Atonement Day

“Red Square on Black”
Kasimir Malevich, 1920-24

Atonement Day

Monday’s not only the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Atonement, but it’s the day on which I’d committed to leading an afternoon discussion group at my Reform Temple.  The discussion leader has about ten minutes to present the topic and she can pick her topic.  So I picked —


What the heck.  That can’t be bad.  Should draw the big crowds.

In my ten minutes, I figured I’d shovel two obstacles out of the way, which block people nowadays from taking a fresh look at this topic.

The first obstacle is the “nonjudgmental” mindset.  Note that it never means refusing to judge that this shoe is a size too small or that the light’s turned green so I can cross now.  In practice, the prohibition applies fairly narrowly to judgments of right and wrong.

Since my co-congregants tend to be liberal, they’re avowedly nonjudgmental.  At the same time, they are Jews.  So I thought to cite a book, Mission at Nuremberg, where Tim Townsend, an American army chaplain, ministers to Nazi war criminals sentenced to hang.  He gets four or five of them to return to the (Lutheran) church and, by his lights, find forgiveness for their sins and restoration to the grace of God.

I don’t fault the good Lutheran chaplain.  He may well have worked some inner transformations on his doomed parishioners.  For myself however, I find the Jewish doctrine of atonement more credible.  (Sins against other people call for confession of the specific wrong to the one wronged, repair of the actual injury where feasible, and evidence that – faced with the same tempting circumstances — the wrongdoer would resist next time.)  Under the genocidal circumstances, these remedies would not all be available.  If the genocidaire asked me, and I thought he really felt bad about it, I might advise him to get started on the long road back, but I sure wouldn’t tell him not to worry because it’s all okay now that he’s heaven-bound.

Anyway, however you set about repairing a wrong, the example shows that the judgment of its being wrong can’t easily be dodged!

The second obstacle to taking sin seriously is cultural relativism.  It was brought into our culture by influential twentieth-century anthropologists.  Professionally committed to treating good and evil as nothing but what is approved or disapproved by any given culture, and finding that different cultures held different moral values, the earliest cohort of anthropologists would typically discover far-off tribes whose values differed from our own and then report their findings.

In her widely-read book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict described the Kwakiutl, an indigenous tribe living in the Pacific Northwest.  Their potlatch ceremony included a competition between tribesmen to see who could destroy more of his own goods!  In Benedict’s value-neutral report, the reader might also detect a subliminally ironic comparison with the conspicuous consumption seen in the United States.

I read that book in college. Years later, reading Slavery and Social Death by the African-American Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, I noticed Patterson’s more detailed account of the potlatch ceremony.  It seems that … among “the goods” that the Kwakiutl destroyed … were slaves.

If Patterson’s right, why did Benedict omit that detail?  Was it because she knew that slavery was wrong and killing slaves more wrong still?  She omitted it because the intrusion of objective wrong into her narrative would undermine her case for cultural relativism.

Supposing that good and evil have a standing independent of cultures opens up questions that seemed closed and settled.  It also allows us look more searchingly at the topic of sin – whether there is such a thing and whether it differs in some way from mere wrongdoing.

There was another book I read in preparation for my ten minutes: Elie Wiesel’s Night.  It’s a short book, a memoir of his boyhood experience as a victim and survivor of the Holocaust.  It’s quite a shattering read and, up till now, I’d deliberately refrained from getting near it.  I’d read trial transcripts, memoirs, historians’ accounts, but always instinctively avoided Wiesel’s Night.

As he reports, the victims marked for being murdered always refused to believe – until the very last – that anything so inconceivably horrible as putting people in ovens would be possible in our civilized world.  This stubborn optimism-of-the-sane persisted as, in each step and stage, another layer of human worth and dignity would be peeled away.  Privacy, any ability to put a good face on anything about oneself, most of the strength for emotional continuing – all this was peeled away –

layer by layer.

I tend to understand history and personal life erotically.  Normally people are motivated by their ability to focus and sustain desire and desirability.

So when you reduce and peel away, maliciously and gratuitously, every last skin that allows for desire – so that nothing is left but the after-trace of the human being to whom the worst has been done – what meaning can we assign to such a reduction?

The cynics and those who take the tragic view will answer at once:

 There is no meaning left.

 The sky goes dark.

I decided to try to take up residence in the mind of the man or woman who has been (for cruel purposes) reduced to the sub-erotic level:

What’s there?

