PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
“Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:22)
In this message I am going to share some differences between Judaism and Christianity. I share these thoughts with deep respect for my Christian brothers and sisters.
Many years ago, on the day before Yom Kippur, I was driving through town flipping through radio stations in my car. (This was in the days before I could hook my I-Phone to the car radio and play music.) I came across a cantor singing Kol Nidre, the central prayer for the evening of Yom Kippur. I listened to the moving prayer, and then a commentator came on.
“Jews throughout the world are going to gather in synagogues tonight, their holiest night, and listen to this prayer. They will ask God to forgive them for their sins. And it will not do them a bit of good. For without someone dying to make atonement, we continue to carry our sins with us.”
I had accidentally come across a Christian missionary station. Out of curiosity I kept listening. The preacher explained a portion from this week’s Torah reading. It speaks of a special goat chosen to be sent off into the wilderness. (From this Biblical image we get the English term “scapegoat.”) The goat was chosen by lots. The High Priest placed his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people. The goat would then carry off the people’s sins. We reenact this ritual during the afternoon of our Yom Kippur services, with the cantor playing the role of the High Priest. (No, we do not use a real goat. But I have a small, toy stuffed goat I use to demonstrate what is happening.)
The scene is one of vicarious atonement, the animal making atonement for the sins of the people. According to Christian theology, you need someone or something to continue that tradition of vicarious atonement. As the radio preacher said, that is why Jesus died for our sins. He carried away the sins for those who believe in him. According to this theology, all the fasting and prayers of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are for naught.
As a Jew, I take a different approach to vicarious atonement. We certainly continue some of these rituals in Judaism. On Rosh Hashana, we toss breadcrumbs into a body of water (tashlich), symbolic of casting away our sins. It is one of the most popular rituals in Judaism. And on the day before Yom Kippur my Orthodox friends take a live rooster or chicken, swing it over their heads, declare that the fowl will be in exchange for sins, then kill the roosters or chickens to give to the poor (shlach keporas). Every year friends invite me, but I have never participated.
According to my tradition, we do not need a ritual to cleanse us of our sins. We all take the wrong path in life. But the Jewish holidays are meant to get us back onto the right path -repentance (teshuva). A proper and full repentance is what we need. The liturgy says it explicitly. “Repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the severity of the decree.” Each year on Yom Kippur Jews throughout the world seek atonement, without sending any goats into the wilderness.
Is the idea of vicarious atonement still part of Jewish tradition? It would be useful to look at a passage in the Bible over which Christians and Jews differ, Isaiah chapter 53. It speaks of a suffering servant who carries with him the sins of the people. “But he was wounded because of our sins, Crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Christian missionaries love to quote this verse when they approach Jews they wish to convert, particularly vulnerable college students.
To Christians, of course the verse refers to Jesus. Never mind that it was written centuries before Jesus lived. To Jews, the suffering servant is the Jewish people. We are the ones who carry the sins of the world on our shoulders. We are the ones who suffered and continue to suffer for the world’s inequities. Jewish tradition believes in vicarious atonement. But the scapegoat is not a poor animal; it is us.