Do You Really Want the Return of Sacrifices?

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A recent editorial, written in the style of a letter to God, challenged the notion of animal sacrifices in the Third Temple during the Messianic era. A lot of people were understandably upset by the article. I will not refute or rebut the arguments made against the author and his provocative words. I think a discussion about these issues is valuable and I encourage people to have this conversation.

There are two things that I want to say about the controversy.

It’s a shame that the uproar over the article, its format, its perceived hubris, and its theological basis has eclipsed its substance, because the substance is so important. Brazen-altarFor about 1400 years, animal sacrifice was a daily part of Jewish life. Some animals were eaten by the Temple staff and penitent pilgrims, but most of the animals were completely burnt on the altar. From the time of the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE Jerusalem, our ancestors sacrificed animals as per the Torah’s Divine command. The practice was banned outside the Temple and thus we have collectively prayed and yearned for the return of our Temple and ritual sacrifice.

Many of our communal aspirations and prayers were established nearly 2000 years ago in the wake of our Temple’s destruction. It’s understandable that rebuilding the Temple and institutionalizing our national Messianic ambitions are prominent themes in our prayers, because that was the dominant feeling of their era. Persecution and the Diaspora experience have reinforced our desire for autonomy, freedom, and redemption. These feelings are also reflected in the prayers that have been added to our service in the centuries that followed our exile.

Animal sacrifice was normal 2000 years ago, and our prayers matched our society. A lot of time has passed since 70 CE. In the meantime, animal sacrifice has gone out of style in the civilized world. There is not a single advanced country where animal sacrifice is part of the daily routine. It survives in a few cults, tribal religions, and indigenous populations. Other than that, it’s gone. So it would be really weird and quite uncomfortable for many of us to simply resume a long discarded practice that once seemed moral and virtuous and now seems immoral and primitive.

When we ask God to bring the Messiah and the Third Temple and give us the opportunity to offer sacrifices, do we really mean it?

Generally, I have encountered three approaches to this question. 1. God commands it, ergo it must be moral. If you disagree, it’s a flaw in your faith or character. 2. The world will be so incredibly different in the Messianic era that although it seems weird today, it won’t seem weird after the Messiah changes everything forever. 3. Something about mysticism involving lots of thumb-dips and fancy terminology.

Here’s the truth: We have no idea what is going to happen, but feeling uncomfortable is completely legitimate and reasonable. You should be troubled at the prospect of taking animals and incinerating them for a non-anthropomorphic God’s pleasure. Indeed, it boggles our minds, and that is okay.

I wish that was the conversation we were having about animal sacrifices right now. What Rav Kook or the Rambam held or would hold is interesting in theory. But I want to talk about actual factual feelings. How do animal sacrifices make you feel?

This leads me to the other aspect of the “letter” that is important to me. We have to be okay with acknowledging that animal sacrifice gives many of us the heebie-jeebies. The absence of a satisfactory answer does not obviate the question, and it is far better to have an unanswered question than the appearance of confidence in an answer that is merely a mirage.

The questions raised in this conversation are tough to answer. We know our Holy Torah tells us that God commands animal sacrifices, we know that this is an anathema to 2015 thinking, and we have no reason to think that 2015 thinking about animal sacrifice is immoral or incorrect. Yet the Torah obligates us. It’s an infinite loop of truths that cannot be easily reconciled. There’s a temptation to ignore the tugging at our hearts on this issue, and others. But that would not be honest, and it would not give us the opportunity to embrace the struggle of reconciling Torah and modernity.

Too often, we sweep tough questions under the rug. After a while, the pile of confusion under the rug forms a noticeable bump that the rug can’t hide. If we ask the questions, acknowledge the challenges, and validate the ones raising issues, our rug stays nice and flat. It’s a comfortable place to sit, or perhaps even fly, as we ponder and contemplate the difficult questions. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s be comfortable with questions even without good answers.

