Magic and Ritual on Yom Kippur
Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism (2002), vol. 8, pp. 116-119
4 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2017
Date Written: 2002
This short essay tries to make sense of the Biblical description of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in which a scapegoat was dispatched to Azazel to carry away the sins of the people.
In the standard binary of justice and mercy, we often assume that justice is the mark of order, proportion, and balance, while mercy is disorderly, out of proportion, and imbalanced. The Biblical account of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual casts a different light on the matter, however. It suggests that the orderly machinery of the universe dispenses both justice and mercy. Mercy, too, is part of the architecture of the cosmos, natural and balanced.
The synagogue liturgy of Yom Kippur, as it has developed over the centuries, mutes the Bible’s impersonally efficacious account of mercy. It focuses instead on the spiritual, the sacred, and the transformative dimensions of the day. But there is also power and beauty in the notion that magic can be invoked by an act of magic – a mechanical, automatically efficacious act of wiping the slate clean.
The ritual of the Azazel was in some sense a “performative” in the philosophical sense – a gesture that did not so much convey a thought as do a thing. Yom Kippur is rightly a time of doubt, anxiety, and terror. The trick is to know the terror, but also let the magic work.
Keywords: Bible, Yom Kippur, magic, performatives, mercy, justice
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