Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Rambam)

Maimonides on Sacrifices

This week, as we begin to read Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), we turn from the construction of the Sanctuary—which was both the home for the dwelling of the Shekhinah, and the physical framework for the service of God through sacrifices—to the actual details of those sacrifices, which served as the heart of the Divine worship—a worship often referred to simply as avodah, “Divine service.” This subject is perhaps the single most difficult subject in all of Maimonides’ oeuvre, as there are seemingly diametrically opposed attitudes towards the sacrifices in his halakhic works—the Commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer ha-Mitzvut, Mishneh Torah, etc.—and in his great philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed.

As we have noted several times during the course of our studies this year, one of the hallmarks of Rambam’s presentation of the halakhah in the Yad is its comprehensive nature, including the fact that he incorporates laws of the Temple and the sacrifices, notwithstanding that these had ceased to be operative more than a millennium before his birth. Three of the fourteen books of the Yad—the eighth, ninth and tenth—are devoted to the sacrificial system and its offshoot, the laws of purity. He describes there in loving detail all aspects of the Temple and its sacrifices. In this, he differs from the other major legal codes, such as Rif, Tur & Shulhan Arukh, which extract from the Talmud only those laws that are applicable in the post-Destruction era in Jewish history. Similarly, the Talmudic hiddushim (novellea) of such major rishonim as Ramban and Rashba pass over the bulk of Seder Kodashim, including such major tractates as Zevahim & Bekhorot, not to mention Temurot, Arkhin, etc., and focus on those tractates that are of direct contemporary relevance—meaning, in the case of the last two orders of Mishnah, Hullin & Niddah. Rambam those looms particularly large in the study of these tractates, by dint of the absence of others. The Temple service, and the concept of avodah, also enjoy a position of particular honor in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, as we shall explain in a forthcoming study.

It is difficult to interpret this as expressing merely a compulsion for comprehensiveness. The entire Yad seems suffused with a sense of longing for the restoration of the ancient glory of the Jewish people, with the Temple, priesthood, king, Sanhedrin and prophecy serving as central factors in its life. And, lest one suspect that Rambam writes of these things in merely antiquarian or nostalgic terms, it should be noted that he states explicitly at the beginning of his chapters on messiah (Melakhim 11.1) that the King Messiah will rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the offering of sacrifices.

Moreover, Rambam treats the institutions of the Temple sacrifices as part and parcel of the halakhic system. Thus, to take a timely example: in his description of the Passover Seder he states, in quite matter-of-fact tone, that, after reciting the blessing over matzah and marror, one eats the “festive offering of the fourteenth day” and the Paschal sacrifice, with the appropriate blessings, and then adds, almost as an afterthought, “And nowadays when we don’t have the sacrifice we do such-and-such…” (Hametz u-Matzah 8.7-8). Similarly, in stipulating the requirements for conversion to Judaism, he includes the proselyte’s obligation to bring a burnt-offering, adding that, if one converts today, this remains as an outstanding obligation, to be brought when the Temple shall be rebuilt (Issurei Biah 13.5).

Thus far Maimonides of the halakhic works. When one turns to the Guide of the Perplexed, one encounters a completely different picture. In Guide III.35-49, Rambam puts forward a systematic theory of the rationales for the mitzvot, preceded by several chapters concerning those mitzvot that are particularly difficult to understand. Among these, he devotes III.32 to the subject of sacrifices, which seem to defy reason and common sense. He prefaces his explanation with an analogy to an infant, who nurses from his mother’s breast until his limbs are set and he is strong enough to eat solid food. It is thus that he seems to explain animal sacrifices: as a process of weaning from the forms of worship known to the Israelites at the time they left Egypt, from the culture of the surrounding nations. Had they been told at the time to abjure the practice of animal sacrifices, they would have been unable to accept the notion. He writes:

At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: “God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.” (Pines, p. 526)

