The term “scapegoat” is famously misunderstood in its colloquial usage.
It is employed to describe a person or people falsely accused of responsibility for something that is not at all the fault of the accused.
In fact, as any reader of the Bible knows, the scapegoat is the animal chosen by lot from a matched pair upon whom the acknowledged sins of the people are symbolically placed.
Adorned with a crimson thread, the goat is pushed into the wilderness of Azazel to escape into a sort of netherworld and carry away the sins.
Once the (e)scape(d)goat wanders beyond its ability to return, the sins of the people are considered to be carried away.
The other goat – the one fortunate enough not to carry everyone’s sins – is actually unluckier. That goat is offered as a sin offering on the altar of the Temple.
Before the scapegoat is released to Azazel, the sin offering has been slaughtered, its blood poured away, and its fat burned as a sort of smoky incense.
I was listening to an interview with Bari Weiss, one of the opinion editors for The New York Times, as she discussed the murder of innocent Jews in her hometown synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The interviewer, who is famously anti-religion, asked her the question everyone asks when confronting anti-Semitism: Why do some people hate the Jews so much?
Weiss skipped the answer I prefer to start with – don’t ask me, ask the people who hate Jews – but she went right for the less sarcastic one: How much time do we have?
While it is true that the term “anti-Semitism” dates back only to the late 19th century, Jew-hatred (and before that Israelite-hatred) goes back at least to ancient Egypt.
It may be possible to start the clock with Pharaoh or with Antiochus or with Pontius Pilate or with John Chrysostom, but even if the reasons and rhetoric changed lanes, they travel the same highway.
Weiss made the most salient point that must be at the center of every conversation about anti-Semitism.
The Jews are simultaneously considered pathetically weak and dangerously strong, dissolute and moralizing, victims and puppet masters.
There is no remedy for someone who is simultaneously flawed in eternal existential paradox. It is the essence of the Jew that is hated – not a set of behaviors or beliefs.
At some points in history, the Jewish stain on the soul could be cleansed, according to the haters. At one point in history – Hitler’s Germany – bigotry laid claim to science and insisted that corruption was inherent. Only extermination of the body could purify the irredeemable soul.
And that, as Weiss pointed out, was what animated the angry and deluded gunman who stormed into the synagogue that had, a week before, celebrated the role of the United States in welcoming refugees.
Jews would not replace him with some inferior version of themselves – a brown-skinned man who was at once lazy and bent on taking his job.
Of course, there is no answer to “why.”
Some scholars, interested in defending the Jewish endeavor, promote the notion that others are jealous of our relationship with God or our civilization or our stubborn instinct for survival.
Some scholars, interested in excusing the legacy of hatred, promote the notion that the ills of society are projected on the perpetual outsiders, invaders to be plundered for their sullied gifts lest their shortcomings infect the host majorities.
It is a little ironic that we look to the Bible and see this model of the goat that is at once the passive sacrifice for our sins and the active carrier of our transgressions.
I doubt anyone in biblical times or when the Temple stood ever had pity on either goat.
After all, it was God’s will and it returned us all to that state of ritual purity that allowed each of us a fresh start.
But having the long view of a Judaism without sacrifices and a skeptic’s view of whether there is any animal that can acquire the consequences of my own faults, I look at those two long-ago goats with pity.
The pure one dies by the sword. The guilty one dies by neglect. Same outcome for the benefit of people who are looking to assign their sins somewhere other than themselves.
Either way, you’re the goat.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.