At the heart of the service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement was a ritual that has added a key word to the vocabulary of the West – scapegoat. On the most solemn day of the year, the High Priest – after confessing his own sins and those of his household – undertook a ritual to achieve expiation for the most serious sins of the community. He took two goats, identical in appearance, and cast lots over them. One was sacrificed to God as a sin offering. Over the other, he made confession for the sins of the people. It was then sent into the wilderness, to ‘Azazel’:
The goat will thus carry all the sins away to a desolate area when it is sent to the desert. (Lev. 16:22)
Maimonides’ explanation, in The Guide for the Perplexed, is compelling:
There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent – as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible. (Guide III:46)
Expiation requires some ritual, a dramatic representation of the removal of guilt and impurity from the congregation. The rite was a cathartic experience for the community. Maimonides, the rationalist, is here forced to recognize the affective, emotional dimension of the collective experience of atonement, the need for a physical act to symbolize a metaphysical process. The two goats – one dedicated to God as an offering in the Sanctuary, the other sent out into the wilderness – symbolized the stark alternatives of order and chaos, Divine service on the one hand, sin and anarchy on the other.
Though the ritual has not been performed for 2,000 years, it is significant that two substitutes eventually made their way back into Jewish custom, tashlikh, the ‘casting away’ of sins on Rosh Hashanah, and kapparot, ‘atonements’, on the eve of Yom Kippur. Both are symbolic gestures, physical enactments of relinquishing guilt. It seems that for many people, the abstract idea of forgiveness is made real only when given some tangible expression in dramatic action.
The idea of the scapegoat has reappeared in contemporary thought through the work of René Girard, one of the pioneering theorists of the connection between religion and violence. Girard’s thesis is that violence is at the heart of religious ritual. The primary ritual is sacrifice, and the most fundamental form of sacrifice is the scapegoat.
Religion, he argues, is born in the attempt to escape from the deadly circle of retaliation in societies that lack a judicial system and the impartial process of the law:
Vengeance professes to be an act of reprisal, and every reprisal calls for another reprisal… Vengeance, then, is an interminable, infinitely repetitive process. Every time it turns up in some part of the community, it threatens to involve the whole social body. There is the risk that the act of vengeance will initiate a chain reaction whose consequences will quickly prove fatal to any society of modest size. The multiplication of reprisals instantaneously puts the very existence of the society in jeopardy, and that is why it is universally proscribed. (Girard, ‘Violence and the Sacred’, pp. 14-15)
The solution is to deflect internal violence by directing it outward against a victim – someone who stands outside the community and its protection, and can therefore be killed without fear of reprisal (ancient Athens kept alive a number of people to be available to be sacrificed to avert impending threat to the city; the victim was known as the pharmakos). By charging his death with sanctity, a combination of awe and exaltation, the violent emotions of the community are purged. Catharsis takes place. Peace returns. Order is restored. The victim has been made the scapegoat.
The death of the individual has something of the quality of tribute levied for the continued existence of the collectivity. A human being dies, and the solidarity of the survivors is enhanced by his death. The surrendered victim dies so that the entire community, threatened by the same fate, can be reborn in a new or renewed cultural order. (‘Violence and the Sacred’, p. 255)
This, of course, calls for myth. Some story has to be told, in which the outsider – ritually sacrificed – is held to be responsible for all the evils that have befallen the group.
Ultimately, the persecutors always convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to the whole of society… There is only one person responsible for everything, one who is absolutely responsible, and he will be responsible for the cure because he is already responsible for the sickness. (Girard, ‘The Scapegoat’, pp. 15,43)
Once we grasp the significance of the scapegoat as a solution to crisis within the group, we begin to understand why it is not just an ancient phenomenon, but one that has continued throughout history to the present. Faced with problems that it cannot solve, a group ensures its psychic survival by projecting its inner conflicts onto an external cause, held to be responsible for the plight of the community. Hence the demonisation that has time and again led to pogroms, massacres, and attempted genocides. Societies find it easier to blame a scapegoat than to face their own problems honestly and openly.
Only against this background can we fully understand the institution of the scapegoat in biblical Israel. It was a protest against human sacrifice, widespread in the ancient world and still, in quite different forms, alive today in the form of conspiracy theories, terror, suicide bombings and ethnic conflict. Two features of the high priest’s ritual were crucial –  that the sacrifice was an animal, not a person, and  that it was not an occasion for denying responsibility by blaming the victim, but to the contrary an acceptance of responsibility in the context of repentance and atonement. The second point was fundamental to the concept of teshuvah as it developed in post- biblical Israel. Thus Jews were able to survive the loss of the Temple and the service of the High Priest. In place of sacrifice and the scapegoat came the idea that by acknowledging our sins, expressing our remorse, and committing ourselves to act differently in the future, we are able – through Divine forgiveness – to free ourselves from the burden of guilt and begin again.
The irony is that the ritual designed to eliminate scapegoating in the modern sense has become, in the Western imagination, the source of the idea of the scapegoat itself. That is an error. The biblical scapegoat was precisely not a scapegoat in Girard’s sense. Projecting violence within the group onto an innocent outsider, who is held guilty and killed to preserve the group itself, is one of the most vicious ideas ever to disfigure the human mind. Against this, Judaism held forth the alternative – a penitential culture in which we are able to accept responsibility for our own failings, because of Divine forgiveness and the human capacity to change.