There is a lot of discussion these days in religious circles about “protecting halacha”, protecting the law, that if certain positions are taken by communities (usually issues related to the role of women, or modern scholarship these days), then “halacha” will be in “danger”.  I find this a curious new position. Is the role of Torah law to protect /elevate the people or is it some independent divine phenomenon that requires “protection”? Perhaps discussion of a more neutral set of Torah laws, those of sacrifice, neutral because they are no longer operative (itself an interesting development, and not without controversy at the time animal sacrifice was transmuted into prayer and other allegorical motifs). So how do we understand the purpose and function of the Temple rites and sacrifices?

My initial temptation was to play the phenomenologist, to compare our conceptions of sacrifice with those of other cultures, the use of language in Indian ritual, etc., but I was wary of the danger of explaining “away”, that is trying to give a good “excuse” for all this talk of korbanot, sacrifices. Rather than attempting to justify practices out of practice for two thousand years, and keeping in mind the suggestions of R. Kook that we may never sacrifice animals again, I would like to transform the question into one about the meaning of ritual in the human experience. So let us ask the central question of these questions, as does the Mei HaShiloach directly:

How can it be that if a person sins, he or she gets absolved from the sin by killing an animal?

The Mei HaShiloach explains, the critical issue in atonement is remorse and prayer. However, there is an important component to the experience of sin that is uniquely addressed by sacrifice. People mistakenly assume that sin is a personal matter, but in fact, all of existence is interwoven in a spiritual continuum. Thus, in the initial state, the “Edenic” one, both humanity and the animal worlds were at a higher spiritual level and thus eating of animals was prohibited. Man’s responsibility for non-human existence was at that time one of care and responsibility. Killing for food was only permitted, according to the Midrashists, after a truly fallen state of the world produced a situation (the flood, Noah) where the only way God could insure responsibility on the part of man for the animal world was through allowing man to view animals as food. This way, humanity and all the rest of existence could be mutually inter-related through needing to protect the world as food.

Rav Kook explains our having been created with a need to eat in this manner as well, that eating binds humanity to animals by ingestion (Orot Hakodesh pages 292-3). Thus, with regards to sin, the animal as sacrifice in response to human failing, is a sign of our failure to keep up our end in this mutual interrelatedness of humankind and nature. Concurrently, however, it bears within it a message of the capacity for spiritual elevation, for we are reminded that these animals, when “consumed” in holiness, rise up to the levels symbolized by the animal faces represented in the Vision of the Chariot seen by Ezekiel. The elevation of the mundane animal to supernal spheres reminds us to raise ourselves, to sublate our existence, to the point that

“even that which was originally thought of as a sin could be raised up to God”.

On the subject of the sacrifices, the Tiferet Shlomo (a once very well known text by a thinker who was both a respected Talmudist and a profoundly sensitive humanist) has several interesting teachings. One which I will mention briefly, suggests that the core lesson is related to the transformative nature of speech. The only difference between any old animal and a holy sacrifice at the Bet Hamikdash is that someone said “this animal will be a sacrifice”. This transformative power is in the hands of every person, thus the bringing of a korban “michem“, from within you, as verse 1:2 would be read, means literally from within you, as speech. That alone could prompt a full essay, but returning to our theme, he has a very long piece on the deeper meaning of the sacrifice experience.

The Tiferet Shelomo begins by asking our question. Why would the prophets, who have so many social concerns and other spiritual questions, single out the sacrifices so frequently? Of all the mitzvot, commandments, they might have addressed, why this one?

Before presenting the Tiferet Shelomo’s answer, a review of Bataille’s “Theory of Religion”, which deals with the issue of sacrifices is appropriate. (Aside from the relevance of his material, it seems right to bring him into the “library”, over, say Heidegger, in that as opposed to many other contemporary thinkers we frequently cite, Battaille was an active fighter in the Resistance). Battaile introduces the concept of the “heterogeneous”, which is nicely summarized by Habermas in his review as including:

“all the elements that resist assimilation to the bourgeois form of life and to the routines of everyday life…the realm of the heterogeneous is opened up only in explosive moments of fascinated shock, when those categories fall apart that guarantee in everyday life the confident interaction of the subject with himself and with the world (Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pp. 212).

In other words, humanity has become accustomed to objectifying everything around oneself, treating everything that is not-self as a tool, a means to our own ends, judging it on grounds of usefulness, transforming everything into commodities, without taking into account the uniqueness and presence of the Other. This objectifying way of thinking about the world around us, explains Battaille, is usually shattered by experiences with death; one realizes that the rupture introduced in life by the loss of a loved one is not the same as losing a generic “spouse”, for example. So:

The power that death generally has illuminates the meaning of sacrifice, which functions like death in that it restores a lost value through a relinquishment of that value…what is important is to leave a world of real things, whose reality derives from a long term operation and never resides in the moment…sacrifice is the antithesis of production, which is accomplished with a view to the future; it is consumption that is concerned only with the moment…in sacrifice the offering is rescued from all utility… (italics mine)

What is critical about sacrifice, according to Bataille, is that it involves the taking of an “object” which has value to us, (he points out that in no culture is a luxury item used for sacrifice), and then wasting it. We longer use it for a purpose, as an instrument, but by wasting it, it is transformed into a singular unique existence of its own, beyond mere commodity.

