Scapegoats: Parashat Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30

What do prohibitions against marrying relatives, prohibitions against defiling the land and the punishment of Aaron’s two sons have to do with one another? And what do each of these have to do with what is going on in the world today?

Almost a week ago, Passover ended. Since I had by then pneumonia for almost two weeks, it took me another three days to join the world of the living. For until then, I strongly felt that I had been abandoned in the wilderness to cough my life away. It did not help that the wilderness appeared to be a world still filled with hatred that had killed Lori Gilbert Kaye at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego and shot away the index finger of the rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein. The killer had previously set fire to a mosque. Yet, at the same time, believe it or not, I felt sorry for myself. To a degree I wallowed in self-pity.

In my conceit, my inner state seemed to match and mirror the worst in an external world populated with the dead from attacks of hatred in Sri Lanka, in Christchurch, in Pittsburgh, in Wisconsin and in Charleston. And yesterday was Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we presumably re-dedicate ourselves to, “Never again!”

Why do some people want to injure and kill others in their places of worship and in their schools, all purportedly areas removed from the world of conflict and violence? Why does someone feel so traumatized by imagined events that they become possessed and want to traumatize others? My coughing was violent. The behaviour of the shooter – unfortunately no longer a rarity – was traumatic. Do the internal retching coughs have anything to do with the wretched and tormented of the world where their hatred leads them to perform such evil acts? If I was physically ill coughing out my germs for everyone around to catch, as much as I tried to isolate myself, were such murderous perpetrators filled with hatred just coughing up bullets to take out people they believed were their enemies? Are security measures merely the equivalent of anti-pneumonia vaccines?

For the germs of hatred are spreading. Antisemitic incidents are at a peak. White nationalists and supremacists now account for almost three-quarters of the antisemitic incidents in America. Whether the target is a Christian place of worship in Sri Lanka, a small black Baptist church in America, or a synagogue or a mosque, the sacred is profaned. That is the point of such actions. The targets are seen as other, seen as lesser others, seen as threats to the survival of the white race or Islam or Judaism or Christianity. For the source of that threat must be eliminated.

But it cannot be. That is the point. The source can be contained and isolated but not ultimately extirpated.

“Jews will not replace us,” the white nationalists chanted in Charlottesville. Jews will not be replaced or exterminated ever again. Jews will not be defined by hate even as in every generation an enemy will rise up to destroy us. Am Israel chai! What has all of this to do with what follows after the death of the two sons of Aaron for ostensibly drawing too close to the presence of the eternal” (16:1)? What does it mean to draw too close to the eternal?

“The Eternal One said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die?” (16:2) Aaron had to wear the proper sacral vestments and only bring with him an animal worthy of being sacrificed. Why are you saved by following rote religiously while condemned to death if you come too close to God? What does it mean to be “too close to God”?  

After all, Aaron, as far as we can tell, never did anything wrong overtly. Yet God tells Moses that his brother will surely die. How? Unless he strictly follows the rules of self-protection. God will bring about Aaron’s death for God appears in the cloud over the cover of the ark. It is as if God is a vapour of germs. If Aaron comes too close without the proper protection, without the appropriate acts of purgation, he will be infected by those germs. What does this have to do with the reality that we remain living in a wilderness afflicted with poisonous hatred and bigotry? Is God a vapour barrier filled with these murderous germs that can infect anyone?

Don’t come near me, I say when I had pneumonia. Don’t come near me when I, Your God, am a vapour cloud over the Arc of the Covenant. What is the connection between rules and prohibitions set down in the sacred texts and the danger of the spread of hate and bigotry? Is it possible that these sacred sanctuaries – mosques, churches, synagogues – all have within them also the source of hatred and bigotry? Is there a connection between purity and the desire to exterminate the other?

If you conceive of yourself as a member of a “pure” white race, if you consider yourself a member of an exclusive religion in strict service and obedience to God that can be achieved no other way, if you consider yourself God’s gift to the world and a superior nation in all respects, then you can be a source of infection. Then it is well to advise others to engage in acts of purgation before they come in contact with you. For purity and its quest have the same source as the spread of the disease of hatred.

