Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayiqra

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayiqra 5761/ March 31, ?2001

A. Jewish Philosophy on the Rationale behind Sacrifice

Ze'ev Schweidel
The Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies

This week brings us back to Leviticus, with its laws on sacrificial worship - burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. Again, as we read the weekly portion, we try to experience something of the wondrous spiritual elation felt by the Israelites when the Temple still stood and the entire people - priests, levites and Israelites - took part in sacrificial worship as set forth in the Torah. Time and again we attempt to hear an echo of the great symphony of divine worship that has long since fallen silent yet waits to be conducted and performed anew.

At the same time we are seized by doubt: do we indeed want this worship to be renewed? Do we not believe in being sincere in our prayers before the Lord, and when we entreat Him to restore "the regular offerings, as ordained, and the additional ones, as legislated," do we truly desire this? Is this what we long for? Or do we say these words by rote, while in our hearts at best we harbor great curiosity and at worst, revulsion? As we read these passages of the Torah, do we not wonder deep inside, like one of the four sons at the Seder, "what means this worship to us"? Perhaps we should take another look at what Jewish philosophy has had to say about the rationale behind the commandments regarding sacrifice. In my humble opinion, the explanations of the commandments of sacrifice are not self-contained; rather, they shed light on the more general approach to worship of the Lord, its objective and purpose. Below we present several approaches, if only in general summary.

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi explains sacrifice as forming a bond between heaven and earth, between a person and his Creator, and as bringing on prophetic inspiration. He perceives the universe as an enormous system governed by divine providence, and the sacrifical service in the Temple as a sort of manual for operating this system. When properly executed, the entire world runs in order and the Jewish people function as a healthy nation in every respect. When destroyed, trouble and disaster come to the world and exile to the Jewish people.

Maimonides views sacrifice as a way of keeping the Jews away from paganism, by providing a gradual transition from pagan ritual to monotheism, worshipping a single, abstract G-d, above nature. Since it was difficult for the people who had just been freed from bondage to jump to the level of pure, abstract worship of the Lord, one had to embark on a lengthy educational process, aimed at slowly preparing the heart and gradually teaching more refined and deeper religious ideas.

The above views reflect the two most fundamental approaches of the Middle Ages - sober intellectual rationalism on the one hand, and abstract metaphysical mysticism on the other. Modern philosophers and commentators followed the lead of these earlier thinkers, continuing the two trends into the modern era.

Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn, apparently influenced by Maimonides, views sacrifice as a way of educating against idolatry and maintained that sacrificial worship is optional and not obligatory and is destined to be abrogated in the time of the Messiah.

In contrast, and following the approach of Yehudah ha-Levi, Rav Kook views the act of offering sacrifices as revealing great and sublime spiritual truths, the depths of which human beings cannot fathom. He holds that sacrificical worship will be renewed and revealed in its full force only in time to come. Then the spiritual might of the Jewish people will emerge and take shape in its fullest and soundest form.

Again, the same differences of approach can be seen here. On the one hand, we see a trend toward stressing the historic role that sacrificial worship had in the national consciousness, while on the other there is a trend towards emphasizing the value of sacrificial worship as transcending time and nature, stressing its cosmic metaphysical aspects.

The greatest systematic exegete of modern times, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, devotes considerable attention to the significance of sacrifice. Even though he belongs to the more rationalist and humanist school of exegesis, his interpretation of the significance of sacrifice differs from that of Maimonides, but neither does it follow the mystical approach of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi. On the one hand, sacrifices in no way "operate" the universe, nor do they have any magical of mystical impact. On the other hand, they are not a "made for educational purposes as a concession" to a semi-primitive pagan intellect. Sacrifice, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is an extremely important educational tool for shaping Jewish morality and character. Offering a sacrifice symbolizes sacrificing the evil inclination that dwells within us. Rabbi Hirsch examines the laws of sacrifice in most minute detail (in contrast to Maimonides, who viewed them as arbitrary rulings) in order to prove his thesis. He explains how each type of sacrifice - the burnt offering, sin offering, guilt offering, etc. - plays a specific role in the overall system of symbols, serving as the axis around which Jewish worship of the Lord is structured. Thus a new interpretive approach emerged, neither mystical nor historical, but psychological and educational.

Professor Isaiah Leibowitz was opposed in principle to trying to explain the reasons for the commandments. In his opinion, one should not seek such explanations, since the commandments were not intended to answer our needs, be they psychological or educational, nor to provide us a mystical experience or the ability to influence higher spheres. For him, the purpose of all sacrifice, like all the other commandments concerning the relationship of human beings to G-d, is service of the Lord for its own sake alone, as opposed to worship which is not for its own sake, but to answer our own needs. As for the details of sacrificial worship, Leibowitz repeats Maimonides' explanation, holding that they are arbitrary and devoid of specific significance.

This sums up the main approaches and attempts in Jewish philosophy to explain the rationale behind the laws of sacrifice. Since we are far from sacrificial worship, both historically and emotionally, this distance inevitably leaves its mark on our prayers and general perceptions. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's suggestion may help us draw closer to these commandments. At the same time, we are not exempt from continuing to study the matter, so that we be worthy of the blessing: "Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old" (Mal. 3:4).