Who could defend sacrificing animals? Really. Isn't it just barbaric and shouldn't we admit that it is a primitive relic of an ignorant time? As someone who has not eaten chicken or meat for decades, I would nonetheless like to speak up on behalf of sacrifice.
Much of the Hebrew Bible elaborates on the theme of sacrifices. Reading the particulars of this bloody enterprise, moderns turn their heads away in distaste. It seems primitive at best, savage at worst. Why does the Bible ordain that God would be worshiped with a blood slicked pageant of slaughtered animals? Those wishing to point to the essential irrationality and even cruelty of religious practice often cite animal sacrifice. Along with other such reflexive prejudices, this misses the profundity of ancient sacrifice.
The first function of sacrifice is to heighten the consciousness of the one who brings the offering. In every relationship, part of the measure of love is the willingness to forgo; I will sacrifice sleep, food, time, money, almost anything for someone whom I love. A sacrifice of negligible worth is no certain sign of devotion. Love is demanding; the lover must offer something valuable. In ancient Israel, offering the products of labor -- crops, animals -- showed deep connection. Love for God was demonstrated by the readiness to give one's most valuable possessions.
The great medieval philosopher Maimonides, in fact, argues that animal sacrifice was ordained to replace human sacrifice. One needed to keep the sense of giving something important, he writes, but without the evil of killing a human being. This was God's way of weaning the Israelites from the earlier, heinous practice. Nonetheless, the central dilemma remains. Is this simply a (somewhat less) repulsive practice planted at the heart of Judaism?
Sacrifice actually enshrines an important idea, one which is just beginning to be revived today. Most sacrifices were eaten. What then is the difference between a sacrifice at the Temple and what happens in a modern slaughterhouse?
I once visited a poultry factory. There I was introduced to a man who mordantly styled himself the "goop scooper" (do I need to describe his job?). I watched the beheaded chickens swing around on a gruesome wheel to drop almost acrobatically into a chemical vat to be cleaned. Such a spectacle is not for the fainthearted. Surely a factory where cows are killed for meat would be immeasurably more difficult to bear for the uninitiated (see Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" for a masterful and stomach-turning description. More recently, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" is a readable and powerful depiction). There is no sense of the awe of taking life. The animal is less a living thing than a consumer good, and slaughter is the means of bringing it to market. By the time we get the cellophane wrapped package, flesh, sinew, blood and bones are sanitized and ready to go. It is as routinized as an oil change.
Not so in the ancient Temple. The full import of taking life was borne in upon the supplicant. The life was claimed with holiness, accompanied by prayers before God. The spectacle was not about product but about piety. When Jews sacrificed in the Temple, they reminded themselves of the Source of all life. Sacrifice induced awe. Nothing in God's creation was mere commodity. In our own day people are just beginning to realize what it means to subject other living creatures to large scale, mechanized slaughter for food.
We see sacrifice as primitive because most of us are sheltered from the reality of what we eat. One of the reasons I do not eat meat is the realization that buying meat is a sleight of hand: The consumer decides not to watch how cattle are raised or killed so that she can simply whisk away the clean wrapped cut.
The ancient Israelite knew what he was offering; he had raised that animal, fed it and was now participating in a fully conscious decision to bring it to its death at the altar.
At the Temple, the priests presided and Psalms were sung. When we buy at the supermarket, we check the USDA inspection sticker.
Now, who is primitive?
Editor's Note: The title of this piece has been updated from 'Why Animal Sacrifice is Good' to 'In Defense of Animal Sacrifice' to more accurately reflect the views of the author.
You can follow Rabbi Wolpe on Facebook.