Torah Commentary: Pershat Vayikra- Consumption and Commodification


This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra, which is so different from Shemot that one almost feels a need to undergo an entire conceptual transformation. Now we shift from discussing themes of narrative and liberation, matters which speak to us directly, to dealing with concepts relating to “holiness”, a term which needs to be so radically redefined in our time that it almost has no meaning (a history of meanings of the term holiness in Jewish thought will be attempted for Perashat Kedoshim).
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 was more challenged to try to find some readings that might make these texts meaningful to us, today, in our lifeworlds. 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 is remorse and prayer. However, there is an important component to 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 one of care. Killing for food was only permitted after Noah and a truly fallen state of the world produced a situation where the only way God could assure responsibility on the part of man for the animal world was by allowing man to look at animals as food. This way, at least humanity and all the rest of existence could be mutually related through ingestion, so to speak.
Rav Kook explains our having been created with a need to eat in this manner as well (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 Yechezkel. The elevation of the mundane animal to supernal spheres reminds us of our own ability to raise ourselves, and the universe, to the point that “even that which was originally thought of as a sin could be raised up to God”.
From the Mei Hashiloach, I would like to turn to an earlier master, the Radomsker. His text, Tiferet Shelomo, has made its way more and more to the center of my references; I don’t know why the sefer is not more well known, though I hope I am contributing something to a re-evaluation. He was known as a great scholar and initially was expected to follow in the more intellectual wing of Hassidut associated with the Pesischer, but chose the more socially minded path of the Lubliner and R. Meir’l of Apt. Both of these sides are reflected in his work known as Tiferet Shelomo.
On the subject of the sacrifices, The Tiferet Shlomo has several interesting teachings. One that 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 I am after a theme found in another teaching of his.
In his longest piece on korbanot, sacrifices, the Tiferet Shelomo begins by asking our question in another formulation. 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 Gd into one of the “de-utilitised”, which we call the “holy”. To use an example from Melanie Klein, we learn not to look to Gd 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, at an important point we begin to note that the mother is a separate individual who has her own needs and thus we learn that we too 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 korbanot 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, their needs are not 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 one’s own sins, etc., but rather, when one realizes that all living beings, in their own unique and free 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.
World events continue to prove that this lesson has not yet been learned.

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