As the essential thing was to wean them from belief in idolatry and to inculcate belief in the one God, they were commanded to offer sacrifices, but to do so as an act of worship of the One true God alone. Rambam describes this, quite candidly, as a “divine ruse” and as a manifestation of “His wisdom and wily graciousness,” through which the memory of idolatry was eventually effaced. He goes on to describe this aspect of the Law as due to a “second intention” rather than a “first intention.” That is, these commandments were not intended for their own sake, as a direct expression of the religious ideal, but for the sake of something else. How are we to bridge this seemingly irreconcilable gap within Rambam’s own words? Presumably, one can dismiss the theory of those who suggest that the third part of the Guide was a forgery, or written by Rambam when he was already senile; the clarity of thought and mastery of the material in this section are every bit as evident as anywhere else in his writings.

Some years ago, an old friend from my days at the Bostoner shteibel, Russell Hendel, wrote an interesting article on this topic in the journal Tradition. His basic thesis was that this chapter was essentially apologetics: that is, Maimonides wished to present Judaism in a coherent, attractive, and reasonably rational and “enlightened” manner for a readership whom he assumed to be more or less alienated from and bereft of any a priori commitment to Torah and halakhah.

On the face of it, this seems a convincing and neat answer, particularly given that the alternative is to assume a deep ideological “schizophrenia” within Maimonides’ soul. Hendel marshals an impressive array of arguments. He notes that the use of partial or misleading arguments in defense of Judaism is not unknown to the tradition. Thus, he quotes the deliberately lame or false arguments offered by various rabbis in polemics with heretics or idolaters (Rabbi Simlai in Gen. Rab. 8.9 and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Num. Rab. 19.8; interestingly, their disciples then asked, “Rabbi, him you sent off with a reed. What answer can you give us?”), and the deliberate mistranslation of a dozen or so awkward passages in the Bible by the seventy sages called by Ptolemy to translate the Torah into Greek (Megillah 9a-b and parallels). He mentions Rambam’s obvious and deep involvement in the sacrificial system. In addition to the sources I mentioned above, he invokes the Mishnah Commentary at Avot 1.2, where Rambam interprets avodah (one of the “three pillars of the world”) as “sacrifice” rather than as “prayer”; the Introduction to Seder Kodashim, where he stresses the importance of studying the laws of sacrifices and bemoans the widespread ignorance in this area; and Meilah 8.8, where he includes korbanot as a prime example of hukkim, the inscrutable laws whose rationale is not known to us, but which we must nevertheless accept and for which the Divine Lawgiver had sound reason (we will discuss this and cognate passages in our paper for Korah or Hukkat).

Hendel also mentions Nahmanides’ harsh criticism of what he describes as Rambam’s “prophylactic-preventive” explanation of sacrifices (see Ramban al ha-Torah at Lev 1:9); in a similar vein, Rabbenu Bahye (on Exod 30:1) criticizes Rambam’s functional explanation of the incense. Hendel suggests, on the basis of a turn of phrase in Ramban, that he well understood that Rambam’s intention was apologetic, but nevertheless felt that a more traditional, midrashic type of explanation would go over as well while being less derogatory to the Torah. Albeit, in truth, the difference between the two might well be explained on the basis of their different milieus and the differing educational tactics these necessitated: the Provençal Jews among whom Ramban lived and wrote were deeply rooted in midrash and internal-Jewish mystical thinking, whereas the Spanish or Egyptian Jewries that Maimonides addressed half a century earlier were more deeply affected by Greco-Islamic philosophy, and would have been less receptive to such an approach (not to mention the fact that Maimonides himself was hardly enamored of the type of Kabbalistic rationales advocated by Ramban).

Unfortunately, Leo Strauss, in his otherwise excellent “Introduction to Reading the Guide” (printed in the Pines translation of the Guide), does not address the issues raised by the chapters on the commandments. Was Guide III.32-49 in fact Maimonides’ final word on the subject of ta’amei hamitzvot, with regard to both the sacrifices and other matters, or may such passages as Meilah 8.8 be read as hinting at another, more “esoteric” interpretation of the mitzvot, intended only for a select circle of cognoscenti, which he deliberately refrains from explaining in writing?

