Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

Escaping the Scapegoat: Ancient Wisdom for our Troubled Times

The heart of the Yom Kippur service preserves a strange, ancient ritual, now known as the Avodah, the Temple service of the High Priest, a rite performed on just this one day each year while the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The Avodah was the only time a human being was permitted to enter what was known as the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, the innermost shrine of the Temple, understood to be the dwelling place of the Divine here on earth and, therefore, the holiest spot on the planet. Only the High Priest could enter, only on Yom Kippur, and only to perform this ritual. The purpose of the Avodah was to “purge the shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins.”

The shrine needed to be purged because our ancestors believed that every un-atoned transgression – whether it had been committed by an individual or by the community as a whole – served to separate God and humanity. Remember that the whole point of having a Temple in the first place was for God to dwell among us, for God’s presence to be close, accessible, and intimate: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם / “Make a holy space for Me, and I will dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8).

Now, our ancestors didn’t believe this literally. They, like us, believed that God was not a physical being and could therefore not be contained in one physical space. The notion of God dwelling with us was a metaphor for a blessed, harmonious, just, and peaceful society; a society in which there is no want, in which everyone has all they need, and in which neighbors love their neighbors as themselves.

God dwelling with us means that there is no separation between us and God, just as it means that there is no division between each of us. But every sin is by definition a rupture in connection, a fracture in a relationship, whether that is our relationship with God or with another person; the bigger the sin, the bigger the rupture; the more sins, the more ruptures.

I like to think our ancestors pictured it this way: every time someone wronged someone else, a little invisible pebble would appear on the threshold between God’s metaphorical space – the Holy of Holies – and our space outside that shrine. The more sins, the more pebbles; the bigger the sin, the bigger the stone. Eventually, these pebbles and stones would stretch from one end of the threshold to the other, and then ultimately stack upon each other. Over the course of a year’s time, they would have become a wall between God and the people. After all, each and every unforgiven transgression makes our society a little less just, a little less harmonious, a little less peaceful; and in the aggregate, these small and large misdeeds can tear a community apart, leading, God forbid, to great suffering.

So every Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the shrine to cleanse it, to break apart the wall that separated us from God and us from each other, and to clear out all the pebbles and stones. Then, at least for one day, we could taste intimate oneness with God, and with each other.

Because of its significance, the Avodah was from its inception meticulously choreographed. We read that choreography in the Yom Kippur Torah reading, and we dramatically reenact it in the prayer service. The core of the Avodah involved the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies with two goats. One was sacrificed there in the shrine. The other had a different fate: the Priest laid his hands on its head and confessed all the people’s transgressions. He then sent it off to an inaccessible place in the desert. The Torah refers to the animal as the שעיר לעזאזל, “the goat that goes away.” Today, many refer to it as the “scapegoat.”

The purpose of the scapegoat was to symbolically remove all of the people’s transgressions from the place where they were severing the connection between God and humanity and send them as far away as possible. In this way, those sins, each of those little pebbles that, over the course of a year, conspired to build a wall between us and God, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, would no longer serve as an impediment. Finally, God could return to dwell among us. We could return to harmony with God and each other. And, at least for a moment, the world as it is could be restored to the way it ought to be.

It is important to recognize three things about our tradition’s scapegoat ritual: first, it only works if the sins of the people are acknowledged. A simple, generic confession would not do. The priest must verbally confess the transgressions – all of them – as he symbolically places them on the goat.

Second, the High Priest confesses the sins of the entire congregation. Each individual is implicated in every transgression, even those that didn’t personally do anything wrong.

Third, the goat is just a vehicle for delivery. It takes the people’s sins away. It doesn’t assume the people’s guilt. And it isn’t being punished or harmed in place of the people.

These three points are important, because they make the biblical scapegoat different from scapegoat rites in other cultures. In other cultures, the animal – or person, in some societies – that functioned as the scapegoat is treated roughly or killed. It accepts punishment in place of the deserving parties, enabling them to deflect responsibility, absolve themselves of guilt, and escape culpability.

The Jewish ritual doesn’t work that way. In fact, some scholars believe it may have developed as a direct rejection of those other approaches – a Jewish movement to escape from the scapegoat, if you will.

While other cultures’ approaches to the scapegoat ritual are all about deflection and absolution, identifying something beside oneself as the primary source of disrepair and then inflicting punishment on it, in Judaism the scapegoat is all about introspection and restoration: it is about identifying and acknowledging the ways in which we as individuals and as a community have contributed to the brokenness in our world and pledging to live lives and build communities free of those transgressions in the future.

Rituals are concrete expressions of a culture’s worldview and values. The scapegoat ritual in other cultures suggests that evil is a foreign imposition on our lives. When bad things happen, it must be the fault of someone or something other than us. The way to remove evil from the world is to project it back outward and send it back where it came from.

The Avodah, however, says that we as individuals and as a society bear responsibility for what is wrong in our lives and in our world. Things can only be set right when we recognize our agency, own our share of the brokenness, and commit to acting differently.

