Friday, May 6, 2016

Insecurity, Scapegoating and Re-assigning Shared Responsibility - Acharei Mot

I, like many people, crave the feeling that comes from thinking of myself as being good. This need can be difficult for me to satisfy because I am both flawed as well as virtuous and my habitual self-criticism and insecurities tend to focus more on the former than the latter. Some people, including bigots[i], in their efforts to think of themselves as good, designate someone else as a scapegoat to take the blame for the existence of their shortcomings.  Scape-goating is part of both Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s appeal to at least some Americans.  Either foreigners or bankers are blamed for America's problems.  This tactic is far from new and in fact when we re-examine the origins of this concept, there are dramatically different approaches to the topic of “scapegoating”.

We first read about the scapegoat in Leviticus: “Aaron shall lean both of his hands upon the live male goat's head and confess upon it all the wilful sins of the Israelites, all their rebellions, and all their unintentional sins and he shall place them on the he goat's head, and send it off to the desert...[ii]

The concept of transferring blame implicit in scapegoating is strongly rejected by one of the greatest Jewish authorities of all time, Maimonides. He wrote that ‘sins are not burdens that one can transfer from the back of one person to that of another, but (rather) all these actions are all meant as lessons to bring about fear in one’s soul, until one repents[iii]’. In this approach, the destroyed goat is an illustration of the evil within each individual themselves, that can only be removed by personal change and improvement. The goat is at least in part an aid to the imagination just as the ceremonial “tossing our sins” into the sea by emptying our pockets at the edge of a body of water does not substitute for the hard work of changing habits and repairing our relationships with our fellow humans or God.   

In contrast to the view of Maimonides, the symbolism found in at least one commentary of this ritual appears to reflect the modern concept of a ‘scapegoat’. This interpretation implies that sins can indeed be transferred from one person to another. It symbolically links the two goats and the twins Jacob and Esau[iv] who are seen as ancestors and therefore symbolic of the Jewish and Roman nations respectively.  Despite the similarity of two ordinary goats as well as the twins Jacobs and Esau Jews, Jacob is seen to be held close to God, while Esau is distanced from God. This choice is articulated by God through one of the prophets in the statement: “Is it not (true) that Esau is a brother to Jacob said God, yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esau[v]”. Mirroring this apparently arbitrary selection of Jacob by God, one goat is selected to be offered in the holy temple. The other goat, is sent to a forsaken area in the desert which mirrors the fact that Esau, the archetypal Roman, himself was a man of the field, distanced from God, “bitter, brazen (עז) in strength and wickedness”.  

If we take this commentary at face value, it implies that the Jews can pass on their sins to Rome! Despite my preference for Maimonides’ approach that affirms personal responsibility, I think that sometimes there is in fact merit in assigning shared responsibility to parties other than the direct perpetrator. For example, if members of oppressed minorities commit crimes like burglary, it makes sense to combine the principle of personal responsibility that holds the robber accountable with assigning some responsibility to those who created the unjust circumstances in which those crimes are committed, such as colonialism or institutional racism. This theme is alluded to (in the commentary about the scapegoat) when Esau/Rome, cries out in protest as the crimes are loaded onto him: “how can I bear all these sins?” The complaint is explained as an argument against shifting blame for sins that are not attributable to oppression such as sins of lust[vi].  The implication is that culpability for some sins can be justly attributed to the oppressive, “brazen” state and only some “responsibility re-assignment” is unjustified.  

For me, I believe the most useful thing to do in relation to my self-concept is firstly to combine acknowledgement of my shortcomings with appreciation for my positive aspects. There is no need, benefit or justification to blame others for one’s own faults. There are times when I can use my imagination in a process of moving on, just like the goat ceremony might help someone work on their self-improvement. For example, I can externalise my habitual self-criticism and imagine it coming from a harsh unreasonable judge or a personalised “inner critic” who needs to be told to back off. Religious Jews often talk about the “evil inclination” as if it was another person. This is ok as long as we don’t forget we are just pretending and that in reality the “inner critic” and evil inclination is part of us. In the broader context of inter-group relations, I think the concept of the scapegoat can be, at times ridiculous bigotry and at other times, a rightful redistribution of a fair share of responsibility between those who take harmful actions and those who, through greed, arrogance, stupidity and injustice contributed to the circumstances that made that harm likely.

[i] See the work of Stuart Hall on representation
[ii] Leviticus 16:21
[iii] Guide for the Perplexed 3:46 cited in Nachshoni, Vayikra, p. 768
[iv] Abarbanel Acharei Mot, p. 179
[v]  Malachai, 1:2-3
[vi] Chasam Sofer in Toras Moshe, based on Midrash, cited in Nachshoni, Vayikra, p. 767

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