Sympathy for Azazel

Yom Kippur 5776 talk by Sam Bagenstos

samuel bagenstosWhen Deb Kraus asked me to give a talk on the scapegoat parsha, I was intrigued and intimidated.  It should be obvious why I was intimidated—this is a deeply learned crowd, and the chances of embarrassing myself by offering some half-baked reaction to one of the most studied portions of Torah were high.

But why was I intrigued?  Well, in part it goes back to my days misbehaving in Hebrew School.  In Fourth Grade or so, all my buddies and I did was try to learn to curse in Hebrew.  I remember one of them leaning over in class, whispering to me what he said was the Hebrew for “Go to Hell!”—I still don’t know whether he was right; we were all just making stuff up—which is the first time I recall hearing the word, “Azazel.”  Yes, even though it was the Seventies, “Go to Hell!” was as transgressive as we got, I’m ashamed to say.

Ever since then, I’ve found the scapegoat story somewhat fascinating.  I mean, we’re Jews—I thought we didn’t have much of an idea of Hell, or a devil, or anything like that.  Yet here we see, right in Leviticus—the most prescriptively legalistic book of the Torah—that Aaron must take the two goats and draw lots, with one goat designated for the Lord and the other “for Azazel.”

This is apparently the only place in the Torah in which the word “Azazel” appears.  And a debate has raged for centuries about what, exactly, the word means.  Some do in fact interpret “Azazel” as referring to a demon, evil demigod, or fallen angel.  (The suffix “-el” often denotes an angel’s name.)  Others interpret “Azazel” as referring to a rough mountain—in other words, it’s the place where the goat is sent.  Note that the Torah does not say anything about what happens to Azazel’s goat once it is set free.  It just says that “the goat shall carry on it all [the Israelites’] iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”  Nonetheless, the Mishnah tells us that the tradition during the time of the Temple was to push the scapegoat off of a hard, rocky cliff.  And “Azazel” may simply have referred to the cliff.smpathy for the devil

But then there’s the third, simplest interpretation.  “Azazel” might refer to the goat itself.  “Ez”—Hebrew for goat—plus “azal”—apparently the Aramaic word for “to go.”  So “Azazel” might simply mean, roughly, “the goat that went away”—just as the English “scapegoat” means “the goat that escaped.”  Obviously, it’s the first of these definitions that inspires my title, Sympathy for Azazel—thanks Mick and Keith!—but I’m actually more interested in the other two, as you’ll see.

Preparing for this talk, I found that there’s a very common Whig history—or, more provocatively, Jewish exceptionalist—interpretation of Leviticus’s scapegoat story.  The practice of sending an animal—or even a person—away from the community to die, to expiate the community’s sins, was a widespread one in the ancient world.  Historians have offered fairly authoritative examples from across Europe, Africa, and Asia—and of course many myths told of similar rituals.

In some of these societies, the scapegoat-like practice occurred yearly, as in the Yom Kippur ritual in the time of the Temple.  In others, it occurred only during particularly trying times:  war, plague, famine.  And there were a variety of ways in which these societies carried out these rituals.  During times of plague, some Hittites apparently drove rams, and sometimes women—pre-feminist times, indeed!—out of their own communities to enemy encampments.  The idea, at least nominally, was that the animals and women would carry the sins of the community to the enemies—though this reads more to me like an early attempt at biological warfare.  The Ancient Greek practice of pharmakos involved a human sacrifice designed to cleanse or purify the community—again, sometimes periodically and sometimes at times of stress.  The person was sometimes chosen because he was ugly or otherwise an outcast, and killed in a variety of ritualized ways.  And there are many other variants from many other societies.

The Whig history or Jewish exceptionalist understanding sees Leviticus as representing a step forward from such barbaric practices.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, expressed that view nicely.  “It was a protest against human sacrifice,” he says.  He finds “[t]wo features of the high priest’s ritual [to be] crucial: [1] that the sacrifice was an animal, not a person, and [2] that it was not an occasion for denying responsibility by blaming the victim, but to the contrary an acceptance of responsibility in the context of repentance and atonement.”  Aaron confesses the Israelites’ sins on the head of the goat.

Now, one of the reasons I am a Reconstructionist is that I embrace our movement’s rejection of the concept of the chosen-ness of the Jewish people.  Rabbi Sacks isn’t making a point about chosen-ness, but the Jewish exceptionalism makes me very uncomfortable.  To be sure, Jews have long been the victims of sacrificial scapegoating—from the pogroms of 1348-1350 across Western Europe, when Jews were blamed for spreading the Black Plague, through Hitler and Stalin, and even in some instances today.

scapegoat_585w_GIF-300x147But all we have to do is turn to our own Torah and books of the prophets to see that Jews were hardly blameless—even in the stories we tell about our ancient selves.  In the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, is it scapegoating when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert?  Perhaps.  But certainly in the Second Book of Samuel, King David engages in classic scapegoating in response to a famine.  The famine has gone on for three years, and David asks the Lord for assistance.  The Lord answers that it’s all the fault of Saul for massacring the Gibeonites.  David contacts the remaining Gibeonites and asks what would make atonement—“atonement” is the word that appears in the JPS translation—for what Saul did.  The Gibeonites ask David to deliver seven members of Saul’s family to them so that they may be hanged.  And that’s exactly what David does, causing the deaths of two of Saul’s sons and five of his grandsons.  (So here we have scapegoating plus the corruption of blood.)

