Is God Cruel?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: This is the only website that I know of that responds to questions, so here goes… 

I've studied Judaism for almost eighteen years now, but I never really knew the full story of the scapegoat ritual. I knew it was pushed off a cliff, but I didn't know (until reading mishnah) that it might not actually be killed instantly, despite being told that by rabbis before. The whole thing is remarkably cruel. It seems so hypocritical, that a book that demands compassion to animals in nearly every instance (save this one) can command such a thing. At the moment, it’s seriously making me consider leaving Judaism, at least in any of its “orthodox” incarnations. I used to scoff at and condemn inhumane animal sacrifices of peoples of today, such as the Dinka of Africa who, after a funeral, torture a baby goat to death so that the sorrow of the family will pass to it. Looks like there’s ZERO difference now. As long as the “true” God commands it, its okay, and thus the Torah really isn't some divinely inspired thing, and certainly not the “rational” thing purports that it is; just some other arbitrary collection of primitive superstitions, with the odd quirk that it claims to be better than all the others. 

The only thing I can possibly think to save the Torah’s sacrosanct standing in my mind right now is if somehow this custom is just that: a minhag that got passed down as law, instead of tradition, since the written Torah only says that it is to be set free into the wilderness (the “mount” of Azazel notwithstanding, since one could just as easily shoo it down or leave it there). 

So, what do you think? Would you say this is at least one instance of animal cruelty that Torah not only permits, but commands, or am I missing something? 


Rabbi: Rash equations between the Dinka and Torah, based on a single comparison, are unreasonable.

The rabbis teach that earth exists only for man (Rashi, Avos 2:8); animals have no inherent purpose other than servicing man. This does not mean man can abuse animals or pain them. Torah forbids paining animals, and commands in shooing away the mother bird before taking its young so the mother is not pained at that sight (Deut. 22,6,7). Maimonides agrees (Guide, book III chap. XLVIII). 

Talmud Yoma 67b describes the cliff of Mt. Azazael from which the scapegoat was hurled as a steep razor-edged precipice with a vertical drop with almost no incline (Ibid. Rashi). The Mishna (Yoma 6:6) states that the goat wouldn’t descend even half its drop without already being shredded. Its death was instant. As instant death is painless, cruelty is absent. As animals exist only for man, God may command us in their sacrifice for our benefit. Now, although there is no cruelty when an animal is killed quickly, there is brutality. Why does God command man in this graphic act? 

Rabbi Israel Chait explained the purpose of the 2 goats sacrificed on our day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Atonement consists in large measure by man correcting his values. One goat was sacrificed to God in Temple, the other was this scapegoat. These 2 goats represent the only 2 paths man can lead: an intelligent life dedicated to pursuing God’s wisdom (Temple sacrifice), or a life of certain doom (scapegoat) if man follows his instincts. There was a designated man who “led” the scapegoat to the precipice. This teaches that a life where one ignores God and Torah must, of necessity, “lead” to man’s destruction. In my opinion, a most graphic display will best impact us of our doom. And as animals exist only to serve man, God determined that such a devastating end to this scapegoat is to sharply warn man in the most severe terms. It is for man’s good that he picture the scapegoat’s graphic death, that he might apply this tragedy to himself if he abandons God and Torah. 

Man is killed for certain sins. And not only individual man, but God killed societies and nations. He brought the Flood to those sinners. He commanded the Jews to annihilate the 7 Nations. God allowed the Jews’ enemies to slaughter us when we sinned through idolatry and baseless hate during our Temple eras, and He punished Korach by the earth swallowing him and the sinners. The unfaithful wife also suffers harshly. Torah’s curses are painful to read. But such severity is a needed deterrent, without which man will not fear sin, society will be corrupted and innocent children will be led astray to sinful lives, earning their destruction too. God’s punishments are not cruel, rather, their brutality intends to steer man away from self destruction. 

God’s creation of man was the utmost act of kindness: God offered a new species the finest opportunity: life, with intelligence. God created man also possessing instincts, which, unchecked, can destroy him. To guide man towards this enjoyable existence in pursuit of God’s wisdom and away from an instinctual life, deterrents are required. In His mercy, God gave mankind 120 years to repent before bringing the Flood. Against sinning, God mercifully warned Adam, Eve, their son Cain, the city of Ninveh, Pharaoh, the Jews and others. On Megillas Eicha 3:33 “For He does not willfully bring grief or affliction to man,” Rashi comments that affliction is due to man’s sin, not due to God. King David wrote extensively of God’s kindness, knowing all cases cited above. Torah teaches of God’s kindness, patience and punishments. Torah teaches God’s goodness, not cruelty. And goodness includes warning man in the harshest terms. Light warnings fail.

Understanding that God created earth, man, animal, and Torah, we realize His wisdom in commanding us in the scapegoat sacrifice, His design of Mount Azazael and His design of man’s psyche. God’s intentional formation of certain cliffs with such dangerous topography, and His design of human dread, unite in this scapegoat practice to instill us with an aversion to sin so we might earn an eternal existence. 

King Solomon said as follows:

Keep your mouth from being rash, and let your heart be not quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Koheles 5:1). 

We do ourselves a disservice by failing to appreciate that the Torah’s designer is also the universe’s designer. Both contain immense wisdom requiring our patient study to appreciate their depth and brilliance. The main message of this verse is the comparison: we cannot contend with God as “He is in heaven and we are on earth.” Of course, God is not anywhere, as only physical entities occupy space and location. But God being “in heaven” means He exists metaphysically; His existence is of a higher (meta) nature than creation. “Higher than creation” means that He is the one who determined that the physical universe should exist, and in what fashion is should exist. As God determined what reality is, man, who is but part of that determination, cannot contend with God’s will. “We should not be excited to say something” indicates that man develops his ideas from his emotional makeup, not through reason. Excitement also indicates man’s conviction in his notions. Man fantasizes, his ego ignores any error, he then talks to validate his notion as something “out there” in reality. But his words are vain. “Our words should be few” means our feeble minds are not capable of suggesting God’s will is wrong. Man who is part of  creation (on earth) is, by definition, inferior to God. As Rabbi Chait taught, as part of creation, man operates only within that system and cannot fathom what is outside of it, that he might offer an alternative way the world should exist. As creations, we can’t know God’s will, so we can’t suggest an alternative universe that would “better suit His will.” We can’t suggest the scapegoat doesn’t express His will, or that it is unjust. Moses told the Jews, “For it [Torah] is not a vain thing from you” (Deut. 32:47). The rabbis stated, “Torah is not vain, and if it is vain, it is only vain from your perspective.” Maimonides said, “That is to say, the giving of these commandments is not a vain thing and without any useful object, and if it appears so to you in any commandment, it is owing to the deficiency in your comprehension.”

You mentioned the scapegoat to be the only case which you questioned God’s mercy. Instead of a wholesale accusation of Torah based on this one case, the proper approach would have been to follow your general assessment that Torah is merciful, and then analyze this “aberration” of the scapegoat to find how this command conforms to the rest of Torah’s mercy. The question is not “if” the scapegoat is just, but “how” it is just.