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The term “scapegoat,” which is by now a commonplace in explanations of racism, has to do with, of course, guilt — what else? It furthermore derives from the traditions of the ancient Jews — who else? Today, we use the term to mean a person or a people blamed for something he/they didn’t do. It’s invoked almost in a sense of mistaken identity or sloppy detective work. Yet the origins of the word itself in the book of Leviticus point directly back to the psychology of guilt management. What William Tyndale translated as a “scapegoat” in 1530 was a reference to an actual goat in primitive Jewish atonement ritual; the goat was magically bestowed with the sins of the Jewish people and then shooed into the wilderness to carry away the sins. In one of Leviticus’s creepier dalliances with paganism, the Lord decreed that the scapegoat should specifically be dispatched to an angry demon of the wilderness named Azazel (who is thenceforth scarce in the Bible but does turn up in Marvel Comics as an ancient mutant enemy of the X-Men).
The Pole by the ghetto wall seems to have used a scapegoat in the ancient, literal sense more so than in the modern, metaphorical sense: He has used the Jews to carry off his guilt and shame as if by a magical goat — not into the wilds belonging to the demon Azazel, but onto the pyre of the Warsaw Ghetto. He bears no sin; they do. And now the fire does. And now the sin is gone in the smoke, curling up and away from the earth.
Such magic acts derive from a condition of blindness, a refusal to look with the rational mind. The Freudian irony is that the courage to look upon and acknowledge a sense of guilt instead of invoking goats and demons to dispel it, helps forestall criminality of a much more damning kind. That is to say that the parable of Reicher and the Pole instructs that there would perhaps be fewer great sins in the world if people were not so frantic to purify themselves of small ones.
Austin Ratner is the author of “The Jump Artist” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009) and the recently released “In The Land of the Living” (Reagan Arthur Books).