Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Yoma 40 a, b

We know that two goats were sacrificed on Yom Kippur, one as a sin-offering for G-d and one as our scapegoat toward Azazel.  We know that a lottery took place to designate these roles to each goat.  However, was that lottery indispensable?  Or was it not actually a required part of the Yom Kippur service?

Today's daf focuses entirely upon this question.  The rabbis wonder about the original baraitot and how previous rabbis interpreted those instructions.  They consider arguments including the sequencing of events (ie. is the lottery required in order to validate another sacrifice later in the sequence of rituals?).  They wonder about whether the lots might be switched from one hand to another and how that might be interpreted by the community.

The influence of the Sadducees, the tzdokim, seems to be critical here.  We learn in a note by Steinsaltz that the Sadducees were originally called the minim, or heretics.  They were only one of many Jewish-based religious cults that practiced in the second century.  The Sadducees believed that the Rabbis were not the highest authorities on Jewish halacha.  In fact, they believed that the Rabbis picked and chose their halachic rules; halacha was not G-d-given.  Thus when rabbis considered halachot, they had in mind the potential critiques of the Sadducees and others.

We continue to struggle with these same questions.  Rabbinic Judaism is now accepted as authoritative (by a majority of Jews - whether or not they practice halacha) - and yet Jews who observe halacha with rigour sometimes criticize other segments of the Jewish community for "picking and choosing" which mitzvot we will observe.

The thought underlying this continual criticism addresses the reality that humans have interpreted - and in that way, have helped to create - our most sacred texts.  If any part of G-d's words is interpreted by people, there will be errors, misjudgements, biases.  And if our understanding of the Tanach is imperfect, how can we practice with full confidence that we are understanding G-d's intentions?  The bottom line for me -- we can't.  And so we can do our best to learn, question and push our tradition so that we come as close as we can to whatever 'truths' we might find.  Ultimately, this process should help us live our lives with integrity - regardless of what we learn along the way.

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