Challenging: Outreach Judaism's rabbinical response to a question about the Azazel Goat

Comments by Outreach Judaism:

Question: I was wondering about a story that a "Hebrew-Christian" told me recently. He said that there was a scarlet cloth which would turn white every year when the high priest atoned for the sins of the people. When Jesus died, around 30 A.D., the cloth would no longer turn white when the priest atoned for sins because Jesus was the final atonement. I've read this story in other sources, and I wondered what you have to say about it.

Response by Rabbi Tovia Singer:

(Note: Due to the length of Rabbi Singer's response, The Refiner's Fire is posting only the parts that address this specific question. The article can be viewed in its entirety at Outreach Judaism.)

In spite of the popularity this issue has gained in the Christian world in recent years, this contention stands out as one of the most bizarre arguments used by those who seek to convert the Jewish people to Christianity. What makes this line of reasoning so odd is that it seeks to use the Talmud to prove that Jesus is the messiah. While many readers of our website would simply be surprised to learn that missionaries would point to the Talmud to prove the validity of the Christian religion, in reality, this misuse of rabbinic literature is widespread.

Bear in mind, missionaries rarely shy away from an opportunity to condemn the Oral Law as the nimble work of men rather than the oral transmission handed down to us by Moses, our teacher. In fact, there are few issues that seem to produce the visceral passions of the Hebrew-Christian world as does the mere mention of the Talmud. These evangelicals fervently insist that the written Bible alone is reliable and divinely inspired and often scornfully mock traditional Jews as practicing a "rabbinic Judaism." Needless to say, Christians rarely use this acrid label in a manor that is meant to be flattering.

Paradoxically, whenever missionaries feel the urge to advance their position by quoting from the Talmud, they undergo a spontaneous conversion as they happily and unhesitatingly point to the works of the Talmud with a newfound regard for its truthfulness and inspiration. Yet the very same Talmud, which evangelicals gleefully use to advance their tenuous positions, also unambiguously states that Jesus of Nazareth was neither virtuous nor the messiah. This pick-and-choose approach that missionaries unflinchingly embrace doesn't appear to bother those dedicated to Jewish evangelism.

The Netzari Response:

While it's understandable that Rabbi Singer would get upset about the "missionaries'" mention of the Talmud, his dripping sarcasm and rambling verbiage doesn't change the fact that he has completely missed the mark when it comes to the Bible as a whole. For instance, let's examine some of the things "Moses, our teacher" said:

Deuteronomy 18:15 "Adonai will raise up for you a prophet like me from among yourselves, from our own kinsmen. You are to pay attention him,"....

What did Moshe Rabeynu mean when he said "a prophet like me"? Did this mean that the prophet who would come would be an older man (Moses was 80 years old when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt)? Did it mean that the prophet would be hot tempered and impatient because Moses was that way? Did it mean that the prophet would be trained in the ways of Egyptian royalty? No, not hardly....

Deuteronomy 34:10 says - Since that time there has not arisen in Isra'el a prophet like Moshe, whom Adonai knew face to face.

Why? How can this be? ANSWER: The prophet that Moses was speaking of "like me" was God's Divine Messiah - Yeshua - His "arm" (Isaiah 53:1), on His behalf, to speak to His people face-to-face....

Most contemporary commentators believe that Joshua and other prophets fulfilled the scripture. However, the late Rachmiel Frydland, in his book "What the Rabbis Know about the Messiah" pointed out that "Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (RALBAG) of the 14th century identified the Prophet as Messiah":

"A Prophet from the midst of thee." In fact the Messiah is such a Prophet as it is stated in the Midrash of the verse, "Behold my Servant shall prosper" (Isaiah 52:13) ... Moses, by the miracles which he wrought, brought a single nation to the worship of God, but the Messiah will draw all peoples to the worship of God.

