Saturday, March 19, 2011

When the Torah talks about animal sacrifice...

I think Jews today fall into three categories when it comes to Korbanot (sacrifices). Those who want them, those who don't want them, and those who don't care. Personally I don't want them, but, given the massive amount of attention the Torah gives the issue, and the fact that Orthodox Jews pray for a time when it will again be possible to perform these sacrifices, its not an easy thing for someone like me to not want.

So this time round, as I search for meaning in a portion of the Torah that is dedicated to the rituals of sacrifice, such as sprinkling blood on an alter, I'm fortunate to have come across two modern thinkers from the Orthodox camp, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Yehshayahu Leibowitz, who seem to be aware of the tension between the central role of sacrifices in Torah-Judaism and their problematic nature in the contemporary world.

First Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - who talks about the replacement of sacrifices in Rabbinic Judaism with prayer being possible because the sacrifices themselves symbolized psychological processes, and therefore when they became impossible due to exile, were able to be replaced. How?

The short answer is that overwhelmingly the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifice by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality and so on.

So despite the massive attention to sacrificial rituals that the Torah gives, the actions described merely channel deeper feelings that existed, and I might add, possibly still exist. Perhaps it is the task of the student to seek these emotions, and ask whether they exist in him or her?

Yishayahu Leibowitz points to a fascinating Talmudic commentary on the language used in Leviticus 3 37

זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה, לָעֹלָה לַמִּנְחָה, וְלַחַטָּאת, וְלָאָשָׁם; וְלַמִּלּוּאִים--וּלְזֶבַח, הַשְּׁלָמִים

Loosely translated as

This is the law of the burnt-offering, of the meal-offering, and of the sin-offering, and of the guilt-offering, and of the consecration-offering, and of the sacrifice of peace-offerings;

The question asked by Rava here is why does each sacrifice type have to be preceded by the Hebrew letter "lammed" "לָ" which means "of the..." ? Surely it would have been enough to simply state the sacrifices themselves, without adding the "lammed" "לָ" a total of six times!

He answers that the Torah is using a word play with its supposedly extraneous use of the "lammed" "לָ". Since "לָ" is also the first letter of the word לֹא, which means "no", it is placed there to teach us that anyone who studies the Torah doesn't need a burnt offering, doesn't need a meal offering, doesn't need a sin offering and doesn't need a guilt offering.

Astounding really. Or maybe not. But one thing is clearer for me now anyway: a set of seemingly irrelevant and problematic rituals has become, dare I say, intriguing. I hope to explore.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Humility

Does humility mean ignoring those strengths that differentiate a person from others?

Can someone be both humble and feel satisfied with his own strengths?

Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzatto has an interesting approach in his Messilat Yesharim: He likens a person's recognition of his own strengths to the case of a poor man receiving charity. Just as the gift received by the poor man is both a source of joy and a reminder of his dependency, so too with personal strengths - they are satisfying but should also invoke a feeling of gratitude for having been given to a person.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Amalek as a Culture Lacking Purpose

From the VBM

We see here that what characterizes Amalek throughout the generations is the concept of "mikreh" – attributing everything to randomness and coincidence - while Am Yisrael is permanently "on the way" (ba-derekh), a concept denoting continuity. Amalek maintained an ideology of non-ideology: everything is permissible; there is no journey, no direction; everything is coincidental; there is no absolute value that must be held dear. Am Yisrael, in contrast is always "on the way" – they have a direction and an objective; they have clear values to which they cleave.