Sacrifices – The Great Jewish Embarrassment? Why Spinoza’s Ethics were not given at Sinai

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: Historischkritische 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.
  1. Dani Rabinowitz

    Rabbi Dr. Cardozo
    Your grouping all the commandments into one group strikes me as overly rough and hasty. Whilst I generally agree that the nature of the human condition at the time of revelation was a highly contingent matter and as a result some commandments could have been designed to address particular “flaws” in that condition, it seems too quick to think that all commandments are of this nature. For one, think of the many commandments that are called “khukim”—those commandments that do not seem to have any manifest purpose e.g. the red heifer. Whilst this category of commandment is in the minority overall, it is worth asking: How do they feature in your “actual” vs, “ideal” framework? Moreover, even with regard to those commandments that seem to have manifest purpose either for moral development or social justice, we are warned not to engage in seeking the “purpose” or “reasons” behind the commandments since even those as wise as Solomon fell prey to arrogance in thinking he would not succumb to the dangers certain commandments were manifestly designed to avert. I therefore wonder if you are not urging us to follow as similar road—once we recognize the “danger” or “deficiency” that a particular set of commandments were designed to address we can rid ourselves of those commandments as there is no longer the need for which they were designed. We can, in your words, become “embarrassed” by them, where being embarrassed is a sign of “spiritual” or “moral” of “social” development. Moreover, thinking of laws in terms of aids by which to achieve an ideal state of affairs is robustly revisionary in the sense of such a view opens the way to ridding ourselves of commandments once we achieve the ends for which they were designed. This strikes me as contrary to Rambam who explicitly wrote that no law can be repealed by a prophet. And by what means are we to determine which laws have filled their purpose and which not? However, I do find the statement that in the future all festivals will be cancelled apart from Purim to support the kind of thinking you suggest.

  2. Florian Wolfowicz

    This is an excellent point.

    The intellect has nothing to do with embarrassment (the kind of embarrassment you discuss). It ignores it. But man as a living human being cannot ignore it: he has to learn to live with it.

    It is the dignity of man to use his intellect in the most possible independent way. This is Torat Emet. The intellect cannot serve other purposes than its own. Intellect is in this sense free. But as haRambam puts it in Moreh Nevukhim, we are human intellects in the sub-lunar world. We are not "separated intellects", we live in this world. And this is also a responsibility — beyond the very conceptualization of it (and this is the point where we depart from the Aristotelian perspective). Much later, Franz Rosenzweig put the emphasis differently: HaQadosh barukh hu did not create religion, He created the world. This is the world and we live in it. This is Torat Hayim. And therefore, Torat Hayim is, for reasons that the reason ignore, beyond theology and teleology.

    This distinction between Torat Emet and Torat Hayim, which I borrow from harav David Halivni, seems close to the distinction you make between ought-to-be and is. Not everyone is ready to acknowledge it, let alone to honor it.

    Isn't it precisely because haRambam was a ish halakhah, a man of halakhah, that he could escape the conceptualization trap, that is, that he refused to choose unequivocally between Torat Emet and Torat Hayim ? Or yet more exactly, that while he chose Torat Emet, as a maskil, he was unwilling to sacrifice Torat Hayim as a ish halakhah and posseq ?

    The qorbanot are indeed an outstanding case in point. This is the reason why HaRambam was ready to suffer the embarrassment, unlike Spinoza. I do not even claim that this reason was conscious. I do claim that as an ish halakhah, haRambam intuitively knew when Torat Hayim has to prevail. After all, we know of the Rambam's hard daily schedule. We are yet to work in an unredeemed world. This is the world of halakhah.

    In this sense, the world of halakhah does not completely identify with harav D. Soloveitchik's perspective developed in ish halakhah (but of course, R. Soloveitchik also develops other existential perspectives). The world of halakhah cannot be only a conceptualization of the world, for it is the world we live in and not yet the world we ought to live in.

    (I of II)

  3. Florian Wolfowicz

    Like other great thinkers, Spinoza was too fascinated by the power of the intellect to consider any question that fell short of conceptualization. It is probably no coincidence that like Descartes, Spinoza never considers pain in his writings. (Actually Descartes does it, in passing, only to dismiss it from the realm of philosophy.) The anecdote about Spinoza losing his temper is all the more interesting. By dismissing Torat Hayim in favor of Torat Emet, by claiming that the intellect is actually beyond prophecy, Spinoza believed sincerely that he had liberated human reason. But even he knew that this "liberation" had to be kept secret in some way (even minimally so that the uneducated reader can be enlightened). It is difficult to read Spinoza without feeling the all-encompassing christian context of his times. So even Spinoza had to work out his own Torat Hayim, so to speak, and his writings reflect this all too well.

    What has the modern world retained from Spinoza's claim ? It is not just another messianic claim. It is the claim that the gap between is and ought to be can actually be bridged by the power of my intellect alone.
    This is the claim that paved the way for the hyper-conceptualization of the world, with no room (and no patience) for middle stages.

    Perhaps the teachings of Haz"l, "Better suffering shame (or embarrassment) in this world rather than in the world to come" (Qiddushin 81a) and "Blessed He be who gave human being the opportunity to feel shame in this world rather than in the world to come" ought to be understood in this light too. This certainly also includes the kind of embarrassment that you discuss. Independently of the pedagogic lesson for the future (synthesis), or even of the cleansing of our wrongdoings, feeling embarrassment in this world teaches us something about Torat Hayim. This is why Spinoza's Ethics was not given at Sinai.

    (II of II)

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