What are we to make of the sacrifices central to the Israelite cult described in Leviticus in such detail? The offering of “an ephah of fine flour for a meal-offering” to God can be dismissed in our mind as un-troubling, but the slaughter of animals as part of a religious ritual is much more disturbing: “In the place where they kill the burnt-offering they shall kill the guilt-offering; and the blood thereof shall be dashed against the altar.” (Leviticus 7:2)
The sages who are quoted in commentaries on the Torah were mentally about as far removed from this as we are, and they devised various methods of dealing with the problem. The most prominent of these is, surprisingly, the most radical: straight denial. The Haftorah to this week’s portion is from Jeremiah, and in its second verse, 7:22, God, speaking through His prophet, says: “I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices.”
As the standard commentaries point out, nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there any reference to sacrifices. Maimonides and others suggest that despite this the sacrifices were ordained to allow the Israelites to follow the forms of the religious rites of surrounding peoples without involving them in any idol worship.
Another method of intellectually assimilating descriptions of the slaughter of animals into rabbinic Judaism is to reinterpret the meaning of sacrifice. In Leviticus Rabbah, the sages quote Psalm 51:19, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise,” and comment that from this we learn “if a man repents it is accounted to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem and built the Temple and the altar, and offered on it all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah.” An ingenious support of this conception is also to be found in Leviticus Rabbah:
R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals He declared unfit, the ‘Blind, or broken, or maimed’ etc. (Leviticus 22:22), whereas in man he declared fit ‘A broken and contrite heart.’
So, how does a broken or, at any rate, a contrite heart manifest itself in the modern world? T.S. Eliot, in “Four Quartets” tells us that among “the gifts reserved for age” are “the shame/Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/Of things ill done and done to others’ harm,” and William Butler Yeats tells us, in “Vacillation,” that there is “not a day/But something is recalled,/My conscience or my vanity appalled.” But these statements are too general confessions to be useful examples of modern contrite hearts. Gwen Harwood, a wonderful 20th-century Australian poet, has a much more specific and vivid example of a contrite heart. As a young girl on a farm, she describes creeping out of the house at dawn, getting hold of her father’s gun and going into her family’s barn to kill the owl that came back to nest at that time, no doubt with the remains of little creatures in its beak or claws, and recalls:
I stood, holding my breath,
in urine-scented hay,
master of life and death,
a wisp-haired judge whose law
would punish beak and claw.
My first shot struck. He swayed,
ruined, beating his only
wing, as I watched, afraid
by the fallen gun, a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene
bundle of stuff that dropped,
and dribbled through loose straw
tangled in bowels, and hopped
As she was standing there, her father came out and told her to “end what you’ve begun” and she killed the owl and then
I leaned my head upon
my father’s arm and wept.
So here we have the sacrifice of an animal creating in a modern child a truly contrite heart.
Of course a transfigured sacrifice theologically associated with redemption is central to Christianity, a religion that emerged, as did rabbinic Judaism, from the Israelite sacrificial cult. But the rejection of sacrifice in any symbolic or theologically significant form by the rabbis makes descriptions of the cult difficult for Jews to assimilate. Imagination can help by giving us images of the drama of violent death and reminding us of the essential innocence of animals, and this can lead us to sense a little of the redemptive power that the sacrificial rites described in Leviticus must have held for our ancestors.
David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.