The Spiritual Significance of the Sacrificial Cult

Shabbat Parah Tzav By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 29, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Our Hebrew Scripture is a library of books with many voices, a bracing diversity of literary genres and religious opinions. This is a good week to remind ourselves of that noteworthy fact as we struggle through a double dosage of cultic prescriptions. Our parasha stipulates the tasks incumbent on the priests in administering the sacrifices that ordinary Israelites might offer at the Tabernacle. On top of that, because this Shabbat is the third of the four special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, we are treated to an additional reading dealing with the potion prepared from the ashes of an unblemished red heifer for the purpose of ritual purification.

Joined together, these two texts surely tax our patience. They bespeak a mode of worship long transcended, which—without a refined anthropological perspective—is hard to penetrate. At its best, as the two recent Jewish commentaries on Leviticus by Baruch A. Levine (Jewish Publication Society) and Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible)—both graduates of the Seminary—amply show, the sacrificial system of the Bible resonated with lofty meaning. But it often fell far short of its norms and goals, earning the searing criticism of eminent contemporaries. We moderns are not the first to be contemptuous of the priests and their domain. What I think is remarkable is that the Bible itself preserved many instances of the critique. In its quest for holiness, the religious culture of ancient Israel fostered self-criticism.

It is the unique figure of the prophet who repeatedly indicts the royal and priestly establishments for having done violence to God’s commandments. When Ahab, the powerful king of the Northern Kingdom, runs into the prophet Elijah after a long absence, he addresses him as “you troubler of Israel (I Kings 18:17).” The epithet is not inaccurate, for that is precisely what the prophet was: an uninhibited purveyor of the divine perspective. Revered by the masses, tolerated by the authorities, and driven by God’s call, the prophet denounced uncompromisingly the shortcomings and perversions of a society destined to serve as an exemplar for humanity.

In this role, the prophets never countenanced the cult as an end in itself. If not predicated on the moral order envisioned by the Torah, no amount of ritual exactitude was of any benefit. The prophets never let Israel forget that the progeny of Abraham were to be set apart by “doing what is just and right (Genesis 18:19).” Thus in last week’s haftara, Samuel condemns his newly anointed King Saul, the first monarch in the history of Israel, for defying God’s explicit instructions to annihilate the people of Amalek and all their possessions. Instead, the best of their livestock were spared to be sacrificed to God. Samuel rebukes Saul bitterly: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams…. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, He has rejected you as king (I Samuel 15:22-23).”

There is scarcely a later classical prophet who does not reiterate the condemnation that a public cult within a context of pervasive immorality can never sustain or repair the Covenant. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, orders Amos out of the country (the Northern Kingdom) because he places social justice ahead of cultic solemnity (Amos 5,7). And Hosea accuses the Israelites in the north of proliferating altars and temples in direct proportion to their disobedience of God’s teachings (Hosea 8:11-14).

Indeed, no one repudiates more incisively than Micah the mind set of those who regard the cult as the pinnacle of religion. Piety is not a function of piling on ever more sacrifices or raising the ante to include even human sacrifices.

With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?
Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for my sins?
Man has told you what is good.
But what does the Lord require of you?
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk humbly with your God (6:6-8).

In short, then, alongside the enormous attention that the Torah showers on the Tabernacle, there is in the Prophets and even the Writings an unbroken critique of the thesis that the efficacy of the cult is unconditional, provided it is executed correctly. The epitaph to the sacrificial system is delivered by the Rabbis some 130 years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman legions of Titus. In the Mishna, the legal compendium edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince, the Rabbis put forward a chain of tradition that links the Oral Law to Sinai and legitimates their own leadership. It appears at the very beginning of the “Teachings of the Sages (Pirkei Avot),” which serves as an introduction to the whole Mishna even though it is placed toward the end of the fourth major section. In effect, this list constitutes a history of the different types of religious leadership that once stood at the helm of the Jewish people, and what stands out is the omission of the priests.

The text asserts: “Moses received Torah [no definite article] from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly [which is the body from which the Rabbis emerge].” Despite the prominence of the Tabernacle in the Torah and of Aaron as the progenitor of the priestly clan, the list would have us believe that the priests exercised national leadership neither in the First nor Second Temple period. The historical record, of course, is otherwise. The list merely conveys the Rabbis’ disdain for priests, the leadership elite they displaced.

Yet, the basic question remains: why should we devote so much of our liturgy each year to reading the priestly portions of the Torah? I would submit that the answer is the same one that prompted the Rabbis to preserve so much priestly material in the Mishna: because the sacrificial system is part of our national and spiritual history. It was the ritual through which our people once achieved a sense of God’s indwelling presence. For its time, it embodied a major advance over the cults of its neighbors. Although transcended by the textual culture and verbal prayer of the Rabbis, it became the midrashic soil for new insights and the ritual paradigm for new practices. Above all, it expresses the on-going creative tension in Judaism between ritual and ethics. To relate to the source of all that exists, Judaism strives to encompass the full range of human experiences and sensibilities.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tzav are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.