Looking around our world, it is hard to escape the sense that we are consumed by a scapegoat worldview.

Recently, conservative columnist Bret Stephens made this very point in the Wall Street Journal. Stephens scans the globe and notes the prevalence of scapegoating among political leaders and social movements.

He begins with Turkey, arguing that President Erdogan has a penchant for finger-pointing: He’s blamed social unrest on political opponents and American officials, allowing himself to conduct “the greatest political purge of the 21st century.”

Stephens argues that Erdogan’s scapegoating has turned Turkey, once a “beacon of Muslim secularism and democracy,” into “another paranoid Middle Eastern regime. It’s the same story,” he writes, “in Iran, Russia, and China.”

One can see the same phenomenon playing out all over the world. Back in June, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. Brexit supporters peddled the fiction that England’s social and economic problems were being caused by immigrants and E.U. bureaucrats. Similar movements are brewing and rising to power throughout Europe, in places like Hungary, Greece, France, and Austria.

In the Middle East, some of the world’s most brutal vandals are convinced of the fantasy that the advance of Western culture is to blame for all the world’s woes. They and those inspired by them have launched an unprecedented international terrorism campaign to rid the world of this imagined enemy.

Meanwhile, millions around the world readily identify Israel as the source of all the world’s ills. This summer, those of us who are fighting for racial justice in this country were shocked and saddened to learn that some in the Movement for Black Lives believe similarly, that the State of Israel is somehow to blame for racial inequality in the U.S.

Others who are fed up with racism in America have concluded that all police officers or all white people are to blame for every injustice faced by the black community. We saw this mentality tragically play out this summer, when police officers were murdered in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and just the other day in Palm Springs.

Millions of Americans blame our country’s problems on Fox News, or on the wealthiest one percent of the population – billionaires, corporations, Wall Street executives, and big banks.

Others blame our country’s challenges on illegal immigrants, or on liberal intellectuals, or on the mainstream media’s insistence on political correctness.

Some readily vilify all Muslims. Still others blame everything on Washington, DC.

It’s not that the troubles themselves aren’t real. They are, at least for some. People out there are hurting. Ours is a time of upheaval, and for some the changes have caused suffering: Major economic shifts have devastated communities from the rust belt to Appalachia and even to the suburbs of cities like Richmond.

Demographic changes have diluted the political power of white Protestant men. Meanwhile, minority groups continue to struggle with systemic inequality: People of color make up 30% of the general population but are 60% of the prisoner population. And black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.

A reformation of social norms – like gender egalitarianism, marriage equality, and transgender inclusion – has been unnerving for some with more traditional views. The expansion of the Internet has facilitated horrific acts of terrorism. People are in pain, alienated, and afraid. And when people’s lives are broken, it is natural to look for someone else to blame.

But our tradition’s approach to the scapegoat is an invitation to transcend that natural instinct. Judaism recognizes that the desire to view ourselves as blameless while projecting fault onto others is wrong and dangerous.

We Jews know this script all-too-well. We ourselves have been scapegoated throughout our history, with tragic results:

From the crusaders and inquisitors who insisted that the Jews killed Jesus, to the medieval mobs who blamed the Jews for the Black Plague, to the likes of Mel Gibson who declare that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” the experience of being a scapegoat has been a perpetual part of our people’s story.

And we know full well where the road to scapegoating leads: When Hitler and his followers exploited a pernicious but popular myth that the Jews were to blame for the humiliation of the Versailles treaty and the instability of the Weimar era, it was inevitable that the policy conclusion would ultimately be to purge Germany of its Jews.

Hitler’s claims about the Jews were wrong, just as all those other anti-Semitic smears throughout our history have been false. Similarly, when any of us claim, or when we hear others claim, that one clear, identifiable enemy is the source of all our most considerable problems, we should be extremely wary. Significant social, economic, and political challenges are rarely caused by one evil villain. More often, they are the result of many complex and intersecting factors.

And it’s not enough to remember that scapegoating is typically inaccurate or even downright untrue. Since scapegoating isn’t just about identifying enemies but also punishing them, we must also remember that it is dangerous. Six million Jewish lives testify to its dangers.

This is precisely why the Avodah, our tradition’s approach to the scapegoat, rejects projection and deflection. It focuses not on the absolution of guilt, but on the restoration of relationship. It calls upon us to recognize the responsibility we bear for the problems in our own lives, to understand the ways in which the brokenness of our society and our world is the result of a complex and interconnected web of action and inaction on our part and on the part of others. It pushes us to commit to the hard but necessary work of developing and implementing thoughtful and meaningful repairs to that which is ruptured. Only such a process can lead to healing and wholeness.

Today, we don’t practice the Avodah. Instead, we study it and reenact it in our liturgy, harvesting its symbolism and its values. In its place, the practice Judaism has adopted is called teshuvah. As Maimonides writes, “When the Holy Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, teshuvah is all that there is – teshuvah atones for all sins.” According to Jewish law, Teshuvah is about accepting accountability: We identify where we’ve gone astray, acknowledge our guilt, and commit to act differently in the future. In other words, it’s just like the Avodah…minus the goats.