Even today—in our lives as individuals and as a community, rather than in the stories we tell about ourselves—have we, as Jews, really entirely stepped out of the pattern of denying responsibility by blaming the other?  I would submit, looking at the world around me, that we have not.

And that just means we’re human.  There’s now a substantial body of psychological research that shows that human beings consistently favor members of their own groups, and disfavor members of other groups.  Some of the most striking experiments bring together people who had never met before, group them according to some completely random and insignificant difference—it could even be the flip of a coin—and find that people still favor members of their own group.  When we are talking about communities with a rich history and mythology—like religious, ethnic, and other socially salient groups—surely we can be expected to favor our own even more.

And this leads me to what I like to think of as the lesson of the Leviticus scapegoat story—that it is an injunction to be ever on our guard against our tendency to favor our own, against what one legal scholar has called “selective sympathy and indifference.”  To me, the lesson emerges when I consider the story from the perspective of the goat—hence, the real meaning of “Sympathy for Azazel” in my title.  Although the Torah portion itself tells us no more than that the two goats were to be “two he-goats” taken “from the Israelite community,” tradition tells us that the two goats were to be as identical as possible.  And the fate of these two goats—otherwise indistinguishable—was to be determined, literally, by lot.  One of them, chosen at random, would be sacrificed in the Temple, and the other would be sent to the wilderness.

You can decide for yourself which fate is the one to prefer.  Whenever I read the parsha, I tend to think that wandering in the wilderness is a better fate for a goat—which is, after all, a wild animal—than being slaughtered in a human religious ritual.  But I have a feeling that we’re supposed to think that it’s better to be the goat chosen for the Lord—Achat Sha’alti and all—then the one sent away—hence the Talmudic elaboration of the rocky cliff.

But, to quote basically every character in the movie Airplane, that’s not important right now.  Either way, we know that the drawing of lots is the decisive moment in the life of each of the two goats.  And we know it’s totally random.  It’s the lottery of birth, zoomorphized.  (I think that’s basically the opposite of “personified.”)

All of our lives, like those of the goats, turn crucially on something that’s entirely random.  We have grown up in—or made our way to—the community of American Jews, a community rich in history, culture, and other endowments.  But the fact that we were able to get here is random and based ultimately on a morally arbitrary lottery of birth.

And once we come to terms with that basic fact, we see just why our ingroup favoritism, our selective sympathy and indifference, is such a moral wrong.  And we see what we need to do about it:  Work overtime to widen our view of “us,” so that there’s no “them.”  Some of this is about what Clare Kinberg discussed at Rosh Hashanah—even on a narrow view of “us,” stop consciously or unconsciously excluding people who are already a part of our community.  When we think of Jews and blacks as two distinct, non-overlapping groups, she said, that’s racism.  But understanding that point is just the first step.  We can’t stop by drawing our circle wide enough to embrace all Jews, whatever other ascriptive characteristics of race, national origin, etc., they—we—might have.

We need to draw our circle wider.  We need to think about other people’s problems by putting ourselves in their place.  We need to have as much sympathy for the refugees fleeing from violence in Syria, who are being turned away from supposedly civilized nations in Europe and in our own country, as we wished those nations had had when, not so many decades ago, it was our own people seeking refuge.  We need to have as much sympathy for innocent Gazans who have lost their homes, their schools, their childhoods, and their livelihoods, as we do for innocent Israelis who live under the terrifying fear of rocket attacks.  And we need to express this sympathy not just in words exclaimed while reading the paper, but in the kind of actions that we would want if we were suffering.  That means organizing, debating, calling our senators and members of Congress, and supporting organizations that are making progress on these questions.

That, to me, is the lesson of the scapegoat parsha.  And it’s one that, if we take to heart, could be transformative.  Let me leave you with a bit of my favorite below-the-line reading from our High Holiday prayerbook.  It’s on page 508, if you want to look at it, and it comes from Julius Lester, who elsewhere wrote with great wisdom on the tensions and possibilities for reconciliation between American blacks and Jews—two overlapping groups, as Lester, an African American Jew himself, could testify.isaac and ishmael

As I’m considering the scapegoat parsha from the goat’s perspective, Lester writes about the Akedah from Isaac’s perspective.  He imagines Isaac losing faith in his father following his brush with death—but finding in that loss of faith the opportunity to expand his circle of sympathy to include his half-brother, Ishmael.  Ishmael—whom the Rosh Hashanah parsha tells us will have his own great nation, distinct from that of Isaac.  Lester writes, “I imagine Isaac and Ishmael sitting around a desert campfire in the chill of the evening, sharing with each other the ordeal of being their father’s sons, and in sharing that ordeal . . . they become brothers.  In other words, they learn to love each other.”  Isaac and Ishmael, in this imaginative retelling, go from a “we”-“they” relationship to a simple “we” relationship.  If the scapegoat teaches us about the moral imperative to expand our circle of sympathy, our “we,” Lester gives us the redemptive possibilities of doing so.