correctly as the cosmic Creator, and worked alongside Him in the Garden of Eden with His direction and guidance. With the serpent, doubt is cast upon God’s actions and motives, making God demonic. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “The experience of God, according to the serpent, is demonic, uncanny, weird. Man should not fear God but should shudder or feel horror before Him…God is not the friend but the fiend…if man wants to gain freedom, he must rebel against Him and throw off His yoke.”

This mistaken view is an unforgivably primitive view of God. It denies the divine attributes and makes God less than the creator of the universe. This is the importance of Original Sin. (Generally, the Divine attribute for Soloveitchik are taken to be creativity, freedom, and self-transformation.)

For Soloveitchik, this sin did not corrupt man or make him into an unplanned part of creation. Rather, it divided him. “The paradoxical tragedy did not consist in a metaphysical metamorphosis…sin did not corrupt man but split him.”
Therefore, Judaism is not in the business of saving man from sin, but correcting that gap. But there is a continuously present gap to be corrected.

“When man frees himself from such natural [moral] bonds, he loses contact with his God” Citing pre-Vatican II opinion, he writes: “Christianity has been bent upon a transcendental adventure, namely, to free man from his bondage to the flesh and raise him to a spiritual level. Judaism, in contrast, proclaims the goodness of the whole of man, of the natural”. “Christianity viewed instinct as corrupt and sinful; man’s divine essence asserts itself in his spirit, which is always in a state of war with the flesh. Judaism rehabilitates the flesh…attaching the quality of divine image to the biological forces in man”

Emil Brunner in his Divine Imperative describes the distinct separation between man and God brought on by Original Sin. “Sin has caused a cleavage in human life which runs right through all that is human.” Brunner also thinks this sin pits man against God, where “God is only an alien Power, which forces him from the outside.” Soloveitchik and Brunner agree that there was a perversion of God’s divine attributes with Original Sin, and that what is completely holy is now perceived to be unholy by those who rebel against Him.

Even though the ability to be in communion with God as we were created has changed, our nature and desire to do so have not. We are still designed to worship, and will do so, “either God or an idol.” Sin has become a burden for all of mankind, since for Brunner, it is present in our very being, and is perpetuated daily when we create a false God in our lives instead of worshiping Him.

Man was created in the image of God and with the express purpose of being in community with God. “The distinctive character of man, in contrast to the rest of creation, is based upon the fact that he is designed for freedom-in-God, for a personal existence which is distinct from God, and yet dependent upon Him.” Original Sin not only forced us out of this community, but removed the very basis of our existence.

Soloveitchik acknowledges the difference of approach to the nature of man in relation to sin between Christianity and Judaism in his book. He writes:

Historical sin, punishment and reward are original Jewish ideas. Just as the natural individual is responsible for his own deeds, the group bears responsibility for the sins of the past. This is not to be equated with hereditary sin. The latter, as developed by Christian thinkers, is a metaphysical, objective quality, inherent in human natural existence. Historical sin signifies a historical category, which asserts itself in historical continuity. The individual is not guilty of sins perpetuated by past generations. The historical group is responsible for historical errors and sins committed by the fathers, because the latter repeat their existence in their descendants.

Sin still corrupts man’s nature according to Soloveitchik, because the current generation shares the memory and therefore the responsibility of the wrongs from the past generations. In Christianity, sin is a change in human nature, one that is internalized in all of us. In Judaism, it is a repeated action, one in which all man partakes- similar to Buber or Frued.

Sin not only affects the relationship of man to God, but man to the natural world around him. Both Brunner and Soloveitchik see man playing a critical role in God’s created world. Both Brunner and Soloveitchik outright reject the popular thought that man is nothing more than just an animal. Rather, we have a Divine imperative to live a life of dignity and majesty. “God has not created us as angels, but as human beings of flesh and blood, human beings who can only manage to live their life in a human way by means of marriage and the family, civilization and culture, by means of the State and the system of law.”

This is done with more of an eschatological mindset than Judaism professes, as Brunner states this work is to be done to further the New Kingdom that God will bring.

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees man more in continuity with the current natural world around him. Man is a part of creation, and therefore intended to be a part of it. However, man is also separate from the rest of nature, because God specifically charges him to be a co-participant in the world He has created, and imprints Tzelem Elokim, the divine presence on him. As both part of creation but also separate, man is to strive to imitate God, both as a creator and as a participant in creation. Regardless of the sinful situation, this is still the goal of all man.

Brunner and Soloveitchik approach the topic of ethics differently because they see the role of man in creation differently. For Soloveitchik, man is free to do what he wants, and needs to actualize this ability. The Jewish ethical man is one who strives to co-participate with God in the divine. While Original Sin did derail this mandate, there are still mechanisms in place to return man to God, namely the covenant made through Abraham and completed in Moses. In Abraham, God chose one man to be His friend. This relationship involved Abraham leaving his family and society in order for God to create a bond that did not and could not exist in the world. Abraham accepted this friendship with God, because he is then engaging in his own freedom to be a part of the ethical covenant God is creating.

From context, it is clear that in the original lecture, Soloveitchik used the word kerygmatic and not charismatic. Abraham and Moses teaching ethical norms is an act of kerygma not charisma.

