Performing Israel's Faith: Narrative and Law in Rabbinic Theology

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Aggadic Theology of Sin,
Repentance, and Atonement

Defining Sin

Judaism deals with both the outside world and the inner life of Israel, the holy people. We have now seen how lore and law negotiate the world of the borders and beyond, so defining Israel in relationship with the gentiles in terms of Israel’s relationship to God. That raises the question: What of that relationship when Israel sins? From relationships with outsiders, the narrative now turns to the interior dynamics of Rabbinic theology: the relationship with God of the Israelite and of corporate Israel, which forms a moral entity subject to God’s judgment unique in humanity. Each person individually is subject to divine rule. Israel collectively, not solely Israelites individually, is judged as well. Concerning the matter of sin, repentance, and atonement, the Aggadic exposition produces a cogent narrative. The Halakhic counterpart does the same. But the two tales scarcely intersect. The one—the Aggadah—explains the human condition, reaching back to the narrative of the fall from Eden, and the other, the Halakhah, devotes itself to atoning for sin through the blood-rite of the Temple on the Day of Atonement. Only at the very end—as readers will see in the conclusion of chapter 4—do the two narratives come together in a sublime account of God’s requirement for authentic repentance and true atonement.

Sin explains the condition of Israel. The governing theory of Israel, that had Israel kept the Torah from the beginning, holy Israel would never have had any history at all but would have lived in a perfect world at rest and balance and order, is now invoked. There would have been nothing to write down, no history, had Israel kept the Torah. None can imagine a more

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