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. For 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.
Do You Really Want the Return of Sacrifices? http://t.co/AXBFgztRYR
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) January 5, 2015