Years back I heard of a congregation that read only from the first book and a half of the Torah– Genesis and half of Exodus, Shabbat morning. As you know, traditionally, we read from all Five Books of the Torah in the course of our weekly Sabbath morning services. The reason this congregation read only through the first book and a half of the Torah was because that is where all of the exciting stories are. Once one gets beyond the Exodus from Egypt and the building of the Golden Calf, the narrative parts of the Torah get fewer and fewer. By the time one gets to the Book of Leviticus, where we are this week, the narrative grinds to a halt. There are but two brief stories in the Book of Leviticus. The rest of the Book of Leviticus is as filled with mitzvoth as a pomegranate with seeds.
Having read about the completion and erection of the Mishkan in last week’s final chapter of Exodus, the Book of Leviticus opens by outlining the five major types of sacrifices that can be offered there. The first type, the Olah, means “going up”. It was offered to atone for a person’s sinful thoughts or ideas, which “come up” in one’s mind. Its purpose was to help the worshipper raise the state of his or her spiritual level.
Whereas the olah is an animal offering, the second type of sacrifice, the mincha, is an offering of flour, oil, and frankincense. It was inexpensive, probably for people who could not afford an animal offering. The message was that spiritual elevation is available to all, regardless of their financial situation.
The type of sacrifice known as zevach shlamim was brought by a person or a group of people. This offering was meant to express gratitude for G-d’s goodness and love of G-d. This animal sacrifice was eaten at a communal feast. Finally the Hatat and the Asham sacrifices were brought when one sinned and felt guilty. In bringing the Hatat or the Asham, one was asking forgiveness from G-d.
The Torah goes into great detail as to how these sacrifices were to be offered to G-d by the priests. It enumerates which parts of an animal were to be given to G0d, which parts were to be retained by the priests for their personal consumption, which were to be eaten by the person who brought the offering, and on and on. It is little wonder that some congregations would prefer to skip the whole thing.
Furthermore, it is irrelevant to our lives today. As we all know, animal and grain sacrifices ceased when the Second Temple was destroyed. There is a poignant story about Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai and his student, Rabbi Joshua, as they looked upon the Temple ruins. Rabbi Joshua bemoans the fact that with the Temple destroyed, Jews no longer have a way to atone for their sins. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai replies that he ought not despair. Atonement for sins, he says, can still be gained through acts of charity and justice. This story illustrates both the feelings of loss that Jews have experienced throughout our history, as well as the adaption to loss that has been the key to Jewish survival throughout the ages.
The Temple in Jerusalem, however, was more than just a place for worship – it was the central symbol of Jewish sovereignty and national identity. That is why the Romans destroyed it in the first place, and that is why they never allowed the Jewish people to rebuild it. Nevertheless, throughout the ages Jews yearned to rebuild the Temple. In fact the rabbis added an entire section of prayer to our Sabbath Worship service to express that longing. The traditional Musaf service, which is named after the musaf, or additional sacrifice that was offered at the Temple on Shabbat, contains within it prayers to G-d to restore the Temple and to resume animal sacrifices.
The Modern American Reform Movement eliminated the Musaf service in its first published prayer book in 1856. The thinking was that the very mention of animal sacrifices obstructs rather than enhances the cultivation of spirituality for the modern American Jew. Subsequent prayer books of the Reform Movement followed suit.
In 1945 the Conservative Movement made a break with tradition by changing the wording of some of the traditional prayers in the Musaf service. They kept the Musaf service, with its focus on the Temple and the sacrificial system, but adapted the language to conform to modern sensibilities. They recognized American Jews had no desire to return to animal sacrifice as a system of worship. The Conservative Movement therefore changed the wording of the prayers to express the hope that we modern worshippers be as devoted to our form of worship as our ancestors were to theirs. Thus they maintained the link to the past while recognizing and acknowledging that sacrificial offerings constituted a stage in the evolution of our religion that we had long left behind and to which we did not wish to return.
The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation also published its first prayer book in 1945. It eliminated the Musaf service entirely, as well as references to Jews as the “chosen people”, resurrection of the dead, and the hope for a Messiah. These changes so enraged the Orthodox community that on June 12, 1945, two hundred Orthodox rabbis gathered for a ceremony in New York in which Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the chief author of the prayer book, was excommunicated and his new prayer book burned.
Today the passions aroused by liturgical innovations have abated. The Reform Movement in Israel has added a prayer “in memory of the Musaf service” and the Reconstructionist Movement advises that those who want to add a musaf service be permitted to do so. Not all of our fellow Jews, however, have come to terms with the elimination of sacrifice as a form of worship. These religious nationalists see in the restoration of sovereignty of the State of Israel over Jerusalem the first divinely ordained step toward the building of a Third Temple and the re-instituting of the sacrificial cult of Biblical times. That is another sermon, for another time.