After giving a lecture in Jerusalem to a group of Christian supporters of Israel who had come to study at the Hebrew University, I was asked a question: If there are no more sacrifices in Judaism, how can Jews achieve atonement? Is it not so that without blood, there can be no atonement?
I was not taken aback by the question simply because I had heard it many times before when teaching Christian groups. I understand where the question comes from; it is based on the Christian belief that the purpose of the shedding of the blood of Jesus was that through his blood, one could attain atonement for sin - and this means not merely forgiveness for one's personal misdoings, but atonement for the sinfulness which is inherent in each human being because of the sin of Adam.
This, of course, raises the question which came to the fore again recently with the publication of the Judas Gospel: If Jesus was sent in order to die, what guilt attaches to those - like Judas - who brought about his death? But that is a side issue. The believing Christian may be able to grant that Jews could achieve atonement - or thought they could - through animal sacrifice, but once that ceased and there was no blood of atonement, do we not see that we are without hope?
It is true that the concept of blood as atonement for sin is found in Judaism. Sin offerings were brought for that purpose and one of the main purposes of the Jerusalem Temple was exactly that. According to rabbinic tradition, it was sometimes referred to as Lebanon - from the word lavan, white, because it was the place that "whitened (i.e. erased) the sins of Israel."
Of course a major difference between the Jewish and the Christian outlook is the very concept of the sinful nature of the human being. As severe as the sin in Eden was, Judaism did not take it as inferring that all humans are burdened with sin from birth. It is not accidental that our prayers state so unequivocally, "The soul that You, My God have given me is pure." Even the Biblical text indicates that the curses Adam received could be modified when it says of Noah, "This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hand, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse" (Genesis 5:29).
I therefore explained to my questioner that for us as Jews, the question of atonement for sin is connected less to sacrifice than to teshuva - the act of repentance, which means regretting what one has done (not what one is), rectifying the wrong, if done to another person, and determining not to repeat it. The sacrifice comes only at the end as an indication of having completed this process, but if there is no Temple and therefore no sacrifice, God can and does still forgive the sin; one can achieve atonement.
I did not quote for him the wonderful midrash which states (in part):
They asked Torah, "What is the punishment of the sinner?" Torah replied, "Let him bring his guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him, as it is said, 'that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him'" (Leviticus 1:4).
They asked the Holy One Blessed is He, "What is the punishment of the sinner?" The Holy One Blessed is He replied, "Let him repent and his sin will be atoned, as it is written, 'Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He shows sinners the way'" (Psalm 28:5) (Y. Makkot 31d).
In this teaching, the rabbis acknowledged that even the ritual requirements of the Torah were not needed for atonement. Repentance is sufficient.
But I did mention the wonderful story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua walking by the ruins of the Temple (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21). Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!" But Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai replied, "Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hasadim - acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, 'For I desire hesed - loving-kindness - and not sacrifice!'" (Hosea 6:6).
Indeed, at the time of the destruction of the Temple - the anniversary of which we commemorate at this time of year - Judaism faced a crises. The Temple had played a central role in Jewish life and it was difficult to envision Judaism without sacrifice. We were fortunate that we had such a leader as Yohanan ben Zakkai who could guide the people in revising Jewish life to make it possible to be Jews under these new circumstances, a leader who was wise enough to realize that the Temple and blood-sacrifice, for all its centrality, was not the essence of Judaism but only an appendage to it. Human conduct, acts of kindness, deeds of love toward others, this is what Judaism is all about. We can do without the blood.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.