Reconciling sacrifice with modern-day, Western values

Rabbi Hyim Shafner


In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the Torah continues its description from last week of the sacrifices and their rituals. For us, living in the current period of time in the Western world, animal sacrifice is fairly foreign and seems in many respects barbaric. To us, perhaps reading about the sacrifices in the Torah – imagining the most central national Jewish space as a place of burning animal carcasses, flowing blood, incense burning and priests bathing – seems very…well, un-Jewish. How are we to understand the fact that the laws of the tabernacle and its sacrifices take up such a large portion of our holy Torah?

In the history of Jewish thought several approaches to sacrifices are presented. I will discuss two classical ones and one modern.

Nachmonides (b. 1194) saw the tabernacle and its sacrifices as a continuation of the Mount Sinai experience. God was revealed to us at the mountain and in the tabernacle and its successor the temple, God “dwelled” among the Jewish people. Sacrifices were used to atone for sin according to Nachmonides in order that the one who brings the sacrifice will comprehend that, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Since human deeds are committed with thought, speech and action, the hands are first laid upon the sacrifice, verbal confession is then said, and the animal’s body itself sacrificed before God, utilizing metaphorically all one’s facilities for goodness in place of their use for the sin committed.

Maimonides (b. 1135) in his book of Jewish philosophy, “The Guide for the Perplexed” (3:32), in contrast to Nachmonides, sees prayer as the true mode of relating to God, but he says, God gave sacrifices to the Jewish people at that time since after living in Egypt they were used to the idea of idol worship. And so God said, instead of sacrificing animals and bringing incense to idols do it for me in a temple of God. But sacrifices, while required by that generation of Jews, is by no means the best way of connecting to the Divine.

Lastly, I would like to quote the words of a modern Reform Jewish commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, who emphasizes the sanctity garnered from the sacrificial rite: “I object vigorously when I hear people say that we moderns have progressed beyond such practices (of sacrifice)….we have retrogressed in essential areas upon which biblical sacrifice was founded…Most of the offerings were shared meals…in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion…an experience in an awe inspiring religious setting which impressed itself more on the participants than a mumbled berkat hamazon (grace after meals prayer)…offering the olot (totally burnt offerings) meant to give a valuable animal without deriving any measurable human benefit from them, purely for the love of God. How often do we do this in any form or fashion?”

Though we do not have sacrifices today, and perhaps that is for the best according to Maimonides, it seems we have much to learn from our Torah’s teachings about sacrifices.

Shabbat Shalom.

D’var Torah: Tzav

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.