Ownership, Hubris and the Sacrificial Conundrum II

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by R. Francis Nataf, part 2 of 3 (continued from part 1), excerpted from the forthcoming book, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus. Get more information about the publication here.

 

Part 2: From an Event to a Practice

If Kayin’s jump from the idea of gifting to man to the idea of gifting to God was a major step, no less a step was the Torah’s move of taking it from an event and turning it into a practice. Going back to our metaphor of human giving, there are two major types of gifts that people give to each other. The first is event-based, and that is what we usually associate with gifts – presents given on birthdays, weddings and holidays are something with which we all well acquainted. But there is another type of gift that is even more common, though often overlooked. That is the daily giving within more intimate circles, such as one finds with spouses or with parents and their children. While these circles exchange event-based gifts as well, it is the daily gifting that has far greater impact on the relationships involved. That is because, this type of gifting is not just a show of love. It also bespeaks a maximal commitment to the needs and concerns of the recipient. And that is why it is reserved for only the closest of relationships.

It is to such an idea that R. Shimon Ben Pazi speaks when he presents the daily sacrifice as the most important verse in the Torah. 1)Found in an unidentified midrash in the introduction to R. Ya’akov Ibn Chaviv’s Ein Ya’akov One could add that this development occurs when the Jews become God’s intimates, because small gifting is only appropriate in such a situation. Up until then, it would have been overly presumptuous and an affront to the human metaphor involved here, similar to Kayin’s affront discussed above. His assertion is memorably surprising for it is not only unexpected in the context of all the more famous and glamorous statements in the Torah. It is also surprising in the context of the sacrifices themselves: The daily sacrifice is the smallest of the communal sacrifices of animals. If we want to celebrate sacrifices, would we not pick on one of the more bountiful holiday sacrifices? Ben Pazi’s point is that even in the realm of sacrifices – to put it colloquially – ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ In other words, just like such constancy creates stronger relationships among humans, so too can it do in the relationship between man and God.

If Kayin was able to establish the concept of large event-based gifts to God, it required God, Himself, to add that the idea of the small regular gifts could also be transferred to the man-God relationship – something which Ben Pazi only highlights, after it was indicated in the Torah. The regular sacrifices that would now take a certain pride of place in Jewish practice became those small regular gifts that man would give to God. While the daily sacrifice would be the model, the regular offering of sacrifices throughout the year, and in response to many situations more generally, took what had previously been an occasional ceremony and turned it into a regular practice

Moreover with the laws of the Torah, the notion of giving to God became institutionalized. While we cannot totally discard the possibility that both the institutionalization and ritualization of sacrifices reflects a sort of Plan B, there is no question that sacrifices would continue to play a positive role in developing the relationship between man and God, as they had for the generations that lived before the Torah was given. 2)Indeed, the existence of these pre-Sinaitic sacrifices is brought by Ramban in his commentary on Vayikra 1:9 as a proof against Rambam’s more negative understanding mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. And once that would be the case, the Torah doesn’t’ stop with general principles. Rather, it develops very particular rules about what should be given, when and by whom. Moreover, it choreographs entire ceremonies around it as well. By doing so, it seems that the Torah is presenting us with a blueprint for how to maximize its effectiveness.

I will not pretend that this background opens up our understanding to all – or even most – of the details in the Torah’s blueprint, but I think it is a good first step. That step having been taken, we will now proceed to look at the details of just one law – the prohibition of chametz on the altar –as a model for further explanation of many of the other laws as well. But here too, we will require some more background before we can get to the law itself.

Giving What You Don’t Have

So far we have discussed the difficulty of giving God what He doesn’t need. But there is actually an even more fundamental problem. And that is that on a very real level, there is really nothing we are entitled to give. In order to give something, one must first own it. Otherwise, it is an act of theft.

While we often speak of human ownership of property and objects, we all ultimately know that it is really more of a legal fiction and social convention than anything else. In order to provide orderly interaction among people and avoid constant fighting, there is a need for some rules as to who is entitled to any given item and who is not. We call this property rights. But the fact that I have a conventional right to something does not truly mean that it is mine. Karl Marx – among others – famously tried to address this by suggesting a different way to look at the connection between humans and objects. He claimed that we invest value on that upon which we expend of our labor – the so called labor theory of value. But this is no less artificial than the traditional concept of ownership. In what way does the fact that I spend my time and effort on something affect the object’s essence? My reaping cotton to get it to the marketplace has no impact on the product whatsoever. And even if I make a table out of wood, all I have done is reshape that which existed before without me.

Even if – as we read in Tehillim (115:16) – God “gave the earth to man,” we would be fooling ourselves if we understood that man was given anything more that stewardship. It has been said that given where we end up after we die, the earth really owns us more than we own it! Indeed, one of the things that has always bothered man is that he can only give to God from what is already His. 3)See Avot 3:7. The positive side of this conundrum is that it reflects a keen awareness of where man stands, as well as an ambition to give what would be more appropriate. And so man is always – at least, latently – searching to give something that he can really call his own.

So is there anything we can truly call our own? On an essential level, the only thing would be something we actually create. But has God not created everything already? Is anything that we fashion – as just mentioned with the example of the table – not just a rearrangement of things already created by God? Yes, and no. The Talmud points out that there is something that we literally create, and that is other people. True, parents could not create a child without God. But the distinct use of their own bodies, genes and DNA in the creation of a new being represents a process wherein the parents imitate the Divine act of taking of Himself to bring about new beings. 4)The fact that also occurs in the animal and plant worlds does not take away from its significance, though it does lead to an interesting discussion of why this capability was given to non-humans. As a result, the rabbis suggest a certain equation between God and one’s parents in their status vis-à-vis the child – one which has important practical ramifications. 5)Kiddushin 30b.

