Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Acharei Mot/Kedoshim ('After death'/Holiness')

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-20:27. Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

All you need is love

Two years ago, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I sat with an Orthodox Jewish family on a flight to Israel. When I asked the father of the family if his name was in the Book of Life, he told me he didn’t know. I asked how I, a non-Jew, could have my name inscribed in the Book because, from what I knew about Judaism, the sins and good deeds of everyone are weighed on the eve of every Jewish New Year. According to Judaism, Jews are given ten days in which to top up their righteous deeds in order to tip the heavenly balances in their favour and then they have the Day of Atonement on which to fast, pray and repent. But what about Gentiles, I asked. How can we find atonement? ‘Do good things,’ said the pater familias, ‘Do good things.’

It was evident that the family patriarch didn’t want to talk further but I couldn’t help feeling very sad that Judaism has become like every other religion, apart from one, because, when you strip Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even the varieties of the Catholic faith down to the core, salvation depends on doing good things.

But that is not a new innovation on the part of Judaism. Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21.relates the story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua who were walking by the ruins of the Second Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!’ But Rabban Yohanan replied, ‘Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim – acts of loving-kindness – as it is said, ‘For I desire chesed (loving-kindness) and not sacrifice!’ (Hosea 6:6).

Hold that thought for a moment. God has always desired loving-kindness. So why the need for sacrifice? Because we do not do acts of loving-kindness. Chesed cannot atone because we should always be loving and kind. It was because of the absence of love for both God and our fellow man that sacrifice became necessary to atone. Rabban Yohanan’s wisdom simply cheapened Judaism and brought that God-revealed system of worship down to the level of every man-made religion that has ever existed, from the time of Cain to the present day. Unwittingly ben Zakkai made Israel like the other nations. God says to Israel in the Haftarah: ‘Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD.’

If acts of loving-kindness were as good a means of atonement as sacrifices, why was there the need for the elaborate rituals of Yom Kippur? Why did God not ordain a day of love to atone for sin instead of all the, guts and gore found in Leviticus 16?

It’s interesting that within Judaism there is a strain of thought utterly contrary to the theory put forward by Rabban Yohanan 1,900 years ago. David Levi’s Siddur has the following prayer for Yom Kippur in which he prays that the ancient sacrifices might continue to atone: ‘Sovereign of the universe! Whilst the only temple was established, if a man sinned, he brought an offering, and made an atonement for himself; but now because of our iniquities, we have neither sanctuary, nor altar, nor offering, nor priest to atone for us; there is nothing left but the commemoration of them. O may that be our expiation, and we will render the prayers of our lips instead of offerings.’

The afternoon Service of Yom Kippur has the following prayer: ‘O may it therefore be acceptable in Thy presence, that the diminution of my fat and blood, which had been diminished this day, may be accounted as fat offered and placed on the altar, and thus be accepted of me.’

Following from the idea that diminishing one’s own fat and blood can atone for one’s sins came the idea that the death of the righteous had the power to atone for the sins of others. Commenting on Miriam’s death in Numbers 20, the Jewish commentator Rashi asks why the account is given immediately after the chapter about the red heifer and answers: ‘Because the death of the righteous makes an atonement as well as the offerings.’

The idea that human death can atone for sin was not simply Rashi’s personal opinion. It is present in the Talmud and other Jewish writings as, for example in Moed Katan 28a: ‘Why is the death of Miriam annexed to the chapter concerning the red heifer? To teach, thee that as the heifer made atonement, so the death of the righteous does the same. R[abbi] Eleazar says, Why is the death of Aaron annexed to the account of the garments of the priesthood? To teach thee that as the garments of the priesthood make atonement, the death of the righteous does the same.’

The apocryphal book 4 Maccabees clearly saw the possibility of human blood serving as an atonement. In 6:28,29, the Maccabean warriors pray, ‘Cause our chastisement to be an expiation for them. Make my blood their purification and take my soul as a ransom for their souls.’

Later, in 4 Maccabees 17:22, we read: ‘They (the Maccabean rebels) have become as a ransom for the sin of our nation, and by the blood of these righteous men and the propitiation of their deaths, Divine Providence delivered Israel.’

4 Maccabees 13:12 and 16:20 interpret the Akedah of Genesis 22 as an atoning sacrifice: ‘Isaac offered himself for the sake of the righteous… Isaac did not shrink when he saw the knife lifted against him by his father’s hand.’

The Rabbis emphasised the obedience of Isaac, and the Midrash Rabbah likens Abraham to ‘one who carries his own stake [cross] on his shoulder.’ Many of Israel’s Sages, contrary to the text of Genesis 22, teach that Isaac actually died as an atonement for Israel and that his death was the basis of Passover: ‘“And when I see the blood, I will pass over you”’—I see the blood of the binding of Isaac’ (Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael).

Writing about the 17th century massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe, Orthodox Jewish historian Berel Wein has this insight: ‘Another consideration tinges the Jewish response to the slaughter of its people. It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. The stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering servant of the Lord, the sacrificial service in the temple—all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men’ (The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era).

In 2 Samuel 21:1-7, Israel suffered a famine for a sin they did not commit and atonement was achieved not by the death of the offender but by seven of his sons. But the high point in the biblical revelation is Isaiah 53 in which the Righteous Servant of God, the Messiah, offers himself as a guilt offering. He becomes the one on whom God lays the sin of Israel in the way the high priest of Israel laid the guilt of Israel on the goat for Azazel in Leviticus 16.

In the Messiah, the greatest act of loving-kindness was seen. Not in terms of human love but in terms of divine love. Yohanan, the author of the Gospel of John, expresses it in this way: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

So it looks like the Beatles were right after all: ‘All you need is love.’ God’s love, that is.


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