Are Animal Sacrifices Relevant for Today's Life?

    April 2011 Passover          
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Relevance of the Torah and Sacrifices to a Secular Jew

By Abraham Glazer

There is much in Torah that seems to have no relevance today. One can begin with first lines of Genesis to find numerous examples if one starts with some sort of disconnect between being Jewish and Torah. I am a non-religious Jew who for the last 6 years conversed with an observant Jew from Brooklyn almost every Sunday morning. My rabbi, Gedalya, has opened up doors for me that I never knew existed. My background in a reform congregation and 30 years of living as a ďculturalĒ Jew had me viewing the observant community to be almost as foreign as a Muslim woman clothed fully in a burqa. I never read the Bible completely and viewed it as a barely relevant historical document encased in a museum display for viewing. But this morning in reading the Torah portion called Veyikra, I finally understood something that was only dimly seen. Torah is a historically transformational document whose text and essence is especially relevant, even to a secular Jew.

The Torah portion of Veyikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) details sacrifice, the animal and meal offerings brought in to the Sanctuary. G-d calls Moses from the Tent of Meeting to instruct him on how Aaron and the priests and the People are to present the various sacrifices. Now the Tent of Meeting no longer exists. We no longer have Priests. For most Jews, the only time priests are acknowledged may be during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when the descendents are brought before the congregation to raise their hands for the priestly blessing (known by most as Spockís hand raised greeting in Star Trek). The idea of performing ritualized animal sacrifice is seen as anachronistic at best or even barbaric. And the Torah goes into intimate detail about carrying blood into the Tent of Meeting and how it is to be presented on the altar, placing of a young bullís head and its body fat atop the altarís fire. The test specifies the piercing of a young doveís head with the priestís nail and pressing out itís blood on the altar. Yet the context and content of this, the Torah has significance that can resonate today as it has for Jews for thousands of years.

The Jews in that time are far from what is to become their homes; it has not be given to them, Egypt is their home. They lived as slaves for generations under the omnipotent hand of the Pharaohs. Each of their days as slaves was determined by whatever inclination, whimsy or ruling of a single man and his agents. Whether they lived or died, ate or went hungry, beaten or given water, was determined by someone other then themselves. There was no choice except what was defined by whomever was their master at that moment. That could change day by day, hour by hour. My early learning taught me that all of the Jews in Egypt responded to Mosesí summons. But the Talmud and some historical records teach that many Jews chose to stay (what an interesting discussion that could make this coming Pesach). Many others returned to worshipping idols when their faith was tested during the 40 days that Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving Torah.

Living at the hand of a single ruler, where every tree, wind, cat could be a god was the foundation of the lives of all people throughout the world at that time. The Jews had recently received the commandments from a single all powerful deity. This became a clear and unequivocal foundation of laws not subject to manís capricious hand. For the first time in history, man was no longer solely dependent on another man for his day to day living and no longer needing to appeal to a rock or a king for his salvation. There would be a power beyond man with whom each of the People had an intimate relationship if they choose to have it.

So after the detailed and intricate building of the Ark, the tent of Meeting and elevation of the priests, there comes the sacrifices. This seems to be another keystone of the relationship between G-d and the Jews. For unlike the stratification of master and slave, ruler and servant, here is where an essence of Judaism and itís significance to Western Civilization is revealed. G-d is saying that man is perfectible. That though we are chosen to have a unique relationship, we are human and not divine. Also significant, this ritual of sacrifice applies to all men. All have a choice to be divinely inspired. Should we make the wrong choice, there is a clear path to redemption. I know little of the millions of words of commentary in Torah through the years. I suggest that the Torah portion of Veyikra is another stone in the foundation of G-dís commentary on how people are to live.

The offerings come from the wealthy with flocks and birds and from the poor who can only bring ďone tenth of an ephah (measure) of fine flourĒ. This sacrifice is incumbent on all even Aaron, the High Priest. The offerings of animals, flour, oil and the first grains and fruit are an acknowledgment that all sustenance comes from G-d and not from any man. This detailed ritual will be a daily event for the Jews until the destruction of the Second Temple. The daily prayers of the observant and the annual prayers of those us less so are based on Veyikra where we acknowledge G-dís supremacy. No longer will any man or any instrument of man be supreme. Unless we choose to make them so.

It is significant that there is no mention of intentional sins against G-dís Commandments. This recognizes of the perfectibility of man and an accountability that is not dependent on the capriciousness of a mortal ruler or his minions. We have this today in our Western legal tradition that holds intent as measuring factor in a criminalís punishment. Intentional sins are not mentioned in the Parsha which may be seen as a tacit recognition of evil: intentional sin. If G-d is not supreme, then there is only subjective good and evil and therefore no standard but that of the moment of desire. The irrelevancy of G-dís supremacy makes evil a matter of oneís perspective. At best, evil becomes a specious and transitory judgment based on oneís politics or feelings. This is not the way of Torah.

Finally, after hours of conversation with my teacher, Gedalya, I have seen the significance of this and other Torah portions that seemed so distant. In the midst of all the minutia of this and other Torah portions, I am reflecting on all of the detail in the Bible that I had never been able to understand. I can imagine what bravery, fear and glory there was for people who crossed the sharp edge of slavery into an unknown universe of faith. If you are like me and only have a vague relationship with G-d or you do not believe that G-d spoke to the people at Sinai, can you at least recognize that this is a transformational document for all people? Our fathers knowing only the surety of slavery and death are offered an opportunity to build a new life for themselves and us by attending to the honoring of a power greater than any man. This detail filled with blood and fat, slaughtering and burning has lessons for us as we move further into our own current events seemingly filled with the supremacy of man and our reluctance to identify evil so vaguely in the distance and our sins so close in our desires.

I do not know if I shall ever be able to embrace Torah with anything like the depth and breath of Gedalyaís faith, but this morning with my rabbi looking over my shoulder, I am struck with G-dís power and profundity and a deeper appreciation of my father and his fathers.


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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