Animal sacrifices in the Third Temple? It’s not the topic to pen a prayer to God for help in understanding. It’s something for us to respectfully analyze and discuss together. Be present in the struggle. Putting it on God is the easy way out.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

  • yeshivaguy

    Assuming that you treat the animal humanely while it is still alive, and assuming that you do a proper שחיטה and that שחיטה is the proper way to slaughter an animal, let’s ponder the following question – why would somebody be more comfortable eating an animal for the sake of their own indulgence than they are with animal sacrifice?

    • zachw

      That only works for shlamim. Most korbanot are NOT eaten at all by the person bringing the sacrifice. And the olah is completely burnt!

      • And chatas and asham, although the sinner didn’t consume them, they were eaten by kohanim. And the whole point of a todah (thanks offering) was to force the grateful person to make a party to share all the food that had to get eaten. I would think numerically, sin, guilt, peace and thanks offerings were the vast majority.

      • yeshivaguy

        No, I think it works for the Olah as well. Regardless of what you do with the animal after it is dead, from the point of view of the animal there is no difference. And from the point of view of the person, why should you be more comfortable eating it for your own indulgence than using it for a higher purpose.

  • Garnel Ironheart

    I’m not enamoured by the thought of animal sacrifices but I am also not devastated on Tisha B’Av because, having never experienced the glory of the Beis HaMikdash I can’t really know what I’m missing, much like a person with no soap eventually stops smelling bad odours.
    This argument against sacrifices is stupid anyway. When you have a guest over and serve him a really good piece of brisket, you’re offering a sacrifice, except that you want to please your friend and you didn’t see where cow turned into the brisket you’re not serving. In the Beis HaMikdash that process happens publicly. Is that what makes people squeamish?
    Here’s the thing: the only way we’ll get a Third Beis HaMikdash is if God Himself intervenes with Moshiach. If God shows up and says to sacrifice animals, will you argue?

    • tesyaa

      If God shows up and says to sacrifice animals, will you argue?

      This is why (as a nonbeliever) I’m not worried or concerned AT ALL.

      • daized79

        As a believer, touche.

    • G*3

      > If God shows up and says to sacrifice animals, will you argue?

      I wouldn’t. But I have talked to too many people who would say something like, “I wouldn’t worship a God that required X.” For many people, God = fuzzy warm feelings+tradition rather than any sort of formal theological conception. For such people, God commanding something they’re uncomfortable with, like animal sacrifice, creates awful dissonance.

  • I want to want a return to animal sacrifices. I think it’s a failing that I can feel a need to bring home flowers, even though my wife admires them for a moment and ignores them, but I feel no similar need to give a gift to G-d. I think it’s a failing that I can excuse sin as something minor, that can be swept under the rug with no sense of personal sacrifice and no revisiting my own mortality through watching that of my animal. I have those failings, so in truth I don’t actually miss the offerings. (Except maybe the Qorban Pesach; shewarma sounds like a great centerpiece for a seder! ) But I don’t excuse my attitude as being right and proper, either. And so, my Mussaf prayer revolves around pleading with G-d to restore the Temple so that I can learn what it is I’m missing out on.

    • Maybe you’re just “missing out” on a primitive outdated form of worship?

      • I am secure enough in my trust of Torah that I question my own assessment, not a practice it promotes at length. I’m amazed you even asked.

        • Milton

          You seem to be a regular on this blog. Honestly, are you really amazed at this point?

      • daized79

        As you may know, the latest Jewish Action had a nice piece on korbanot, and dealt with the only two serious Jewish religious thinkers to give the anti-korbanists ammunition. The more important of the two, ramba”m, certainly said that korbanot would exist halakha l’meease. ramba”m’s taame hamitsvot were so daat yuakhid as to be almost impossible to mesh with traditional Judaism. And apparently he didn’t even feel they were true enough to matter. ramba”m is not revered because of those taame hamitsvot, but because of his other work. Who else said anything that would make you think of it as an outdated form of worship? In the West, sacrifice is anathema because of the human sacrifice of J.

        The squeamishness any of us feel at animal sacrifice is merely because we in modern society are so far removed from our own slaughterhouses and livestock. You’d get used to it fast, and if you lived on a farm or worked at a slaughterhouse, you’d already be used to it.

