Parshat Vayikra: Is Animal Sacrifice in our Future?

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Rabbi David Wolkenfeld studied at Yeshivat HaMivtar in 5759 and 5764 and serves as the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.
Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed (III:32) famously compares the necessary process of growth and development of all animal life to the inclusion of animal sacrifices among the Torah’s mitzvot. Primitive stages of development are necessary for more advanced forms that follow. Since the Torah was given to freed slaves steeped in Egyptian idolatry at a time where every known religion in the Ancient Near East (and beyond) incorporated animal sacrifice into its worship, no collection of mitzvot would have been plausible to our ancestors had the Torah not incorporated animal sacrifice and directed those sacrifices towards the exclusive worship of God.
The simple implication of this Maimonidean theory is that the alienation we feel from animal sacrifices, and their absence from all contemporary monotheistic religions, is a sign that we, along with much of humanity, has progressed to a state in which we are prepared to accept and respect a system of mitzvot that does not incorporate worship through animal sacrifices. We have progressed to a point where we do not need them.  And yet, in his “other magnum opus,” Mishneh Torah, Maimonides included the full details for all of the Torah’s animal sacrifices in the context of detailed descriptions for a fully operational Third Beit HaMikdash.
(Yes, the defining characteristic of a magnum – opus is that any given author only has one best work, and yet who can deny that Maimonides’ Guide and his Mishneh Torah can both be fairly described as his magnum opus.)
If we have progressed beyond the need for animal sacrifices as a form of worship, why does Maimonides include the most detailed description of those sacrifices of any medieval code? This is a weakness more broadly in Maimonides efforts to provide contingent historical explanations in the Guide for mitzvot that are eternally binding. Professor Daniel Rynhold in his Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (pp. 151-152) points out that explanations for why certain mitzvot were rational and helpful to the cause of human flourishing when the Torah was given struggle when pushed to explain why it was necessary for those mitzvot to be incorporated into an eternally binding Torah.
My teacher Rabbi David Ebner, whom I first met as a first-year student at Yeshivat Hamivtar more than twenty years ago, would frequently remind us that Maimonides’ Guide that is studied in universities around the world was written by the very same Rambam whose Mishneh Torah is studied in every yeshiva. He encouraged us to interpret apparent contradictions between the Guide and Mishneh Torah in ways that harmonized the distinctions and reconciled them to one another.
Rabbi Menachem Schrader, another teacher of mine whom I first me that year at Yeshivat Hamivtar, shared a perspective on this apparent contradiction that I have returned to over the years: Yes, the need for animal sacrifices as a component of worship was a necessary step of human development, and it is incorporated into Mishneh Torah’s vision of a Third Beit HaMikdash because humanity has not yet progressed beyond that apparently primitive need.
The killing of animals, whether for ritual purposes or for food, seems to be a sublimation of a deep human instinct for violence and bloodshed. The Gemara (Shabbat 156a) suggests that without this sublimation, those with a particularly violent component of their psyche would act on those violent instincts in destructive ways. Human progress from the day that we stood at Sinai has been uneven. Our technological control over nature has led to staggering advances from century to century, and, more recently, even from one year to the next. But it is harder to identify any concomitant advance in our ability to control the darker elements of our capacities as human beings for cruelty.
Indeed, the response to the Covid pandemic in both the United States and in Israel has demonstrated unparalleled achievements in medical science which coincided with an intractable failure to act collectively in an effective way to protect the lives and welfare of our most vulnerable family and neighbors. After witnessing such deadly failures of the societies in which we live, I cannot feel any basis to turn towards an imaginary ancestor and declare that we are elevated beyond the point where we need to sublimate our more destructive and bloodthirsty instincts.
Recently I had another experience which reminded me of our enduring need for the Torah’s system of korbanot. A member of our community shared with me her feelings of guilt over an occasion on which she had accidentally eaten non-kosher food. The circumstances of the accident were a textbook example of a sin committed as an unwitting mistake (shogeg in Hebrew in contrast to meizid). She understood she had done nothing wrong, but felt sincere guilt and a profound sense of violation. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek effort to reassure her, I told her she now owed a korban hattat, a so-called sin offering, for her mistake and she should add it to her tab. But, in truth, we all maintain such a tab of major or minor indiscretions and errors. According to Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) the paradigmatic sacrifice in the Torah is a sin offering brought to attain atonement for an accidental transgression. When understood correctly, atonement through sacrifice was not an easy way out of the hard work of teshuvah and introspection, but a mechanism for overcoming unproductive and crippling feelings of guilt that can keep us from bouncing back from failure to achieve greater things.
We are beset with the same insecurities and dark inclinations as our ancient ancestors. Maimonides includes animal sacrifices in the Mishneh Torah because the fundamental hardware of humanity has not changed. In Kant’s vivid phrasing, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Maimonides in the Guide is open to the possibility of enlightened forms of worship for more advanced forms of human beings. But in the meantime, we can cultivate a yearning for the Beit HaMikdash with a full heart and a settled mind.

Shabbat Shalom!


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