On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Lev. 16: 30).
On the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of people, the High Priest, entered the holiest of places, the Holy of Holies, and made atonement for all Israel. It was a moment on which the fate of Israel depended. For their destiny depended on G-d; and G-d in turn sought their obedience. Yet a sinless nation is inconceivable. That would be a nation of angels, not women and men. So a people needs rituals of collective repentance and remorse, times at which it asks G-d for forgiveness. That is what the Day of Atonement was when the Temple stood.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to understand the crisis represented by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70CE. It was, to be sure, a military and political disaster. That, we have no difficulty in imagining. But it was also a spiritual catastrophe. Judaism and the Jewish people survived. We would not be here otherwise. But that survival was by no means assured at the time. How does a nation defined in terms of a religion centred on the Temple and its sacrifices live on after the loss of its most basic institutions? That is the question of questions.
The destruction of the First Temple was no less tragic. But in those days, Israel had prophets – men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel – who gave the people hope. There were no such prophets in the first century CE. To the contrary, from the time of the Maccabees onwards, prophecy gave way to apocalypse: visions of the end of days far removed from the normal course of history. The prophets, despite the grandeur of their visions, were for the most part political realists. The apocalyptic visionaries were not. They envisaged a metaphysical transformation. The cosmos would be convulsed by violent confrontation. There would be a massive final battle between the forces of good and evil. As one of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran put it: “the heavenly host will give forth in great voice, the foundations of the world will be shaken, and a war of the mighty ones of the heavens will spread throughout the world”.
People foresaw disaster. Josephus tells us about one of them. Four years before the war against Rome, “at a time of exceptional peace and prosperity”, a certain Jeshua son of Ananias, “a very ordinary yokel”, began to cry “Woe to Jerusalem” wherever he went. People beat him; the authorities had him sentenced to corporal punishment; yet he continued his lament undaunted: “All the time till the war broke out he never approached another citizen or was seen in conversation, but daily as if he had learned a prayer by heart he recited his lament: ‘Woe to Jerusalem’ . . . For seven years and five months he went on ceaselessly, his voice as strong as ever and his vigour unabated”, until he was killed by a rock flung by a Roman engine during the siege.
What does a nation do in the wake of “sacrificial crisis”, the loss of its rituals of atonement? We are in a position to trace this precisely, because of the exceptionally candid confession of one who chose another way, Paul of Tarsus, the first and greatest theologian of Christianity.
Paul tells us that he was obsessed by guilt. He said of himself that he was “sold as a slave to sin”. The good he sought to do, he failed to do. The sin he sought to avoid, he committed. The very fact that he was commanded to do something, provoked in him the opposite reaction, an overwhelming desire to do it. So powerful was this antinomian streak within him that it led him to conceive of a religion without commands at all – quite unlike the sermon on the mount, in which the founder of Christianity said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven . . .”
Paul famously attributed the sinful nature of humanity to the first sin of the first human being, Adam. This sin was lifted by the death of the Messiah. Heaven itself had sacrificed the son of G-d to atone for the sin of man. G-d became the High Priest, and His son the sacrifice.
Paul lived and taught shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, but his teaching – like that of the members of the Qumran sect and Josephus’ visionary Jeshua – fully anticipates that catastrophe and constitutes a pre-emptive response to it. What would happen when there were no more physical sacrifices to atone for the guilt of the nation? In their place, for Paul, would come the metaphysical sacrifice of the son-of-G-d. In Paul, sacrifice is transcendentalized, turned from an event in time and space to one beyond time and space, operative always.
Judaism could not take this route, for many reasons. First, because the message of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) is that G-d does not allow us (let alone Him) to sacrifice sons. Second, because not one, but all, members of the people of the covenant are sons or daughters of G-d: “My child, My firstborn, Israel” (Exodus 4: 22). Third, because despite the many messianic movements to which it has given rise, the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not Yet”. While there is still violence and injustice in the world, we cannot accept the consolation of believing that we live in a post-messianic age.
Only against this background can we appreciate the astonishing leap implicit in the famous statement of Rabbi Akiva:
Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel. Who is it before whom you are purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven. As it is said: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean. And it further says: You hope of Israel, the Lord. Just as a fountain purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.
According to Rabbi Akiva specifically, and rabbinic thought generally, in the absence of a Temple, a High Priest and sacrifices, all we need to do is repent, to do teshuvah, to acknowledge our sins, to commit ourselves not to repeat them in the future, and to ask G-d to forgive us. Nothing else is required: not a Temple, not a priest, and not a sacrifice. G-d Himself purifies us. There is no need for an intermediary. What Christianity transcendentalized, Judaism democratized. As the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky put it: Where there is true turning to G-d, every person becomes a priest, every prayer a sacrifice, every day a Day of Atonement and every place a Holy of Holies.
This really was the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. At stake were two quite different ways of understanding the human person, the nature of sin, the concept of guilt and its atonement, and the mediated or unmediated relationship between us and G-d. Judaism could not accept the concept of “original sin” since Jeremiah and Ezekiel had taught, six centuries before the birth of Christianity, that sin is not transferred across the generations. Nor did it need a metaphysical substitute for sacrifice, believing as it did in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 51: 17): “The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise”. We are all sons or daughters of G-d, who is close to all who call Him in truth. That is how one of the greatest tragedies to hit the Jewish people led to an unprecedented closeness between G-d and us, unmediated by a High Priest, unaccompanied by any sacrifice, achieved by nothing more or less than turning to G-d with all our heart, asking for forgiveness and trusting in His love.