SAN FRANCISCO - If you keep an eye out, you’ll notice a goat wandering around the Internet.
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This being the Jewish season of repentance, it isn’t just any goat. It’s an electronic scapegoat onto which computer and smart phone users are unloading their sins in a virtual reenactment of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual described in Chapter 16 of Leviticus.
“I'm too often grateful to get to work and away from my spouse and kid,” confesses one person. “I sexted my ex,” admits someone else. Another individual divulges that they “once ate bacon before the rabbi came over.” One parent apparently only “go[es] cycling with my kids just to get a tan.”
While we may be reluctant to own up to our misdoings, it seems that eScapegoat, a new web app from G-dcast, a fast-growing San Francisco-based Jewish educational media production company, is helping some of us overcome our sheepishness. G-dcast makes self-reflection easy. If you can tweet, then you can atone.
All you need to do is go to escgoat.com and read short texts on the biblical scapegoat story and how it relates to today’s observance of Yom Kippur. Then you enter your maximum 120 character-long confession and post it anonymously. You just type and click your way through the initial stage of atonement. “It’s just like the bible, only nerdier,” the on-screen text tells us.
There is, however, one major difference between then and now. In biblical times, the sins cast onto the scapegoat only went as far as the animal made it in the desert before dying. With this cyberspace-dwelling cartoon goat, our sins could live on forever, having been broadcast out to the world through eScapegoat’s (lightly moderated)@SinfulGoat Twitter feed.
“We thought that sending a scapegoat around the Internet was an obvious, fun thing to do,” explains G-dcast executive director Sarah Lefton. “It’s communal, it’s viral, it’s moving around. It was as though the scapegoat wanted to take this format.”
While G-dcast usually aims its projects (Torah portion cartoons, for instance) at school-age children, their parents and teachers, eScapegoat is pitched toward young adults. Accordingly, there have been a variety of eScapegoat promotional events around the San Francisco Bay Area since the app launched on Rosh Hodesh Elul. These events featured wine, goat cheese…and also live goats.
Nonetheless, G-dcast’s core Jewish literacy education mission is at play here.
“The whole thing is about teaching this story. ‘Scapegoat’ is part of the vernacular, but I find it uniquely interesting and bizarre that people don’t know the biblical origin of the term,” Lefton, 39, says. “How you atone is between you and God. I just wanted to work on this story.”
“But this is not just teaching a Leviticus text. It’s inviting the performing of a ritual, and that is deeply problematic,” warns Rabbi David Booth, senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California. “The Internet is about grabbing eyeballs, and you need to ask at what point this runs up against moral considerations. When does it become antithetical to the ritual?”
Booth sees a similarity between eScapegoat and true confession websites and social media confession pages that draw in teenagers and college students. They encourage voyeurism and are associated with bullying, as readers have been known to post malicious comments in response to anonymous confessions. “These are by and large hurtful to teens,” Booth notes.
Although the confessions posted to @SinfulGoat are anonymous, they can be re-tweeted or replied to.
Esther Kustanowitz, a writer and social media consultant to Jewish organizations, isn’t concerned about any potential misuse of eScapegoat. “The idea of the Internet being a place where people can express themselves and seek absolution without impunity is something we’ve seen before,” she contends. “Blogging, Twitter, Facebook — these are all confessional in nature. People are always posting about what they just did, what they just said, or what just happened. What’s so great about G-dcast is that it takes something that is already out there in the current technology and in the general culture and finds a way to adapt it to Judaism and Jewish tradition.”
Nechama Tamler, a Palo Alto Jewish educator, believes the Twitter feed aspect of the project makes people feel part of a community. “You put your sin out there among so many other people’s sins, and you see that we are all in the same boat,” she says.
“Putting your confession online is concrete and immediate. You feel validated and recognized,” Kustanowitz agrees.
On the whole, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, is a fan of G-dcast’s creativity. But he, like Booth, has reservations about the virtual scapegoat.
“I’m uncomfortable with the Internet as a place for personal record keeping,” he says. “But then again, I am 70 years old, so the Internet doesn’t hold the same allure and infinite possibility for me that it might for younger people.”
One such young person, 30-year-old Briyah Paley of San Francisco, says eScapegoat does appeals to her. “As long as there was the option to post anonymously, I was okay with it,” she says. She liked learning about the scapegoat’s biblical origin (which she had not previously known), and being able to participate in a Jewish ritual in a relaxed nature while online in the privacy of her own home.
According to Maimonides and other authorities of Jewish Law, it is necessary to make a verbal confession. “But you are supposed to say it privately,” Booth explains. “You should say it out loud so God can hear it, but not your neighbor.”
He is concerned that when you confess to an infinite number of neighbors in cyberspace, your ego gets overly involved. “Your ego is what makes you want attention. It makes you want to make your confession cute so it will be noticed and re-tweeted.”
A post by one visitor to eScapegoat supports Booth’s point. “I'm sorry for switching between tweeting seriously serious confessions and silly tweety jokes and not being completely clear which is which,” they wrote.
“There will always be those who use it narcissistically,” Tamler dismisses. “What’s important here is that this is something fun with some substance behind it.” It may not be as profound as some might like it, but she finds it refreshing and engaging.
“It doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Tamler says.
“I’m for anything that connects you to tradition and prompts introspection in this season,” echoes Kustanowitz. “I don’t think people are really saying, ‘I confessed to the eScapegoat and now I’m good for the year.’”