I openly admit that I am far from an expert on modern day Jewish theology, but I have done some reading on the subject (as well as partaking of a lot of conversations because the majority of the people I work with are Jewish). I have a logical question that I would like to see if anyone out there (preferably someone with a Jewish background) can answer.
As most people reading this probably know, Christian theology is based upon blood atonement. It holds that blood is necessary for the atonement of sins. The shedding of Christ’s blood made this atonement for us. However, the whole concept of substitutionary atonement and atonement by blood was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the animal sacrifices instituted by God.
During the time of the Old Testament prophets the Jewish people started believing that these sacrifices were in essence a “get out of jail free card.” They made little to no effort at actual devotion to God, figuring that as long as they made the sacrifices they could keep God happy with them. A number of the Old Testament prophets spoke out against this attitude.
Of course, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, leaving modern day Jews in a quandary. If sacrifices are necessary for atonement, but there is no Temple at which to perform the sacrifices, how are they to make atonement for themselves?
The answer given (to my understanding) by modern Judaism is that God set up two alternative methods of atonement: (1) substitutionary animal sacrifices; and (2) sincere repentance, seeking forgiveness from those you have wronged and confession to God. Today, on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), they first prepare ahead of time by confessing and seeking forgiveness from everyone they have wronged over the past year. Supposedly, by going through this process and seeking forgiveness from God, their sins can be atoned for even without an animal sacrifice.
The important question, then, is why would God have ordered animal sacrifices if they were not necessary? The modern Jewish answer to this question is that the sacrifices were one alternative method of atonement, so they weren’t meaningless. But Jews could also opt for the repentance/confession method of atonement if they chose. If they chose the path of trying to walk in God’s law, and confessing their sins seeking forgiveness when they fail, then the sacrifices were not needed.
And here’s my dilemma. We have two alternatives. I will call the first “(1) sacrifices” and the second “(2) repentance.” Supposedly, according to modern Jewish theology, these are two alternative methods of atonement. Modern Jews allow (2) to stand on its own because they use it every Yom Kippur without (1) playing any part at all. But if (1) really is an “alternative”, it too should be able to stand on its own, without any regard to (2). But if we examine the Biblical condemnations against the empty sacrifices that were being made by the Jews, they always suggested that the sacrifices were meaningless to God because the Jews were making no attempt at sincere devotion, or at sincerely following God’s law. In other words, if the sacrifices were to have any meaning, the Jews would first have to be sincerely repentant for the sins for which they were seeking atonement. (2) is a prerequisite to the efficacy of (1). Sacrifices are only effective if they are preceded by repentance. But if this is the case, before we ever get to (1), we have already satisfied the requirements of (2), so our sins are already atoned for before we make a single sacrifice. We are back to the problem of God meaninglessly ordering animal sacrifices even though they served no purpose whatsoever. So how are these really two alternative methods of atonement?
Of course, under Christian theology, repentance is necessary, but it does not eliminate the need for the atoning sacrifice. Repentance will lead us to recognize the need for the sacrifice, which makes our partaking of that sacrifice sincere. So repentance does not make atonement for our sins. That role is played by the sacrifice. But sacrifice without repentance is simply going through the motions and is empty. If I have misstated modern Jewish theology in any way, I would appreciate if someone would clarify it for me. Are these really viewed as alternative methods of atonement, and if so, how do you get around the dilemma I have outlined? Thank you and God bless.