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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Behar-Bechukotai: Animal Sacrifice

In this week’s double reading, we come to end of the book of Leviticus. Having discussed the holiness of individuals, of priests, of the festivals, and of the Tabernacle, this week's reading begins with the notion of a Sabbatical year. In that year: fields will lie fallow, debts will be relieved, and indentured slaves will be freed. Just as six days of the week are dedicated to work, and one day is dedicated to spiritual renewal; so too, the Torah dedicates six years to the pursuit of professional advancement and wealth, in order to make room for an entire year in which we place our work on hold, and concentrate solely on communal, and spiritual growth.

Then our reading introduces the notion of a Jubilee year. Every half-century, everybody’s holdings in the land of Israel will be redistributed. As we discussed last week, the Torah doesn’t seem to believe that individuals are really capable of owning plots of land, because – as we read in our parsha – the land belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23). All of these laws are aimed at bringing the holiness code to its completion; they serve as a socio-economic blueprint for the creation of a holy society.

The final laws of the book concern the notion of consecration; the idea that, by dedicating objects, or produce, to the Tabernacle, or animals for sacrifice, you thereby make them holy. We discussed this notion earlier on in this series, in our first discussion of holiness. It seems especially fitting that the book’s exploration of holiness should conclude with the notion that a holy society is able to impart holiness to its surroundings.

Having completed its journey from the rituals of the Tabernacle, right through the code of purity, and onto the code of holiness, the book of Leviticus is complete.

But, in between the laws of the Jubilee year, and the laws about consecrating things, appears a long digression. In this digression, we read about the blessings in store for a society that observes God’s law. Then, we read a long and very disturbing litany of curses associated with violating God’s law. It’s almost as if these passages were designed to stand at the very end of Leviticus, but as if God didn’t like the idea of ending Leviticus on such a down note, and so the curses, instead of concluding the whole book, are followed by the laws of consecration.

With that summary in place, I want to focus on a particular Midrash regarding the end of the curses. This Midrash will allow us to concentrate on something I promised, earlier on in this series, to discuss; something that any reflection on the book of Leviticus should include, namely: a discussion of animal sacrifice.

To the extent that the book of Leviticus is a Priestly code for a society organized around a sacrificial cult, we can’t really claim to understand the book if we have no understanding of animal sacrifice. This poses a tremendous challenge. Animal sacrifice seems so alien, and so gory. Is it really an ideal mode of worshiping God? Isn’t it, instead, just an outmoded primitive ritual that can have no place in a modern world? Can it ever be reconciled with modern sensibilities?


To be fair to the spirit that animates these questions, we should note the opinion of Maimonides. He argued that animal sacrifice is, indeed, a primitive mode of worship. According to him, at the time that the Torah was given, the world wasn’t ready for a religion without animal sacrifices; it would have been as bizarre as a religion without prayer would be to us today. Prayer is a central yearning of a religious soul. According to Maimonides, animal sacrifice used to hold a similar sway over the hearts of the religiously inclined.

It’s clear that for Maimonides, prayer is much more advanced, spiritually, theologically, and philosophically (modern voices might add ethically) than animal sacrifice. Moreover, he seems to have thought that silent meditation would be more advanced than prayer with words. But these reflections shouldn’t be taken out of context.

Maimonides, as far as I understand his writing, certainly believed that animal sacrifices would come back with the coming of the Messiah. Even if the institution was a compromise with a certain moment in time, the Torah’s laws cannot be, and certainly cannot be seen to be, anything less than eternal. Since animal sacrifices were once included, they must forever remain on the law books, as we await the coming of the Messiah, and the rebuilding of the Temple in which they will occur.

Rabbi Kook

Those who want a more radical approach might look to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. In one place, he makes it seem as if the future Temple will not involve animal sacrifices. This view goes much further than Maimonides. Not only were sacrifices a compromise with a moment in time, but they are never coming back. The third Temple will be a house of prayer (and vegetarian food offerings). But this would be to take Rabbi Kook's words out of context. Elsewhere, he explicitly anticipates the re-institution of animal sacrifice. Evidently, his views on the matter were complex.

