Q. The Torah says that man’s heart is evil from childhood on. Does this mean that everyone is an innate sinner?
A. The Torah is not saying that at all, even though classical Christianity thought it did. The wording of the verse is, “The inclination (yetzer) of man’s heart is evil from his youth (min’ur’av)” (Gen. 8:21). The words yetzer and min’ur’av are crucial and must be understood correctly.
Man does have a yetzer ha-ra, an evil inclination, but he also has a yetzer ha-tov, a good inclination. Neither is automatically dominant, and it is the glory of man that he has the capacity to choose between them, to make his own moral decisions, to direct his actions. Even the so-called “evil” inclination can be tamed and used for good purposes.
The word min’ur’av is read by Rashi as min’ar’av, “from the time he stirs”, which confirms that this dual capacity exists from one’s earliest moments, and the Midrash suggests that it applies even when the unborn child moves in the womb.
Ramban (Nachmanides) sees the initial letter of min’ur’av not so much as “from” but “by reason of”, which places the verse in the context of the moral development of man. Hence the Torah is saying that it is temporary moral immaturity that is the problem.