The Tiferet Shelomo explains that the uniqueness of sacrifice to the Prophets, and the reason they often chose it as a target for critique, is that sacrifice is intended to be entirely an act of total giving, one in which the only sense of it is in its total surrender; all other mitzvot have some kind of “surplus value”, a practical meaning or some kind of usefull end. However, in sacrifice, no thought other than that “this sacrifice is an act of sacrifice for God” is meaningful.

With this in mind, one can understand Isaiah’s argument, that why would God even want a sacrifice if it had false meanings attached (ie material gain, societal standing, etc). In fact, the only instances in Jewish law where thoughts alone make the activity “un-kosher” are related to the sacrifices, being the prohibitions of pigul and notar (where the mere intention to eat the sacrifices outside of the mandated time is enough to invalidate them); in no other situation does a thought alone without action cause a violation of a prohibition.

Thus the Tiferet Shelomo reads verse 1:2 (Speak unto the people if a person yakriv, wishes to sacrifice unto God, from an animal… should the sacrifice be brought), as “in order to sacrifice, you must come close with that which is (learned) from the animal” – that is, just as the animal becomes elevated, becomes a ‘sacrifice’, without any intention or thought of gain on the part of either the animal or the one bringing the sacrifice, that is the way we must come before God (yakriv=sacrifice but is derived from the root karev, to come close) at all times (particularly with regards to prayer). The animal is not conscious of gain or utility in becoming sacred. What we learn from the animal is that our relation to God must also be in this manner, not a relation of utility but of total immediacy, and not one relating to any sort of future gain, but from a position of self-overcoming.

This is also why sacrifice has been linked to prayer. Prayer is meant to represent the same moment of transcendence, of approaching the sacred from the same place of self -transcendence, a moment of immediacy and without thoughts of gain.

The Tiferet Shelomo goes one step further, stating that this moment of self-overcoming is critical for our experience of Shabbat as well- he ends this teaching with the suggestion that the last Hebrew words of this perasha, “l’ashma ba” form an acrostic for the words “l‘kel asher shavat mikol ha’maasim beyom hashivi’i” (for God who rested from all his activity on the seventh day), linking this reading of the meaning of sacrifice to the experience of Shabbat as well. A Shabbat of presence, of self transcendence, of the yearning for unmediated relationship with Gd, is achieved with the renunciation of “utility” leading to an immersion in the significance of the moment.

In summary, then, from this perspective the central teaching of the korbanot rite is that we must learn to not relate to our world in an exploitative manner, in which everything around us exists purely there for our manipulative consumption and selfish enjoyment. We begin by transforming our relationship to God into one which is “de-utilitised”, the experience we name the “holy”. To use an example from Melanie Klein, we learn not to look to God as the “good breast”, solely as the extension of our desires, with whom we are angry when we are hungry (becoming the “bad breast”). When we are infants, growth begins when we begin to understand that the mother is a separate individual who has her own needs and as a result of this recognition,  we understand  that we ourselves are separate individuated beings; that our needs are within us and the world is a much more complicated place than we imagined, where there are many individuals with many needs. This, in Kleinian child psychology, is an important step in individuation and in healthy relations with the parent. This process is reiterated somewhat in the sacrifice experience as we have interpreted them here. We learn to separate the holy out from our exploitative purposes. We learn to communicate in such a manner by transforming our prayers in the same manner. Time becomes holy when we learn to live our Shabbat this way.

Once we are “trained” in recognizing sacred otherness in our spiritual lives, we have the capacity to recognize that every person has their own unique set of needs and drives, the needs of the other are not the same as our needs, and we find ourselves living properly in community (perhaps this is what is meant when Avraham is congratulated for not holding back his son from God at the Akedah – that Avraham reached the point where he truly allowed another living being to individuate, that is the sacrifice, the sacrifice of the illusion that one has control over another).

Thus the true moment of atonement comes when one realizes that the world is not narcissistically absorbed in our own sins, and desires, but rather, when one realizes that all living beings, in their own unique and individual way, are part of a whole community of life, each with their own specific needs and desires, where the truest atonement (and sacrifice) is the recognition of the Other’s existence and autonomy.

In summary, the book of Vayikra, dealing with sacrifices and ritual holiness, is meant to bring us to a recognition of the needs of human society, and not the other way around. If the “halacha” is in “danger”, it suggests we aren’t relating to it correctly.


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