    • yeshivaguy

      I’m having that wish I wrote that feeling!

    • msl613

      Maybe we’ll “sacrifice” something more meaningful to us, like iPhones?

  • I guess I’m in camp #3, except replace “mysticism” with “super-salient symbolism.” I find R’ Hirsch’s system of explanations of what the korbanot are meant to symbolize and therefore do to us, psychologically, to be elegant and convincing.

    I do shudder at the thought of taking thousands and thousands of perfectly good animals and destroying them, but I think that shuddering is a piece of the mechanism that would make korbanot not only effective but uniquely so. I can’t imagine a process, short of something like human sacrifice, that would make a stronger impression on me than selecting a being so similar to a human being – to myself, that behaves in ways that mirror certain important aspects of my personality, and then watching it getting slaughtered, watching its lifeblood get sprinkled toward God, and watching its body get burnt up in the spiritual center of the world.

    If korbanot actually do effect an elevation of Jews’ individual and national character, as R’ Hirsch says that they do, then their burning is not waste, but expenditure. Consider the burning of fireworks or, for that matter, of enemy military installations. The physical destruction of resources may be enormous, but it’s the price we choose to pay to achieve an end we consider worthwhile.

  • Benignuman

    I have a couple of points:

    1. I don’t think it is true that most korbanos were completely burnt on the altar. The majority of korbanos would have been chatos or shelamim which were partially eaten by the Kohanim and the bringer of the korban. This is not relevant to the main point, it is just a correction.

    2. Although it is true that we have no reason to believe that 2015 thinking about animal sacrifice is immoral or incorrect, we also do not have any reason to believe that 2015 thinking about animal sacrifice is correct. The same can be said about attitudes towards animal sacrifice at any given point in history.

    3. I think that there is a slightly different version of approach “1” that is more valid. “God commands it, ergo it must be a good thing in the proper place and time. If you disagree, that is fine, natural and to be expected. We are all the product, to some extent of the values and mores of our society.” It is not a flaw in faith or character to not be comfortable with animal sacrifice. Being uncomfortable about something is just the way you feel, it isn’t a conscious choice.

    All that being said, I do long for the return of the Bais Hamikdosh and animal sacrifice. I want to see it with my own eyes; not because I long for the killing of animals but because it has a part of my dreams since I could first understand the avodah section of Musaf on Yom Kippur.

    • asigalov61

      I agree. There are no “sacrifices” in the Written Torah. All edible meat from killed animals would go to levites for food. The only parts of the animal that were completely burnt were fat, kidneys, e.t.c non edible stuff basically. It was glorified animal slaughter for food. Not a sacrifice in a pagan sense of this word. And Passover is just like thanksgiving, only we have a lamb instead of turkey. So what “sacrifices” we are talking about here?

  • This is a broader question: In Orthodox Jewish theology, what was the purpose of the sacrifices? I assume it’s not like other ancient religions in which God was nourished by the sacrifices. But I also assume there wasn’t a mechanical relationship between the sacrifices and the community’s relationship with God (as though God is unable to forgive unless sacrifices are offered). What is the reasoning beyond “God says to”? (I know that’s enough for some people, but I refuse to believe the rabbis haven’t kicked this one around.)

    Surely that plays into the discussion of the Third Temple and the Messianic age.

    (Also, a tangent, but have you seen what the New Testament writers of John and Hebrews do with Jesus in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple? It’s creative and fascinating.)

    • To quote myself of four hours ago: “I think it’s a failing that I can feel a need to bring home flowers, even though my wife admires them for a moment and ignores them, but I feel no similar need to give a gift to G-d. I think it’s a failing that Ican excuse sin as something minor, that can be swept under the rug with
      no sense of personal sacrifice and no revisiting my own mortality through watching that of my animal.”

      I noted two elements:

      1- It’s a natural part of a human relationship to want to give and share things. Particularly food. It doesn’t have to make sense — like whether G-d needs the animal — emotions often are illogical. Without that element, our relationship with G-d is somewhat artificial.

