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7. Vicarious Suffering/Atonement are not part of mainstream Jewish thinking.

In Judaism, individuals are personally responsible for all of their actions.  This includes taking personal responsibility for misdeeds.  Jews do not seek salvation through the intervention of others who suffer for them. As Trude Weiss-Rosmarin explains, the “idea of ‘vicarious atonement,’ that is to say, the payment of the penalty not by the sinner but by a substitute, is irreconcilable with Jewish ethics.”22

It is true that concepts of vicarious suffering and vicarious atonement have been known in Judaism and have surfaced periodically in Judaism’s history. However, by biblical days, they already had been rejected by mainstream thought. In the biblical period, the opposition to vicarious suffering and vicarious atonement is most pointedly articulated by the prophets Ezekiel23 and Jeremiah24 as well as in Deuteronomy where it states “parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children put to death for parents: [persons] shall be put to death only for [their] own crime”.25

This is a particularly important point because if we are responsible for our own deeds and atonement, then it follows that we do not inherit sin nor are we born tainted with a need to be redeemed. No matter how often we may enjoy hearing “Amazing Grace,” we do not share the theological perspective that we are lost wretches with a need to be found. In fact, Jewish tradition invites us to start each day with a prayer from the morning liturgy, which begins “My God, the soul that you have given me is pure. You formed and breathed it into me.” This phrase, “my God, the soul that you have given me is pure” is a direct quotation from rabbinic literature.26 Since we are born with a pure soul, we have no need for a freely bestowed and unearned divine gift - God’s grace27 – to save us from damnation. On the contrary, we believe that we can save ourselves by learning to invoke our good inclinations to fight against our bad inclinations.28

© 2004 , Bonita E Taylor & David J. Zucker

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