This is my final post on Burton Visotzky’s Golden Bells and Pomegranates.
On pages 165-167, Visotzky (if I’m reading him correctly) interprets Leviticus Rabbah 14:5 as a veiled attack on the Christian doctrines of original sin, the virgin birth, the immaculate conception, and Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Here’s Leviticus Rabbah 14:5, from whatever translation my Judaic Classics Library is using:
Another exposition: IF A WOMAN PRODUCE OFFSPRING. etc. This is alluded to in what is written, Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity (Ps. LI, 7). (Awon (iniquity) is spelt plene). R. Aha said: Even if one be the most pious of the pious, it is impossible that he have no streak of iniquity in him. David said before the Holy One, blessed be He: O Lord of the Universe! Did my father Jesse have the intention of bringing me into the world? Why, his intention was his own enjoyment; the proof for this is that after they had accomplished their desire, he turned his face in one direction and she turned her face in the opposite direction, and it was Thou that didst cause every single drop [of semen] to enter, and this is what David meant when he said, For though my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord did gather me in (Ps. XXVII, 10). And in het did my mother concave me (ib. LI, 7). R. Hiyya b. Abba said: A woman absorbs [semen] only after her menstrual period, indeed shortly after, particularly if it is to be a male child. This is indicated by what is written, IF A WOMAN FERTILISE THE SEED, SHE WILL BEAR A MALE.
According to Visotzky, David in this passage represents Jesus. God was involved in the conception of David, but God brought this about by transporting Jesse’s sperm into the womb of David’s mother. Moreover, the sex that Jesse and David’s mother had was contraceptive, the type that wasn’t supposed to bear children, meaning it was solely for pleasure. But God still produced David from this sexual act.
And so Leviticus Rabbah is scoffing at the notion that sex is dirty because it transmits original sin. In this passage, Jesus is produced from sex that was intended to be for pleasure. So much for the virginity of Mary!
According to Visotzky, the passage also uses Psalm 51:7—the passage that Christians cited to support original sin—against the Christians. Rabbi Aha’s point is that even the most pious has a streak of iniquity, and this would include Mary and Jesus. So much for the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth, which sought to exclude Mary and Jesus from the stain of original sin!
Visotzky states that rabbinic Judaism had problems with the doctrine of original sin because it “emphasized individual human responsibility and did not share the notion of contagion.” But maybe his argument is that Rabbi Aha was assuming the “original sin” interpretation of Psalm 51:7 to undermine Christian doctrines.
Why would the rabbis use symbolism in their attack on Christianity? Probably so they wouldn’t get in trouble with the Christian authorities!