Torah from Around the World #370

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By: Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, Rabbi of the Union for Progressive Judaism in the Republic of Belarus and the Sandra Breslauer “

Beit Simcha

” center in Minsk.

In July 1974, our world lost one of the most distinguished Assyriologists of his generation, Adolf Leo Oppenheim. Some 10 years earlier he published his book

Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization

, about the ancient concept of idolatry and “the rituals of the care and feeding of gods.”

I was born in July 1974, and about ten years later, I was given a school assignment to prepare a presentation about ancient Mesopotamia. During that time, in communist society, any irony regarding “feeding of gods” was fully supported by the system itself, which was atheistic by nature. However, the true irony of history is that my son was given the same assignment, to prepare a presentation about ancient Mesopotamia. I was going to recommend that he peruse the work of Adolf Leo Oppenheim, hoping it would color his presentation with the academic material. However, the concept of a polytheistic cult contradicted my son’s understanding of Abraham’s discovery of the Unity of God through sacrifices to the One. He had learnt about it in Netzer camp, not to mention that in our time the school in Belarus supports children studying the Bible, which did not exist when I was in 5th grade. It is not easy to have a discussion over history homework with your child. Yet my argument that the book

Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization

is mentioned in

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Editio

n, edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and published in Russian the year he started school, was finally accepted by my son, Alexander.

This incident with my son occurred following my own encounter with the issue while preparing this Dvar Torah, when I ran into the Adolf Oppenheim work again. He teaches that the cult of “caring and feeding of gods” was widespread during that time. Therefore it comes as no surprise when one reads in the Talmud, in the tractate that speaks about various sacrifices [Menahot (110a)], “I did not bid you offer sacrifices, that you might be able to say you do God’s will and He will do yours. You sacrifice not for My sake, but for your own sake.”

What do we learn from the laws of sacrifices given in the first chapter of Leviticus? What is educational or motivating among purification, reparation, burnt and well-being offerings? To remind you, in the Cheder of Eastern Europe centuries ago it was not Genesis, but Leviticus, that was taught first. The prominent 1st and 2nd century rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Ben Azzai, maintains that none of the various names of God, such as El or Elohim, but only “Lord” is used in connection with the sacrificial laws. That is to emphasize His unity and not allow agnostics to prove their view in the Book of Leviticus. That would be a good argument to use against the ancient cults mentioned by Adolf Oppenheim.

However, the unity of the Almighty is well presented in the previous books, Genesis and Exodus, so what else could we learn from having all details of various rituals? Nachmanides, in his commentaries on Leviticus 5:17-19, notes the following. In the case of indisputable transgressions mentioned in Vayikra chapters 1-5, the offering is a ewe or even flour. In the case of a questionable transgression, even if no offence was committed, the offering is a ram, which may cost more than a ewe or flour. Nachmanides was not the only commentator to be perplexed by this seeming inconsistency. The medieval explanation is that “a person may not take seriously the possibility of having sinned if the Torah had not shown the gravity of the matter”. Nevertheless, I find a relevant message and teaching here. To say more about our Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 44) urges the people to bring another kind of offering to God, and this is an offering of the heart.

It is revolutionary for his time, as well as a good ethical teaching for the present day. Those who cannot see beyond fulfilling commandments, as well as those who question the value of Torah study, none of that is Reform Judaism, where we do not ignore the words of Torah. Even the various offerings of Leviticus, which are not very relevant in our days, still have new meaning and teach us to see what we else could be done to pass it to the next generation.

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