(Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-3)
15 Adar II, 5768
March 22, 2008
Leave it to the Rabbis to attach a haftarah which strongly condemns sacrificial rites to a Torah parashah dedicated to the details of the same. In this week\’s haftarah, Jeremiah resoundingly critiques the practice of sacrifices in unusually hyperbolic terms: \”Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do my bidding that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.\” (7:21-3) This prophecy joins similar messages delivered by other prophets. (See Amos 5:25; Hosea 6:6)
How is one to understand Jeremiah\’s message? Did he mean to repudiate the sacrificial order? How is it possible for him to say that his ancestors had not been commanded concerning the sacrificial order?
Modern scholars have examined the possibility that Jeremiah may have meant literally that he somehow thought that the people of Israel had not been commanded concerning sacrifices after leaving Egypt and have speculated on all sorts of explanations. (Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L\’Yisrael, pp. 262-4) Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) anticipated this approach and already attempted to work out a logical explanation of what this literally might mean. However, the general consensus even among modern scholars today is that Jeremiah was speaking in exaggerated terms in order to express God\’s dissatisfaction with people\’s use of the sacrificial order as a mask for their otherwise ungodly behavior. (See Rashi who spells out this position.)
This does not mean that Jeremiah\’s message was not used, even by traditional authorities, as part of a debate over the relative merit of the sacrificial order in religious life. Maimonides (Rambam) was perhaps the most prominent voice in this debate. He was of the mind that the purpose of the sacrificial order was to wean the people away from idolatry, so that they would identify with God. Since the mode of worship in those days was through animal sacrifice, God adopted this manner of worship as a means to bring the people to the true worship of God. Rambam alludes to the idea that the sacrificial order did not represent the ideal condition but was merely a means to advance Israel\’s religious development. He bases his opinion, in part, on Jeremiah\’s prophecy. (See Guide to the Perplexed 3:32)
While those with modern rationalist sensibilities found in Rambam an important ally, his point of view was generally rejected by most traditional commentators. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag – 14th century France), a rationalist who often sided with Rambam, adamantly disagreed with him on this count. While he accepted Rambam\’s assertion, that one of the reasons for the sacrificial order was to change the religious orientation of the people, still, he was unwilling not to see in them transcendent value. He sees a link between sacrifices and prophecy. He asserts that the act of preparing and offering sacrifices elevates a person\’s religious spirit and enables the process of prophecy.
Another philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his work \”Sefer HaIkarim\” (3:25), takes Ralbag\’s views one step further. He makes note of the lessons that a person internalizes in the process of sacrificing an animal. Animals, like human beings, are living creatures. When an animal is sacrificed there is nothing left of the animal. It is consumed. This same fate potentially awaits every human being, if that person does not use his/her life propitiously in the service of God. This is an enabling message learned from the sacrificial order. It is one that shapes both a person\’s body and soul, creating a channel between humans and God.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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