This covenant is fulfilled in the work and life of Moses. Moses introduces a new role of agent, representing man to God and God to man. Through Moses, God is able to provide redemption for His people, bringing them out of Egypt and establishing His Law with a people. God provides the ethical norms that He started through creation and provides the means to have man participate once again in this plan.

Brunner’s Christian approach has a much stronger focus on the impact of sin. Man is enslaved to sin, and is in need of a special grace. This grace is offered through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. For Brunner, the completion of God’s plan is not seen in the covenant of Moses, but Christ.

Being “good” means imitating God, a thought both Brunner and Soloveitchik can agree to.

The Christian ethical man is therefore concerned with his conduct here in the world, because they are the physical actions of God. For him, the whole of ethics is concerned with God’s action in and through man. The Jewish ethical man is concerned with his conduct here in the world, because they are autonomous application of the ethical norms know through the actions of God


Both faiths share the Biblical language of missing the mark (het), transgression (averah), guilt (asham), and debt (hove). Both religions have all four but Judaism emphasizes the former two over the latter. Judaism also use rebellion (mered) in its narrative and liturgy. And Jews use direct courtroom imagery. In almost all cases, Jews avoided the language of Original Sin.

Linward Urban in his History of Christian Theology lists several components of a Western doctrine of sin.

1. God’s Creation is perfect but humans in that they are not perfect have imperfections
2. Adam sinned for all humanity.
3. After the sin human nature could no longer see the truth.
4. Therefore we have bruised and damaged nature- we are perverted and distorted.
5. All humans have guilt that has to be removed.

In general, traditional Jewish thought accepted 1-3 but rejected 4-5. Thinkers as diverse as Hasdai Crescas, Eliezer Berkovits, Leo Baeck and Paul Ricouer repeat the truism that Judaism does not have original sin.
Many Kabbalists also accept #4.
The midrash that we all have guilt from the Original Sin and Mt. Sinai removes our lustful fallen nature is a lone Rabbbinic opinion that works with #5.
Rabbi Solovetichik makes a point of accepting #4 and has an interesting version of #5 where the human condition repeats itself and has a covenantal method of removing the sin. Historical repetition replaces heredity.

Rav Schachter’s version

I was taken that Rav Schachter maintains the language of original sin used by his teacher. Yet, he says it does not play a major role. The function of discussing sin is to teach us that we make mistakes through desire or social pressure. The opening also seems to imply we make mistakes because we are not truly conversant with Torah. Gone is the human struggle with defeat, resignation, and futility before the cosmos.

This version lack the fallen nature of humanity taught by Rabbi Soloveitchik. More importantly, Rabbi Schachter advocates illumination through laws of the Torah in place of Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophic Imitatio Dei (On this point, see the classic but still timely article of Lawrence Kaplan, “Revisionism and the Rav”)This version has no mistaken views of God, no dichotomy in human nature, and no unredeemed human anthropology. This version also lack Rav Soloveitchik’s condemnation of the utilitarian and social approach to life.

Many issues in this world are very unclear just like in the middle of dark night; there are mitzvos that people think are really aveiros and there are aveiros that people consider to be mitzvos (see the hakdama of Mesilas Yesharim). Without illumination granted by Hashem through the laws of the Torah, we will remain “in the dark”. Rosh Hashonah for Adam ha’rishon was his day of kabbolas haTorah.

According to the tradition recorded in the midrash, Adam ha’rishon sinned on that very same first day that he was created. He was judged and punished on the same day and Hashem notified him that just as I have judged you on this day, so too will I judge your descendants in all future generations on this day.

The story of the “original sin” does not really play a significant role in Jewish theology. It was recorded in the Torah, however, to teach us certain aspects about sin that are relevant to all of us today.

The reason Adam and Chava could not control themselves and sinned by eating from the eitz ha’daas is because the fruit seemed so delicious and appealing..

When Hashem confronted Adam ha’rishon and told him that he would be punished for having sinned, He says… Chava coaxed her husband to eat along with her from the forbidden fruit by crying in front of him. Very often we sin because we give in to social pressure.

On Rosh Ha’shonah and all year long we should take to heart the details of the original sin and realize that it simply does not make sense to violate the mitzvot of the Torah.
Read the Rest Here

2 responses to “Rabbi Soloveitchk on Original Sin

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    A very iluminating analysis. It seems to me, however, that while in EEM the Rav, as you have so clearly shown, was influenced by Brunner, in his view of orignal sin in LMF, “Confrontation,” and Worship of the Heart he folllows Hermann Cohen’s interpretation of Guide 1: 2, acording to whom Maimonides is asserting that man’s sin consisted in the abandonment of the intellectual-ethical for the esthetic. I have discussed this in my “Letter to the Editor” in TUMJ 14. Indeed, as I noted there, Professor Avi Ravitzky relates that he once asked the Rav in private oonversation why he favored this interpretation of the Guide, and his first response was “This is the way Hermann Cohen explains it.” In any event, thank you for debunking the popular notion that “original sin” is necessarily a non-Jewish Christian concept.

    • Thanks
      Do you have handy the relevant parts of your “Letter to the Editor” in TUMJ 14?
      Do you think the Cohen and Brunner versions complement each other or are in tension?
      What is your estimated year for the writing of EEM?

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