Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
“Aaron shall place two lots on the two goats, one lot [marked] ‘for God,’ and one [marked] ‘for Azazel.’ Aaron shall present the goat that has the lot for God so that it will [later] be prepared as a sin offering. The goat that has the lot for Azazel shall remain alive before God, so that [Aaron] will be able to make atonement on it and send it to Azazel in the desert.” (Lev. 16: 8-10)
The meaning of the word Azazel is obscure. The Mishnah (Yoma 39a) understands the word as meaning “for absolute removal”. Azazel appears in the Book of Enoch as a fallen angel who corrupts humanity and as punishment for his sins is taken out into the desert, bound, and buried. The parallel to Azazel’s goat in Leviticus is marked. The Septuagint translated Azazel as “the sent away”. The King James Bible translated it as scapegoat.
The scapegoat ceremony described in Acharei Mot is an ancient and mysterious ritual. Aaron takes two goats, one to be offered as a sacrifice to YHVH and the other marked for Azazel. It has all the Israelites’ sins bestowed on it by Aaron and then is taken into the desert bearing those sins.
The mimetic theory of desire, developed about 50 years ago by René Girard, proposes that humans learn everything through imitation, including what we desire. As what we desire is modelled on what others desire, this inevitably leads to rivalry. If the object of desire can’t be shared, competition for it leads to violence. Girard postulated that as human society evolved, we learned to control our inner rivalry and conflict and protect our communities by projecting the violence onto a third party: a scapegoat.
Girard’s idea that our scapegoating acts like a social pressure valve is compelling. I only have to think of the kerfuffle that UKIP is in now that they have achieved their aim (the UK out and immigration on hold) and find that they are still not happy. The whole point of the scapegoat is that while it may emblematically be blamed for everything, its removal of our sins provides only temporary respite since, in Girardian terms, it is merely the carrier of society’s inner violent conflicts. The sacrifice of the scapegoat does not address the ongoing conflicts, desires, and angers that necessitated it in the first place. It was Girard’s contention that scapegoating and sacrifice were essential components of the development of both religion and social cohesion.
When I set out to write this I was thinking about how immigration has become the national scapegoat. All the discontents and difficulties and challenges that ordinary people share in their daily lives were heaped on the immigrant scapegoat. As I write today, the news is full of the appalling attack on a 17-year-old Iranian Kurd asylum-seeker. A friend told me she was expecting the attackers to be white and was surprised that the photos of those arrested for the assault included young black men and women.
The strangeness of this is easily explained by mimetic desire. The young asylum-seeker desires sanctuary in the UK, the Croydon-born children of immigrants also seek to be recognized as British. The two are unwitting rivals for Britishness. The asylum-seeker’s existence challenges the young people’s own self-modelling. Their attack on him shows how conflicted and challenged by his presence they are in the national post-Brexit anti-immigrant zeitgeist. He is their scapegoat. By sacrificing him up they hope to become part of the whole. But they will learn that this offers only temporary relief.
Georgia Kaufmann is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue. She writes fiction, and trained and worked as an anthropologist and demographer.