Joel Cohen's Question:

It is understandable in a regime of animal sacrifice, that sacrifices would be especially required on Yom Kippur in an effort to placate G‑d. But sending an ignorant goat into the desert to somehow carry away our sins? It is unsurprising that the nowadays term "scapegoat," which the poor goat sent off to the desert personifies in ritual history – Azazel – gains sympathy.

The paradigm scapegoat (like the contemporary scapegoat), has no sin, but yet he takes on the weight of a person's or the nation's sins. And that somehow helps the people and the nation to cleanse themselves from their sins no matter how grievous? An ignorant goat sent to the desert to die becomes a lucky charm? It would almost make more sense to send the High Priest, since maybe he at least bears some fault. My question doesn't stem from a concern about animal rights, but rather because this ritual seems to have such a superficial meaning.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, you are correct to identify the procedure of sending the goat to his death as a symbolic act. Yet, you seem to downplay the role of symbolism which has been at the heart of the entire Book of Leviticus. At the beginning of Leviticus, there is a dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides about the nature of the sacrifices. While Maimonides saw sacrifices as a reaction to the practices of the pagans of the time, Nachmanides understood them as a symbolic act of substitution. We deserve to be sacrificed for our sins—yet in our place we substitute the animal sacrifice.

The scapegoat is merely the most striking symbol in Leviticus as it represents not only the sins of an individual but the sins of the entire nation. If I were to try to paraphrase the rationale of the Torah, I would say, "how lucky is this goat who is able to achieve atonement for the entire Jewish nation!"

Finally, a word about the goat that was sent to azazel. The ability of a goat to atone for the sins of the Jews seems not only symbolic but also much too easy. What prevented the Jews from sinning all year long and relying on the azazel goat? The Talmud addresses this question and explains that the goat only atones for those people who have first performed the necessary steps of the teshuvah (repentance) process. The goat is merely the symbolic conclusion of the process in which the Jews saw their sins cast over the mountain. In Judaism, symbolism is important but it is not a replacement for the real thing.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Believe it or not, the scapegoat has been a laughingstock, fodder for the scoffers, since time immemorial.

The Talmud (Yoma 67b) states:

"And my statutes you shall keep" (Leviticus 18:4)—these are things that Satan laughs at: [abstaining from] eating pork, [from] wearing shatnez, the dis-shoing of the husband's brother, purification of a leper, and the dispatching of the Azazel goat. Lest you say, they are nonsense, it is therefore written, "I am the L-rd your G‑d." I have commanded it; you have no right to question."

Thus we see that the Talmud already singles out the scapegoat – from amongst all the sacrifices – as a potential source of derision. Indeed even many of the biblical commentaries question the meaning behind the Azazel goat. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar describes it as "shocking" (before proceeding to offer an explanation).

Nevertheless, while in other times and societies, many a Hebrew-schooler's a question was dismissed with "the laws of the Torah are above our understanding. This is Judaism, that's just the way it is." For better or for worse, that doesn't sell awfully well anymore.

I found a wonderful explanation, that on one hand explains the rationale behind the scapegoat, while at the same time validates the Talmud's classification of this mitzvah as a chok—a G‑dly statute that defies human logic.

In a most unconventional understanding of Jewish practice, the medieval Jewish philosophers Avraham ibn Ezra and Nachmanides explain that the Azazel goat was actually a bribe. Not the "appeasing the gods" type of bribe, but a bribe nonetheless.

According to the mystical weltanschauung, the forces charged by G‑d to challenge us, through concealing G‑d's presence in the world, receive additional "nourishment" and energy when one succumbs to sin. When repenting, one of the chief objectives is to reclaim the energy that the forces of darkness nursed from the offending act. But these forces don't part with their sustenance so easily. They plead their case before the Heavenly Court, claiming that they "earned" their spoils.

Therefore, G‑d instructs the Jewish people to send off a goat to "the prosecutor" on the day of Yom Kippur. A bribe, mimicking the sacrifices brought by the idol worshippers of biblical times, to ensure that when they are called upon to testify, they will only speak well of the nation.

Nachmanides concludes that this very reason is why the Talmud warned that the Azazel scapegoat would seem absurd and laughable. Because Jews don't believe in intermediaries, or any other power other than G‑d—let alone offer sacrifices to them (which is precisely why the Azazel goat is not offered as a sacrifice, merely "sent off" to the "other side").

And even this very precept we observe – not for fear of the Satan, we fear only One G‑d – but because this is what G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, commanded us to do.