If you keep up with the weekly Torah portions, then you would know that we are about to read Parsha Trumah, the first of many Torah portions dealing with the Tabernacle/Sacrifices. For those of you that try and read the Parsha week by week, this will probably also be where you stop.
In the first book-and-a-half of the Torah, we get all the classic stories that we can talk about for hours at a time. Who doesn’t want to discuss interesting topics such as the morality of the Akeda or the historicity of the Exodus. I am always upset that the Parshiot are too long for me to properly research every topic, story, and detail that arises throughout these juicy stories.
Then something horrible happens.
After leaving Egypt, the Jews are led through the desert to Mount Sinai and eventually are commanded to build the Mishkan – or tabernacle – which would dominate Jewish practice for over 1,000 years. The Torah goes into immense detail regarding the building and worship that would take place in the Mishkan. Archaic laws of sacrifice and ritual purity come to dominate the verses.
Besides for the obvious downside to the current Parshiot, with their many laws — much less interesting than their biblical story counterparts — I feel that they present a major problem for many thinking Jews.
Lets start with a short thought experiment…
Imagine the second that you finish reading this article (and share it with all your friends), Moshiach comes. Yup. Moshiach arrives and immediately you and your family begin making plans to move to Israel. The Temple is speedily rebuilt (we do pray for this multiple times a day) and sacrifices continue. On the Temple Mount (if we can still call it that), animals are being brought on a consistent basis throughout the day, priests are spending a few weeks out of the year slaughtering and sprinkling blood, and I, as a Levi, am singing Psalms while this is happening (well, maybe I would be a gate guard). Judaism quickly changes back to a religion obsessed with temple ritual. Instead of spending Pesach at your nice Miami apartment, you would be filtered into the Temple with your lamb, waiting your turn to have a priest help you sacrifice it. Need help imagining? Here is a video of the Summarians who actually to this day have continued sacrificing animals on Mount Grezim in Israel.
Do we want this?
Besides for the ironic fact that half of the Shemona Esrei is, literally, begging God to reinstate these things, I would answer NO, we do not want this. The entire idea of ritual sacrifices makes us feel uneasy, and it should. Do we really believe that our most ideal way to connect to God is through slaughtering animals?
Looking through classical Jewish literature, we immediately see the negative reaction to sacrifices from prophets, rabbis, and philosophers. I wish to argue that sacrifice was always seen, at least by some percentage of Jewish intellectuals, as a less than ideal way to serve God.
When Isaiah begins rebuking the Jews for their lack of social compassion, he starts off by talking about the worthlessness of sacrifices.
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats…Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me” (Isaiah 1, 11-13).
Isaiah is saying that all these animal sacrifices are intrinsically worthless to God if they are not helping to inspire the Jews to act in a more compassionate manner. In this famous passage, Isaiah seems to contradict or, at the very least, undermine the Torah with its emphasis on sacrifice. From a pure reading of the Torah, one would probably conclude that animal sacrifices are an objectively good thing to do. Isaiah strongly counters this idea and tells the Jews that the goal is to serve God via compassion, not sacrifice.
As we move on, chronologically, this same idea becomes increasingly prevalent.
In a verse that has baffled Bible scholars for thousands of years, Jeremiah actually posits that God never commanded the Jews to sacrifice animals.
“For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22).
This is a much more radical opinion than Isaiah. Jeremiah is saying that God had never spoken to the Jews regarding sacrifices. While there is much interesting Biblical criticism on this verse — beyond the scope of what I wish to discuss — we also see that Jeremiah found the idea of sacrifices to be so negative that he could not conceive that God would command them. Try mentioning at the Shabbat table this week that God never commanded animal sacrifice and see how many weird responses you receive.
Jeremiah and Isaiah are not even the prophets most radically against sacrifice. In my opinion, Ezekiel, the Exilic prophet, suggests that certain types of sacrifices were commanded to Israel as a punishment for their wrongdoings.
“Because they had not executed Mine ordinances, but had rejected My statutes, and had profaned My sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and ordinances whereby they should not live” (Ezekiel 20:24-25).
Ezekiel states that certain statutes and ordinances given to the Israelites by God were purposely designed as bad. Now, to be honest, most scholars take the last line in the above quote as some positive proof that the Jews were practicing child sacrifice in the days of Ezekiel (there seems to have been a big debate amongst the ancient Israelites regarding whether or not God wants child sacrifice ). However, I think that the line “statutes that were not good” can also refer to other types of sacrifices, like animals. In this reading, Ezekiel is writing that the entire system of sacrifice is not only not an objective good (like Isaiah) and not neutral (like Jeremiah), but it is actually “bad” in the eyes of God.
To conclude this article, I do not think that it makes sense for us to continue longing for sacrifices. This makes things quite difficult because, as stated above, the ideas of reinstating animal sacrifice dominates our prayers. I, personally, approach this problem through one of two ways. I either read these prayers as more metaphorical, meaning that when I pray Mussaf on Shabbat, I am not wishing that we can, one day, offer up additional offerings on this day. Rather, since it is Shabbat, I must offer up more of myself than I would on a normal day. Or, I just change them. There is absolutely no point in muttering a certain section of our prayers if we do not actually want what we are praying for. Prayer was never meant to be set in stone, and there is ample evidence to suggest that the Shemona Esrei was one type of acceptable prayer – not THE acceptable prayer.