By Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, State Rabbi of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
We are still in the early parts of the Book of Leviticus, a book which many Reform Jews find rather mysterious, gruesome and, frankly, boring. This is a pity because it is full of fascinating details concerning means of communication with God – as it was understood in the past. But are people really so much different now?
Take the time to look carefully at these initial chapters (‘Tzav’ starts with Chapter 6) and a clear systematic structure emerges. Not only that, but there are – in contrast to so many ancient religions and modern cults – No Secrets. Everything is laid out in black on white for all to read – what the Priest will do and what it will cost. Such an important principle!
But what is described? Essentially, how a worshipper can share a meal, a sacral and sacred meal, with God. A shared meal is always a special occasion, and of course the Pesach Seder is our most famous example, but any Shabbat dinner or any fast-breaking or any Kiddush following a service is essentially the same thing – it is a gathering of family or worshippers or guests with the intention of sharing the action of consuming food. ”Breaking Bread” is a more biblical term. By reciting a blessing formula, by reciting a prayer of thanks afterwards, by sharing food with others, by serving each other, one takes part in a ritual act.
How does one invite God to join the meal? If, for the sake of argument, one considered that God was somehow ”up there” in the heavens, then any attempt to throw a sandwich or a lamb kebab upwards would be doomed to failure by the force of gravity. If, however, one burned the items of food that formed God’s portion upon an altar – whether this be meat, bread, fruit, olive oil – then the solid material is turned to gas, to smoke, to a new physical form which can float upwards and is no longer bound by gravity. As simple as that! And down here, either the donor of the food, or the donor with his family, or the priest, or any combination of these, can eat their own portion and afterwards clear away the ashes and tidy up.
The Torah goes into details of practicalities which needed to be observed – the priests all seem to have their own special robes; flour, that might blow away in the wind, is mixed first with oil to make a sticky dough that will burn but will not blow away. The fire has to be kept burning on the altar even as the ashes are carefully removed. There are Thanks and Peace and Vow offerings, each has a distinct procedure, each is eaten at a different speed or by a different circle of consumers.
What is described is roughly what we would expect of the work in a nuclear power station; at such a specially-designed and constructed building complex we are in contact with the elemental forces of the universe; if we handle them correctly, we have Life, Power, Warmth, but if we make a mistake, we have Death, Destruction, Contamination… In the Temple, the specialists in their special protective clothing have to bring in the (pure quality) materials to be burned and then they must take away the used materials and remains for careful storage and disposal. If they do their work well, God is pleased and benevolent; if they make a mistake – then the fates of Nadav and Avihu, who brought ‘strange fire’, will be the best warning there could ever be.
Of course we have managed to develop over the past two millennia forms of Judaism which work despite the lack of this sacrificial cult, but there is still a lot to learn from the ancient texts. We still need to communicate with God, we still bring God our Thanks and our Apologies and our Promises and our Hopes. Rather than sending food up to God in heaven, we now recite the Berachot so as to invite God to share our meals here on Earth, at our table, our
, our ‘Smaller Sanctuary’.
In Judaism we don’t kill sacred cows – but we can still make ordinary cows (and other animals) sacred through the manner in which we slaughter them and eat them!