The Midrashic passage that RALBAG cites, referring to Messiah as prophet, states: It is written, Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, He shall be exalted, and extolled, and be very high (Isaiah 52:13). It means, He shall be more exalted than Abraham of whom it is written, 'I lift up my hand' (Genesis 14:22). He shall be more extolled than Moses of whom it is said, 'As a nursing father beareth the nursing child' (Numbers 11:12). 'And shall be very high'--that is, Messiah shall be higher than the ministering angels. - See Midrash Tanhuma, (Israel: KTAV Publishing Company, 1989) pp166-67

Moses offered himself to save Israel from the God's wrath; to take the punishment of the people's sins on himself by being blotted out of the book. As a priest he could have offered animals by the thousands but instead he offered himself. Yeshua, the ultimate "Good Shepherd" and perfect mediator between us and God, in John 10:10-11, explained what being a good shepherd meant: Someone who is willing to give his life for his sheep.

Yes, Moses was our teacher, but the One who came after him was even greater! So, why do you insist on being stuck in the Tanach, when there are tons of evidence for Yeshua throughout the entire Bible?

Rabbi Singer continues:

Nevertheless, it is essential that we examine this well-worn argument with which you were confronted. In Tractate Yoma 39b, the Talmud quotes a Baraisa that discusses numerous remarkable phenomena that occurred in the Temple during the Yom Kippur service. More specifically, the Talmud states that there was a strip of scarlet-dyed wool tied to the head of the scapegoat which would turn white in the presence of the large crowd gathered at the Temple on the Day of Atonement. The Jewish people perceived this miraculous transformation as a heavenly sign that their sins were forgiven. The Talmud relates, however, that 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple the scarlet colored strip of wool did not turn white. The text of the Talmud which missionaries quote states,

The Rabbis taught that forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the [high priest's] right hand nor did the tongue of scarlet wool become white . . . .

Citing the above statement, missionaries contend that the year the scarlet ribbon ceased to turn white coincides with the time that Jesus was crucified. They go on to insist that 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple corresponds to the year 30 C.E.,3 which is approximately the time of Jesus' crucifixion. They conclude, therefore, that the cessation of the whitening of the scarlet ribbon clearly indicates that God was no longer accepting animal sacrifices, and the Jewish people, therefore, needed to turn to Jesus as their only avenue for atonement. Ultimately, this argument asserts that reason the scarlet strip of wool did not turn white in the year 30 C.E. was due to the fact that the sins of the Jews were not forgiven because they did not accept Jesus as their messiah.

As unimaginable as it would seem, particularly for those readers who are familiar with this well-known section of the Talmud, this argument has gained widespread attention over the last few years. In fact, the first time I heard this polemic used I watched in disbelief as a spellbound church audience turned pale when their pastor excitedly expounded on this quote from the Talmud in his sermon. It was a particularly disheartening spectacle to observe. Had any one of the parishioners in the audience gone to the local library and examined this entire section of the Talmud, they would have quickly realized that this quote had been misapplied and misused.

The Netzari Response:

I watched in disbelief as a spellbound church audience turned pale when their pastor excitedly expounded on this quote from the Talmud in his sermon....

Did the whole audience really turn pale? Do you have a video of them all turning pale? What's with all the over-dramatization?

Rabbi Singer continues:

Before we examine this statement in the Talmud, there are two issues which need to be raised here. The first point is that it is my hope that our website readers have noticed what those who advance this argument have done: They have attached an exegesis to the text of the Talmud that reflects a self-serving theology. In essence, missionaries are claiming that the reason why the strip of scarlet wool did not turn white must be attributed to the fact that the Jews rejected Jesus. This is a preposterous notion. In fact, if evangelicals wish to engage in this sophomoric approach, a far more congruous argument could be made here using their same line of reasoning. We can, utilizing the same course of logic, conclude that the reason the scarlet strip of wool did not turn white was due to the fact that masses of wayward Jews had followed the false messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, rather than attributing the reason for the scarlet strip of wool not turning white to the rejection of Jesus, it can be more steadily asserted that the reason this transformation didn't occur was due to the fact that many Jewish people had shamefully embraced Christianity. In fact, such an interpretation would be far more consistent with the whole of the Talmud.

The Netzarim Response:

And why is it "a preposterous notion" to believe that the goat's strip never turned white again because God had sent a once and for all Sin Offering via Yeshua? Why is it "self-serving theology" to believe the obvious truth? If the strip always turned white before, and suddenly and completely stopped turning white after Yeshua's death, perhaps there really was something to this Yeshua thing....

