A Bloody Portion

What can we learn from the laws of ritual sacrifice?

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

"And Aaron's Sons, the priests, shall offer the blood" (1:5). That is pretty much how Parashat Vayikra introduces Leviticus, a book that sits smack in the center of the Torah like a tough vein of gristle that runs through a tender, juicy steak. Most of Leviticus is hard to digest. Vayikra is an instruction manual, and technical writing rarely yields compelling drama or inspiring ethical teachings. The language of our portion is formal, stylized, repetitive, precise. Yet the dryness of language cannot quite disguise the essential problem with what transpires here: the portion is slippery with blood. Rising up from the page are the screams of dying animals, the pungent stink of smoke and burning flesh.
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
The priestly passages in the Torah not only arouse anxiety in the squeamish--they often seem to be among the most irrelevant we encounter in our sacred text. After all, the major skills of Levites and kohanim (the priests), technicians of the sacred, became obsolete almost two thousand years ago when the Temple went up in flames. While Jews with the status of kohanim survive in our own day, their role is marginal even in traditional synagogues, and Reform Jews have virtually eliminated their special status. Yet the Torah promises that Israelites who are faithful to the covenant will become mamlechet kohanim--a kingdom of priests; it envisions an entire people which serves in a priestly role (Exodus 19:6).

No doubt many of us would have preferred that the Torah command us to become "a kingdom of prophets," collectively denouncing the world's inequities, speaking out for justice and defending the downtrodden. But it is to the priesthood that we Jews are taught to aspire, and the priesthood from which we must seek instruction in Parashat Vayikra. What can we learn from the role of the priests--and from these methodical instructions for the slaughter and dismemberment of animals for ritual offering on the altar?

A Disciplined People

If human beings were gentle and benevolent by nature we might not need the stern, disciplinary teachings of the priesthood. The Torah's insight is that priestly service is what our homicidal proclivities demand and deserve. So the descendants of Phinehas, a family whose origins are murderous and full of rage (see Numbers 25:1-14), are taught to (re)direct their zealous energies to the service of God. They turn from uncontrolled aggression to the discipline of ritual slaughter, hedged about with myriad laws and regulations.
Torah book

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Rabbi Janet Marder

Rabbi Janet Marder is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and was ordained in 1979 by Hebrew Union College.