Struggling with sacrifice

B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Each year as springtime approaches, I recall with great affection sitting next to my mentor and friend, Rabbi Bernard Lipnick (z’’l), on the bimah of our shul. For it was on Shabbes mornings that our great teacher would provide me with his special “color commentary.” He would look around the shul and regale me with tales of the amazing connections between our members and delight in the ways in which so many had done so much for our St. Louis Jewish Community and of course, for his beloved B’nai Amoona. I miss those special moments and I miss that extraordinary man. 

Without question, Lipnick’s most vivid observations were reserved for the time of the year when we read the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), whose reading we initiate this week. As a vegetarian (one of many ideological commitments we shared), he was quite uncomfortable with — one might even say off-put by — the cultic sacrificial system employed by our ancient ancestors and which is described in such great detail in our Torah. 

Try as I might, I simply could not get him to take the leap with me away from viewing these texts as literal directives for religious life to appreciating them as metaphors for deeper existential meaning in our contemporary circumstances. All he could do was shake his head in apparent disbelief and ask: “Why are we still reading about these anachronistic practices”? 

Cleary, Lipnick was not the only one troubled by the Torah’s emphasis on Korbanot — animal sacrifice. No less an authority than Maimonides claimed that sacrifices were a temporary accommodation on the part of the Almighty. God understood that commanding Jews to totally refrain from the prevailing human practice of offerings as a form of worship would have been “contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that with which he is comfortable” (Guide to the Perplexed, Section 32). Eventually, however, it is God’s intention to totally rid us of this crude practice. 

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Rav Kook went so far as to posit that in the Messianic Era, once the Jerusalem Temple has been reinstated as the cultic center of our people, animal offerings would be abolished as human-beings would have, by that point, sufficiently evolved so as to no longer have the need for such crass rituals (Olot Rayah 2:292). 

So how are we to make sense of what we will be reading in shul for the next few months? Beyond habit, nostalgia and adherence to tradition (all powerful forces!), how might we recast the experience of the Kriyah — the Torah Reading — which remains for us the centerpiece and highlight of our Shabbat morning service? 

One powerful approach to addressing the above challenge is to ask ourselves what deep-seated anxiety did animal sacrifice actually address for our forbearers. British Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her insightful book “Leviticus and Literature,” suggests that by carefully analyzing the Book of Vayikra and animal sacrifice in particular, we can reveal concepts that are central to human flourishing. 

Once we reframe the discussion of sacrifice to include a conversation about rituals that might help us enjoy richer, more meaning-filled lives, Leviticus becomes a precious treasure-chest filled with spiritual gems that can enlighten our eyes and provide uplift to our spirits — even if we no longer intend to engage in these particular practices. Deeper understanding of the efficacy of Korbanot, provides us with a paradigm and blueprint for the creation of rituals that can elevate and ennoble our daily lives.

A simple example of this kind of “reframing for the sake of meaning making” can be achieved by unpacking the words very words Korban and Olah — the two most frequently used Biblical terms for sacrifices. The root of the word Korban is Karov, “to draw near”, while the word Olah means to “raise-up.” These words poignantly and succinctly capture the essence of the entire sacrificial system; to assist the one making the gift feel elevated and transported ever closer to the One to which the gift is being offered — the Holy One of Blessing. 

As we prepare to once again read the Book of Leviticus, I invite you to join me in asking a powerful question. Which modern Jewish rituals we can we more fully integrate into our lives so that we feel God’s immanence in a more palpable way; in a manner akin to the profundity our progenitors felt when they engaged in the offering of sacrifices? And when we answer that query, we may very well be on our way to forging and fashioning an embodied Yiddishkeit that — like the ancient sacrifices — helped bridge the often daunting chasm between Heaven and Earth.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is The Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona.