Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3
בזמן הזה שאין בית המקדש קיים ואין לנו מזבח כפרה אין שם אלא תשובה, התשובה מכפרת על כל העבירות, אפילו רשע כל ימיו ועשה תשובה באחרונה אין מזכירין לו שום דבר מרשעו שנאמר רשעת הרשע לא יכשל בה ביום שובו מרשעו, ועצמו של יום הכפורים מכפר לשבים שנאמר כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם.
At this time, when the Temple no longer stands and we do not have the altar of atonement, there is only repentance. Repentance atones for all transgressions, even if someone is wicked for their whole life and makes repentance at the last possible moment, one does not remind him of any of his wicked past, as it says, “The wickedness of the wicked person should not cause him to stumble on the day of his repentance from his wicked past.” The essence of Yom Kippur atones for the penitent, as it says, “For on this day, atonement will be made for you.” (Leviticus 16:30).
The thing about this text which has been noted by others is the way in which Maimonides points out that the essence of atonement is not really the ritualised sacrifce and the Temple Cult (I think the Mishnah, Yoma, hints at this too – 1000 years earlier). The heart of the matter is repentance – and the core component of repentance is confession and the ‘turning’ (from the behaviour or towards God). It is really quite a powerful claim because it tells us words form the heart of repentance and full atonement is possible even in times of change.
Of course, it is not surprising that Maimonides might hold this view since in the Guide of the Perplexed (Book 3, Chapter 32) he also indicates that sacrifice is not the primary object (ie not the end, but the means to an end) and that prayer is closer to the primary object – which is the unity of God and the worship of one God. Maimonides suggests that the Temple was merely an ‘in-between’ stage to wean the people off from idolatrous sacrificial practices. It’s hardly revolutionary for a philosopher to think that our thoughts have such power.
I wonder, and here’s my question, how does the ritual of repentance, merficully without sacrificing goats, have an astonishing durability in our age and does the new ‘social media’ age require us to refocus on how best to achieve the primary object?