Judaism is less a philosophical system than a field of tensions – between universalism and particularism, for example, or exile and redemption, priests and prophets, cyclical and linear time and so on. Rarely is this more in evidence than in the conflicting statements within Judaism about sacrifices, and nowhere more sharply than in the juxtaposition between the sedra of Tzav, which contains a series of commands about sacrifice, and the passage from the book of Jeremiah that is usually (not this year) its haftorah:
When I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: “Obey me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.” (Jer. 7: 22-23)Commentators have been puzzled by the glaring contradiction between these words and the obvious fact that G-d did command the Israelites about sacrifices after bringing them out of Egypt. Several solutions have been offered. According to Maimonides, the sacrifices were a means, not an end, to the service of G-d. Radak argues that sacrifices were not the first of G-d’s commands after the exodus; instead, civil laws were. Abarbanel goes so far as to say that initially G-d had not intended to give the Israelites a code of sacrifice, and did so only after the sin of the Golden Calf. The sacrifices were an antidote to the Israelites’ tendency to rebel against G-d.
With what shall I come before the Lord
And bow down before the exalted G-d? . . .
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With ten thousand rivers of oil? . . .
He has shown you, O man, what is good.
What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your G-d. (Micah 6: 6-8)
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood . . .” Then G-d blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them . . . “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d, has G-d made man.” (Gen. 8: 29 – 9: 6)According to Albo the logic of the passage is clear. Noah offers an animal sacrifice in thanksgiving for having survived the flood. G-d sees that human beings need this way of expressing themselves. They are genetically predisposed to violence (“every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood”). If, therefore, society is to survive, human beings need to be able to direct their violence toward non-human animals, whether as food or sacrificial offering. The crucial ethical line to be drawn is between human and non-human.
. . . internal violence – all the dissensions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the community that the sacrifices are designed to suppress. The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric. Everything else derives from that. (Violence and the Sacred, 8).The worst form of violence within and between societies is vengeance, “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process”. Hillel (whom Girard also does not quote) said, on seeing a human skull floating on water, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you will in the end themselves be drowned” (Avot 2: 7). Sacrifices are one way of diverting the destructive energy of revenge. Why then do modern societies not practice sacrifice? Because, argues Girard, there is another way of displacing vengeance:
Vengeance is a vicious circle whose effect on primitive societies can only be surmised. For us the circle has been broken. We owe our good fortune to one of our social institutions above all: our judicial system, which serves to deflect the menace of vengeance. The system does not suppress vengeance; rather, it effectively limits itself to a single act of reprisal, enacted by a sovereign authority specializing in this particular function. The decisions of the judiciary are invariably presented as the final word on vengeance. (Ibid., 15)Not only does Girard’s theory re-affirm the view of Albo. It also helps us understand the profound insight of the prophets and of Judaism as a whole. Sacrifices are not ends in themselves, but part of the Torah’s programme to construct a world redeemed from the otherwise interminable cycle of revenge. The other part of that programme, and G-d’s greatest desire, is a world governed by justice. That, we recall, was His first charge to Abraham, to “instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18: 19).
The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations . . .
This cycle of intergenerational recrimination has no logical end . . . But it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat . . .
Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. (The Warrior’s Honour, 188-190)
Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and offerings of grain,
I will not accept them . . .
But let justice roll down like a river,
And righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5: 23-24)