The Sin of Remaining Silent

Vayikra | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 28, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious

We don’t admit errors easily. There is probably nothing more difficult for us to say than “I’m sorry.” Each time we bring ourselves to do it, we acknowledge that we are less than perfect and far from infallible. Resistance wells up from the very depth of our being. How often have we been scene to the following Nietzschian dialogue: “‘I have done that?’ asks my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride and remains inexorable. Eventually memory yields.” Without a measure of self-awareness and courage, truth invariably falls prey to our psychological needs.

The sacrificial system we read about this week confronts this human failing head-on. How archaic, yet how contemporary! In listing the categories of sacrifices that may be offered on the altar of the just- finished Tabernacle, the Torah introduces the purification offering, in Hebrew, hattat. Though we shall come across it many times again in the Torah, this first instance is particularly striking and relevant, because we are dealing with a case of ritual inspired by morality.

The hattat is to be brought by someone guilty of violating one of God’s commandments inadvertently. We are not talking of a willful transgression, but an honest mistake made out of ignorance or poor judgment. When discovered, the act must be atoned for by a rite of public contrition that serves to purge the sacred space of the Tabernacle of any contamination left in the wake of a sin. Interestingly, the Torah takes up the more prevalent case first, transgressions committed unwittingly rather than wittingly. The assumption is that most members of the community will do their utmost to abide by the standards and practices of the community. Human weakness and not subversion is the greatest threat to the well-being of the whole. Inadvertent mistakes abound, yet to admit them requires an act of self-transcendence.

To the Torah’s lasting credit, it starts at the top of society and not the bottom. Before it comes to the private behavior of the ordinary Israelite, it takes up the public behavior of the high priest, the community as a whole and the chieftain. How incredibly frightening to apologize for a deed done while in the limelight as a religious or political leader of the nation! Still, the Torah demands that the high priest or chieftain bring a purification offering when they unknowingly have misspoken or led astray. Even the entire nation must atone if it has collectively stumbled into a policy or pursuit fraught with moral ambiguity. “My country, right or wrong” is a mind set that militates against concession and contrition.

The Rabbis deepen the demand for humility. They note the unusual use of the adverb asher in verse 4:22: “When (asher) the chieftain does wrong by violating any of the Lord’s prohibitive commandments inadvertently…” Since the more common word used throughout our parasha is im, “if,” the anomaly stimulates an inspired midrash by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who led the battered Jewish community of Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple by daring to reconfigure Judaism without a central cult: “Fortunate (reading ashre as opposed to asher) is the generation whose leader is prepared to bring a sacrifice for his or her inadvertent error.” The statement grants an illuminating insight into Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s conception of leadership. He knew that the times called for bold action, but he was also acutely aware that grave mistakes could be made. The correct pose was not to avoid any initiative, but to act assertively in a spirit of humility. A sense of fallibility ought to deter leaders from defending acts of omission or commission when the evidence shows that they were deeply flawed. A leader who never errs never grows. With the end of the sacrificial cult, things have gotten more complicated. Bringing a hattat offering spared one the need for a confessional statement. The ritual said it all. In our day we must put remorse into rhetoric, as well as deeds, and if the words are uttered begrudgingly, parsimoniously and selectively they remain ineffectual, the stain of moral contamination endures.

It is for this reason that the Vatican’s long awaited “Reflection on the Shoah,” more than a decade in the making, is such a disappointment. The prior deeds of Pope John Paul II, his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in 1983, his visit to the synagogue in Rome in 1986, his extension of diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1994 and his hosting of a concert at the Vatican in April, 1994 to commemorate the Shoah, had primed world Jewry to expect a more pained admission of Church passivity in the midst of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Crafted in the spirit of an apologia rather than an apology (to quote The New Republic), the document lacks the magnanimity and moral passion that have come to characterize the remarkable leadership of this pope.

The use of the Hebrew vocabulary for Holocaust, “Shoah,” and repentance, “teshuva,” cannot offset the all-too frequent recourse to distinctions that limit Church culpability in the dark history of Jewish persecution. For example, the implied chasm in the Middle Ages between a Church preaching love and a mob practicing pogroms ignores the Church’s own vast legal and rhetorical arsenal of contempt for Judaism. Nor was the Jewish struggle for emancipation in Europe over “by the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.” It had barely begun, and the Church, especially in France and Poland, would bitterly oppose any change in the exclusion of Jews from the body politic.

And that Church legacy of resistance to equality and integration for Jews makes the distinction drawn by “The Reflection” between traditional anti-Judaism and modern racist anti-Semitism too pat and self-serving. It may be that Hitler and his idealogues were driven by a pseudo-scientific Jew-hatred that was equally anti-Christian (though Hitler was astute enough to generally conceal the fact), but they surely benefitted from the still prevailing anti-Judaism, which silenced the majority of bystanders who witnessed the revoking of Jewish equality in the 1930s and the elimination of Jews from society in the war years. Had churchmen condemned the brutal reversal of emancipation in Germany after 1933 with the same vigor and courage they later aimed at the Nazi policy of euthanasia, they might have registered a similar victory. But at the time, their concern did not extend beyond the fate of converted Jews threatened by the Nazis’ racist legislation reordering society.

Precisely because totalitarian regimes are threatened by dissent and unrest, silence often becomes a form of complicity. Until the Vatican is prepared to confront forthrightly the judgment of Pope Pius XII to remain silent throughout, as it fails to do here, it will not be able to convince Jews or anyone else of its implicit claim that “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done (Deuteronomy 21:7).” The cause of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and the moral stature of Pope John Paul II deserved more than this halfhearted hattat.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.