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Unscrolled, Vayikra: A Crime With No Motive

We would be wrong to dismiss the Levitical model of atonement out of hand.
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March 18, 2021
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In Parashat Vayikra, a number of situations are put forward in which a hypothetical individual has sinned without even realizing it. The rest of the parashah discusses what he is to do when he is made aware of his trespass.

The answer depends on his identity, his financial means and the nature of his sin, but the gist of it is that he will bring an animal to the priests of the sanctuary to be sacrificed as an act of expiation. The animal will be cut in particular way, and specific parts will be made into smoke on the altar.

Sin, conceived as an “unwitting” offense, and atonement, conceived as a matter of ritual procedure, are thus depersonalized. There is a crime but no motive. There is atonement but no remorse. In the books of Genesis and Exodus, sin is inextricable from intent — it is a result of lust, jealousy or rage. In the book of Leviticus, however, sin accrues without our noticing, like late fees on a forgotten library book.

Some might balk at the way the Levitical code seems to mechanize the workings of the soul. A number of the Hebrew prophets certainly did. As Jeremiah said in the name of God, “You do these things I hate, and then you come and stand in my presence, in my own Temple, and say, ‘We are safe!’’” His polemic evokes Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Can repentance really be so formalistic?

But we would be wrong to dismiss the Levitical model out of hand. Yes, it is mechanistic. But that may indeed be its greatest attribute.

We would be wrong to dismiss the Levitical model of atonement out of hand.

In a recent episode of the “Making Sense” podcast, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues against the existence of free will. Clearly and convincingly, he makes the case that while we can make choices, our choices themselves are determined by our brain chemistry and our life history, neither of which we have any say in.

By implication, this means that virtue and success are matters of pure privilege. Criminality, failure, and calamity, far from being caused by moral failure, are merely the result of terrible circumstance. Moral failure itself, far from being an explanation for behavior, is itself a result of the universe’s tangled web of causes.

Like sin in Parashat Vayikra, a world without free will is one in which our human fates are depersonalized. They are not ours to gloat over or feel shame about. Ironically, Harris, the ultimate atheist, is touching on a classic religious idea: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

“Most people resist this idea, seemingly at any intellectual cost,” Harris goes on. “And yet this single insight is the antidote to arrogance and hatred. It provides a profound basis for compassion — both for other people and for oneself. It provides a basis for real forgiveness, and it is the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution, this notion of punishment as justified vengeance. It allows us to simply consider what actually works in changing people’s behavior for the better.”

If we accept that sin is not chosen freely, what need do we have for the delusional pursuit of vengeance and the useless exercises of self-flagellation and shame? We are free to get onto what really matters — helping people, fixing problems and moving on.

That’s what the Levitical code provides: a way to move on in which sin is acknowledged, accounted for and expiated.

As this parashah makes clear, sin will happen, whether we want it to or not. To respond with “arrogance and hatred” would be to forget that there, but for the grace of God, goes every one of us.

After all, Parashat Vayikra makes it quite clear that sin can be incurred by any member of the community, from the priest, to your next-door neighbor, to you yourself.

Don’t act so shocked. It’s really nothing personal.


Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

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