Atonement

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.

(Actually, since the sun has gone down, Yom Kippur was yesterday by Jewish reckoning. As usual, I’m a little slow to post.)

In the Hebrew scriptures (see Leviticus 16), the Day of Atonement centers on the activities of the High Priest in the Temple. This was the only day of the year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, where God was enthroned in the midst of Israel.

The High Priest sacrificed a bullock and sprinkled some of its blood in the Holy of Holies. In this way, he atoned for the sins of himself and his fellow priests.

Next, the High Priest sacrificed a goat to atone for the sins of the rest of the population and to cleanse the sanctuary.

Then the High Priest placed his hands on the head of a second goat and confessed the sins of Israel. The goat, known as the scapegoat, was driven into the desert where it symbolically carried away the people’s sins.

It has been impossible to carry out the activities just described for nearly 2,000 years now. In 70 CE*, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Jews cannot rebuild the Temple elsewhere; the site in Jerusalem was chosen by God.

The destruction of the Temple could have marked the end of the Jewish faith. But the Rabbis of that era, led by Johanan ben Zakkai, gathered in Jamnia (Jabneh) and reconstituted the religion to correspond to the new reality. G.F. Moore comments,

the work of conservation and adaptation was accomplished with such wisdom that Judaism not only was tided over the crisis but entered upon a period of progress which it may well count among the most notable chapters in its history.

[“Reorganization at Jamnia” in Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era]

Christians will find it interesting to note that Johanan ben Zakkai was a Pharisee.** The destruction of the Temple marked the end of the Sadducees as a religious/political power. The rabbinical council in Jamnia “was a purely Pharisaean body. It was the definitive triumph of Pharisaism.”

Christians are deeply committed to a principle expressed in the letter to the Hebrews (a New Testament document). Hebrews 9:22 says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

The Rabbis who gathered in Jamnia did not see it that way. The destruction of the Temple was, from one point of view, a profound tragedy, lamented to this day. But from another point of view, it merely furthered a trend that had been building momentum for some time. At least as far back as the Babylonian captivity (6th c. BCE), Jews had been scattered among the nations. G.F. Moore observes,

The vast majority of the Jews, dispersed as they were over the face of the earth, never had opportunity to make such sacrifices, even by proxy; while the inhabitants of the more distant parts of Palestine, who resorted in numbers to the Holy City at the festivals, could make but infrequent use of all the sacrificial purifications and expiations provided in the Law. …

The Day of Atonement, [a day] of fasting and humiliation before God, of confession of sins, and contrition for them, and of fervent prayer for forgiveness, was, even before the destruction of the temple, the reality, of which the rites of the day in Jerusalem, whatever objective efficacy was attributed to them, were only a dramatic symbol.

[“Ritual Atonement” in Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era]

The activities mentioned above remain the focus of the Day of Atonement today, 1900 years after the gathering in Jamnia. The day involves humbling oneself before God, fasting, confessing and expressing contrition for one’s sins, and praying for forgiveness.

The efficacy of the appeal for forgiveness ultimately hinges on God’s character. If God takes pleasure in punishing us, the appeal will be rejected. If God takes pleasure in forgiving us — I might exaggerate and say, if God is looking for any pretext on which to forgive us — then God will respond to our acts of contrition by absolving us of our sins. From the Jewish perspective, no blood sacrifice is required; our contrition and God’s mercy are all that is necessary.

I know from my experience in evangelical Christian circles that the emphasis on personal guilt and contrition can be overdone. But presumably it can also be “underdone”.

This year, because of the Jewish contacts I have made in the blogosphere, I received an e-mail asking my forgiveness for a small offence. In fact, I had not taken any offense whatsoever; but I understood the blogger’s concern to clear the books of any sins outstanding from the past year.

I feel honoured to have received that e-mail. That isn’t the point, I know. But I am deeply touched nonetheless.

Repentance and confession are salutary practices, with power to cleanse the soul and effect reconciliation where relationships are strained. Yom Kippur could serve as a reminder to us gentiles. We would do well to step back from our daily activities once in a while:  to reflect, take responsibility for the wrongs we have committed, and seek forgiveness.


*CE = Common Era, standard terminology used among scholars in place of A.D. Likewise, BCE = Before Common Era.

**I caution Christian readers that the depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels is highly prejudiced. It was written at a time of great controversy, from the perspective of one of the parties to that controversy. It is not an objective historical account.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Oct 14, 2005 @ 09:54:00

    Well done! Now complete the picture with the ‘Atonement of Christ’ doctrine.

    Reply

  2. Q
    Oct 14, 2005 @ 10:25:00

    lol

    I’m pretty sure you’re already familiar with the doctrine, 49er! And it would be in poor taste to blog about it at Yom Kippur.

    But this weekend I plan to begin my series on the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), so stay tuned.
    Q

    Reply

  3. J
    Oct 14, 2005 @ 14:08:00

    Oooh, excellent. I’m looking forward to the beginning of the series. 😀

    Reply

  4. Scott
    Oct 14, 2005 @ 18:07:00

    Very enjoyable post. It was interesting to see where you were going and I enjoyed the history.

    Reply

  5. Stacey
    Oct 14, 2005 @ 22:38:00

    I really enjoyed this post and your understanding of our most holy day. Thank you, Q.

    Reply

  6. Q
    Oct 15, 2005 @ 09:11:00

    You’re welcome, Stacey!
    Q

    Reply

  7. Mrs.Aginoth
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 04:24:00

    Of course, I’ve always been slightly concerned with the concept of asking forgiveness for the previous years sins, and the belief that as long as you do so correctly/on the right day etc you will be forgiven any transgressions.

    doesn’t that invite the faithful to trangress at will, then just get forgiven? The Catholic faith has the same reasoning – say enough Hail Mary’s, and you’ll be OK.

    I know that’s a vast simplification of the process, principles & reason behind the ceremonies, however, that is exactly how Yom Kippur was taught to me as a child.

    Reply

  8. Q
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 14:19:00

    I don’t think the Day of Atonement is special in the way you suggest. In fact, I’m sure Jews would maintain that God is just as forgiving every other day of the year as on the Day of Atonement.

    And, as a Protestant, I’m in sympathy with a lot of what you write. We don’t emphasize rites much (especially in “low” church circles, which is where I’ve always been) because of the kinds of abuse you mention —
    say enough Hail Mary’s, and you’ll be OK.

    Of course, Protestants don’t escape that challenge. We have the same problem with the sacraments we retain (the Lord’s Supper and baptism).

    The rites are supposed to achieve precisely the opposite of what you mention. The Day of Atonement, for example, should remind Jews that all human beings transgress God’s Law; and make them grateful that God is merciful, an attribute we should never take for granted.
    Q

    Reply

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