Accordingly, (and although there’s some room for debate) the Rabbis overwhelming tend to view animal sacrifices as an integral and non-negotiable part of the Torah’s eternal vision. They are not just a relic of ancient Scripture. They are, rather, a feature of our Messianic future for which we yearn. But how can that be? How can such a barbaric and primitive ritual, feature in a vibrant, modern, and relevant religion? A Midrash in this week’s reading has captivated me for many years, and helped me to understand animal sacrifice in a new light.

As the litany of curses in this week's reading come to an end, God says (Leviticus 26:42):

I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac, and I will remember my covenant with Abraham, and the land I will remember.

In the midst of all these positive memories, God will revive a broken people, cease the curses, and bring them back to their land.

Ever sensitive to the smallest textual details, the Midrash notes that the words ‘I will remember’ appear next to Abraham, Jacob, and next to the land, in this verse, but not next to Isaac.

And why is "remembering" stated in respect to Abraham and Jacob, but not in respect to Isaac? Because God sees his ashes as if heaped upon the altar.

This Midrash is the tip of a veritable Midrashic iceberg. According to a great many Midrashim, Isaac was (as if) actually sacrificed by his father, in the episode of the binding of Isaac. Careful readers will notice that only Abraham descends the mountain, after the binding (Genesis 22:19). Where has Isaac gone? In the Midrashic imagination, he was (as if) sacrificed. His ashes were (as if) piled on the altar before God as a constant vision. God needn’t remember Isaac. God is always looking at his ashes. And, as we see in our Midrash, the merit of his sacrifice plays a role in the curses of Leviticus coming to an end.

Now, of course, Isaac’s ashes aren’t real. Despite the odd fact that Isaac's descent from the mountain isn’t mentioned, we do know that he wasn’t really sacrificed. The angel told Abraham to hold his hand. He did. They sacrificed a ram instead. Indeed, Isaac is seen, later on in the book of Genesis, very much alive. Obviously, the Rabbis are trading in metaphors. But the idea is surely that, in some sense or other, God considered it as if Isaac was sacrificed. And, in some sense or other, it is in the merit of those metaphorical ashes that God eventually stops cursing us.

To understand this family of Midrashim, we have to return to a close reading of the binding of Isaac, in the book of Genesis. Witness how Abraham offers up a sheep “in place of his son” (Genesis 22:13). This is a very strange thing to do upon finding out that God doesn’t want the sacrifice of Isaac. Why offer up x in place of y if y is something that is completely unwanted? When God says, I don’t actually want this, why offer him anything in its place?

Numerous commentaries on the binding of Isaac conclude that the underlying message of the story is that God doesn’t want human sacrifices. And that’s certainly true. But we shouldn't neglect to note that it’s a very odd way to teach a people that human sacrifice isn’t wanted. Why put Abraham through the rigmarole? Why make him think that human sacrifice was the order of the day, when there’s no indication that he had ever thought any such thing beforehand, only in order to teach him that God doesn’t want human sacrifice after all; as it seems he already knew? Secondly, notice that Abraham recognizes that he cannot leave that space without killing something in place of Isaac; even if only an animal. Abraham had build altars before, but a close reading of the book of Genesis will reveal that we’re never told (explicitly) of Abraham ever sacrificing an animal upon an altar until this lamb; offered “in place” of Isaac.

If the Torah had wanted to repudiate the pagan practice of human sacrifice in its entirety, it could have gone much further. In a society where first-born sons were often offered as sacrifices, the Torah could have done away with the very notion of the sanctity of the first-born. What does it mean that our first-born sons are owed to God until we redeem them? Does it mean that, had I not given those silver coins to a local cohen [i.e., a priest] in the ritual that we call pidyon haben [the redemption of the son], then my little boy should have – God forbid – been sacrificed to God?

