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Judaism is less a philosophical system than a field of tensions – between universalism and particularism, for example, or exile and redemption, priests and prophets, cyclical and linear time, and so on. Rarely is this more in evidence than in the conflicting statements within Judaism about sacrifices, and nowhere more sharply than in the juxtaposition between the sedrah of Tzav, which contains a series of commands about sacrifice, and the passage from the book of Jeremiah that is usually (not this year) its Haftarah:
“When I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: ‘Obey me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you’ ” (Jeremiah 7:22-23).
Commentators have been puzzled by the glaring contradiction between these words and the obvious fact that G-d did command the Israelites about sacrifices after bringing them out of Egypt. Several solutions have been offered. According to Maimonides, the sacrifices were a means, not an end, to the service of G-d. Radak argues that sacrifices were not the first of G-d’s commands after the Exodus; instead, civil laws were. Abarbanel goes so far as to say that initially G-d had not intended to give the Israelites a code of sacrifice, and did so only after the sin of the Golden Calf. The sacrifices were an antidote to the Israelites’ tendency to rebel against G-d.
The simplest explanation is to note that the Hebrew word “lo” does not invariably mean “not”; sometimes it means “not only” or “not just.” According to this, Jeremiah is not saying that G-d did not command sacrifices. He did, but they were not the sole or even most important element of the religious life. The common denominator of the prophetic critique of sacrifices is not opposition to them as such, but rather an insistence that acts directed to G-d must never dull our sense of duty to mankind. Micah gave this idea one of its most famous expressions:
With what shall I come before the Lord
And bow down before the exalted G-d? …
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With ten thousand rivers of oil? …
He has shown you, O man, what is good.
What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your G-d (Micah 6:6-8).
Yet the question remains: Why sacrifices? To be sure, they have not been part of the life of Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple, almost 2,000 years ago. But why, if they are a means to an end, did G-d choose this end? This is, of course, one of the deepest questions in Judaism, and there are many answers. Here I want to explore just one, first given by the early fifteenth-century Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph Albo in his Sefer HaIkkarim.
Here’s Rabbi Albo’s theory: Killing animals for food is inherently wrong. It involves taking the life of a sentient being to satisfy our needs. In Genesis, for example, Cain knew this. He believed there was a strong kinship between man and the animals. That is why he offered not an animal sacrifice, but a vegetable one. Abel, by contrast, believed that there was a qualitative difference between man and the animals. Had G-d not told the first humans, “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves in the ground”? That is why he brought an animal sacrifice. Once Cain saw that Abel’s sacrifice had been accepted while his own was not, he reasoned thus: If G-d (who forbids us to kill animals for food) permits and even favors killing an animal as a sacrifice, and if (as Cain believed) there is no ultimate difference between human beings and animals, then I shall offer the very highest living being as a sacrifice to G-d – namely my brother Abel. Cain killed Abel not out of envy or animosity but as a human sacrifice.
That is why G-d permitted the eating of meat after the Flood. Before the Flood, the world had been “filled with violence.” Perhaps violence is an inherent part of human nature. If there were to be a humanity at all, G-d would have to lower his demands of mankind. Let them kill animals, He said, rather than kill human beings – the one form of life that is not only G-d’s creation but also G-d’s image. Hence the otherwise almost unintelligible sequence of verses after Noah and his family emerge on dry land:
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood…” Then G-d blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them… “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything… Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d has G-d made man” (Genesis 8:29-9:6).
According to Rabbi Albo, the passage’s logic is clear. Noah offers an animal sacrifice in thanksgiving for having survived the Flood. G-d sees that humans need this way of expressing themselves. They are genetically predisposed to violence (“every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood”). If, therefore, society is to survive, human beings need to be able to direct their violence toward non-human animals, whether as food or sacrificial offering. The crucial ethical line to be drawn is between human and non-human.
The permission to kill animals is accompanied by an absolute prohibition against killing humans (“for in the image of G-d has G-d made man”). It is not that G-d approves of killing animals, whether for sacrifice or food, but that to forbid this to human beings, given their genetic predisposition to violence, is utopian. It is not for now but for the end of days. Meanwhile, the least bad solution is to let people kill animals rather than murder their fellow humans. Animal sacrifices are a concession to human nature. Sacrifices are a substitute for violence directed against mankind.
The worst form of violence within and between societies is vengeance, once described as “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process.” Hillel said, on seeing a human skull floating on water, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you will, in the end, themselves be drowned” (Avot 2:7). Sacrifices are one way of diverting the destructive energy of revenge. Why then do modern societies not practice sacrifice? Because, argues the contemporary thinker Rene Girard, there is another way of displacing vengeance. As Girard writes:
“Vengeance is a vicious circle whose effect on primitive societies can only be surmised. For us the circle has been broken. We owe our good fortune to one of our social institutions above all: our judicial system, which serves to deflect the menace of vengeance. The system does not suppress vengeance; rather, it effectively limits itself to a single act of reprisal, enacted by a sovereign authority specializing in this particular function. The decisions of the judiciary are invariably presented as the final word on vengeance.”
Not only does Girard’s theory reaffirm Rabbi Albo’s view. It also helps us understand the profound insight of the prophets and of Judaism as a whole. Sacrifices are not ends in themselves, but part of the Torah’s program to construct a world redeemed from the otherwise interminable cycle of revenge. The other part of that program, and G-d’s greatest desire, is a world governed by justice. That, we recall, was His first charge to Abraham, to “instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19).
Have we therefore moved beyond that stage in human history in which animal sacrifices have a point? Has justice become a powerful enough reality that we no longer need religious rituals to divert the violence between human beings? In his book, The Warrior’s Honor (1997), Michael Ignatieff tries to understand the wave of ethnic conflict and violence (Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda) that has scarred the face of humanity since the Cold War’s end. What happened to the liberal dream of “the end of history”? His words go to the very heart of the new world disorder:
“The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations…
“This cycle of intergenerational recrimination has no logical end … But it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat…
“Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together.”
Far from speaking to an age long gone and forgotten, the laws of sacrifice tell us three things as important now as then: first, violence is still part of human nature, never more dangerous than when combined with an ethic of revenge; second, rather than denying its existence, we must find ways of redirecting it so that it does not claim yet more human sacrifices; third, that the only ultimate alternative to sacrifices, animal or human, is the one first propounded millennia ago by the prophets of ancient Israel. No one put it better than Amos: “Rather, let justice be revealed like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.
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