No Atonement for the Renegade

No Atonement for the Renegade
Parshat Vayikra – פרשת ויקרא
March 17, 2018 – א ניסן תשעח
No Atonement for the Renegade
Leviticus begins by listing which categories of animals are suitable “when a man among you brings an offering to God (1:2).” The plain reading of the text is that any Israelite who desires to bring a sacrifice is permitted to do so. However, the sages interpreted the word מכם, “from among you,” to be limiting, and not inclusive or all-encompassing. While most Jews would be allowed to offer a sacrifice, creative exegesis endeavored to keep away a certain class of Jews from the most sanctified form of divine service מכם ולא כולכם (Hullin 5a).
Indeed, in this regard the meaning of the word “korban” [קרבן] was turned on its head. That word does not mean “sacrifice” so much as it does “a drawing-near.” The exegetes who wished to narrow the category of permitted sacrificers in effect wanted to keep those so excluded away from, and not near to, holiness.
Expounding upon the words “from the animals” מן הבהמה, the sages determined that sacrifices should be accepted even from people who behave like animals. Thus, the sinners of Israel may bring their cattle or flock to the Temple in the hope that this will spur repentance. [The comparison between human sinners and the animal kingdom is based upon the notion that man’s superiority over animals is contingent upon man’s fulfilling his mission as a servant of God. Failure to heed the commandments renders a person no better than a beast (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 1:1 and Sanhedrin 38b). Scriptural support for this analogy is found in Ecclesiastes 3:19 and Psalms 49:21.]
However, the worst category of sinner, labeled מומר, or renegade, would not have his sacrifice accepted by the Temple administrators. Included are those who intentionally pour idolatrous libations or flagrantly violate the Sabbath (Eruvin 69b). Rashi notes that one who commits idolatry rejects belief in the Almighty, and one who brazenly desecrates the Sabbath testifies through his deeds that he denies the Torah’s account of Creation.
But why should even the most loathsome sinner be denied the chance to atone for his misdeeds? Why exclude even a renegade from the sacrificial cult?
Three distinct suggestions present themselves: (a) The public is so angered by the renegade’s complete disregard for communal mores and sensitivities that we want to deny him any path to repentance. That is, we want him to suffer punishment at the hands of God. (b) God’s wrath has been kindled by the renegade’s egregious behavior to the point that He wants to strip the outlaw of all means of spiritual return. (c) Unlike the casual sinner who is likely to experience remorse and turn away from iniquity, the renegade is so far removed from the God of Israel that any act of return would be hypocritical and a farce. Accepting the renegade’s insincere offering would mock the Temple cult.
The first answer reflects raw human emotion, but not necessarily good communal policy. The second relies upon theological speculation and is subject to great uncertainty. According to the third answer, the sages made a sociological determination and adopted a policy that best protected the integrity of the Temple. Careful study of rabbinic literature tends to confirm that the third approach is the correct one.
Hooligans lived in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood. They annoyed him greatly. He prayed for their deaths. His wife, Beruriah, questioned that vengeful action. She quoted the verse, “Let sinners cease out of the earth and let the wicked be no more (Psalms 104:35).” She noted that the word חטאים as written means sins, not sinners. It would be better to pray that the miscreants repent. Through a change in their behavior — not by their deaths — would the end of the verse be fulfilled, “let the wicked be no more.” Rabbi Meir followed his wife’s advice; and the ruffians repented (Berakhot 10a).  In this tale, the Talmud in effect reflects Hillel’s instruction to love our fellow man and bring him closer to Torah (Avot 1:12).  Seeking revenge for his misdeeds – even against us – is not the proper course.
Generally speaking, man has free will (Avot 3:19). God has no desire for the wicked man to die. God prefers that he turn from his evil way and live (Ezekiel 18:32). God is exceedingly patient, giving individuals, and humanity as a whole, ample time to repent before consequences result (Avot 5:2). In rare instances, God takes free will away. The most famous example is that of Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened during the ten plagues (Exodus 9:12). Too, certain sins are regarded as so reprehensible that the offender will lack the ability to repent אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה, especially if he corrupts others as well (Avot 5:18).
It is not his fellow man who withdraws from the sinner the requisite tools of repentance. Rather, explains Maimonides, God will not assist the sinner in accomplishing the necessary steps to achieve atonement (Commentary, Mishnah Yoma 8:9). In the legendary encounter between Rabbi Meir and Elisha ben Abuyah, Meir tried to convince his wayward teacher to return to the proper path of Rabbinic Judaism. Ben Abuyah refuses, claiming to have heard from behind the veil that all are welcome to repent except for him (Hagigah 15a). Two key points can be gleaned from this story: (a) Absent hearing a heavenly voice, we truly do not know whom God has definitively rejected. (b) Despite ben Abuyah’s serious falling out with his rabbinic colleagues, no human obstacle was placed in the way of his possible return to righteousness.
Accordingly, the refusal of Temple officials to accept sacrifices from the renegade has nothing to do with human speculation about whom God has decided to condemn.
Rather, the refusal to accept the renegade’s offering can be attributed to the long and inglorious history of insincere sacrifices that were brought in the Temple. The prophets railed against offerings brought without contrition as being completely hollow and meaningless in the eyes of God. “To what purpose is your multitude of sacrifices unto Me (Isaiah 1:11)?” The classic case of one whose repentance will be stymied is one who thinks, “I will sin and I will repent; I will sin [again] and I will repent” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). While the Temple authorities could not know the inner thoughts and feelings of those who brought offerings, they took for granted that certain extreme violations would only be committed by someone who was permanently lost. A Jew who has succumbed to heresy (מינות) can never recover his traditional religious roots (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 2:4). Scripture warns, “None that go unto her return (Proverbs 2:19).” Therefore, the kohen is instructed to turn away the renegade and his sheep at the Temple gates. Protecting the institution of animal sacrifice from disgrace and debasement was at the heart of that exclusionary policy.
[Interestingly, the Talmud only makes this distinction between מומר and non-מומר for Jews. All gentiles, including those guilty of gross theological error and misdeed, are permitted to send sacrifices to the Temple (Hullin 5a). Why? Two other Talmudic passages provide clues: (a) The sages felt that gentiles outside the Land of Israel are not true idolaters; they merely follow the worship customs of their forebears (Hullin 13b). (b) Although the Mishnah advises that one must know how to respond to a heretic (Avot 2:14), the Gemara says that this only applies to gentiles. One should not engage a heretical Jew in debate because that will only make matters worse (Sanhedrin 38b). The sages felt that a Jew, due to his religious upbringing, should know the truth. A Jew’s turn to heresy later in life is an inexcusable and conscious rejection of God. The gentile, however, was not raised as a Jew. So his current iniquity, both moral and theological, is not entirely his fault and is subject to improvement.]
The question of whom to exclude from religious life is one that has bedeviled the Jewish community for centuries. How badly do you have to behave before the synagogue revokes your membership? Should a distinction be drawn between those who are merely freethinkers and those who act contrary to accepted religious practice?
A synagogue, or מקדש מעט, is successor to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. For that reason, it should reject certain odious donations. Anyone engaged in criminality, or the undermining of Judaism, who uses charitable contribution to cover (or “atone”) for ongoing nefarious activities, should have his check returned. Just as the integrity of the sacrificial cult had to be protected, so, too, must our contemporary Jewish institutions remain untainted.