This leads us to the very chilling conclusion that the only thing that would be a meaningful sacrifice is something we almost dare not ponder. If just about all moderns have problems with animal sacrifices, there would likely be wall to wall unanimity when it comes to human sacrifices. I think it would be fair to even say that Judaism takes pride in having had a role in the process that led to this antagonistic attitude towards such a ritual. For one, the Torah seems to describe it as something that God hates, 6)Devarim 12:31. a hatred which is formalized by the prohibition of sacrificing children to Molekh. Since all idolatry is forbidden, why would the Torah single out this particular idolatrous practice, if it were not to reject this particular form of worship above and beyond its idolatrous intention? 7)Vayikra 18:21; 20:1-5. Here we follow the approach of Abarbanel on Vayikra 20, who also attributes it being called out to its particularly onerous character. There are many other approaches, and the rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64) are even divided about whether we are dealing with idolatry altogether here. The position that it is not idolatry could serve as an alternative answer to our question and so undermine our answer. Likewise, there are some approaches that suggest that the children are not actually killed in this ritual. Nonetheless, we favor Abarbanel’s approach as being closest to the simple meaning of the verses, and the various other passages in Tanakh that relate to it explicitly or implicitly. Human life is sacred and God does not want us to offer people to Him, the way we might do with animals.

And yet it is something that has not only been pondered but consummated as well. Given what we have said until now, we are in a better position to understand why this was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world. And its theoretical value is something about which the Torah is actually quite cognizant. By the end of the story of the binding of Yitzchak, God’s opposition to the practice emerges. But its tentative request of Avraham also indicates that there is something uniquely powerful about it. 8)See R. Eliyahu Dessler’s Michtav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 2, pp. 194-99, for a particularly insightful approach as to why such would be the case. It also bears noting that human sacrifice did not always involve parents sacrificing their children. By extension, it can be claimed that it is an entire community that gives birth to a child. Nonetheless, it is less obvious, and that is presumably one of the reasons the sacrifice of one’s own children was so common. Even if it was meant to be aborted, its very suggestion points to its value – something, that could apparently not be replaced with some less objectionable demand. There is another source in Tanakh which might point to the Jewish tradition’s appreciation for the value of child sacrifice – even if it ultimately reviles it – as well. In 2 Melakhim 3:27, we read that Misha, the king of Moav, was able to bring about the defeat of the Israelites by sacrificing his firstborn son. 9)See Sanhedrin 39b, Tanchuma Ki Tissa 5. Though many commentators are understandably troubled by this, several rabbinic sources understand it as act of powerful (if obviously not uninterested) dedication. 10)While some explain that it was not his son, but the son of the king of Edom, that is not the most straightforward reading of the text.

Of course, there is a whole other dimension of sacrificing children beyond the question of the parents’ ownership of the child based on their having created him. And that is the fact that regardless of this question, there is no greater sacrifice that a parent can make than their own children. To the extent that value can be based on the attachment that a person has to something, there is great significance in giving something of far more value than anything else we can give. Yet it goes even further than that. One of the things that makes the binding of Yitzchak so poignant is that a child is something that a parent would normally not give up at any price – their child is at least as dear to them as their very selves, and frequently even more so. It can, however, be argued that our having created them and the love we feel for them are ultimately two sides of the same coin. Why is it that we are so emotionally attached to our children? One of the central reasons is certainly because our children are our unique creations.

Regardless of the theoretical value of child sacrifice, however, the Torah makes clear that it is not an option. So we are back to square one. But there may be something else, a little less dramatic, that we could also call our own.

(Next installment to be published Tuesday night/Wednesday morning)

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Found in an unidentified midrash in the introduction to R. Ya’akov Ibn Chaviv’s Ein Ya’akov One could add that this development occurs when the Jews become God’s intimates, because small gifting is only appropriate in such a situation. Up until then, it would have been overly presumptuous and an affront to the human metaphor involved here, similar to Kayin’s affront discussed above.
2.Indeed, the existence of these pre-Sinaitic sacrifices is brought by Ramban in his commentary on Vayikra 1:9 as a proof against Rambam’s more negative understanding mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.
3.See Avot 3:7.
4.The fact that also occurs in the animal and plant worlds does not take away from its significance, though it does lead to an interesting discussion of why this capability was given to non-humans.
5.Kiddushin 30b.
6.Devarim 12:31.
7.Vayikra 18:21; 20:1-5. Here we follow the approach of Abarbanel on Vayikra 20, who also attributes it being called out to its particularly onerous character. There are many other approaches, and the rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64) are even divided about whether we are dealing with idolatry altogether here. The position that it is not idolatry could serve as an alternative answer to our question and so undermine our answer. Likewise, there are some approaches that suggest that the children are not actually killed in this ritual. Nonetheless, we favor Abarbanel’s approach as being closest to the simple meaning of the verses, and the various other passages in Tanakh that relate to it explicitly or implicitly.
8.See R. Eliyahu Dessler’s Michtav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 2, pp. 194-99, for a particularly insightful approach as to why such would be the case. It also bears noting that human sacrifice did not always involve parents sacrificing their children. By extension, it can be claimed that it is an entire community that gives birth to a child. Nonetheless, it is less obvious, and that is presumably one of the reasons the sacrifice of one’s own children was so common.
9.See Sanhedrin 39b, Tanchuma Ki Tissa 5.
10.While some explain that it was not his son, but the son of the king of Edom, that is not the most straightforward reading of the text.

About Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. His most recent book is Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus.

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