Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, when observant Jews go to synagogue to expiate their sins. It's called the Shabbat of Shabbats because it is a big, solemn, holy deal in Judaism. Also, there's a goat involved.
It used to be, in Biblical times, that a High Priest would symbolically transfer all the collective sins of his community on to a goat on Yom Kippur and then he would send that goat into the wilderness to die. The death of the "scapegoat" absolved the community's sins for the year. This kind of thing doesn't happen much anymore for obvious reasons (It's hard to find a good goat guy, animal rights activists aren't into it), but now, thanks to one tech entrepreneur, you can sacrifice a goat online.
Sarah Lefton started eScapegoat in 2013. Her basic idea was to update the Biblical ritual of the scapegoat described in Leviticus 16 because she thought it would turn people on to Judaism. She said she was struck while reading it how "delightfully bizarre" the ritual was.
"I actually feel like if I were to do that in San Francisco today people would come," she told me in a phone interview. "Right? It's hard to get people to show up for synagogue but if I was like: 'Yo, I'm going to have a goat out in front of the Ferry building' people would come!"
In true Silicon Valley fashion, Sarah thought the best way to get people to participate in this ancient ritual, and to understand its Biblical importance, was to create an app. Thus, eScapegoat was born. Its tagline? "Like in Bible times—only nerdier."
eScapegoat gives people a field in which to write a sin in less than 120 characters. It then anonymizes the sin and Tweets it out. In 2013, the eScapegoat tweeted over 8,500 sins. This year, over 6,800 people have participated thus far. On Friday, when Yom Kippur starts, the eScapegoat team will symbolically kill the goat and all of the Tweets will disappear into the digital wilderness.
Reading the eScapegoat feed is surreal. It's at once a glimpse into a dark realm of our collective consciousness and a place for an easy laugh. Consider these back–to-back tweets, both of which someone consider sins they felt needed atoning for:
"I blame my wife for ruining my life."
"I wore navy blue with black."
I asked Sarah why she wanted to make the sins public, and she told me that atonement has never been a totally private experience. She explained that on Yom Kippur, "some of that atonement is private and quiet and in silent prayer and some of it is public and it's kind of loud, the whole community together."
"I have been having an affair for several years and don't want to stop." - http://t.co/olcwCgYrEw
— eScapegoat (@SinfulGoat) October 2, 2014
The Twitter feed, for her, is just an extension of that experience. But she's still been surprised by how seriously a lot of people have taken it, and she says it has shown her that people "want to go public with their stuff. They want to see what's going on with other people. They want to feel better. They love to text, they love Twitter. It's just like the perfect soup of the Zeitgeist right now."
"I'm sorry I didn't call an ambulance. I wanted him to die. " -http://t.co/olcwCgYrEw
— eScapegoat (@SinfulGoat) October 1, 2014
"When a coworker asked me to record his ice bucket challenge, I deliberately did not hit record." - http://t.co/olcwCgYrEw
— eScapegoat (@SinfulGoat) October 2, 2014
"I have sex everyday. I don't care who I am having sex with." -http://t.co/olcwCgYrEw
— eScapegoat (@SinfulGoat) September 30, 2014
Initially I was skeptical of the app, because, I mean, do we really need or even want our sins and their absolution to be social and mobile?
But then I spoke to a Biblical scholar, Dr. Annette Yoshito Reed, a professor in the Religious Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. She didn't seem surprised by the app at all. She told me it was basically what Jews have been doing for centuries.
For her, "the app's creators participate in a very long, dynamic, and diverse tradition of reinterpreting the Bible—and biblical passages about sacrifice in particular—beginning already in ancient times with the replacement of animal sacrifice with prayer." This is just how the digital age atones: by tweeting.
Lefton says she has gotten some pushback from rabbis that worry that people will Tweet their sins instead of coming to synagogue on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But for the most part, they've been receptive.
In fact, this year eScapegoat has introduced "Mini Goats" in over 50 synagogues and Jewish schools around the country—these allow a community to password-protect their "goat" thus keeping it semi-private. The press release states that you can also buy "the 'Goat-in-a-Box' optional add-on for $49, which includes an assortment of marketing materials such as eScapegoat posters, tote bags, stickers, and temporary tattoos."
It may be an off-kilter way to approach the High Holidays, but Lefton is okay with that, because she thinks it's helping people learn about the Bible. She characterizes it as "a warm up" for the real thing and stresses that atoning on Twitter doesn't replace the atonement Jews will be doing in synagogues around the world.
Corrina Laughlin is a phD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on how religious groups use and theorize new media. She's on Twitter.