Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What Modern-Day Jews Can Learn From the Scapegoat Ritual

Judaism is not immune from that which is seemingly bizarre. Since we're approaching Yom Kippur, the practice that I have in mind is the scapegoat ritual. In the colloquial sense, a scapegoat is someone who blamed for the faults or wrongdoings of others. The modern-day concept of the scapegoat has some basis in the original scapegoat ritual that is in Leviticus 16. Essentially, the scapegoat ritual entailed using two goats: one for G-d and the other "for Azazel" (לעזאזל). The goat for G-d was sacrificed in a purification offering (Leviticus 16:9). What happened with the goat "for Azazel"? The High Priest would lay his hands on that goat, confess over it the sins and transgressions of Israel, thereby [symbolically] transferring the Jewish people's sins to the goat. The goat is then set free into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22).

There hasn't been a Temple for over two millennia. Even when there was a Temple, the passage comes with a bigger issue: vicarious atonement. The fact that one can sin all year and have their sins transferred to a goat is, in all honesty, un-Jewish. I'm not saying that simply because Christians like using this passage to make some unfounded parallel between the scapegoat and Jesus, although if the sacrifice were that powerful, why would it need to be done every year? But I digress.

The scapegoat ritual is perturbing upon first glance because if taken literally, it means we don't have to care about the moral or ethical implications of our actions. "Why be good if the goat can absolve me of my sins?" It's the same reason I have an issue with the "Jewish" practice of kapparot (כפרות). Much like I do with other practices, I have to wonder whether the goat was literally supposed to atone for our sins or whether the ritual is an action-based meditation (e.g., tashlich) in which we are supposed to be motivated to something else.

Maybe the ritual symbolizes that instead of life being dictated by fate or random occurrences, we are meant to live a life with meaning and moral imperative. Maybe it symbolizes that while we have to pay a price for our sins (i.e., the first goat), we still need to confess our sins and do our best to uproot them from our lives. That is why interestingly enough, the most of the steps of teshuvah (repentance) are in the scapegoat ritual. In the scapegoat ritual, we realize we have sinned. We have to offer something to [do our best to] reverse the effects of the sin. We also have to confess our sins. The trick to this is that last step of teshuvah, which is that we make sure we don't commit the same sin again. Perhaps the fact that the scapegoat ritual was done every year, instead of as a one-time ritual, is to remind us that keeping ourselves in check and not screwing up is not a task for the fainthearted. Whether we revert back to a sin or shortcoming is up to the individual, not some goat dispatched in the wilderness. Even if the goat literally was meant to absolve us from sin for the previous year, we decide our own fate in terms of whether we choose to err in a certain fashion.

The great rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) viewed the scapegoat figuratively (Guide for the Perplexed, III, xlvi). In the Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam says that it's literally "not a sacrifice to Azazel, G-d forbid." For Rambam, the purpose of the ritual is to be a powerful allegory that impresses upon the mind of the individual that sins lead him to a wasteland. Ultimately, it was to be a spiritual wake-up call and turn back to G-d in teshuvah. Although we don't have a scapegoat ritual anymore, I hope we can all find that something that can wake us up and engender real change to make us more spiritual, more morally upright, and better human beings.

גמר חתימה טובה

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