By Israel Drazin
The following are some comments on the portions Achrei Mot – Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27.
Leviticus 16 describes a Yom Kippur (the tenth day of the seventh Hebrew month) ceremony when the priest is told to take two male goats. He casts lots to determine what he will do with each goat; one goat will be for God and the other for Azazel. The goat that received the lot for God is offered as an offering to atone for misdeeds. The priest lays both of his hands on the second goat “and confess[es] over him all the iniquities of the Israelites…and puts them on the head of the goat” and lets the goat wander off into the wilderness.
Nachmanides believed that demons exist and they have the ability to hurt or help people. He felt that Azazel is the name of a demon. The second goat was sent to the demon, to the wilderness where the demon lived, as a bribe to convince the demon to persuade God not to punish the Israelites for their past misdeeds. Nachmanides recognized that Leviticus 17:7 forbids sacrifices to demons, but wrote that this bribe is an exception for God allowed it.
This is superstition. This interpretation also insults God because it suggests that a demon can influence God and persuade God to do something God had decided not to do. Furthermore, God’s original intension must have been just, because God only does good, and the revision must not be so. Additionally, this interpretation retains the ancient notion that wrongdoings are absolved by religious ceremonies; while the truth is that people must examine what they did wrong, rectify it (such as returning stolen money or apologizing for an insult), and setting up procedures to assure the wrong will not be repeated. No religious ceremony can absolve a theft unless the stolen object is returned and the thief makes sure that he will not steal again. Also, the notion that someone or something can whitewash a misdeed, that scapegoating works, is a Christian, not a Jewish concept.
Nachmanides was not alone in seeing superstitious events associated with the Azazel goat. Some rabbis reported, for example, in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, that a red thread was placed on the goat. If it turned white when the goat reached the wilderness, this was a sign that the Israelites’ misdeeds were forgiven. The rabbis admit that they do not know the meaning of the word Azazel and offer many possible meanings.
Maimonides offers a rational reason for the ceremony in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:46. He saw it as a symbolic ceremony that reminded the people that they need to rid themselves of their improper behavior. The misdeeds had to be metaphorically “removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a wasted, uncultivated, uninhabited land. There is no doubt that misdeeds cannot be carried as a burden, and taken off the shoulders of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”
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I pointed out in the past that the rabbis changed the biblical holidays in many ways. The rabbis called Hag Hamatzot, the Festival of Matzot, Pesach, after the temple was destroyed and the Pascal sacrifice, which was the sole element of Pesach could no longer be offered. They did this even though the biblical Pesach was on the fourteenth of the first month and Hag Hamatzot was for seven days beginning on the fifteenth of the month. Yom Kippur is another example. The holiday is called Yom Hakipurim, Day of Atonements in the plural in the Torah, as in Leviticus 23:27. This was because when the Temple stood the priest “atoned” for many things: himself, his family, all Israelites, the temple, and altar, as stated in chapter 16. Yom Hakipurim was essentially temple oriented. When the temple was destroyed, the day became people oriented. The rabbis required each Jew to search within and identify and correct all misdeeds. Thus, instead of a plurality of atonements, the focus is on one, the self.
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Leviticus 17:3 -7 seems to be contradicted by Deuteronomy 12:15 – 27. Leviticus seems to have a law that requires Israelites who want to eat meat, to offer some of it as a sacrifice before they can eat it. Israelites who eat meat without first sacrificing it are like murderers: “blood shall be imputed into that man; he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.” Verse seven concludes with a prohibition against continuing to sacrifice to demons and states: “This law shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.” The rest of chapter 17 applies this law also to non-Israelites and adds a prohibition against eating blood and requiring the covering of spilt blood.
Chapter 17 seems to show profound respect for life, human and animals, when it equates killing animals for food with murder. It seems to say that people should not eat animals but live as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, as vegetarians eating fruits and vegetables. It seems to allow humans to eat animals only in a very restrictive manner, when they offer animals as sacrifices, when they in essence at least show that they realize that all life belongs to God.
However, Deuteronomy 12:15-27 allows eating meat that hasn’t been sacrificed. It only prohibits consuming blood. The rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 16b and 17a, saw no conflict between the two chapters. The second century Rabbi Ishmael stated that the Leviticus restriction applied only while the Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert. He explained that verse seven’s declaration that the law is perpetual only applies to the prohibition of making sacrifices to demons, which is in the first part of verse seven. He contended that Deuteronomy released the prohibition against eating non-sacrificed meat when the Israelites entered Canaan. The forty-year restriction helped wean the Israelites from the sacrifices that they had been making in the open fields to demons.
Rabbi Ishmael was known for teaching that we should read the plain meaning of the Torah, for “the Torah speaks in human language.” His colleague Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, read laws and interpretations into the Torah text that are not explicit. He contended that Leviticus does not prohibit eating animals that were not sacrificed. Although it is not explicit, the chapter is forbidding sacrifices to God outside the tabernacle. Deuteronomy is addressing another law that is also not explicit. It teaches that Israelites may not eat meat of an animal that has not undergone ritual slaughter.