“I place before thee this day,” said God, “good and evil, life and death. Choose thou the good, choose thou life.”
In his sermon of December 5, 1965, Rabbi Olan develops the metaphor of the scapegoat, from an ancient Hebrew ritual practice to modern ideas about determinism. In ancient times, the Hebrews put their sins onto the head of a goat and drove it out into the desert, relieving themselves of the burden of sin. Today, says Rabbi Olan, we have replaced the scapegoat with various ideas with which we comfort ourselves because they allow us to say, “It’s not my fault.”
These ideas include biological determinism (“It’s not me, it’s my genes”); history (“It’s not me, it’s our times”); Marxism (“It’s not me, it’s the class system”); Freudianism (“It’s not me, it’s my unconscious”); early upbringing (“It’s not me, it’s my parents”); and so forth.
Rabbi Olan clearly recognizes that we all have a genetic makeup, and that we all have been born into a family and a historical period that we did not choose. But he rejects the idea that these conditions mean that we have no choices. At the same time, he is clear that having choices means that we also have responsibilities—responsibilities for the choices that we do or do not make. “There is no morality without man’s freedom and responsibility. The Prophetic faith held this as its primary view of man.”
Can we imagine a blended explanation in which both “givens” and personal responsibility would count?
*Written by Frances M. Olan and Lionel S. Joseph.*