I'm not the first to make this point. Shalom Spiegel registers, in great detail, how dangerous the Torah’s symbolic accommodation with this pagan custom was. By asking for animals in the place of humans, and redemption money in place of the sacrifice of first-born sons, the Torah might easily be misconstrued. It seems as if human sacrifice would be even better, and that the first-born son would be the best offering one could proffer, were it not for God's grace in allowing us to redeem him. At various points in history, horrifically, as Spiegel documents, a number of Jewish people fell into just this confusion. Surely, it would have been much safer to repudiate the entire institution of the sanctity of the first-born son. But the Torah didn’t. Why?

Nachamanides provides us with a central account of what the sacrifice of animals might symbolise. In his words:

Since the deeds of man are completed in thought, word, and action, God commanded that when they sin they should bring a sacrifice, place their hands upon it, in place of the action, verbally confess in place of the word, and burn in fire the intestines and the kidneys [of the animal], which are the seat of thought and desire, and its legs, in place of the hands and legs of a person, that performs all actions, and to sprinkle the blood over the altar, in place of the blood of the person’s soul, so that the person should think, in his doing all of this, that he has sinned to his God with his body and his soul, and it would be fitting to spill his [own] blood, and burn his [own] body, were it not for the lovingkindness of the creator, who takes our offerings from us, and the sacrifice atones such that its blood should be in place of the person’s blood, its soul in place of the person’s soul, and the extremities of the sacrifice in place of the extremities of the person...

Nachmanides’s use of the phrase-structure ‘x in place of y’ conjures up Abraham’s sacrifice of an animal in place of his son. The idea seems to be this: Human sacrifice is surely horrific; God wants no part in that abominable practice; He wants that institution utterly revoked for all time; but, perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the midst of that dark and evil practice. The kernel of truth is that, in some sense or other, it would be fitting, to echo Nachmanides’ words, to spill one’s own blood before God.

This isn’t tasteful, or pretty. But it might be true.

What sort of gift could we give to God that would suffice, short of our very lives? There is some sense in which we should be willing to spill our very guts upon the altar of the Lord. To be utterly clear, there are other much more important values, such as the imperative to choose life, which easily outweigh any such consideration, and thus God doesn’t really want us to volunteer our lives, or God forbid, the lives of others. But we are supposed to sacrifice animals in place of ourselves. Why? Out of recognition of that limited kernel of truth; in recognition of the limited sense in which it’s true to say that we should be sacrificing ourselves, and sacrificing everything that’s dear to us.

The idea that animal sacrifice is intended as a replacement for self-sacrifice is perhaps what lies behind the ancient Rabbinic tradition that Abraham wasn’t merely commanded, nor merely willing, to sacrifice his son, but was actually commanded, and was actually willing, to sacrifice himself. In the words of the Midrash:

Even had the Holy One, blessed be He, asked Abraham to gouge out his own eye, he would have given it to him, and he wouldn’t merely have gouged out his eye, but even his soul, which was more dear to him than anything, as it says, (Genesis 22:2), ‘take now your son, your only one; Isaac’. [Why does it describe Isaac in such detail?]. Don't we know who [Abraham's] only son is? Rather, [the words, ‘your only one’] refer to [Abraham's] soul, [since a soul] is called an ‘only one’, as it says ‘You saved my soul from the sword; from the dog, my only one’ (Psalms 22:21).

What really stands behind the sacrifice of an animal is the symbolic sacrifice of the person who brings the animal. Spilling the blood of a living being is ugly and primitive, but it’s also shocking and powerful (and, if one worries about the animal, Rabbi Saadya Gaon argues that it will be compensated in the afterlife).

