Some Thoughts on the Question of Sacrifice

We begin the month of elul, a time of repairing relations and life for the Jewish people. At this time, it is customary to look toward the Torah, and look to a more conservative interpretation to see if we are really living the way that G_d intended for us. In one month, the high holidays will be here with a New Year, and a day of atonement, where we must forgive all injuries from the past.

Some of the Torah passages are admittedly difficult – especially those that ask for animal sacrifice to atone for sin. The problem becomes even worse in the Christian faith, where a human being, said to be G_d’s own son, is sacrificed for the sins of everyone. Before everyone rejects both faiths on this account, a new understanding of animal sacrifice is proposed.

The original pack-forming activity for animals who eat meat is the hunt. Who eats together, is bonded, and the pack order is enforced during the eating. A little later, humans learned to domesticate animals. For homeless migrating tribes, this became a way of sustaining communities – life was so hard that, not only did the food have to constantly move with them, but the food had to be able to walk as well. The original sacrifice I believe, was a covenant between people (way before we were capable of experiencing G_d as an abstrct concept). Two people came to an agreement, and to signify and celebrate this, they took a member from their herd, to have a good meal together and celebrate. As we became more verbally evolved, we began to understand a higher order in life, and experience more physical laws that we were able to understand, the consequences of which, we learned to predict. From whence did this order derive?

We began to establish laws to govern our social interactions, and attributed the order and driving force of life to G_d. We learned to communicate verbally with G_d. We then took the covenants that we made among people, and began making them with G_d, defining ourselves and our communities by these covenants with G_d. Someone so defined could then be trusted to behave in certain ways. We could have a higher purpose than merely survival.

So, then this translation of an original meaning of sacrifice into a religious domain happened, and became transmitted as a law to be followed, orally, and then eventually in a written document.

Does this interpretation minimize G_d’s role in our world? Is G_d no longer the 7-day magician that dictates everything? I don’t think so. I think that, although not a literal interpretation of creation, an acceptance of evolution and relationship with animals still allows for a very powerful G_d whom we have evolved to be able to contemplate and relate to.  And this interpretation of the original meaning of sacrifice does not imply that animals do not relate to G_d.  I believe that they do, just not verbally.

In this interpretation then, someone who does not eat meat is not held to the same covenant with regard to animal sacrifice.  Indeed, reform Jewish communities reject animal sacrifice.  We have other ways of acknowledging our failings and reestablishing our covenants with G_d and others. We don’t have to take a life that wants to live to atone for our own failings.

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