Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Conflict and Controversy, Scapegoats and Freedom: Leviticus 16 and Isaiah

Daniel JH Greenwood
Kane Street Synagogue-Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, Yom Kippor 5769-October 9, 2008

The tradition of the dvar is to find a difficulty and to solve it, but today I’m going to try to repent and resist the temptation.

Jewish worship is a practice of dialectical paradox, and today I want to celebrate, not conceal, it.

Standing here,

    starving our bodies in order to nourish our souls but paradoxically more conscious than ever of our mortal needs because we are denying them,

    drowning in a sea of words, yet, for once, observing the rule against actually talking to each other,

    standing alone in a packed crowd,

    trying to hear the still, soft voice of our thoughts amid the roar of song and repetition and opaque or completely meaningless syllables,

this is no time to find a false unity.

God may be one, but our practices are not.

Our texts flagrantly contradict each other and both condemn what we are actually doing. They form not a logical whole but a debate and a discussion, with each other and themselves and us, not directing us to a goal but modeling a practice of talk and ritual, arbitrary and meaningful, alone and communal, directed to God and to our fellows.

The liturgy’s oppressive mass of words makes most sense as an attempt to free us, by overload, from the constant voice of rational thought, and so, not to overly disturb the practice, I limit myself to two points:


The Torah portion (Lev. 16) begins with an aside, noting that approaching God can be fatal – After the death of Aaron’s two sons, who came close to God, and died (Lev 16:1)– and then proceeds to explain that the right way to come close – לקרב (lekarev) – to God is to punningly sacrifice – להקריב (lehakriv) – in an elaborate and arbitrary and choreographed dance performed by the Cohen while we keep our distance.

A ritual of killing and blood, so gory that our translator apparently couldn’t bear to reproduce it in English, with the Cohen repeatedly dressing and undressing, bathing and washing his clothes – on Yom Kippur! – and, clean, slicing open live animals, dipping his fingers in their blood, smearing it on the curtain, and splashing it seven times, like the seven repetitions in the Kol Nidre, around him, soiling God’s house in order to purify ours.

And to add oddity to the primitive, bizarreness to grossness, the ritual of the scapegoat: placing his hands on a goat, confessing on to it Israel’s טמאת (tumot) and עונת (avonot) and חטאתם (hatotam) and פשעהם (pishaihem) – all our types of ritual error, but perhaps even real crimes -- and sending it out into the desert, to the land of the גזרה (gezairah) (usually an evil decree, at least in the later Hebrew of our Yom Kippor prayers, but presumably something else here).

How anti-rational can you get? What is the logic of making up for our errors, whatever they are, by laying hands on a goat, or chopping up bulls, burning their fat and throwing their blood around in a kind of Stravinsky-esque rite of the fall?

Then we chant, or learn – the word is the same, reflecting the practice in the ancient schools – second Isaiah, with his inspiring denunciation of Leviticus and our Yom Kippor alike:
Is this the fast I desire? A day for men to starve their bodies? Do you call that a fast?
Do you think that by punishing your body you have afflicted your souls, as Leviticus commanded, let alone replaced the scapegoat?
No this is the fast I have chosen: let the oppressed go free, break off every yoke, share your food with the hungry”.
Forget coming close to God or the self-centered self-realization of watered-down martyrdom. The point, says Isaiah, is to make a difference in this world. Yom Kippor can’t even atone for your sins against God until you ensure that no one – not just you – is sinning against people.

But, not to make the point too consistent, he continues: and don’t violate the other-worldliness of Shabbat. No discussion of business, and definitely no fund raising appeals.


So point one: our relationship with God is as fraught, it seems, as Abraham’s relationships with his two beloved sons, one of whom, we read last week, he exiled to a near certain death, and the other of whom he tried to kill with his own hands.

Do not get too close to God, warns our Torah portion;

our vows to him are no vows, we protest in Kol Nidre;

in our moment of most closeness, on Yom Kippor, when the High Priest, but not us, used to utter the Name, we still must stay away, distancing ourselves with the distractions of hunger and smells and music and words and words and words.


And point two: the unity of our practice is its paradox. We deny what we are doing as we do it; we multiply rules to ensure that even if we keep them, there are more to be broken, that even as we remember them, we must forget them; we – or some of us – wear shrouds on our holiest day to remember that it is, after all, a book of life to those who hold on to it, and a month-long fast if we drop it.

Thank you, and may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.