Better yet: The Refiner's Fire challenges you to tie a scarlet ribbon around a goat and then kill it for next Yom Kippur. Please let us know whether or not the ribbon turns white....

Rabbi Singer continues:

The second point, however, presents a far more serious problem for Christian apologists. If in fact, as the "Hebrew-Christian" insisted, the reason that the scarlet wool strip did not turn white was "because Jesus was the final atonement," and there was thus no longer any need for animal sacrifices, why then are the same animal sacrifices coming back? Christians have very little room to maneuver on this matter because the Bible is quite clear that the animal sacrificial system will be restored in the messianic age. In fact, in the last nine chapters of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes in vivid detail the elaborate rituals and lofty ceremonies which will occur in the third and final messianic Temple. In chapters 43-44, Ezekiel clearly states that the animal sacrifices will be reinstated in their full glory. This simple fact should at least give Hebrew-Christians pause before they boldly proclaim that the transformation of the scarlet strip of wool had ceased due to the fact that God had done away with animal sacrifices. Clearly, God has not done away with them as evidenced by the fact that these elaborate Temple rituals will be restored with the advent of the messiah.

The Netzarim Response:

Rabbi Singer, God clearly has "done away with" SIN sacrifices for now, because Yeshua was the Final SIN "Sacrifice"/"offering"! He wasn't sacrificed; he chose to martyr himself, against which there is no Torah command. However, because counter-missionaries such as yourself have chosen, and will continue, to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the whole Word of God, there will be yet another Temple complete with animal sacrifices. While the Bible tells us that there will be a third Temple, does Ezekiel 37 actually say that the Temple will be rebuilt by the Messiah? Does Ezekiel tell us that the rituals will be "restored with the advent of messiah"? You're reading into the Tanach things that aren't there....

Ezekiel's specific vision of the future describing God in his third temple must be distinguished from his general instruction relating to animal sacrifice in the first temple. Ezekiel never states that these animal sacrifices will be presented before God in the third temple (even assuming a physical third temple is the correct interpretation). If this was Ezekiel's intent, he would have made it clear, as he takes great pains to detail temple operation in these passages. Rabbi Singer's disingenuous attempt to bootstrap the language is unfortunate, but expected.

In his dismissal of the last part of God's Word, he has totally missed God's TRUTH and gone, instead, with man-made interpretation!

By the way, Jewish anti-missionaries are famous for insisting that mere men cannot atone for the sins of others; so our question is, how do you account for the following scriptures that say otherwise?

Exodus 28:36 "You are to make an ornament of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal, 'Set apart for ADONAI.' 37 Fasten it to the turban with a blue cord, on the front of the turban, 38 over Aharon's forehead. Because Aharon bears the guilt for any errors committed by the people of Isra'el in consecrating their holy gifts, this ornament is always to be on his forehead, so that the gifts for ADONAI will be accepted by him.

Leviticus 6:25 "Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, 'This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. 26'The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. 27'Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on...

Leviticus 10:16 Then Moshe carefully investigated what had happened to the goat of the sin offering and discovered that it had been burned up. He became angry with El'azar and Itamar, the remaining sons of Aharon, and asked, 17 "Why didn't you eat the sin offering in the area of the sanctuary, since it is especially holy? He gave it to you to take away the guilt of the community, to make atonement for them before ADONAI.

Rabbi Singer continues:

Let us now examine the Talmudic discussion from which this quote was derived. As you will discover, this text was carefully quoted out of its original context. Once this crucial background is restored and understood, it will become clear that this quote does nothing to advance any Christian theology.

Tractate Yoma is wholly given over to laws pertaining to Yom Kippur. Although missionaries cite the above statement which appears on page 39b, the discussion leading up to this quote begins on the previous page, 39a. Quoting from a Baraisa, the Talmud begins with a discussion of the deteriorating spiritual condition of the Jewish people during the second Temple period. Throughout this fascinating discourse, the miraculous events that transpired during the Temple ceremonies are the barometer by which the Baraisa measures the religious decline of the nation of Israel during this difficult epoch in Jewish history. The period of time examined in this assessment begins with the era during which Shimon HaTzaddik5 officiated as the high priest until the time that the Romans destroyed the second Temple in the year 70 C.E. More specifically, the Talmud breaks this period down into three successive stages, with the first stage being the most meritorious, the second marking a gradual spiritual decline, and the third the most deleterious.

