Vayikra is about sacrifices, and though these laws have been inoperative for almost 2000 years since the destruction of the Temple, the moral principles they embody are still challenging.
One set of sacrifices, set out in detail in this week's sedra, warrants particular attention: hattat, the 'sin offering'. Four different cases are considered: the anointed priest (=high priest), the assembly (=the Sanhedrin or supreme court), the Prince (=King), and an ordinary individual. Because their roles in the community were different, so too was the form of their atonement.
The sin offering was to be brought only for major sins, those that carried the penalty of karet, 'being cut off'; and only if they were committed unintentionally or inadvertently (be-shogeg). This could happen in one of two ways, either (a) because the person concerned did not know the law (for example, that cooking is forbidden on Sabbath) or (b) he or she did not know the facts (for instance, that today is the Sabbath).
Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head). Intentional sins cannot be atoned for by sacrifice. Involuntary actions do not need atonement. Thus, the sin offering is confined to a middle range of cases, where you did wrong, but you didn't know you were doing wrong.
The question is obvious: Why should unintentional sins require atonement at all? What guilt is involved? The sinner did not mean to sin. The requisite intent (mens rea) was lacking. Had the offender known the facts and the law at the time, he would not have done what he did. Why then does he have to undergo a process of atonement? To this, the commentators gave a variety of answers.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. David Zvi Hoffman give the most straightforward explanation. Ignorance - whether of the facts or the law - is a form of negligence. We should know the law, especially in the most serious cases. We should also exercise vigilance: we should know what we are doing. That is a fundamental obligation, especially in relation to the most serious areas of conduct.
Abrabanel argues that the sin offering was less a punishment for what had been done, than a solemn warning against sin in the future. The bringing of a sacrifice, involving considerable effort and expense, was a vivid reminder to the individual to be more careful in the future.
Nahmanides suggests that the sin offering was brought not because of what led to the act, but rather because of what followed from it. Sin, even without intention, defiles. 'The reason for the offerings for the erring soul is that all sins [even if committed unwittingly] produce a "stain" on the soul and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.'
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, following midrashic tradition, offered a fourth interpretation. Even inadvertent sins testify to something wrong on the part of the person concerned. Bad things do not come about through good people. The sages said that G-d does not allow even the animals of the righteous to do wrong; how much more so does He protect the righteous themselves from error and mishap (see Yevamot 99b; Ketubot 28b). There must therefore have been something wrong with the individual for the mishap to have taken place.
This view - characteristic of the Habad approach, with its emphasis on the psychology of the religious life - shares more than a passing similarity with Sigmund Freud's analysis of the unconscious, which gave rise to the phrase, 'a Freudian slip'. Remarks or acts that seem unintentional often betray unconscious desires or motives. Indeed, we can often glimpse the unconscious more readily at such moments than when the person is acting in full knowledge and deliberation. Inadvertent sins suggest something amiss in the soul of the sinner. It is this fault, which may lie beneath the threshold of consciousness, which is atoned for by the hattat.
Whichever explanation we follow, the hattat represents an idea familiar in law but strangely unfamiliar in Western ethics. Our acts make a difference to the world.
Under the influence of Immanuel Kant, we have come to think that all that matters as far as morality is concerned is the will. If our will is good, then we are good, regardless of what we actually do. We are judged by our intentions, not our deeds. Judaism does recognise the difference between good will and bad. That is why deliberate sins cannot be atoned for by a sacrifice, whereas unintentional ones can.
Yet the very fact that unintentional sins require atonement tells us that we cannot dissociate ourselves from our actions by saying: 'I didn't mean to do it.' Wrong was done - and it was done by us. Therefore we must perform an act that signals our contrition. We cannot just walk away as if the act had nothing to do with us.
Many years ago a secular Jewish novelist said to me: 'Isn't Judaism full of guilt?' To which I replied, 'Yes, but it is also full of forgiveness.' The entire institution of the sin offering is about forgiveness. However, Judaism makes a serious moral statement when it refuses to split the human person into two entities - body and soul, act and intention, objective and subjective, the world 'out there' and the world 'in here'. Kant did just that. All that matters morally, he argued, is what happens 'in here', in the soul.
Is it entirely accidental that the culture most influenced by Kant was also the one that gave rise to the Holocaust? I do not mean - Heaven forbid - that the sage of Konigsberg was in any way responsible for that tragedy. Yet it remains the case that many good and decent people did nothing to protest the single greatest crime of man against man while it was taking place. Many of them surely thought that it had nothing to do with them. If they bore the Jews no particular ill will, why should they feel guilty? Yet the result of their action or inaction had real consequences in the physical world. A culture that confines morality to the mind is one that lacks an adequate defence against harmful behaviour.