What I saw and felt was that there, in the absolute center of the worst that can be done to a human being, is one clear metric:

We can measure evil.

If there is such a thing as evil, then we can also take the measure of good in all its degrees.  Good is what takes the other direction from evil.

So, without wishing to, the people of the covenant, in whom (Gen. 12:3) God promised Abraham that “all the families of the earth [shall] be blessed,” have rendered a great service.  By suffering an evil so terrible that even its deniers acknowledge it by their denial, they have made our otherwise opaque and unreadable time

transparent and legible in moral terms.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to Atonement Day

  1. Brian Hennessy says:

    Hi Abbie – I just wanted to tell you I never laughed so hard about a discussion on sin. I just love your writing style as well as the analytical way you look at things. But your column did lead me to ask a serious question. And then make a serious comment. I have read numerous Holocaust stories and I saw a pattern in the survivors, that they often don’t talk about their hellish experience until late in life. If ever. And I wondered if your insight might have something to do with that. In other words, if their eternal optimism that there was good in all men was stripped away, along with everything else that was precious and dear to them, could they have come to the stark realization that at the core of every human being, including themselves, lies a Nazi? The abiding presence of evil? And they despaired of ever having hope in the goodness of mankind again, including themselves? We saw something like that in the movie the Pawnbroker, I believe. And so that’s why they kept silent? I know some were able to hold on to the good in the face of the overwhelming realization of raw evil. But it seems not many. Many just took their own lives in utter despair.

    As for my serious comment, I believe the Lutheran chaplain’s efforts at Nazi rehabilitation were very much in keeping with “the Jewish doctrine of atonement.” Because according to Leviticus 17:11, atonement is always based on a blood sacrifice. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” The Christian belief in atonement, of course, is based on that very principle, except that it is not with animal blood, but the voluntary sacrifice of one good man – Yeshua. Sin, therefore, is primarily against God. He is the One we have wronged by whatever nasty thing we did – because He told us how to be good when he gave us His Law. And we were disobedient. So that’s why we need to repent first before God and ask for His forgiveness, and then make amends with anyone who suffered from our bad. In the case of the Holocaust, with the family and the Jewish people in general.

    Since I’m on a roll, allow me to share this insight from one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who studied under Gamliel. He reveals that the root of our badness is sin, which abides in us all. That it is the Nazi within. And we have no more ability to overpower over it than the inmates at Auschwitz had over their tormentors. Here is what he taught:

    “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

    I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Yeshua Mashiach!” (Romans 7:14-25)

    Thanks for your amazing sharing, Abbie. Hope you don’t mind me adding my insights to your insights. You just make people think!

    Love, Brian

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Brian, Thanks so much for contributing your reflections. Re your view that the victim senses a moral resemblance to his or her victimizer — all I can say is that that’s not been my experience! One story to illustrate: When I was ten years old, at Camp Hilltop (the bungalow colony in New Jersey where we used to spend our summers) the kids used to gather in the Social Hall in the evenings. One of the older kids (aged between 12 & 14) bragged to the other older kids that he could make Abby cry. (He was fond of saying brilliantly original things like, “Gasoline smells better than roses.”) Anyway, the other kids said, “Nay, you can’t!” & “Why don’t you leave her alone!” So the smarty kid walked over to where I was standing to begin his efforts. I never learned what he would have done because, when I looked up at his eyes and saw that he really did want to make me cry, that realization alone brought tears to my eyes! I remember the incident vividly to this day. His intent seemed to me both bizarre and deplorable. I didn’t think I was like him. So my own experience does not confirm the claim that the victim sees herself in her victimizer.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Brian, Thanks for your serious reflections on this topic. My own experience doesn’t confirm the claim that the victim feels akin to her victimizer, hence the Holocaust victim feels on a deep level that he or she is morally like the Nazi killer. No survivor who testified at the Eichmann trial reported feeling anything like that. What they reported was their constant, conscious effort was to maintain the “image of God” in themselves & their fellows. No survivor interviewed in Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah” reported any such feeling of identification with their would-be killers. Elie Wiesel’s memoir does not report anything like that. I think your speculation is prompted by your commitment to the Pauline doctrine of Original Sin, which holds that all the descendants of Adam shared a sinful condition that only the crucifixion of God incarnate could wash away. That’s not a Jewish doctrine & I myself don’t find it in the four gospels. It is in Paul and, so far as I see, original with Paul.

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