Far from offering an easy out, one which lays blame upon an innocent or unwitting victim, old-fashioned scapegoating demands real awareness of the sins committed by the entire community. The success of the ritual hinges on individuals’ willingness to take responsibility for the wrongs they’ve done – quite the opposite of how we usually think about making a scapegoat of someone.
Indeed, he notes, “Before the goat is sent off, the community, its institutions, and its leaders all had to seek atonement for their past bad acts – yes, all of them.”
Rabbi Hirschfield is absolutely right in his description of the ancient practice itself, as well as its social significance. We read Leviticus 16, from which this practice is derived, in this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim. Here are verses 21 and 22:
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated agent.
Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
More recently, the term “scapegoat” was brought into the English lexicon through the 16th century process of translating the Hebrew Bible into English, initially as “escape goat,” describing the one that was not sacrificed and instead able to venture into the wilderness. The term was quickly adapted and adopted to signify a person (rather than an animal) who was blamed for others’ malfeasance.
This metaphorical notion appears to have the opposite effect of the practices related in the Torah. Rather than confessing our own sins, we blame someone else. Rather than normalizing introspection, transparency, and public accountability, we obviate all three and make someone else take the fall for us. If the biblical scapegoat was a best practice, the newer take in English feels like a “worst practice.” Even so, it seems to serve a purpose – which we might be able to emulate today, with care to avoid horrific consequences for the person on whom blame is placed.
In a time of polarization, a scapegoat is intended to keep people from pointing fingers at each other, reduce social friction, and enable factions to move beyond a point of contention. Be it around the debt ceiling, foreign policy challenges, or the rising mental health crisis, we might well be better off if public officials could blame something (again, something, not someone) and move on.
Lo and behold, they can. In fact, options abound – and they are largely inanimate: the Covid-19 pandemic; technological change; global warming; the decline of the publishing industry. If we must, we can even blame the revival of alternative music from the 1990s.
What is so profoundly sad is that even our would-be, non-living, benign scapegoats have themselves become politicized to the point that we can neither agree upon a goat nor figure out where to release it and how to move on. Responses to the waning Covid-19 pandemic are no longer a matter of public health or public policy but politics; so too are the regulation of technology, approaches to greenhouse gasses, the approval of books in schools, and even the music we listen to.
Perhaps the most important part of the scapegoat ritual from the Torah is that it ends. It does not persist indefinitely, nor is it the subject of debate. After it concludes, “And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there” (Leviticus 16: 23).
The essence of the scapegoat may not simply be the process – but the reality that it draws what could be an indefinite process of finger-pointing to a close. The sins, once imparted to the scapegoat, depart so that we can move forward with greater ease and cohesion.
What a lesson for us now.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.