The Baraisa begins by recounting the miraculous events that repeatedly occurred during the forty years when Shimon HaTzaddik officiated as high priest. The Baraisa then continues to relate how the appearance of these miracles progressively diminished in the years that followed his death. These events are as follows:

  1. The lot inscribed "LaHashem," would always appear in the right hand of the high priest during the Yom Kippur service.
  2. The strip of scarlet-dyed wool which was tied to the head of the scapegoat always turned white during the Yom Kippur service.
  3. The western-most lamp of the Temple menorah remained lit until the priest would use its fire to kindle the next day's lamps.
  4. The pyre on the altar did not require any additional wood to sustain a strong fire.
  5. There was a blessing upon the first fruits of the Omer, the two loaves offered on Shevuoth, and on the loaves of the showbread so that each priest was satisfied with a portion no larger than the size of an olive.

The faithfulness and goodwill that Shimon HaTzaddik embodied during his public tenure as high priest profoundly inspired the nation. His most famous maxim was, "The world exists on three things: the Torah, divine worship, and acts of kindness." (Pirkay Avot 1:2) He is described as a person who took great thought and consideration regarding his fellow man. His extraordinary character affected the people deeply, and this manifested itself with a host of miraculous phenomena in the Temple, the House of Shimon's dedication.

Following his death, however, the Jewish people were unable to sustain the spiritual heights which they had achieved during Shimon HaTzaddik's lifetime. As a result, they digressed into a downward spiritual spiral from which they never recovered. This decline continued and worsened as the second Temple era continued to unfold. The Baraisa therefore relates that after the death of Shimon HaTzaddik the occurrence of these miracles became sporadic; there were some years when these miraculous signs occurred, and there were other years when they did not. This spiritual decay plunged to its lowest point during the last 40 years of the second Temple period. The Baraisa records that none of the above miracles occurred during these last four decades of the second Temple.

I will add one final note in order to bring all of the above parts together. To illustrate this final point, however, I will raise a number of basic questions. Bear in mind, missionaries insist that God had discontinued the animal sacrificial system and replaced it with Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. How can we know that the ending of the miraculous transformation of the scarlet ribbon was not connected to the ending of the animal sacrificial system, as missionaries contend? How can we be certain that the cessation of the whitening of the scarlet ribbon was entirely unrelated to the blood sacrificial system? Moreover, how can we be sure that the reason this miracle ended 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple was due to the deplorable lack of social justice and brotherly kindness among the Jewish people?

Finally, what is the meaning behind this mysterious ritual of tying a scarlet ribbon to the head of the scapegoat with the hopeful anticipation that it would miraculously turn white? Why was the wool of the ribbon dyed scarlet? Why didn't they color it blue or green? Why would it turn white? Moreover, how could the nation know that the marvelous transformation from scarlet to white was a clear indication that their sins had been forgiven? In essence, how do the colors scarlet and white relate to social justice and brotherly kindliness? What is the connection?

The answer to all these questions is found in the Bible. In the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet severely castigates the Jewish people for their sins. However, Isaiah does not condemn his people for violating the Sabbath or not eating kosher. This was not the spiritual crisis which the nation was facing; rather, the prophet cries out that it was their lack of social justice and brotherly kindness that robbed the people of their spiritual sustenance. They had abandoned and turned on each other, especially the most vulnerable members of society -- the fatherless and the poor. With a visceral condemnation of his people that is virtually unparalleled in the Jewish scriptures, Isaiah berates the nation with the biting words. He compares his people to Sodom and Gomorrah and declares that if this is the manner with which you treat your fellow man, then God doesn't desire your Sabbaths and your New Moons are unwanted. "When you beseech Me with your many prayers, I will not hear them for your hands are stained with blood." There was a time, Isaiah laments, that the city was filled with righteousness, but now it has become a harlot, filled with murderers!

