REPENTANCE = ATONEMENT?
One of the more intriguing questions posed by religious thought is the “division of labor” between man and God in perfecting the world and man. God is portrayed in many of our sources as one who desires the perfection of the world, who does not desire “the death of the wicked; but for the wicked to turn from his course and live.” Much has been written throughout the generations about the connection between repentance and atonement, and about the mutual tie between the two concepts.
Many are acquainted with the berayta of Rabbi Yismael on “chilukey kapparah” – the classification of modes of expiation. This berayta is the basis for some of the Rambam’s “Laws of Repentance”, in which repentance is considered an essential – but not always adequate – condition for atonement.
The words of the Rambam at the beginning of “The Laws of Repentance” (1:2) pose problems and provoke thoughts – many of which were formulated by the Rambam’s commentators. So wrote the Rambam:
 The ‘sent away goat’ – because it was an atonement for all of Israel, the High Priest would confess upon it, in terms referring to all of Israel, as is written, “And is to confess over it all the iniquities of Children of Israel” (Vayikra 16:21)
The ‘sent-away goat’ atones for all the transgressions in the Torah, the light ones and the grave ones, whether done willfully or by mistake, whether beknown to him or unbeknown to him -- all are atoned for by the sent-away goat. All this, provided that the person repented. But if he did not repent, the goat atones only for the lighter infractions.
What are the lighter ones and what are the serious ones? The serious ones are those which incur capital punishment by the Beth Din, or kareth – a Divinely inflicted punishment. False and unnecessary oaths, even though they carry no kareth penalty, are among the serious ones. All other negative precepts, and positive commandments not subject to kareth punishment, are considered minor infractions.
Rambam’s rulings are puzzling in many respects: According to his understanding, there is no single sacrifice which atones sans repentance. Even Yom Hakippurim in our time (1:3) provides atonement only for those who repent. Similarly – and this was noted by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his “Kessef Mishneh” – the Rambam’s system does not conform to any of the Tannaic positions consistently quoted in the Mishna and the Talmud Bavli. Rebbi takes the most radical position – the sent-goat atones – even without repentance – for all sins, minor as well as major, with the exception of the three specially serious transgressions. According to the dissenting Sages, the goat can never atone unless accompanied by repentance. The Rambam’s position represents a compromise between these two extremes. The Rambam’s “arm bearers” grappled with this difficulty. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his “Kessef Mishneh”, concludes “requires further study”. The author of the “Lechem Mishneh” suggests that the Rambam’s aim is to make the controversy between Rebbi and the Sages less polar. None of these commentators suggest an alternate source for the Rambam’s position. I have not examined latter day scholars’ explanations; I assume that they deal with this question.
Rabbi Soleveitchik, z”l, also dealt with this question in his “On Repentance”. He draws an interesting distinction – a la the ‘Brisk method’ – between the atonement of the individual and that of the community. He reads the Rambam’s text very closely -- “The ‘sent-away goat’, because it was an atonement for all of Israel” – he identifies as an offering belonging to the totality of Israel, to Klal Yisrael. The confession of the High Priest, then, is not a confession of individual sins, but of the sins of the community. He is not the agent of individuals, but the emissary of Klal Yisrael. This distinction helps Rabbi Soleveitchik explain the contradiction within the Rambam’s own words to the effect that the passage “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination” refers to the sacrifice -- unaccompanied by teshuva. -- of the individual sinner A person who belongs to Klal Yisrael earns expiation through confession and the offering of the ‘goat to Azazel’. This applies to all transgressions, excluding karet, because the essence of karet – being cut off -- is the expulsion of the individual from Klal Yisrael.
What, then, is the relevance of this brilliant analytic distinction for a Jew living in a modern and post-modern reality, in Eretz Yisrael or in the Diaspora, other than having provided a resolution to a problem in the Rambam’s opus?
In my opinion, there is no single, clear-cut answer. Today, of course, there is no practical possibility of atonement without repentance. In the wonderful formulation of the Rambam: “Today, when there is no Temple and we have no altar of atonement, there remains only repentance. Repentance atones for all sins . . .”