On the whole, I tend to agree with Russell’s reading of this issue in Rambam. But, if only for the sake of closure and completeness, I must ask whether this is the only possible, coherent interpretation? David Hartman, in his book Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, outlines four possible ways in which an individual may attempt to reconcile the conflicting pull of reason and traditional authority. He calls these insulation, dualism, rejection, and integration: that is, giving the upper hand to one or the other; living with both, but compartmentalizing one’s mind so that one never really confronts the conflict; and the attempt to harmonize, to arrive at a deeper understanding that embraces both positions. Thus, just as Hendel sees Maimonides as rooted primarily in Torah, there are others who assert the opposite: that Maimonides gave primacy to reason, seeing sacrifices as a primitive, lower form of religious worship, and that he fully believed what he wrote in the Guide. Yet this does not seem to square with the evident love and commitment to the Temple and the sacrificial system, as an integral part of the Torah as a whole, betrayed in almost ever word of Sefer Avodah & Sefer Korbanot.

Perhaps the answer is to be sought in a quasi-sociological understanding of how Rambam saw the relationship between the intellectual elite and the ordinary folk. As he seems to hint in the passage we quoted earlier, not only sacrifices, but even verbal prayer, are not the real essence of religion. As he says in many places, the ultimate aim is knowledge of God, elevated religious consciousness. Thus, the hypothetical “prophet” referred to there might be a kind of alter-ego of Maimonides, for whom meditation on the Godhead is the pinnacle of religious life.

But he knows that this is only possible, in any society and at any time (except in the messianic Eschaton; cf. Teshuvah 8-9), for a small minority—for a tiny elite who can undergo the long, rigorous and demanding training and self-work, intellectual, scholastic, moral, and finally contemplative, required to reach this goal. Yet the Torah is a Torah of life, a Law given for an entire people. Moreover, he deeply believed in its divinity, and its eternal validity. Thus, the various forms of worship taught in the Torah, whatever their origin, are not only formally binding, but are valid, authentic forms of worship. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is accomplished through sacrifice or through verbal prayer; different external acts are suitable at different times, in accordance with external circumstances.

And who knows? Perhaps he also saw sacrifices as having a deeper rationale, beyond what he writes in the Guide. Perhaps he understood that sacrifices answer a profound human need, corresponding to a subconscious archetype, even beyond ancient times. There are things in the behavior and emotions of people, even today, that suggest that this may be so. And I cannot develop the idea further at this point. What then is the difference between Rambam and Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor“?

First, that he was not a hypocrite. He accepted, with love and a priori commitment, that the Torah in all its details is incumbent upon all. (When I used to visit Lubavitch, many years ago, the Hasidim would note that the Rebbe and the simplest Jew both wear the same tefillin and are obligated in the same practical mitzvot; the difference between them is reflected in their inner experience, that the Rebbe has a deeper knowledge and understanding, penetrating to endless levels of meaning, more profound devekut, etc.) Second, Rambam had a deep love for the Jewish people. His pastoral epistles (Iggerot) are infused with tenderness, with concern and sensitivity for the dilemmas of the ordinary, unsophisticated Jew. He did not stay aloof in an ivory tower—but, in addition to this popular level, he lived his own religious life on another plane, that of the ever-ascending pursuit of knowledge of God.

One concluding thought. Bible scholar Israel Knohl, in his book Silent Sanctuary, posits that the priests during the First Temple period had an unexpectedly sophisticated, sublime understanding of the Temple rituals. The silence that accompanied the performance of the animal sacrifices suggests a kind of inner meditation, a whole world of kavvanah, of sacred solemnity. Perhaps it is this which is hinted at in the emphasis placed by the Mishnah on the priests’ thoughts during the performance of each step of the ritual, and the possibility that the offering may be disqualified by wrong thoughts. Some of these thoughts are technical, but others point towards profound religious ideas: leshem Ha-Shem, lesham ishim, leshem reah, leshem nihoah—“for the sake of God, for the sake of the fires, for the sake of the fragrance,” etc. (m. Zevahim 4.6). This, too, is a rich philosophical vein, deserving of further study.


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