The Problem with Animal Sacrifice

Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them:  When a person among you offers a sacrifice, you should offer your sacrifice from the animals, cattle, or the flock. (Sefer VaYikra 1:2)

The Torah’s inclusion of animal sacrifice

Parshat VaYikra is devoted entirely to the discussion of karbanot – sacrifices. Most of these are animal sacrifices. The Torah provides an indication of the circumstances that occasion each type of sacrifice.  The animals that may be brought for each type are specified.  A general description of the sacrificial service is provided.

The placement of this discussion immediately after the completion of Sefer Shemot is readily understood.  The latter part of Sefer Shemot is devoted to presenting the specifications for the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – and describing its construction.  Service in the Mishcan centered upon its altars. Sefer VaYikra opens by describing the sacrifices to be offered on the main altar.

The Mishcan was a precursor to the Bait HaMikdash that would be constructed under the supervision of King Shlomo. This Temple was destroyed in 425 BCE.  It was replaced by the Second Temple.  This temple was destroyed in 70 CE and not rebuilt.  In both, animal sacrifice was central to service. In the Mishcan and in the Bait HaMikdash each day’s services included the offering to the Tamid sacrifices. On festivals other Musaf sacrifices were offered.  In addition to these sacrifices, many others were mandated or brought as personal, voluntary offerings. Overwhelmingly, animals were used in these sacrifices. 

Sacrificial service is certainly one of the Torah’s chukim. A chok (singular of chukim) is a commandment for which the reason is not self-evident.  Nonetheless, we can identify the function and benefit of many chukim. Can we understand the purpose and benefit of sacrifices and specifically animal sacrifice? 

Maimonides identifies sacrificial service with heathen practices

Discussions of this issue often include reference to Maimonides’ controversial comments on sacrificial service. These comments are presented in his Moreh Nevuchim – Guide for the Perplexed. They deserve more thorough discussion than will be here provided.  Here, the focus will be on a single element of his presentation. He explains that the objective of the commandments is to forge a relationship between the individual and Hashem. Intrinsic to achieving this objective is the eradication of idolatry. Idolatry is antithetical to one’s relationship with Hashem.

From the perspective of this objective, one would have expected the Torah to shun sacrificial service.  There are two reasons for this expectation.  First, the objective of forming a relationship with Hashem can be achieved through prayer, study, and contemplation.  Sacrificial service does not seem to be as direct a path to forging this relationship as these more spiritual means. Second, the Torah commanded sacrificial service to a people living in an era in which such service was the mainstay of idolatry.  Would not the Torah’s objective of suppressing idolatry have been better served by excluding sacrificial service from its mitzvot and even prohibiting such services?

Maimonides’ controversial justification for sacrificial service

Maimonides responds that indeed these are valid arguments. However, they are overridden by another consideration. The Torah was given to the Jewish people at a time at which religious service was understood to be expressed through sacrifice.  The people who received the Torah were not capable of grasping a religious system devoid of sacrificial service.  This consideration dictated that despite the arguments against sacrificial service, it should be included in the Torah.  Nonetheless, the arguments against sacrificial service were not ignored.  The Torah reworked sacrificial service to strip it of its idolatrous character and even reformulated it so as to include elements antithetical to idolatry. Second, the Torah restricted and limited sacrificial service.  In contrast it encouraged prayer, study, and meditation without imposing limits.

Maimonides comments are controversial for two reasons.  First, he is suggesting that sacrificial service is not ideal. It is a concession to a failing in human nature.  Sacrificial service is included in the Torah because we are incapable of quickly integrating radically novel ideas – like service to Hashem devoid of sacrifice.  Critics of Maimonides object to interpreting a commandment as a concession.  They argue that every commandment must have inherent meaning and purpose and cannot be merely a concession to cultural backwardness.  In other words, every commandment must advance the individual or society in a fundamental manner.  A commandment cannot be a response to a cultural defect.    Second, Maimonides’ comments suggest that the Torah’s incorporation of sacrificial service was a response to a contemporary challenge.   This implies that sacrifices were appropriate in ancient times but that a more enlightened society should best shed this relic of paganism and replace it with more appropriate forms of worship.

Maimonides’ position regarding sacrificial service in the next Temple

We will first address the second issue. Does Maimonides indeed imply that sacrificial service should be abandoned? In other words, when the Temple is rebuilt, will it include animal sacrifice or will it suspend it and replace it with more enlightened forms of service?

On this issue, Maimonides is explicitly clear.  He explains in his introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvot that every commandment is binding for all generations. All of the sacrifices offered in the Mishcan and in the Bait HaMikdash are required by specific commandments among the 613 mitzvot.  In other words, the Tamid sacrifices were offered as the fulfillment of one of the Torah’s commandments. The Musaf sacrifices each fulfilled a commandment. The sacrifices offered by individuals were the fulfillment of a commandment. This means that these sacrifices are obligatory or authorized for all generations.  When the Temple is rebuilt, sacrifices will be offered in it just as they were in its predecessors.  In short, Maimonides is absolutely unequivocal in his position that sacrifices were commanded for all generations and will be resumed when the Bait HaMikdash is rebuilt.

Distinguishing between the cause for a commandment and its function

This conclusion strengthens the first question. Why did the Torah construct a commandment for all generations in response to an issue that was essentially contemporary?  The first step in answering this question is provided by Rabbaynu Avraham Ibn Ezra.  He explains that we should not assume that a commandment has only a single rationale or purpose. Instead, a commandment may serve many functions and accomplish a variety of goals.  He applies this to sacrifices and identifies a number of functions served by sacrifices.