The sin offering reminds us that the wrong we do, or let happen, even if we did not intend it, still requires atonement. Unfashionable though this is, a morality that speaks about action, not just intention - about what happens through us even if we didn't mean to do it - is more compelling, more true to the human situation, than one that speaks of intention alone.
No amount of regulation will restore our sense of honour and shame. Economics needs ethics.
OP-ED - THE TIMES
09 March 2009
The continuing disclosures about excessive pensions and payoffs, salaries and bonuses for people at the top stir in us feelings for the oldest of human bloodsports: the search for a scapegoat. But they ought to lead us to think more deeply about the values of our culture as a whole. Often, these past months, I have found myself going back to one of the most painful conversations I have had. It was with one of Britain's leading industrialists. He had led his company to consistent success for decades. When I met him he had retired and was near the end of his life.
He was not a religious man but he was a deeply moral one. He spoke of the principles that had guided him in business and of the salary he had drawn. It was not negligible, but it was modest. What pained him was that his successor had awarded himself a salary ten times that amount, while systematically destroying the company he had so carefully built.
I recall another conversation with a successful investment banker. He told me that the first thing he had to establish was his character, his reputation for trustworthiness and honesty. Without that, he would have been unable to trade. Nowadays, he said, deals no longer depend on character but on lawyers. Common to these stories is the gradual disappearance of the cluster of principles that went by the name of morality.
Whatever its source - religion, conscience, custom or code - it meant that there are certain things you don't do because they are not done. You don't reward yourself when customers, clients or shareholders or employees are suffering losses. You don't pay yourself out of all proportion to what you pay others. You don't take advantage of your position just because you can. You are guided, even if no one is watching, by a sense of what is responsible and right. Without that internalised code of honour and trust, no institution can be sustained in the long run.
Somehow, between the 1960s and 1980s the idea prevailed that we could do without the moral sense. Who needed it any more? In the 1960s we thought that the State would take care of our problems. In the 1980s we thought that the market would. Self-imposed restraints were dismissed as outmoded and killjoy. Greed was good. The guy with the most toys when he dies, wins.
The result was that we began to lose our understanding of the vital distinction between the value of things and their price. The key example - at the heart of the entire financial collapse - was housing. The value of a house is that it is a home. It's a shelter, a haven, personal space in an impersonal world. For many, it's where we sustain a marriage and build a family. It's where love finds its local habitation and name. At a point in time, some began to think of houses not as homes but as capital investments. They began to borrow more and spend more. Building societies duly obliged.
House prices kept on rising. Their attraction as investments grew, and so the cycle fed itself: ever higher prices, ever bigger mortgages, until house prices and borrowing lost all connection with average incomes and sustainability. Those who just wanted a home had no choice but to join the game, at great expense and risk. The speculators were convinced they had become richer, but in real terms they hadn't. The value of housing had changed not an iota, because value is not the same as price.
It was bound to collapse, and anyone who had thought it through, said so. The investor Warren Buffett called sub-prime mortgages "financial weapons of mass destruction" as long ago as 2002. In the collective madness, no one was listening.
After financial collapse many questions are being asked. Should there be more regulation? State ownership of financial institutions? Have we reached the end of the market economy? They are good questions, but they get nowhere near the heart of the matter.
The market economy has generated more real wealth, eliminated more poverty and liberated more human creativity than any other economic system. The fault is not with the market but with the idea that the market alone is all we need.
Markets don't guarantee equity, responsibility or integrity. They can maximise short-term gain at the cost of long-term sustainability. They don't distribute rewards fairly. They don't guarantee honesty. When it comes to flagrant self-interest, they combine the maximum temptation with the maximum opportunity. Markets need morals, and morals are not made by markets.
They are made by schools, the media, custom, tradition, religious leaders, moral role models and the influence of people. But when religion loses its voice and the media worship success, when right and wrong become relativised and morality is condemned as "judgmental", when people lose all sense of honour and shame and there is nothing they won't do if they can get away with it, no regulation will save us. People will outwit the regulators, as they did by the securitisation of risk so no one knew who owed what to whom.
The big question is: how do we learn to be moral again? Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets. Economics needs ethics. Markets do not survive by market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.