Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Muse: Va’yikra 2009

Torat hakorbanot, the laws regarding sacrificial worship, occupies a significant place in the life of many Jews. The orthodox musaf prayer, the “shemone esrei” speaks to the restoration of sacrificial worship. Some yeshivot in Israel study the restoration of the Temple and the accompanying sacrificial worship. In the ultra orthodox Jewish School system beginners are in many instances introduced to bible study for the first time with Va’yikra instead of Genesis. Indeed this tradition goes back to the destruction of the second Temple. In Pesikta d’ Rav Kahane the question is asked why is it that young children begin their study of Torah with torat hakorbanot instead of Genesis? Because God said just as the sacrifices are pure and the children are pure together they make a perfect combination.

The study of sacrificial worship goes beyond the nostalgia for a glorious spiritual past. There is a deeper, more profound identification with the torat hakorbanot which has become part and parcel of the Jewish ethos. The idea of kidush hashem after the Bar Cochba rebellion brought a heightened awareness of the value of sacrificial worship which assumed a central place in the Jewish ethos. This ethos manifested itself later on during the crusades and repeated itself during unique periods in our history such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust and most recently for Israeli soldiers who fell during the various campaigns. Those critical of the culture of sacrificial worship could not avoid appreciating the developing ethos of korbanot which in part defines the life of the Jewish people in an existential framework.

After the destruction of the Temple Torah study replaced sacrificial worship since the rite of sacrificial worship could no longer be performed. As referenced in P’sikta d’ Rav Kahane Torah study was considered “on par” with sacrificial worship since God said to Israel since you are studying Torah consider it as though you are performing the holy rite of sacrifice. In essence then, the hermeneutics replaced the ritual.

Not all were totally comfortable with this. The Rambam is a good example of the ambivalence regarding the place of sacrifice in ritual Judaism. In the section of Mishne Torah regarding Kings and the Messiah the Rambam says that the melech moshiach will cause a reversal back to the Davidic Kingdom when the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrificial worship will be reinstated. This is contradicted in Guide for the Perplexed (3:32) where he claims that sacrificial worship was a phase in the development of the Jewish people intended to temporarily meet their spiritual/ritual needs. The Jewish people were in the process of refining those expressions and sacrifice would ultimately be replaced by prayer and later with meditation.

Classic halachic Judaism wrestled with this disparity intent on reconciling this apparent contradiction within the Rambam. The gap however isn’t bridgeable in spite of all the pilpulism, because the two approaches represent two different methodologies and disciplines; one is halachic the other is philosophical. What is imminently clear however from the study of torat hakorbanot and our response over the ages is that ritual trumps philosophical approaches. Man in his basic and fundamental approach sought to reach out to God through ritual; and sacrifice became the epicenter of religious practice. Approaching God with the intent of beseeching was performed through sacrifice. Once sacrifice fell out of use, it was study that became ritualized as the primary means of worship.

Man doesn’t study only to fulfill the commandment to study Torah. He does so however for the existential need to pray. Study became the replacement for sacrifice as the primary expression by which man can draw closer to God.