Parashat Vayikra

The Value Of Animal Sacrifices

The institution of animal sacrifice allows us to confront our deepest subconscious urges and needs.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, is at the center of the Torah, not only spatially, but also spiritually. More than any other single book, Vayikra sets the tone and establishes the central themes of biblical and rabbinic Judaism throughout the ages.

Establishing a Sacred Community

The central focus of Vayikra is on establishing a sacred community--"a nation of priests" whose daily deeds perfect the world under God's rule. By establishing an ideal community, Vayikra recognizes that deeds speak far more eloquently than words, that living in a holy community can provide a sense of God's presence far more pervasive than more ethereal approaches. So far, so good.goat

Few modern Jews would have any problem, at least in theory, with those general remarks. Our problem starts when we examine how Vayikra defines the detailed practices of a sacred community. What kind of deeds and activities create the core of Vayikra's vision?

At the center of this central book lies a preoccupation with animal and vegetative sacrifice, which is far from the world view of most contemporary Jews (and most contemporary Americans, for that matter).

When we think of religious devotion, we tend to picture silent meditation, appreciation of nature, perhaps even a commitment to ethical living. But the connection between killing animals and serving the Lord escapes us completely.

To understand our own sacred heritage as Jews, to appreciate the religious perspective that emerges from the Torah, the Talmud, and most later Jewish writings, we must come to an understanding of the centrality of Temple ritual and of sacrifice.

Objections to animal sacrifice readily abound: it's bloody, it's barbaric, it is too physical, too particular, too ugly. Sacrifice is violent, uncontrolled, and primitive. All true. But so is life. And it is precisely in that paradox that we can first recognize the power--if not the aesthetics--of sacrifice.

Life in not neatly packaged, fully controllable, or completely comprehensible. Life includes tragedies of staggering proportions, disappointments of trivial pettiness, jealousies, violence and rage. Each one of us contains many layers of feelings, drives and convictions. Only the surface-most layer of our personality is verbal, cheerful, and polite. The deeper layers of the human psyche are nonverbal, contradictory and impulsive. They include drives toward lust, anger, gratification, jealousy and safety.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.