Posted by: Steve Coplan | May 5, 2006

Parsha of the week

Over a mediocre channa saag this weekend, I was having a conversation with a friend about his perception that Christianity emphasizes forgiveness while Judaism emphasizes castigation for lapses in ritual rigor and in maintenance of arcane laws. This week’s parsha mentions Yom Kippur, which has come to typify the notion of a vengeful, harsh god eager to mete out punishment. The real message, however, is that the time of year is an opportunity for introspection and forgiveness, and consequently personal growth.

“On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Lev. 16: 30).

By identifying our mistakes and weaknesses, publicly acknowledging them and asking for forgiveness, we set out on the path to change. Most of the Torah’s central figures were in some way flawed, implying that human perfection is an unattainable goal. By their very nature, therefore, human beings are prone to making mistakes and by extension to sin. Yom Kippur focuses on the capacity to change (theologically expressed as God’s willingness to accept repentance for specific sins), and provides a framework for what is typically a painful process. Of course, the stick here is admonishment for not taking personal responsibility for our actions, which are ultimately within our control. Maimonides wrote extensively on the subject, pointing out that the carrot of forgiveness is only part of the overall picture. Seen in the appropriate context, Yom Kippur illustrates a fundamental principle of Judaism, and offers a contrast with Christianity. The notion of repentance in Judaism is simultaneously an articulation of the capacity for personal change and the personal responsibility we bear for our actions. In the absence of the Yom Kippur sacrifice and the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies to atone for the nation as a whole, each individual is now responsible for the expiation of sin. Paul of Tarsus argues instead that sin is a permanent state that is only alleviated by acknowledging that Jesus was the sacrifice for all of humanity. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks picks up on this theme in his commentary on the parsha of the week:

Paul famously attributed the sinful nature of humanity to the first sin of the first human being, Adam. This sin was lifted by the death of the Messiah. Heaven itself had sacrificed the son of G-d to atone for the sin of man. G-d became the High Priest, and as His son the sacrifice.

Paul lived and taught shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, but his teaching – like that of the members of the Qumran sect and Josephus’ visionary Jeshua – fully anticipates that catastrophe and constitutes a pre-emptive response to it. What would happen when there were no more physical sacrifices to atone for the guilt of the nation? In their place, for Paul, would come the metaphysical sacrifice of the son-of-G-d. In Paul, sacrifice is transcendentalized, turned from an event in time and space to one beyond time and space, operative always.

According to Rabbi Akiva specifically, and rabbinic thought generally, in the absence of a Temple, a High Priest and sacrifices, all we need to do is repent, to do teshuvah, to acknowledge our sins, to commit ourselves not to repeat them in the future, and to ask G-d to forgive us. Nothing else is required: not a Temple, not a priest, and not a sacrifice. G-d Himself purifies us. There is no need for an intermediary. What Christianity transcendentalized, Judaism democratized. As the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky put it: Where there is true turning to G-d, every person becomes a priest, every prayer a sacrifice, every day a Day of Atonement and every place a Holy of Holies.

This really was the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. At stake were two quite different ways of understanding the human person, the nature of sin, the concept of guilt and its atonement, and the mediated or unmediated relationship between us and G-d. Judaism could not accept the concept of “original sin” since Jeremiah and Ezekiel had taught, six centuries before the birth of Christianity, that sin is not transferred across the generations. Nor did it need a metaphysical substitute for sacrifice, believing as it did in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 51: 17): “The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise”. We are all sons or daughters of G-d, who is close to all who call Him in truth. That is how one of the greatest tragedies to hit the Jewish people led to an unprecedented closeness between G-d and us, unmediated by a High Priest, unaccompanied by any sacrifice, achieved by nothing more or less than turning to G-d with all our heart, asking for forgiveness and trusting in His love.

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