      2- Offerings related to sin in particular, and not all are, can serve to impress the one bringing the sacrifice with the value of the gift of life and how much our actions do not reflect what G-d gives us.

      I would add that Judaism’s relationship with eating meat in general derives from the sacrifices. The Torah describes ritual slaughter with a simple “do it the way you do offerings”. And similarly millenia later the Talmud’s volume on kosher meat (and not mixing meat and milk) appears within the section on Temple Worship and is titled Chullin, “Secular [Meat]” in contrast to offerings.

      • So Judaism has found lots of other ways to accomplish both of those in the 2000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple.

        Is the desire for a return of animal sacrifice largely about returning to the most literal form of obedience to G-d, or is it a recovery of destroyed identity or both? More?

        Would anyone argue that without animal sacrifice, one cannot have a relationship with G-d? (Again, I’m asking largely out of ignorance. I know how Christians talk about these issues and that’s about it.)

        • The prevailing idea is that sacrifices are the ideal and we have managed to push through with a compromised version of Judaism without the Temple. So returning to sacrifice is returning to the way God prefers we worship and it’s an ideal path to connected with the Divine.

          Again, I am describing the common view and this is not an endorsement or personal explanation.

          • That makes sense. I can see why even broaching the possibility of not returning to animal sacrifice when the possibility is available would be an inflammatory, painful topic for many. It also raises some fascinating questions about how we’re faithful to God and what the Messianic age will look like.

    • We don’t know for certain what the ancient Israelites thought or believed about the purpose of sacrifices. One assumed perspective is that “giving something up” for God is a way to repent. Another perspective that was first discussed in the Talmud (post Temple era) in reference to fasting in lieu of sacrifices was that the visceral experience of witnesses the one’s animal slaughtered and then see it go up in flames is enough to make anyone feel the need to repent and reaffirm commitment to Godliness.

    • And are you talking about Jesus and the “Temple of the Body” thing?

  • J Efram

    In theory–as a quasi-feminist carnivore, I should ostensibly be way more “uncomfortable” with the purported androcentric [all-male], tribal [Kohanim], disability-phobic [ba’alei mumin are disqualified], etc. elements of the service than a barbeque of an already-dead and appropriately humanely slaughtered animal [unless I also consider sustainability to be “yehareg ve’al yaa’vor]. It behooves us to try and understand the consciousness behind the avodah and where it theoretically jars the contemporary responsibility; fine. But to hang our most salient discomfort on the kalil al mizbe’ach? C’mon. [I myself don’t pray hard enough for the bayis shlishi. But I certainly am NOT hoping it DOESN’T happen.]

  • yitzi7
  • RAM500

    What’s so special about 2015 thinking? Evidence suggests it has caused and will cause all sorts of moral and social problems.

    • daized79

      Let’s hope 2016 is better.

  • daized79

    The article is terrible for all sorts of reasons and I wish that something could stop that author from writing anything else ever again. But I knwo that won’t be fulfilled. I don’t think I have ever wished for something like that before–I usually understand where somebody is coming from and they aren’t all bad. That author appears tio want to actiovely destroy Judaism and for some reason doesn’t feel that he can join one of the numerous movements that Jews have created over the past 200 years to do that.

    But substantively, as I responded below, the latest Jewish Action had a nice piece on korbanot, and dealt with the only two serious Jewish religious thinkers to give the anti-korbanists ammunition. The more important of the two, ramba”m, certainly said that korbanot would exist halakha l’maase. ramba”m’s taame hamitsvot were so daat yakhid as to be almost impossible to mesh with traditional Judaism. And apparently he didn’t even feel they were true enough to matter. ramba”m is not revered because of those taame hamitsvot, but because of his other work.

    The squeamishness any of us feel at animal sacrifice is merely because we in modern society are so far removed from our own slaughterhouses and livestock. You’d get used to it fast, and if you lived on a farm or worked at a slaughterhouse, you’d already be used to it. In the Christian West, sacrifice is only anathema because of the human sacrifice of J, not because of killing animals.