Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Psalms)

Psalm 50: “For Mine is the Entire World… Beasts on a Thousand Hills”

This week we read the opening section of the Book of Leviticus, Parshat Vayikra, which outlines the basic laws of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. As is known, there are found in the Tanakh divergent views about the role of animal sacrifices in the religious life. Thus, in the haftarah that would be have been read this week in ordinary years, were it not Shabbat Zakhor (Isa 43:21-44:23), we read: “It is not for Me you have brought your sheep for burnt offerings, or me you have tired with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense… But you have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities” (vv. 23-24). Similarly, in many other places we find it implied that God doesn’t really desire sacrifices, but rather righteousness and decent, ethical behavior. For example: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh; for I did not speak to your fathers nor command them, on the day they went out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices” (Jer 7: 21-22); “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad rivers of oil?” (Micah 6:7); “Who asked you to trample My courtyards… I cannot abide iniquity and solemn assembly… I hate your new moons and sabbaths… when you stretch forth your hands I shall hide my eyes” (Isa 1: 12-15; see our discussion of these in HY II: Tzav; Devarim).

These and other passages were adapted by Reform Jewish theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to support the argument that the prophets totally rejected the sacrificial cult, and on this basis to propound a Judaism totally bereft of ritual and based almost exclusively on “ethical monotheism.” But was this in fact the intent of the prophets and other critics of the Temple rite, or was their message more complex and nuanced?

We shall return to this question at the end of our discussion. First, as is our self-imposed charge this year, I would like to present that psalm which deals most directly with the issue of korbanot: Psalm 50, “A Psalm of Asaph.” This psalm, which Amos Hakham speculates may have been written for a sort of annual covenant renewal ceremony, opens with a vision of a Divine epiphany (vv. 1-6). This begins with an unusual invocation of a three-fold series of Divine names—“The Mighty One, God, the Lord (El Elohim HYWH) spoke and called to the land…. from Zion… He appeared”— and a manifestation of God, surrounded by fire and storm, in which He announces that He is about to judge his people.

In the central, longest part of the psalm (vv. 7-15), God addresses and admonishes the people. The basic idea: that God doesn’t “need” sacrifices for Himself. With biting sarcasm, He says that He cannot hold them to task for failure to bring sacrifices, but the exercise is rather pointless for “I need not take cattle from your homes, nor goats from your folds; for all the beasts of the forest are Mine; cattle [grazing] over a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountain [or: air]… If I am hungry I will not tell you, for the earth and its fulness are mine” (vv. 9-12). But of course God does not “eat.” Instead, our psalm continues, “Offer to God [your sacrifice of] thanksgiving, and honor your vows to the One on High” (v. 14).

In the final section, God addresses the wicked (vv. 16-22), denouncing the hypocrisy of the person who “talks about My laws, and has My covenant on his lips” (v. 16), yet hates rebuke, and keeps company with thieves and adulterers (or, by implication, is himself one of their ilk).

What, then, is the message of this psalm? I would like to return to verse 14, which seems to sum up the quintessential idea of the whole psalm: “Offer to God [your sacrifice of] thanksgiving, and honor your vows to the One on High” (v. 14). The idea is two-pronged: first, that the ideal sacrifices is one brought voluntarily, out of a spirit of fullness and thanksgiving to God, perhaps in the framework of a vow. Note the numerous places in the Psalms where a person, after being saved from disaster or severe illness (“and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me”–v. 15), promises to bring an offering of todah to the Temple. Second, do not bring sacrifices because you think they will serve to atone or cover up for your sins (this is implied by the immediate mention of pious evildoers), or because you fear that failure to do so will be held against you (v. 8).

Thus, this psalm is not opposed to sacrificial offerings per se. Rather, the idea implied here, one that is more fully articulated throughout Hazal, is that all the ritual acts performed by people to attain atonement—whether, sin- and guilt-offerings in the days of the Temple, fasting on Yom Kippur, or reciting the formula of Confession (Vidui)—are inefficacious in themselves without teshuvah, without profound and sincere inner regret and resolve to change. The only exceptions to this rule are certain cases of technical ritual transgressions (meilah, asham), of unintentional acts (hatat), or certain relatively minor infractions which are, so to speak, wiped clean by Yom Kippur through a kind of mystical clemency granted collectively to the entire people of Israel.

There seems to be something in human nature which seeks to be excused of wrongdoing through formal gestures, rather than through the hard work of repairing wrongs. That is why the Mishnah also repeatedly stresses that one who sins while saying to himself, “I will sin and then repent” or “I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for it“ (m. Yoma 8.9), is not forgiven.