If all you bring is an animal, to be slaughtered, but you do not bring yourself, the ritual will be "loathsome" to God (Isaiah 1:11-17):

I have no delight in lambs and he-goats... who asked that of you?... They are a burden to me. I cannot endure them... your hands are full of blood... Wash yourselves clean... Cease to do evil; Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son. Isaac was surely strong enough to fight off his elderly father, but instead submitted to being tied down, and was willing to be sacrificed. Again, and to be absolutely clear: God doesn’t want such acts. He doesn't even want animals. So why does he command us to bring sacrifices? "Who asked that of you?" You did! But the point is this: God doesn't want dead animals, and he certainly doesn't want dead humans, but he does want us to salvage one profound lesson that the crime of human sacrifice can express; he wants the willingness; the willingness, and the desire to give everything to him. Not, surely, because he’s actually hungry, or in need of such sacrifices, but because he wants us to be completely devoted to the one and only ideal that transcends all other concerns – only through dedicating our entire lives to the one completely transcendent ideal – God – can we be truly free. To bring an animal is loathsome if you're not somehow bringing yourself.

Suicide is, in the eyes of the Torah, a sin. But we are supposed to offer up our lives in a different way; not through, God forbid, dying as a sacrifice, but through living one’s life as an offering to God.

Of course, that sort of dedication can be destructive. It sounds fanatical. But, then again, this all depends upon the God to whom you sacrifice yourself. Complete dedication to a God of justice, kindness, and love, surely can’t go wrong. It goes wrong when you’re really serving yourself and using religion as a fig-leaf; or when you idea of God is actually hateful, or unjust.

So, yes, people who live their entire lives as sacrifices to an ideal can be very scary people. But, at the same time, people who live their lives as sacrifices to an ideal can also reach the highest heights of virtue. It depends entirely upon the ideal that they live their lives as sacrifices to.

The Talmud notes that the builders of the second temple only knew where to place the altar because they saw the ashes of Isaac, still piled up just in the right spot. What is this image supposed to express? Nachmanides suggests:

And [God] commanded [Abraham] to bring [Isaac] up to that place, because it was that mountain upon which God desired to dwell [in the future temples], and he wanted the merit of the binding of Isaac to be present in the sacrifices for all time, as Abraham says, ‘The Lord will see’…

The idea that the ashes of Isaac should stand forever on the altar of the Temple Mount represents the idea that they should be somehow mixed up with the ashes of each and every animal to be sacrificed in the temple. This brings out the following theme: animal sacrifices are in some sense in place of human sacrifice; and never had two humans shown more willingness to give to the one true God as did Abraham and Isaac, whose merit (ideally) seeps into every animal sacrifice ever brought subsequently to them.

I’m aware that a story about an only son, sacrificed for our sins, and (even) resurrected – if only metaphorically – sounds too Christian to most Jewish ears. I sometimes think that because we’ve been battered, by generations of Christian anti-Semitism, and by wave after wave of attempts to convert us, many Jews have developed something of a cultural aversion to things that sound Christian. But, when that aversion leads us to suppress aspects of our own tradition, then, I suggest, we have been crippled by our own prejudices.

Of course, Judaism full-heartedly rejects the idea (seemingly embraced, in some sense, by Christianity) that God would ever actually want a human sacrifice; however holy that human might be. We reject the idea that the crucifixion, even of a messiah, could be an intrinsic good. Ultimately, nobody can complete the work of bringing atonement for us. Instead, we each have to do the work ourselves, and dedicate our entire lives to the service of the God of love, and justice, and kindness.

Perhaps the primal, shocking, and primitive-seeming ritual of killing an animal for God - an animal that doesn't die in some unseen abattoir, ending up on our plate without our having seen a drop of blood, but an animal that stands before us, whose head we hold in our hands - however much it bristles against our modern sensitivities, has the power to shake us to the core, and awaken us to the message that we owe our entire lives to God; we owe him the blood that courses through our veins; a debt that we repay when we live holy lives that uplift all of those around us.

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