"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly

"I, as a vegetarian, feel offended that sacrifice of innocent creatures should be prescribed for sins committed by people. If the Temple is ever re-established, I cannot see myself accepting such sacrifices as representing a fundamental tenet of Judaism. That which is offensive to both man and animal cannot be G-d's intention, even if it is "written" in the Torah."


First of all, let me say how happy I am that the eventual re-establishing of the Holy Temple is so real to you that you see the issue of animal offerings as applicable to our "current life!" I have no desire to be argumentative, but I would like to introduce a few related Torah concepts for you to consider that perhaps you are not familiar with.

1. It is Jewish law that a person has to feed his animals before he himself can eat [Magen Avraham 167:18 (based on Deut 11:15 and Brachot 40a)].

This is an extreme example (for an Orthodox Jew) because it applies even at the point of having already said a blessing on food but before taking the first bite. We thus see that the Torah requires an extraordinary consideration for animals. [For further proofs, if necessary, you may wish to read the English work Ts'ar Ba'ale Hayim (The Prohibition of Causing Pain to Animals), Noah J. Cohen, Feldheim: Jerusalem, 1976.]

If G-d also asks us to sacrifice these same animals at certain specific occasions, it is not because He is capricious: sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. G-d, by definition, is not subject to changing moods. Rather, the One who commanded these sacrifices is the same All-Merciful G-d, even if our non-transcendent outlook may not enable us to see how mercy is involved. (A good resource for expanding one's perspective in this area is the explanations of Rabbi S. R. Hirsh on the first few chapters of Leviticus).

2. "Greater is he that is commanded and does than he who is not commanded and does" [Kiddushin 31a].

Jews do not fulfill mitzvoth because we enjoy or approve of them (even if we do); the primary motivation is that G-d commanded them to us via the Torah. A person can always create his own values, but who knows if they will be of overriding importance to him at times of decision? Or, for that matter, whether self-determined morals are necessarily moral - witness the Nazi value system, a product of one of the leading nations in science and culture of the era.

In similar fashion, by the way, finding something "offensive"-a most subjective term-has nothing to do with good or bad, right or wrong: some find animal-sacrifice offensive; the Nazis found Jews offensive.

3. It is said [based on Habakuk 2:11] that in the future we will hear the stones and the trees complain that Jews did not speak Torah and do mitzvoth in their presence.

Should we be more sensitive to the spiritual needs of the lower forms as well as to the physical survival of the animal, especially in the light of recent evidence that vegetables, flowers, etc. feel pain upon being plucked, i.e., "killed"? Why are we so much more sympathetic to animals?
The obvious reasons are that we can hear their cries of pain and that we relate to them. But why? Because they are higher on the scale of life than the vegetative? But do we correspondingly feel closer to a tree than to a rock, or to a tomato than to a sandy beach or a polished diamond, just because the vegetative is higher than the mineral?

My personal hypothesis is that we have been indoctrinated by the contemporary "religion" of Scientism. We understand that everything can be classified into the three categories of "animal, vegetable and mineral," with man being considered a fancy kind of animal-the "featherless biped" of Aristotle's academy or the modern version of "monkey with opposed thumbs." Torah, however, teaches that the human is a completely different life form than the animal and that there are four distinct categories: Still (mineral), Growing (vegetable), Moving (animal), and Speaking (human).

The sages of Kabbala and Chassidut state that the ultimate inner desire of life at each level is to achieve elevation and merge with life at a higher level. (This concept, by the way, can perhaps help explain the human urge to attain the spiritual.) Soil is fulfilled when plants are nourished by it; animals eat plants, which then become part of the animal, etc. Many observant Jews do not eat meat during the week [following the dictum of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (1148-1217) based on Pesachim 49b]. Without the additional soul-powers that permeate a Jew on Shabbat, they do not feel capable of transmuting the animal to the level of the human (instead of the opposite! - there is an interesting discussion of this idea in Tanya I:7).

In truth, this spiritual elevation of animal matter requires pure intention as well as strong soul-powers. The archetypal example is when Avraham sacrificed the ram at the climax of The Binding of Isaac [Genesis 22]. At the exact moment Avraham linked himself with bonds of love to his G-d so closely that he is ready to sacrifice his only son -and thereby his own genetic and spiritual future-a ram is substituted and Avraham's exalted spiritual state is expressed in physical action as the offering of that animal on the altar in place of his son.

From this we see that in addition to the form of an action, we have to also take into consideration its goal and its manner of performance. Thus, for the ram, being sacrificed by Avraham at this moment was its fulfillment too. Indeed [see verse 13 in original Hebrew and with commentaries], it was caught in the bush as it was running towards Avraham. Unlike the stones and trees cited above, it had no complaints!

Some say we have risen above animal sacrifice; perhaps the opposite is true: it has ceased because we are no longer capable of doing it with the proper Jewish spirit!

Let us pray that King Masshiach [Messiah] will come and reveal himself soon. Then we will be able to meet in Jerusalem and gather firsthand evidence as to the true nature of animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple!

Yrachmiel Tilles

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