Clean yourself. Wash yourself. Bathe yourself. Purify yourself. Do so to kill the germs within you. But you will need something in addition. A scapegoat, designated by chance to make expiation and not sacrificed but sent off to the wilderness of Azazel. The wilderness will continue to be infected, will continue to be afflicted by poisonous hatred and bigotry. But it should be isolated. A double act is required – recognition that hatred must and will remain at large and which cannot be eliminated and extirpated like measles and polio. Second, an effort must be made to recognize how you, how each of us, can and may be infected so that we too do not spread the disease. We must isolate and purge ourselves. All the while there will remain the danger of further infection and the possibility of the death of your soul as a member of an immoral universe.

Perhaps voodoo acts can help. But it is the overall thrust that matters – the recognition of how you yourself can be infected and possibly die precisely because you want purity. Yet you must seek to cleanse yourself of such evil propensities. Secondly, you must recognize that you cannot entirely cleanse the world of evil no matter how hard you try. It will persist. The best you can do is drive it into isolation in a wilderness far from civilization. Psychopaths of hatred cannot be allowed to live in proximity to a world of tolerance we have to try to create. It is that scapegoat upon which you must lay your hands and confess your own sins concerning your own propensities to foster inequity and the social ills of whatever tribe to which you belong. The best you can do is use a scapegoat to carry off these iniquities to an inaccessible region – even to the moon.

Azazel is the weirdest, the strangest, the most perplexing extra-human force in the Torah. Of the two goats brought into the sacred centre for sacrifice, one will live on and be released into the wilderness of Azazel, the scapegoat. The spirit of evil will be left upon this goat, a spirit of evil purged from oneself in one’s own confession, and the goat sent to an area of desolation and ruin where it can live out its life carrying the sins of bigotry and hatred without endangering humanity. The task of humanity is to keep itself clean of these evil germs and to prevent their return to civilization. This is the most important task of a polity.

Hatred and bigotry, the desire to exterminate others are not ordinary crimes and misdemeanours. Hatred crimes eat away at the soul of society. Vigilance against them must be the mantra.

Yesterday was Yom ha-Shoah. I gave a talk yesterday which I will distribute as a future blog. The thesis was that the senseless hatred of the past, and it was senseless, and even more importantly the indifference to it, are both parts of the present. That hatred has even infected those most victimized by it. That is why we must isolate and disinfect ourselves before we can return to repairing the world and ensuring that the scapegoat carrying this hatred is isolated and restricted to living in a wilderness where it cannot infect others.

With the help of Alex Zisman


One comment on “Scapegoats: Parashat Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30

  1. Deeply moving.

    The Sri Lankan case does not quite fit- it was a failure of the administration. More generally, this horrible type of nuisance can be greatly curbed by sensible Policing. Vigilance, as you say, should be our mantra.

    It seems to me that the doctrine of ibbur- for e.g. that by which the souls of two of Aaron’s sons entered Pinchas- eliminates the need for a scapegoat or ‘sin eater’. In India, religions like Jainism and Buddhism got rid of animal sacrifice by stressing the doctrine of rebirth. In theory, this should also get rid of ‘untouchability’ but sadly that did not happen.

    They also believed that ‘Aashrav’- i.e. entry of karma binding particles (thus ‘impurity’)- could be terminated by askesis. However, India can scarcely be called a utopia of egalitarianism and peaceful co-existence. By contrast, Judaism is increasingly admired for its humane and highly rational juristic hermeneutics- e.g. the doctrine of halacha vein morin kein.

    Robert Aumann has found advanced game theory in the Talmud. Oddly enough, the Nalophkhyanam explicitly states that the Just King should learn statistical game theory but our Hindu savants can’t or won’t explicate how this would work!

    Hatred and Envy and ‘mimetic desire’- which is precisely to replace the alterity which appears more favored or whose success appears undeserved- could express themselves as economic, or epistemic, or aesthetic competition and contribute to a positive sum game. Arguably, marriage is a type of hatred for the other sex from which only one’s spouse is exempted precisely because there is no gender in union. A young man who has become a father for the first time, hates and fears babies precisely because his own new friend is everything- a Buddha, a Hercules, a Comus Lord of Mirth and Mischief- except a baby. If this were not the case, babies and wives and parents would be interchangeable- like commodities.

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