Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Does Judaism really need animal sacrifices? Would it not be better off without them? After all, does the sacrificial cult not compromise Judaism? What does a highly ethical religion have to do with the collecting of blood in vessels and the burning of animal limbs on an altar? No doubt Judaism should really be sacrifice-free. Yet it is not.
So, is the offering of sacrifices Jewish, or not? The answer is an unequivocal Yes! It is Jewish, yet it does not really belong to Judaism.
If Judaism would have had the chance, it would have dropped the entire institution of sacrifices in a second. Better still, it would have had no part in it to begin with. How much more beautiful the Torah would be without sacrifices! How wonderful it would be if a good part of Sefer Vayikra were removed from the biblical text! Or had never been there in the first place.
So what are these sacrifices doing there?
The Torah does not really represent Judaism. Not in its ideal form. Not in all its glory. For there are two kinds of Judaism. There is the Judaism of today and the Judaism of tomorrow. There is a realistic Judaism and an idyllic Judaism. The gap between them is filled by the world of Halacha. Halacha is the balancing act between the doable and the ideal. Between absolute ends and approximate means. Between what is and what ought to be. It is a great mediator, and a call for hope.
Many people believe that concessions to human weaknesses are incompatible with the divine will. The divine will should not be compromised by human shortcomings. But Judaism thinks otherwise; it is too realistic. It is amused by Baruch Spinoza’s ideal world in which passions and human desires have no place since they upset the “good life” of amor intellectualis Dei (the intellectual love of God). Even Spinoza lost his cool when the Dutch influential De Witt brothers were murdered in 1672 for political reasons! He told the great philosopher Gottfried Leibniz that he had planned to hang a large poster in the town square, reading ultimi barbarorum! (extreme barbarians), but was prevented from doing so by his hostess who locked the door on him as she feared that Spinoza himself would be murdered! (1) Perhaps Spinoza’s Ethics is the ideal, but how immature to believe that it is attainable. (How different would the Ethics have been if Spinoza had married and fathered children?) Halacha is pragmatic. It has no illusions about man and no patience for Spinoza’s Ethics. It demands from man that he stretch – and not just a little – but it acknowledges the long and difficult road between the is and the ought-to-be. And it understands all too well that the ought-to-be may never be reached in man’s lifetime.
Judaism teaches that the Divine limits Itself out of respect for man. It was God who created this imperfect man. So He could not have given the Ethics of Spinoza at Sinai, only Divine “imperfect” laws that deal with the here-and-now and give merely a taste of the ought-to-be. Judaism teaches that if the perfect is unattainable, one should at least try to reach the possible, the manageable. That which can be achieved. If we cannot have it all, let us attempt to make some improvement. If you must wage war, do it as ethically as possible. If universal vegetarianism is inconceivable, try to treat animals more humanely and slaughter them painlessly. That is doable Judaism. True, it is not the ideal – indeed, the Torah is sometimes an embarrassment – but it is all that God could command at Sinai. It is not the ought-to-be Judaism, but it is much better than nothing. The great art is to make the doable Judaism, with all its problems, as ethical as possible; and instead of despairing about its shortcomings, to live it as joyfully as we can. As Spinoza has taught us, “Joy is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” (Ethics, 3, definitions 2, 3). Oh, Baruch, did you forget this?
Sacrifices are not part of the ought-to-be Judaism. They are far removed from the Judaism that Spinoza dreamed of. But they are a realistic representation of the doable with an eye towards the ought-to-be.
In one of his most daring statements, Maimonides maintains that sacrifices are a compromise to human weakness. The ancient world of idol worship was deeply committed to animal sacrifices. It was so ingrained in the way of life of the Jews’ ancestors that it was “impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other,” and “the nature of man will not allow him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he is accustomed.”(2) Therefore, God permitted the Jews to continue the sacrificial cult but only for “His service,” and with many restrictions, the ultimate goal being that with time the Jews would be weaned from this trend of worship; from the is to the ought-to-be.
By making this and similar statements, Maimonides no doubt laid the foundations for Spinoza’s dream of an ultimate system of ethics, just as he planted the seeds of Spinoza’s pantheism. But Maimonides realized that the time had not yet come, that it was still a long road from the reality to the dream.
In contradiction to his statements in the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, in his famous Mishne Torah, speaks about the need for sacrifices even in the future Temple.(3) We believe he thus expresses his doubt that the ought-to-be Judaism will ever become a reality in this world. The institution of sacrifice seems to be grounded in deep symbolism, the meaning and urgency of which escapes our modern mentality. That idol worshippers made use of it in their abominable way does not mean that it cannot be of great spiritual value when practiced on a much higher plain, something deeply ingrained in the human psyche to which modern man no longer has a connection. Still, it does not contradict the fact that it ought to be different. When Judaism and Spinoza’s Ethics will one day prevail, there will indeed be no need for sacrifices. In fact, they will be an embarrassment.
But what happened in the meantime? The Temple was destroyed and sacrificial service came to an end. Is this a step forward, or backward? When religious Jews to this day pray for the reinstatement of sacrifices, are they asking to return to the road between the is and the ought-to-be? Between the dream and its realization? Or, are they praying to reinstate sacrifices as a middle stage, only to finally get rid of them forever?
We need to ask ourselves the pertinent question whether our aversion to sacrifices is the result of our supreme spiritual sophistication through which we left the world of sacrifices behind us, or because we have sunk so low that we are not even able to reach the level of idol worshippers who, however much primitive we believe them to have been, possessed a higher spiritual level than some of us who call ourselves monotheists. This question is of great urgency in a modern world that slaughtered six millions Jews and continues to slaughter millions of other people. Have we surpassed the state of is and are we on our way to the ought-to-be Judaism, or are we on the brink of a Judaism that is not even at the stage of is but rather regressing, while we believe it is progressing forward? (4)
(1) K. O. Meinsma, Spinoza en zijn kring: Historisch–kritische studiën over Hollandsche vrijgeesten, Den Haag, 1896, page 358, footnote 1. (Dutch)
(2) Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32.
(3) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim, 11:1.
(4) For a discussion about the various positions on sacrifices, see Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk in his classic Meshech Chochma, Introduction to Vayikra. Concerning the contradictions in Maimonides’ understanding of the sacrifices, see my book, Between Silence and Speech, Essays on Jewish Thought, Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ 1995, chapter 1. See also Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi’s explanation in his Ma’aseh Hashem, on the frequent expression that sacrifices must be brought “with a pleasant aroma to the lord”, which is brought with my commentary in my first volume of Thoughts to Ponder:Daring Observations about the Jewish Tradition, Urim Publications, NY-Jerusalem, 2002, chapter 42.