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March 23, 2023 10:16 am

Would Ritual Sacrifices Be Acceptable Today?

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

At this time of the year, the Torah readings are all to do with sacrifices. I shall confess that the thought of killing animals does not fill me with any great enthusiasm. Neither, as we approach Pesach, would I have been excited to join thousands of others bringing their Pascal lambs to be sacrificed in the Temple courtyards.

Various religions currently in fashion still seem keen on sacrifices. And we are typically hypocritical. We hide the awful scenes of carnage that our modern abattoirs are, and ensure that we only see sanitized chunks of character-less protein. We catch no sight of factory farms, minute metal cages, or concrete shells that hide enormous suffering to satisfy our desires, nor do we witness the cruel agonies of transport, terror, and goading that lead up to the moment of death.

In its favor, the ceremonial practices of the Temple were less terrifying. As Temple Grandin has shown, animals herded and forced into killing chambers suffer more than those gently guided toward their fate. Animals in the Temple were led through different chambers and courts in an atmosphere of ceremonial dignity by solicitous teams of priests who laid their hands on the animals and calmed them to make sure there was no panic or struggle that might invalidate the ritual. The air was thick with incense, sweet smells, and music to mask any disturbing invasion of the senses.

After the sacrificial system ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Christianity developed the idea of a symbolic human sacrifice to replace the animals. Jesus became both the Lamb of God and the Scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. Jews do not accept the idea of a human atoning for our sins. It was up to us individually to establish that relationship with God. We retained mention of sacrifices in our prayers and tradition as a historical and theoretical system to study, in order to see what could be learned from the details and the symbolism. A sacrifice in English means giving something up. In Hebrew, the word Korban means getting closer.

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In our disenfranchised exile, the Temple became emblematic of our lost past and independence. Our liturgy nostalgically yearned for the days of yore. And so different responses emerged. Some take it literally and others symbolically. The mystics focused on the human, priestly ceremonials and tried to imitate their exclusive and elevated lifestyle. And the philosophers came up with explanations as to why a system could be part of the Divine plan at one moment and not at another.

“The custom in those days generally was to sacrifice animals. He did not command us to give up these manners of service. It would in those days have made the same impression as if a prophet now would call as not to pray to God or fast or seek His help. The sacrificial service is not the primary object, whilst supplication and prayers and similar acts of worship are,” wrote Maimonides in his “Guide to the Perplexed” (chapter 32).

And the great medieval authority known as Ritva, Yom Tov of Seville( 1260-1330) in “Sefer Zikaron” to Vayikra said that if people find animal sacrifices unacceptable, they may not be reintroduced.

Yet our Orthodox world today is in such a state of conscious rejection of Western intellectual ideas, that it is almost unheard of to suggest that when Elijah arrives, he may well not insist on re-instituting animal sacrifices as the Talmud suggests. I think he’ll have a much bigger problem deciding on which Hasidic priests will be in charge.

Everything ceremonial is a means to an end. The end is to be better, more caring, and more spiritual. As Jeremiah  7:22 tells us, God prefers good human beings who listen to God’s commands “more than sacrifices.”

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently based in New York.

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