Through teshuvah, through honestly confronting where we have gone astray and pledging ourselves to repair, we can resolve the issues that threaten our welfare and turn toward harmony. Scapegoating, on the other hand, distracts us, turns us against each other, and causes our society to fracture and fray.

That’s why, the way I see it, scapegoating is the great danger of our moment. And it has become especially apparent in our current election cycle.

Let me be clear: My point here is not about any one politician. In a democracy, politicians are only successful when their messages resonate with a substantial portion of the electorate. On the right and on the left, politicians with keen instincts for the zeitgeist have noticed how eager many of us are to pin our problems on others, how reluctant we are to consider the parts we may have played in contributing to the brokenness. They see how we long for a hero to come and save us from the monsters we claim we didn’t create and feel we can’t defeat ourselves. They perceive our fear, our despair, our abdication of responsibility, our longing to escape the insecurity of our freedom. The shrewdest among them have exploited our impulse to scapegoat, validating our anxieties, turning us against each other. But we are the ones who have rewarded them with our attention, our acclaim, and our votes. We must recognize when politicians prey on the worst in us. But more importantly, we must acknowledge that the real struggle is within us.

True, most of us aren’t personally guilty for causing the problems that plague us. I assume most of us here have never shipped a manufacturing job overseas. None of us created mass-incarceration, and, thankfully, none of us has ever killed an unarmed civilian. It’s probably safe to bet that no one in this room has ever tried to radicalize anyone on the Internet.

But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once pointed out, just because we aren’t guilty doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible.

We’re responsible because we are part of a society where such things happen, a part of a larger whole that hasn’t done enough to rectify injustice or to stop it from from occurring. Have we, as individuals and as a community, done everything we can to help those who are hurting in our changed economy, who feel they have been left behind while the world has moved on without them? Have we done everything we can to ensure every single person has equal opportunity and equal protection under the law? Have we done everything we can to change the conditions here and abroad that cause people to turn to terrorism?

The truth of the matter is that the challenges we face are complex, with roots deep and intertwined. Each of us has played a part in how we got here, even if that role has been standing idly by and doing nothing. We’re all in this together, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

This is especially true in a democracy. Since we have a say, however small it may be, in the direction our country takes, each of us is accountable, even if only in part, when things go wrong. And it also means we have the power in our hands to help set things right.

Our redemption depends on each of us recognizing the roles we have played – large and small – in creating or allowing the problems, and on our committing to the constructive work of restoring ourselves to wholeness. That work can take many forms: personal introspection and transformation, charitable giving and volunteering, social activism for just causes. And, in our democracy, we must never underestimate the power of our vote to make things better. To refrain from casting a ballot is to silently accept the status quo. By participating in the electoral process, we own our power and champion our responsibility; we make a statement that we are prepared to do what we can to heal ourselves. The impact of each of our individual votes may be limited, but voting is nevertheless part of how we as a community do teshuvah in our time.

And, believe it or not, it works. This summer, I was blessed to take my children to one of our country’s great treasures, Yellowstone National Park. I delighted in their awe as they hiked through misty geysers, families of elk watching each tenuous step. I exalted in their wonder as they witnessed the magic of a crisp, powerful waterfall cascading down the sulfur rocks of the grand Yellowstone canyon. I’ll cherish these exquisite memories for a lifetime.

But more importantly, Yellowstone is a reminder of what can be accomplished when a society takes seriously the process of teshuvah.

How so? In the early decades of the 19th century, new migration, settlement, and industry was destroying the wildlife and wilderness of the American West. The problem couldn’t be ignored. Deflecting and projecting responsibility would’ve been counterproductive. The situation called for real teshuvah – introspection, admission of guilt, active problem solving. Only when individual Americans – inspired by the beauty of places like Yellowstone, recognizing the magnitude of the tragedy if those places should be destroyed, acknowledging the roles they played, however small, in creating the problem in the first place, and owning their capacity to change direction – only when these ordinary citizens began to call for the preservation of these lands did things change for the better, culminating in the creation of the National Park Service, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. As historian Wallace Stegner said, the creation of the national parks “reflect us at our best.” They are the epitome of positive, constructive democracy in action; true teshuvah on a massive social scale.

Because ordinary Americans then tirelessly committed themselves to the constructive work of protecting our wilderness, today, a century later, we can enjoy millions of acres of unspoiled natural beauty. Because of a previous generation’s communal teshuvah, my children can marvel up close at herds of majestic bison grazing by pristine rivers in lush, green valleys, and learn that they, too, are responsible to be loving stewards of this gorgeous garden God has given us.

The National Parks are not only America’s “best idea,” as Stenger famously called them. They’re a monument to what can be accomplished when we as individuals and as a society commit to escaping the scapegoat.

When we embrace teshuvah, when we recognize and remove each of the little spiritual pebbles we have placed between us and God and between each other, our broken world as it is can be restored to the just, compassionate and peaceful world it ought to be.

May we merit to bring about this redemption, speedily in our days.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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