Friday, October 22, 2010

Bring back sacrifices? / Parshat Vayera

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah is often interpreted in light of the idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god Molekh. Human sacrifice, and in particular child sacrifice, were common in the ancient world. The story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is often understood as the Torah’s seminal account concerning sacrifice and worship: human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice.

Torah reviles human sacrifice. Leviticus 18:21 instructs:
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molekh, and do not profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 20:2-5 tells us:
The Lord spoke to Moses: Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molekh, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. And I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molekh and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name. And if the people of Israel should shut their eyes to that man when he gives of his offspring to Molekh, and should not put him to death, I Myself will set My face against that man and his kin, and will cut off from among their people both him and all who follow him in going astray after Molekh.

In a later age, after the Second Temple was destroyed, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah study, worship, and deeds of loving kindness) came to replace animal sacrifice. While God did not explicitly forbid the continuation of the sacrificial cult, as the account of the Akedah has been understood to forbid human sacrifice, but rather Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim filled the void after the Destruction of 70 C.E.

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) famously wrote in his philosophical treatise Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) that the sacrificial cult was a primitive state of religious practice that God intended from the beginning to be phased out eventually and replaced by an intellectually and philosophically superior mode of worship: prayer. For Rambam, the rabbinic troika of Torah-Avodah-Gemilut Chasadim is far preferable to the earthy, smelly, noisy rites of the Temple. (Yet Rambam describes in his law code, Mishneh Torah, a vision of the reconstructed Third Temple in which priests again officiate at animal sacrifices. Curious, no?)
Are we moving forward? Are we progressing through stages of spiritual growth, from human sacrifice, to animal sacrifice, to worship without blood? If we are, is it all gain, or are we (forgive the pun) sacrificing something along the way?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in a letter written in 1911, wondered how Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrated greater love and fervor than the sacrifices made by idol-worshipers of the same era. He recognized that we ought not presume that idolatry is no more than a fearful effort to acquiesce to the frivolous or capricious demands of primitively-conceived imaginary gods. Idolatrous worship can also reflect deep awareness of the divine in the world and a desire to reach out to, and commune with the divine. The challenge of the Akedah for us, Kook wrote, is not the simplistic claim that Abraham’s worship of Adonai was superior to pagan practices, but rather whether our intellectual and philosophical understanding of God, our primarily cerebral approach to being in covenant with God, can compete with the blood, sweat, and tears – the earthy and gripping daily encounter with life and death – that characterizes paganism.

Our modern, streamlined, sophisticated, aesthetic worship strikes many as dull and uninspiring. Whether it be davening so fast few can truly delve into the meaning of the words, or endless responsive readings and prayers-turned-into-performance-pieces, many Jews find Jewish worship fails to move them. This is not a call to return to animal sacrifices – far from it! – but rather a call to consider what it is that moves people and helps them find their place under the wings of the Shekhinah (God’s indwelling Presence on earth) in the synagogue.

Perhaps the answer lies in the notion of “sacrifice” after all. When we give up something of ourselves to someone, we bind ourselves to them. When we challenge people to reconsider the way they think, work, value others, live, and love, they must often give up something of themselves in order to change and improve. When our worship includes study of prayers and sacred texts that afford this challenge, people are moved. When we provide opportunities for discussion and exchange of ideas, the telling of stories, people can bring their gifts to the altar, sharing them with the community. Certainly there are other factors, as well (music leaps to mind. There is no one formula because we are all different, but there are many intriguing and promising approaches we can try.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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