It is painfully difficult to read this chapter. As we listen to the pounding words of the prophet, there is a mortifying and numbing sense that all hope is lost. Reconciliation is impossible; God will never take us back. It is, though, precisely at this most desperate juncture that Isaiah proclaims the unimaginable: Hope is not lost and God's tender mercy is within your grasp. What, though, should we do to possess this undeserved mercy? How can these seemingly unforgivable sins be forgiven? Does the prophet then announce that we must believe in a crucified messiah to gain our atonement? Is a blood sacrifice recommended as the answer to our desperate sinful predicament? Missionaries would have us think so, but Isaiah disagrees. The prophet, therefore, instructs,

"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord, "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land."

With the prophet's reassuring words before us, we can now understand why the miracle surrounding the transformation of the scarlet ribbon was uniquely connected to the atonement achieved through social justice and brotherly kindness rather than blood atonement. If your sins that are as the scarlet-colored ribbon are to be forgiven and become white, indulge in acts of kindness and put an end to murder and baseless hatred. These precious words fell on deaf ears during the last 40 years of the second Temple.

...While Shimon HaTzaddik officiated for 40 years as high priest, the nation was inspired by his good will and they emulated him. As a result, the atonement outlined in Isaiah was efficacious and the scarlet ribbon always turned white. The people knew that God had forgiven them.

In the years that followed the death of Shimon HaTzaddik, the people's dedication to his golden rule slacked off, and consequently, there were some years when the ribbon turned white and others when it did not.

Sadly, we can now also understand why 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple this auspicious miracle ended. It was during these calamitous four decades when Isaiah's words of condemnation were personified.

Even as I write this letter, in the shadow of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, it is still difficult to imagine a time when baseless hatred could have become so widespread that murders had became commonplace among my people. I vividly recall the traumatic days that followed the death of Rabin. It seemed as though humanity was almost overcome by a sense of stunned bewilderment. Men and women wondered aloud how something like this could have happened. I remember how people were appalled, not just by the fact that the leader of the Jewish State was assassinated, but almost equally as shocking, that it was a Jew who had committed this unimaginable crime. This sort of hate should never have occurred among Jews, people thought. Yet it did.

As we consider a desperate time in our first century history, let us free ourselves of this spiritual affliction and turn toward each other with godly affection. May this repentance bring about the coming of the true messiah, quickly in our time.

Sincerely yours, Rabbi Tovia Singer

The Netzarim Response:

Rabbi Singer's analysis is fatally flawed. Many times in the hundreds of years after Isaiah but before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people fell painfully short of God's expectations for them. Yet, upon atoning on Yom Kippur, God forgave the Jewish people, and the scarlet dyed wool turned from red to white. Following the death of Yeshua, however, genuine atonement on Yom Kippur with animal sacrifice was not enough. The scarlet dyed wool did not turn from red to white, and the temple was eventually destroyed 40 years later. To suggest this was due to the death of a high priest and the improper conduct that followed (something not out of the ordinary in the Jewish experience) is nothing more than baseless denial. Yeshua died at the exact time that these events in the temple began to transpire. It would have to be the most incredible and unbelievable coincidence of all time to suggest that the death of Yeshua bears no relationship to these events.

To note, Rabbi Singer strangely misunderstands the concept of blood atonement. When Yeshua died on a Roman execution stake, he MARTYRED himself - against which, there is NO Torah command! He was not a "sacrifice" yet his shed blood represented sacrifice in human, yet DIVINE, form. (Yeshua had a divine qnoma/nature.) That shed blood reconciled all mankind for failing to live life in the exact way Rabbi Singer says we should in his comments. That is, with (among other things) social justice and brotherly kindness.

Messiah has already come, Rabbi Singer! He was foreshadowed throughout the Tanach and revealed in the Brit Chadashah. Your teachings to the contrary are keeping our brethren from seeing the Truth.

Luke 11:52 "Woe to you Torah experts! For you have taken away the key of knowledge! Not only did you yourselves not go in, you also have stopped those who were trying to enter!"

The Bible tells us what the world will be like in the last days - so what makes us think we will EVER be good enough, or will be able to pray hard enough to earn our way to heaven? We're more decadent than ever - probably right up there with "as the days of Noah were"....

2 Timothy 3:1-5,7: "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power......always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth."