Yom Kippur 2013: This Virtual Scapegoat Lets Jews Atone Online


Friday's Yom Kippur is the Jewish “Day of Atonement.” According to eScapegoat, in “Bible Times” this holy day was marked with an annual sacrifice; “the High Priest placed all the Israelite’s sins on a goat and set it loose in the wilderness.”

eScapegoat’s clever name reflects their online interpretation of this tradition, wherein users anonymously submit their sins for collective release into the digital ether. Part PostSecret, part animated cartoon, it is tempting to see this site as a kind of whimsical play on religious tradition. However, a quick look at the organization that created it and at the changing religious landscape of the U.S. reveals that the site is by no means capricious.

eScapegoat was created by G-dcast, a non-profit that produces apps, videos, and workshops on how to create this kind of content “to give every Jewish child and adult the chance to learn the basics with zero barriers to entry.” This tech-savvy approach to religious literacy is no doubt appealing to people who use their smartphones to support or supplant activities in their everyday life, from simple scheduling to healthy relationships. We can go to our gadgets for all sorts of things these days — why not religion? 

When the Pew Research Poll on Religion in America was released almost a year ago, those interested in religion in America were abuzz with discussion of the “nones,” the roughly 20% of Americans and 30% of millennials who do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition. Some used the study to herald secularization while others took it as evidence of the so-called culture wars. On closer inspection, however, the Pew data demonstrated two trends that do not really support either of these assessments: the nones are not overwhelmingly atheist, nor do they dislike religion so much as they are skeptical of religious institutions. That is, just because the number of nones is on the rise doesn’t mean there are less people of faith in the U.S.

Whether inspired or reaffirmed by these findings, leaders in many religious traditions are working to create spaces for those who have opted out of being a part of a formal religious community. From web-based worship to reinvigorated social justice ministries and informal spiritual spaces, more and more religious leaders are rethinking the traditional ways in which we practice our faiths. eScapegoat is a part of this groundswell. By requiring no membership or regular attendance at a predetermined time and place to take part in this ritual, it speaks not only to people who are technologically inclined but to people for whom religion is important even if they are loathe to set foot in a synagogue.

These initiatives fill a valuable need for places to explore faith without the pressure and/or undesirable connotations of more conventional religious practice.

eScapegoat received silly submissions like “My sister and I stole our bubbe’s false teeth to make maracas,” but it also bore witness to issues of faith. One individual wrote “I’m sorry for all of the sins I committed that I didn’t even know were sins because I lost touch with my Judaism.” Perhaps most tellingly, one submission reads, “I think my first confession here was as much an attempt to be re-tweeted as it was a genuine confession.”

New spiritual spaces like eScapegoat may just be the legacy of religious millenials — attendance may be down on Friday evening (and Sunday morning), but we aren’t counting religion out.