The portion Tzav in Leviticus describes the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the reparation offering, and the offering of well-being. The word used in English for the offerings in the Temple is "sacrifice,"but that disguises or obscures the true meaning of korban, the term in Hebrew, which means "to draw closer."So the real question becomes, did the offerings in the Temple help the Israelites draw closer to God?
We are not, for the most part, farmers, so we have to imaginatively enter into the process of selecting the perfect lamb for an offering. We imagine carrying it, with great care not to blemish it, up the dusty road to Jerusalem. We imagine moving from the fierce sunlight into the darkened precincts of the Temple and handing the trembling lamb to the High Priest. We have watched this lamb from its birthing to its frisky jumping around, and now we watch as thekohein (priest) takes the lamb and slits its throat. The lamb is dead, but we experience a new surge of life. Something has drawn us closer to Mystery and the Holy. But even while the Temple still stood, there were voices raised against the practice of sacrifice.
I censure you not for your sacrifices,
and your burnt offerings, made to Me daily;
I claim no bull from your estate,
no he-goats from your pens.
For Mine is every animal of the forest,
the beasts on a thousand mountains.
I know every bird of the mountains,
the creatures of the field are subject to Me.
Were I hungry, I would not tell you,
for Mine is the world and all it holds.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of he-goats? (Psalm 50:8-13)
The prophets, notably Micah and Isaiah, added their voices of outrage. Animal sacrifice did not originate with the Israelites; it was made permissible to the Israelites because they, unlike the idolaters around them, offered their korban to God and served it to bring them closer to God.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis looked for something that could cause a sense of renewal, awe, wonder, and mystery comparable to what animal sacrifice was meant to achieve. They and their followers found that reading, studying, and debating issues raised in the Torah could also bring them into God's presence.
Questions about the effectiveness of study as a means of korban were raised in the eighteenth century — in the time of Israel Baal Shem Tov. His great contribution was to find a way of approaching God that was available to those lacking the privilege of having time to study. They could approach God through joy, through dance, through song, and-above all-through authenticity.
As a historical religion, Judaism sees time and context as important aspects of life, meaning that what may have been appropriate at one time can become inappropriate at another. Just as language and customs change, so does Judaism, as it moves from an agricultural to an urban setting. We are then faced with a serious problem: we must determine which aspects of Judaism are essential, persist through time, and are timeless, and which are culturally driven and have therefore become outdated. Reform Judaism has never lost sight of the distinction, by recognizing the timeless value of drawing close to God while never aspiring to return to Temple worship and to offering animal sacrifices as a way of drawing close to God.
Here we stand, at the start of the twenty-first century, asking the same question asked by the Rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple and by Israel Baal Shem Tov in the eighteenth century: What can now serve as our korban ? We need to regard this question as an invitation to being open to and aware of when, in our own experiences, we feel near to God. We think of the time we bathed our tiny baby; we remind ourselves of helping in a soup kitchen and seeing the smiling, grateful faces; we recall an early morning walk, watching the light slowly illuminate the city. We can search our memories for occasions when we felt God's presence and charge ourselves to recognize the invitation to daily korban. Thus begins a wonderful adventure to discover what in fact brings us nearer to God.
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.