This week we begin reading from a new book in the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, Sefer Vayikra, is referred to by the rabbis of the Talmudic period as “Torat Kohanim” because of its overwhelming concern about matters related to the priesthood and their facilitation of sacrificial worship in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Perhaps the most arcane book of the Torah in terms of how we practice our Judaism today, Sefer Vayikra none-the-less presents some deeply profound teachings about the nature of Jewish worship and how we relate to our God. The challenge, of course, is to make these most ancient of teachings relevant to our contemporary religious experience.
For over 2000 years the main mode of Jewish worship has been through prayer. It is well entrenched. So how can we relate to the commanded concept of animal sacrifice today?
This question has been asked for a very long time. Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbinic scholar, addressed this concern in his monumental work, The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides begins by asserting that God always considers human nature when interacting with humanity. A significant element of human nature is that human behaviors and attitudes cannot be suddenly and radically altered. Changes must be made gradually, without haste. Applying this notion to animal sacrifice, Maimonides suggests that God’s objective for Israel was to develop the people into a nation devoted to divine service – worship – and acts of loving-kindness. Emerging out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were used to animal sacrifice as the common and established form of worship. The immediate command to abandon sacrifice would have represented a radical change of behavior for the people at a very vulnerable time. Our later Prophets make it very clear that God does not require our burnt offerings. However, at the time of the exodus, a concession was made to human nature. The familiar and accepted form of worship was preserved, but with very specific parameters in order to differentiate Israel’s form of sacrificial offerings from those of the other pagan nations. Where, when, what and how to sacrifice were all clearly controlled and the priesthood became the standard-bearers of this newly commanded form of worship and of what was acceptable to God.
While traditional Judaism still maintains a messianic ideal of a return to sacrificial worship in a rebuilt third temple, there are others who suggest, like Maimonides, that, as a concession to human weakness, the original Levitical mandate of animal sacrifice was never intended as an eternal command. Many have proposed that the evolution from animal sacrifice to prayer based worship was an intended transition, moving the locus of offering from external to internal. When we approach the altar with our korban (“offering” – based on the root meaning of “to draw near”) we bring to God something that is outside of ourselves. In truth it is the animal that is making the greatest commitment. At the deepest level, sincere authentic prayer makes a much great demand on the worshipper. With prayer we bring an offering of the soul. We look deep within ourselves, sacrificing our egos and all the self-rationalizations and baggage we manifest in order to protect ourselves. We render ourselves vulnerable, opening ourselves up to truth and connection with the Divine. With prayer, the korban is you.
So what, then, do we do with the Book of Leviticus? Like the idea of the korban, we take the detailed commandments of the priestly handbook and we move its instructions inside. Animal sacrifice becomes a Midrash, a metaphor about how we are to engage in our efforts to commune with our God today. We embrace its call to spiritual purity and the kavanah (intention) of ritual. We move the altar into our homes and we become an entire nation of priests, drawing nearer to our God through our deeds without blemish and the mindfulness of our actions.