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Our Words And Prayers Are All We Need To Connect With The Divine

When people ask me what I mean when I talk about Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, I usually point to the topic discussed in this week’s parasha to illustrate my point. Vayikra, the portion that begins Leviticus, discusses the animal sacrifices that God commanded the Israelites to perform. I remind people that if Judaism had never changed, instead of a prayer service we would be holding a barbeque.

It’s interesting to see the changes and development in sacrifices within the biblical period itself. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built their own altars and made their own sacrifices without an intermediary. After the Exodus, only priests were allowed to perform sacrifices. At first, when the Israelites were traveling in the desert, these were made at the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Later, after the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, priests made sacrifices at Shiloh and other appointed places throughout the land. It was only after Solomon built the Temple that the majority of the sacrifices took place in Jerusalem, at least until the split into two kingdoms. The kingdom of Israel then used its own sites for sacrifices.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis decided that prayer would replace sacrifice. There are some scholars who believe that sacrifices continued during the early part of the rabbinic period. The priestly class might not have given up its privileges and source of income so easily. After all, the book of Leviticus does not say that sacrifices should cease if there is no Temple. Not everyone would have been so easily convinced that all we need to do is talk to God, especially when the Torah suggests otherwise.

The change from animal sacrifice to prayer is what helped Judaism survive the destruction of its religious center. The medieval philosopher Maimonides suggested that animal sacrifices were necessary because during biblical times all nations performed animal sacrifices. The Israelites at that point were not yet ready to move beyond their neighbors. It was only as the nation’s intellect developed further that people were able to accept prayer as a legitimate form of worship.

The question many people ask is, “If the Temple is rebuilt, would we have to perform animal sacrifices again?” Some people believe that we would (in fact in Israel there are priests training for that day). I think the majority of liberal Jews would agree with Maimonides that we, as a nation, have moved beyond that point; we recognized that our words and our prayers are all we need to connect with the Divine.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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