With this week’s portion we enter the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which is devoted primarily to the ancient system of sacrifices and the responsibilities of the priestly tribes of Israel for its maintenance and execution — a form of worship that ceased nearly 2,000 years ago. For many modern Jews the content of Leviticus seems obscure, if not archaic.
The role of animal, grain, and other forms of sacrifice in ancient religions is nearly universal, but there is a tension in modern Jewish religious thought and practice when these ancient rites are reviewed. There are those who continue to endorse the traditional petitionary prayers for the messianic restoration of the sacrificial cult in a rebuilt Temple; others believe the evolution of Judaism leads to the conclusion that the restoration of sacrifices is neither anticipated nor desirable.
The place of sacrificial references in modern Jewish liturgy has been a source of contention. The Reform movement, in its initial stages in 19th-century Germany, was the first to delete such prayers from the liturgy. This was followed both by the emerging movement in America, as well as by Reconstructionism. Thematically derivative prayers on the theme of self-sacrifice replaced appeals to bring sacrifices to a rebuilt Temple. The Conservative movement made less radical changes in the liturgy, but demonstrated its discomfort by placing reference to sacrifices in the past tense.
In recent years, a new appreciation for the devotional dynamics of the ancient cult has generated a reappraisal of the value of studying and understanding the sacrificial system. Rabbi Richard Levy, in On Wings of Awe, the High Holy Day prayerbook he edited, puts it this way:
“We cannot pretend that the sacrifices never happened, or that they were not the most compelling aspect of the Jew’s encounter with God for a thousand years. Indeed, because [our] prayers grew up around the sacrifices, because the sacrifices gave their names and times to our prayers, we can only deepen our own relationship to God when we try to understand the sacrifices which underlie [our prayers].”
The religious-psychological-communal issues inherent in the sacrifices remain our issues. The olah (“free-will offering”) was a spontaneous expression of appreciation. The minha (“meal offering”) was within reach of even the poorest member of the community. The shlamim (“peace offering”) was shared by those who brought it, rather than being the prerogative of the priest. The sin offerings, hatat (for unintentional sins) and asham (for conscious abuses), provided a means by which to come to terms with the issues of guilt, expiation, and forgiveness.
While our forms of worship may have changed since biblical times, our human nature remains fundamentally aligned with that of our ancestors. The need to give thanks, to apologize, to symbolize solidarity, and to make the community accessible to all are no less important today than when the laws of Leviticus were implemented.