Leviticus 1:1-5:26: No Bull: A Rabbinic Teaching for Contemporary American Life

In a classic rabbinic tale about human ingenuity and Divine mystery (Menachot 29b in the Babylonian Talmud), God transports Moses forward in time to the study house of the renowned second-century sage, Rabbi Akiva.

Moses sits at the back of the classroom and listens carefully to the day's lesson.

Surprisingly, Moses, the great prophet of Israel, is utterly confused and dismayed. He can't understand the discussion, even though Rabbi Akiva and his students are discussing Torah -- the Torah that Moses himself brought before the Israelites!

The prophet's angst is palpable.

Moses is comforted when he hears the rabbi say, "It is a law [given] to Moses at Sinai."

As this story suggests, Rabbinic Judaism so revolutionized Jewish life and thought that the rabbis themselves mused about whether Moses could actually understand a tradition ascribed to him in their houses of study.

While the early sages revered the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, they expressed their devotion through creative interpretation. They did so in an attempt to apply the teachings of the Torah to their own time and place.

Just as the prophet experienced a kind of spiritual vertigo when visiting the rabbinic academy of the future, we too feel a sense of confusion or discomfort when looking back at certain teachings from the Hebrew Bible, especially when these sources are not refracted through a rabbinic lens.

This week's Torah portion, Vayikra (taken from the opening word of the book, "And He called"), contains one such example. In this first reading from the book of Leviticus (Leviticus 1-6), we are confronted with a form of ritual practice so different from our own that it would be unrecognizable as Jewish worship if we saw it today.

The services described do not involve verbal prayer, but rather the ritual sacrifice of animals:

The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.

If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the Lord.

He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him. (Jewish Publication Society translation: Leviticus 1:1-5)

Neither of us has actually ever touched a bull, much less slaughtered it as part of a ritual. (One of us is even a vegetarian!) Further, we doubt that we could ever incorporate animal sacrifice into our prayer lives, given our respective theological and ethical orientations and our shared fear of blood.

In spite of the distance we may feel from this ritual form, we understand that our ancient ancestors were attempting, in their own way, to create lives of holiness. We are also keenly aware that this ancient ritual form continues to serve as a basis for contemporary Jewish prayer. Finally, it also reminds us of the profound impact of rabbinic thought on Jewish practice over the centuries.

From ritual sacrifice, rabbinic sages established a new form of worship -- verbal prayer -- which enabled individuals and communities to regularly express their gratitude, joy, sorrow and regret without the use of bulls, altars, priests and even the Temple in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, while this new form of verbal prayer marked a fundamental shift away from an established ritual form, to this day the timing of daily, Shabbat and holiday prayers still coincide with some of the animal sacrifices delineated in Leviticus and other biblical sources. Further, mentions of the sacrifices are still a part of the prayers of many Jews the world over.

The evolution of verbal prayer highlights the tension of continuity and innovation in Rabbinic Judaism. The early rabbis, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., felt compelled to discern what was most valuable about Jewish prayer. For them, it was the intention, meaning and timing of prayer; words could replace sacrifices without jeopardizing the sanctity of worship.

The power of the ritual performances of Leviticus could therefore be realized without bulls and altars. Prayer was to be time-bound each day (required by traditional rabbinic law three times daily, in addition to Sabbath and seasonal observances) but not bounded by the sacrificial practices of the Temple. Change was thus woven into the fabric of Jewish continuity.

Likewise, today, we find ourselves in need of evaluating what is -- or is not -- most valuable to us as religious and ethical seekers. This process of discernment and ongoing identity formation has only been intensified by globalization.

What does it mean to be a Jew, an American, or anything else in this age of high-speed communication and travel? How do we understand our religious, cultural and national identities in light of our interactions with people from a broad range of backgrounds and opinions? How might the very forms of communication (including a forum like this one) influence our understanding of what is valuable or sacred?

In the United States, the political process further heightens this tension -- especially as we move closer to the presidential election. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned successfully on the platform of "change we can believe in," and is likely to emphasize the policy and legislative changes he has made over the course of his first term, during the 2012 race. Not surprisingly, Republican contenders are also calling for change, challenging President Obama with competing visions for our country.

At the same time, all of the candidates in the 2012 presidential election are trying to demonstrate that their positions are in keeping with fundamental American values, including claims that their changes are, in fact, a return to the way things once were or were "always meant to be."

In this rhetorically charged atmosphere, we are called upon, yet again, to ask ourselves about our core values and vision of the United States. How much do we want to change? How much do we want to stay the same?

While the search for the key principles and practices we will take with us into the future can be frightening and disorienting, this search is also essential to our growth and continuity as a country.

The ancient rabbis model this for us in their search for a new mode of prayer. Through creative and painstaking effort, they were able to develop a set of Jewish norms that at once rooted them in their past and allowed them to move forward. With similar thought and care, we can do so once again in our own search to renew our personal and communal identities in an era of flux and integration.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.