Ask The Rabbi: Making a Sacrifice
Shlomo Brody - Published 16/7/2013
Q: Can we pray for the rebuilding of the Temple without wanting the restoration of animal sacrifices? Does God really expect us to slaughter animals in the Temple? - H.W., Houston
A: When I was an active member of Harvard Hillel, I always found it interesting to compare the various prayer books of the groups that prayed in the same building. Flipping through them, one could see that the answer to your question might depend on what siddur you use, as the denominations sharply disagree over the potential abrogation of animal sacrifices in the messianic era. In the 19th century, Reform siddurim excised all references to the Temple and sacrifices, deeming them primitive and uncouth for their progressive temples (modern synagogues). Recent Conservative siddurim have also omitted prayers to restore sacrifices, although many allude to them (in the past tense) within prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, continue to pray in numerous contexts for the complete restoration of the Temple service. This debate relates to a larger question regarding the abrogation of biblical mitzvot in the messianic era. In his 13 Principles of Faith, Maimonides (12th century, Spain/Egypt) interpreted the Torah's prohibition of adding or subtracting commandments (Deuteronomy 4:2) to mean that following Sinai, even a prophet cannot nullify or add to the 613 commandments. In the messianic era, he asserts, Jews will reinstate all dormant mitzvot, including Temple sacrifices (Hilchot Melachim 11:1-3). Maimonides seemingly bases this dogma on a rabbinic assertion that prophets cannot institute new commandments (Sifra Behukotai 8:7) Nonetheless, as Prof. Marc Shapiro has shown, a few scholars challenged this dogma. Maimonides' most important detractors was the esteemed medieval philosopher R. Yosef Albo (Spain, d. 1444). Albo asserted that the Bible merely prohibits adding or subtracting to the details of the commandments, fearing that the changes will stem from foreign influences (Sefer Ha'ikarim 3:14). More fundamentally, he contended that God always retains the power to change the mitzvot, and that a bona fide prophet in the messianic era might one day receive such a declaration (3:19). He further suggested that this is particularly logical with regard to prohibitions, such as the proscription of consuming certain animal fats, whose historical logic has expired (3:16). This notion, shared by R. Ya'acov Emden (18th century, Germany), echoes earlier rabbinic texts that speak of the nullification of commandments in the messianic era (Nidda 61b, Midrash Tehillim 146). Interestingly, in Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides stated that God only permitted animal sacrifices because the Israelites could not easily abandon the idolatrous religious culture of Egypt (3:32). Rather than banning them, God regulated the sacrifices, ordaining that they be directed exclusively toward Him and performed under specific circumstances. Comparing them to breast milk that a baby needs before eating on her own, Maimonides implies that the Jewish people will ultimately be weaned from sacrifices toward a different form of worship. This position seems to contradict the above-cited Maimonidean vision of an unchanged Halacha in the messianic era, and scholars have spilled much ink trying to resolve this tension. Moreover, Maimonides was severely criticized by the prominent legalist and exegete Nahmanides (13th century, Spain), who contended that animal sacrifices contain integral value, as seen from the fact that Abel, Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices long before the Israelites descended to Egypt (Leviticus 1:9). Nahmanides further asserted that sacrifices have integral meaning and mystical significance, a position shared by many classic rabbinic figures. Zionism renewed interest in this topic, even as the issue remained entirely theoretical. Though the majority of Orthodox rabbis continue to believe in the restoration of sacrifices in a rebuilt Temple, two prominent religious Zionist rabbis, R. Abraham I. Kook (d. 1935) and R. Haim D. Halevi (d.1998), both asserted that at some point in the messianic era, Jews will only offer sacrifices from grains, but not from animals. This position resonates with a rabbinic dictum that with the exception of the thanksgiving offering, sacrifices will be nullified in the messianic era (Leviticus Rabba 9:7), although this passage has been differently interpreted by others. One less prominent yet fascinating American rabbi, R. Haim Hirschensohn (d. 1935), went further, contending that modern religious Jews will not be able to adapt to the sacrificial culture and that therefore a future Temple will not restore sacrifices. Interestingly, R. Kook himself ostracized R. Hirschensohn, claiming that he was overly influenced by Western thought, and that it was preferable to believe that the complete sacrificial order will be restored (Igrot Hare'iya 4:994). In a separate essay promoting vegetarianism, R. Kook further challenged modern critics of sacrifices for hypocritically failing to abstain from slaughtering animals for their mundane dietary needs. This intricate array of factors makes this a fascinating topic in Judaism's vision for the future of religious worship.
The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy in Hebrew University. JPostRabbi@yahoo.com