Sunday, November 3, 2013

Atonement Series #1: By What Means Did the Repentant Nations of Jonah's Day Receive Atonement For Their Sins?

"In b. Sukkah 55b...we read that the seventy bulls that were offered every year during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot; see Num. 29:12-34) 'were for the seventy nations,' which Rashi explains to mean, 'to make atonement for them, so that rain will fall throughout the world.'  In this context--and in light of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e.--the Talmud records the words of Rabbi Yohannan:  'Woe to the nations who destroyed without knowing what they were destroying.  For when the Temple was standing, the altar made atonement for them.  But now, who will make atonement for them?" (pgs. 152-153 of Michael Brown's "Answering Jewish Objections").
Why was Yohannan getting so worked up?  After all, we don't really need the Temple according to Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai:
"It once happened that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem and R. Joshua was walking behind him, when the latter saw the Temple in ruins.  Said R. Joshua:  'Woe to us that this is in ruins--the place where the sins of Israel were expiated!'  Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai replied:  'My son, be not grieved, we have a means of atonement that is commensurate with it.  Which is this?  It is the performance of lovingkindness, as it is said, 'For I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice'" (ibid, pgs. 111-112).
And this latter view is now official halachah in Orthodox Judaism.  According to Orthodox Judaism, the whole Temple system was just a big miscommunication.  G-d never really commanded blood sacrifices (but even if He did we have some really good back-up options that make the Temple irrelevant).  So it doesn't really matter that the Temple was destroyed.  In Zakkai's words, "be not grieved."  Don't sweat it.

Is that really the truth?

In the next post I'm going to breakdown this subject and talk about what the Torah really says about the necessity of blood sacrifice to effectuate forgiveness of sins.


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