Jewish World Review March 29, 2001 / 5 Nissan 5761

Sacrificial Lambs

By Gary Rosenblatt -- ANIMALS have been on my mind lately. First, there has been so much in the news about the moral dilemmas of cloning. Then there are the frightening reports of how mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases are taking on plague-like proportions in Europe, complete with gruesome photos of carcasses being burned in huge piles. Maybe that, and the anticipation of Torah reading of Leviticus over the next two months, starting this Sabbath, with its detailed descriptions of how animals were to be sacrificed in the Temple, got me thinking about what meaning animals have, dead or alive, in our lives.

I am not what you would call an animal lover. I never had a pet ó my mother wouldnít hear of it. Actually, when I was about 7, a neighbor offered us a cute newborn puppy and my brother and I pleaded with our parents to let us take it in. My mother said she would compromise ó we could have two goldfish instead.

It wasnít what my brother and I were hoping for, and on the first night with our new fish, in my well-meaning zeal to be generous, I poured the whole box of flaky fish food into the bowl. Thatís a no-no. The next morning I learned that goldfish eat as much as you feed them, and these two poor critters had burst. What a shame ó and mess. Since then my relationship with animals has been confined to either eating them ó primarily chickens, turkeys and parts of cows ó or fearing them (just about any type I couldnít eat).

I never gave much thought to the moral issues of eating meat. At some point when I was a young adult, I read an essay suggesting that the highest form of observing the kosher laws was vegetarianism, since such behavior showed respect for and concern with the sanctity of the Creator's creatures.

It made sense, but at our Sabbath table we sang zmiros, or songs, that celebrated the tradition of eating ďmeat and fish, and all delicaciesĒ on the Sabbath. And the Torah makes it clear that although animals must be treated humanely and cannot be inflicted with unnecessary pain, they ó at least those that qualify as kosher ó can be eaten and otherwise utilized by man for enjoyment and sustenance.

Much of Leviticus deals with karbanos, or animal sacrifices (from the Hebrew word karav, or draw near) meant to atone for certain sins, or to express gratitude, or as a means of prayer.

The first sacrifices mentioned in the Torah take place in the story of Cain, Adam and Eveís son, a farmer who offers up to G-d the fruit of the soil. His brother Abel, a shepherd, offers up the choicest of his flock. G-d is pleased with Abelís offering because it is given with a full heart. Cainís subsequent jealousy leads to historyís first murder, and the lesson, through G-dís punishment of Cain, that we are obligated to respect and care for each other.

Other biblical heroes in Genesis, beginning with Noah after surviving the Flood, have occasions to show their gratitude to G-d by offering animal sacrifices.

Perhaps the best known sacrifice is that of the paschal lamb on Passover, which we will commemorate and re-enact next week at the seder, recalling G-dís command for every member of the Children of Israel to participate in a meal that unifies the Jewish people, even until today. Why a lamb? Apparently because the Egyptians worshipped sheep, and G-dís command was intended to teach that there is no other deity but G-d.

In the Holy Temple, animal sacrifices were the primary means for the Jewish people to worship G-d. After the Second Temple was destroyed, prayer was introduced to replace the sacrifices, and Jewish scholars debate whether, in the end of days when the Messiah comes, we will return to animal sacrifices in the rebuilt Third Temple. Some, most notably Maimonides, the 12th-century codifier, believed that animal sacrifices denote a primitive stage of religious expression and development permitted by G-d as a compromise to the Jews since other religions employed human sacrifices. In this view, animal sacrifices were meant to wean the people away from other forms of idolatry.

But others, including Nachmanides, a 13th-century scholar, assert that the rituals of the biblical sacrifices have deep moral and spiritual meaning and are the ultimate form of prayer.

Even those of us, products of modern Western culture, who may grow queasy over the detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices as primitive and unnecessarily violent, come away from the reading of Leviticus with a sense of awe. As Leon Wieseltier writes in his essay on Leviticus in ďCongregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible,Ē the Jew today longs for the reality and immediacy of the Divine fire that consumes the priestsí sacrifice. (ďAnd there came a fire out from before the L-rd and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces,Ē the last verse of Chapter 9.) That matter-of-fact description epitomizes the encounter between man and G-d; it is G-dís tangible acknowledgment of manís fulfillment of the commandments and rituals.

I donít claim to understand the deeper meanings of such sacrifices or to predict whether they will ever be part of our tradition again. But I can appreciate Judaismís respect for all forms of life. The Torahís prohibition against overburdening the ox or taking a baby bird from the nest, out of empathy for the mother, are but two examples of extraordinary sensitivity. And while I admire those who eschew eating meat for ethical reasons, it seems to me that Judaismís allowance of such consumption, within the confines of the kosher laws, is our religionís way of teaching us the practical and ethical balance between mistreating and glorifying animals. Man is the superior species, yes, but he is charged with the obligations of morality.

Itís an important lesson, particularly now when we are on the threshold of new scientific advancements that may alter creation itself. Judaism reminds us that whatever heights we strive for must be grounded in protecting all living creatures against pain, hunger or cruelty.

Gary Rosenblatt is a Editor and Publisher of New York Jewish Week. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2001, Gary Rosenblatt