On a theoretical level, however, we might add a hermeneutic (drush) level to Rabbi Soleveitchik’s analytical examination.
The annulment of institutions or ceremonies which were prevalent in the past, opens the door to various explications. In certain instances, the sources take a clear and unequivocal stand, for example: “With the increase of murderers, the [ceremony of] egla arufa -–the broken-necked calf – was cancelled; with the increase of adulterers, the [ceremony of] the cursing waters [given the Sotah – the wife suspected of infidelity] was nullified.” It is evident to all of us that a situation in which there is an “increase of murderers” is perceived to be a morally and spiritually degenerate reality.
In other cases, things are less clear-cut. In contrast to the approach which considers the revival of sacrificial ritual to constitute “return of the crown to its original position”, we cannot ignore the fact that our Sages tended to assign to acts of charity and good deeds greater spiritual worth than to sacrifices. It is superfluous to state that the Rambam, in his Guide, considers the sacrifices to be a sort of “compromise” with the pagan world.
A situation in which an individual can achieve atonement via the confession of the High Priest is, without doubt, quite advantageous; on occasion, we can sense the power potential of a public. This power is beyond anything which the individuals comprising the community can amass; the individual draws his power from the masses. On certain occasions -- such as on Yom Hakippurim – we are able to experience the tremendous spiritual power of communal prayer.
In our own generation, society offered ‘sacrifices’. Unlike the sent-away goat, these were very painful sacrifices. There is no doubt that the pain of all who pay a personal price for our existence here is unbearable. But as long as there was a tsibbur – a “community” – who felt that that the personal sacrifice was also its sacrifice, there was a different feeling about the meaning of the sacrifice.
It is not quite clear at what point the sense of “community” began to fade, and whether all its roots of decline can be identified; the tendency to blame the “other” (the ultra-Orthodox, the left, the settler, the hedonistic secularists, etc.) is widespread – and frighteningly simplistic.
Perhaps, in the absence of “community”, the individual is charged with greater responsibility; in order to perfect himself, he has at his disposal only his own efforts. But beyond the opportunity for development, there is also regression in the perfecting of the whole of society.
For various and sundry reasons, we live in an era in which the concept of “community” has been weakened. “Knesset Yisrael”, as a spiritual concept, is independent of historical and others circumstances, but Jewish society is split and divided. I do not refer necessarily to political or ideological differences. When there is agreement on minimally common goals and on modes of resolution in cases of controversy, social cohesion need not be impaired. It is understood, then, that the ability to consider the sacrifice as a “communal sacrifice” is in proportion to the weakening of the sense of “community.”
I do not necessarily long for the ancient ceremony of the “Goat for Azazel” as recorded in the “Order of Service” of Yom Hakippurim. I do pray that the day will come – may we merit seeing it – when we will be able to interpret the concept of “Eretz Yisrael is obtained through suffering” in a non-literal fashion. In the meantime, however, it seems that if life is dear to us, we must examine, each of us for himself, what is in his power to do in order to build anew a society which is marked by multiplicity but which is capable of defining common goals in a spirit of respect and mutual appreciation. There were times when sacrifices and shared suffering created “a covenant of destiny”, in the words of Rabbi Soleveitchik. In our day, it seems, this is not enough. There is an urgent need to define common and basic goals through wide communal agreement. Then, if we must pay a price, this society will see to it that it will be as low as possible and shared as equally as possible.
The High Priest, according to Chazal tradition, was responsible for the spiritual condition of the generation; through his power and in his merit, human life was respected in society (so Chazal and some of the commentators explain the sentence of the accidental killer to life in the city of refuge “until the death of the High Priest”). Therefore, only a society able to nurture such a spiritual leadership can be represented by the communal sacrifice which the Priest offers and the confession which he utters.
“Today, there is only repentance.”
Pinchas Leiser, editor of “Shabbat Shalom”, is a psychologist.