Applying this insight to Maimonides suggests that although sacrifices were instituted in response to contemporary conceptions and attitudes toward worship, it does not follow that they serve no other purpose than to satisfy primitive religious notions. Maimonides is explaining why the Torah incorporated sacrifices into its laws rather than promoting a purely spiritual means of relating to Hashem.  His comments do not imply that the Torah did not endow sacrificial service with meaning and eternal relevance.  An illustration will help us understand this idea.

The purpose of an automobile is to provide transportation. If the transporter beams of Startrek ever become a reality, cars will probably disappear.  Even though cars are needed for transportation, this does not mean that they are designed only for this function. If their only function was to provide transportation, we would all drive simple, basic cars. Our cars include sound systems to entertain us and deliver the news.  More significantly, many of us buy cars with engines whose power we will never actually test.  We pay enormous sums for cars that communicate an image we wish to project.  Some of us buy cars that are expensive toys more than they are transportation.  So, purpose and function differ.  The purpose for which the auto was created is transportation.  But its functions are many and varied. Retuning to Maimonides, he states that sacrifices were created in response to cultural attitudes.  He is not saying that this consideration is the sole function of sacrifices.  What are these functions? 

Contemporary values and their impact on our thinking

Before this issue can be addressed, a very important consideration must be introduced.  This consideration is relevant to many of the instances in which we perceive conflict between the Torah and modern thinking.  We must recognize that the question here posed is very difficult to answer from our vantage point. Our perspective on many issues is impacted by the values and attitudes of our society and culture.  This can be an asset or an obstacle to understanding the Torah.  Sometimes our enlightened perspective can help us understand and appreciate aspects of the Torah that would have troubled earlier generations.  In other instances, our contemporary perspective may prove to be an obstacle to understanding aspects of the Torah.  If we cannot understand these aspects, then we certainly will not appreciate them.  Realization of our limited perspective should dictate our attitude toward areas of the Torah we do not understand. We should respond with humility. We should acknowledge the difficulty we have encountered in the Torah but have the humility to recognize that our perspective is inextricably bound to our cultural values. We must recognize that this handicaps our capacity to fully understand the Torah – a legacy intended to be timeless.

I said to myself, [that this is] because of the children of men, so that the L-rd should clarify for them, so that they may see that they are [like] beasts to themselves. (Kohelet 3:18)

Understanding sin as a reflection of the complex nature of the human being 

Let us now return to our discussion of sacrifices.  Most sacrifices are offered as atonement for some sin or failing. When a sacrifice is brought as part of the process of atonement, the repentant individual places his hands upon the sacrifice and confesses the sin. As noted above, the Torah assigns specific animals for each type of sacrifice.  Maimonides observes that these assignments are not arbitrary.  The severity of the sin dictates the animal that is required.  The more significant the sin is, the more humble the animal required.  This is a counterintuitive pattern.  We would expect that the more serious sin would require the more formidable animal.  However, the case is the opposite.  Why is this? 

In the above passage, King Shlomo reminds us that we are animals. He means that every individual is a combination of the spiritual and the material.  We each possess a spiritual soul that is combined with a material body. It is this spiritual soul that differentiates us from the animals. Without our souls, we are indistinguishable from the beasts. 

What is sin?  Essentially, it is the surrender of the soul to the drives and desires of the body.  Minor sins are minor surrenders.  Major sins are complete capitulations.  This is a simple truth but it is one that it very difficult to fully integrate into our thinking. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that we do not always feel that we have acted the animal when we sin.  How can the simple truth of the nature of sin be communicated to us and become impactful and meaningful?

And he should bring the bull to the opening of the Ohel Moed, before Hashem, and he should press his hand upon the head of the bull, and he should slaughter the bull before Hashem.  (Sefer VaYikra 4:4)

Making real the impact of sin

The Torah suggests that this is accomplished through sensory experience. The sinner places his hands upon the animal.  He confesses his sin.  The animal is slaughtered and placed upon the altar.  It is consumed.  What powerful imagery!  The animal is me bereft of the soul to which I have been disloyal.  When I abandon the dictates of my soul I reduce myself to the beast before me.  The more severe the sin the more I have degraded myself.  This is represented by the type of animal I am offering.  If my sin is great, the animal is lowly.  The animal is consumed.  I am that animal. If I forsake my spiritual endowments, then I am a mundane material creature.  I will pass through this world and I will be consumed like the beast.  Its end will be my end. The soul I have forsaken will be lost and my eternity squandered.  As the sinner feels the animal under his hands, sees the animal slaughtered and consumed, and smells its burning flesh, he recognizes his choices and their consequences.  This interpretation of sacrificial service is completely consistent with Maimonides’ comments.  Even though contemporary religious attitudes demanded the inclusion of sacrificial service in the Torah, the service was endowed with meaning and significance.  It helps us appreciate and integrate an understanding of sin and its consequences.

The laws of the Torah are timeless. Our wisdom and understanding is bounded by the limits of our worldview. We are expected to use our wisdom to study and understand the Torah.  We cannot be deterred from this obligation by the mysteries we encounter. Instead, we must use the gifts we have to explore the Torah and humbly accept that some mysteries will remain unsolved.