In this context, I have a certain mixed feeling about the phenomenon of “Yom Kippur Jews.” On the one hand, there is something touching about those who, at least one day a year, come to the synagogue so as to “stand up and be counted” as Jews. On the other hand, one wonders if they aren’t acting on a kind of atavistic belief, that this somehow compensates for their not being a part of Jewish religious or communal life, nor living as Jews in any meaningful way in their private life, all year long. The joke is told that many Roman Catholics, when going to confession and hearing the priest tell them, “go and sin no more,” don’t hear the last two words. There are many Jews who are much the same way.

In answer to our original question, I would like to reprint some things that I wrote on this question some years ago, in my studies of the haftarot:

What he [i.e., the prophet] critiques here is the kind of thinking that sees the essence of religion in pomp and ceremony, in solemn ritual gatherings and external gestures of piety, while “your hands are filled with blood”: the people and their leaders neglect the most elementary principles of justice, of ordinary human decency and concern for ones fellowman, oppressing the weak and defenseless, typified by the orphan and widow…

What then did the authors of the Massorah [in assigning these haftarot to parshiyot dealing with sacrifices] have in mind in juxtaposing two seemingly diametrically opposed readings? Perhaps they saw the two moments—the Lawgiver who went into painstaking detail about the proper procedure for offering the sacrifices, and the prophet who thundered “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad rivers of oil?”—as somehow complementary… We noted earlier [HY II: Ki Tisa] the overlapping of priestly and prophetic functions in the persona of Elijah.

Likewise, the vision of the prophet Ezekiel seems inextricably mixed of his consciousness of the Temple, of the demand for purity, both formal-bodily and spiritual, of his own standing as a member of the priestly clan, as well as his stringent moral demands. I would like to suggest that the two moments—the priestly and the prophetic—ultimately stem from the same or a similar source… the consciousness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of the Divine, in a concrete, tangible manner. … What moved them was not only… the somewhat cold, distant, abstract conviction of ethical principle, but an overwhelming passion for justice that came from clear, tangible knowledge of being touched by God (see A. J. Heschel’s The Prophets, where he speaks of “divine empathy”).

This selfsame experience of being overwhelmed by God’s Presence, of being swept up by the Divine, can lead to the priestly moment—the compelling need to engage in an act of worship or service—as a sign of appreciation and gratitude, of acknowledgement, of submission and self-abnegation, even, if one dare call it thus, fellowship with God in the case of the shelamim… Or one can look at the polarity between the “prophetic” and the “priestly” in terms of inner and outer work. The classical prophets are concerned with the external, societal dimension of human existence. The priests—under which rubric one may include, in the broad sense, men of halakhah, spiritual teachers, rabbis—are concerned with inner work—working on ones self, on the stubbornness of ones own heart and, ideally, changing ones heart to submit to God. There is thus, if you wish, a seamless continuum beginning with an almost mystical sense of the Divine Presence, leading to the prophetic moment of a passionately delivered ethical message, to the ritual moment of service of God in mitzvot, including the theocentrically-oriented mitzvot of the sacrifices—and returning full cycle to the start. (Note the combination of meditative and philosophical, cognitive moments in Maimonides’ description of the preparation for prophecy in Chapter 7 of Yesodei ha-Torah.)

I would like to conclude with some speculations about the reference made in our psalm specifically to todah and neder—that is, of sacrifices that fit under the general rubric of shelamim, of “peace-offerings.” In our discussion two weeks ago of Ki Tisa, we noted that the revelers brought, not sin-offerings, but olot and shelamim, whole-burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. Reading more closely, I noticed that elsewhere, as well, the Torah mentions only these two kinds of offerings: immediately following the Sinai revelation the people are commanded to build “an altar of earth” where they will offer olot and shelamim (Exod 20:21); later, the covenant is ratified through a ceremony in which they bring olot and shelamim whose blood is sprinkled on the altar and on the people (Exod 24:5). Perhaps in this earliest, more pristine form of worship, these were in fact the only form of sacrifice known: burnt offerings, expressing total devotion to God; and peace-offerings, symbolizing fellowship and community with God (see W. Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites; and my own discussion in HY I: Vayikra). Perhaps, if we accept the view that the more formalized, elaborate w orship conducted in the Sanctuary and later on in the Temple was only introduced after the sin of the Golden Calf, once the urgent need for atonement became apparent, then sin-offerings, too, were only introduced at this later date. This is consistent with the wording of Psalm 50 (but see also Maimonides’ historical reconstruction, with what he calls “first command” and “second command” in Guide 3.32).


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