Years ago, as a graduate student, I came across an edition of the Bible called The Dartmouth Bible, originally published in 1950, in which the editors sought to cut away passages they felt were either extraneous or irrelevant to the modern world. Not surprisingly, although shocking to me at the time, they reduced the book of Leviticus, whose reading begins this week, to literally a few pages.
To be sure, Leviticus delves into many matters which seem out of place in a post-Enlightenment world: the ritual slaughter of animals, notions of personal and communal pollution and purity, and somewhat restrictive regulations regarding sexuality. To read Leviticus is to encounter a distinctive vocabulary that pertains to animal and grain sacrifices, human actions that require ritual purging or forgiveness, and boundaries in human behavior, the latter often using strong language with words such as “abomination.”. There are also obligations of “holiness” to which not only priests but also commoners are bound.
In order to suggest that Leviticus in fact deals with timeless symbols as well as with arcane ones, I would like to turn the spotlight on just a few terms for sacrifice, whose implications go beyond the slaughtering of animals per se. Two common ones in particular come to mind: qorban and olah. While these are almost always rendered as “offering” and “burnt-offering” (in both the King James and the Jewish Publication Society versions), Martin Buber, in several essays, pointed out that the Hebrew terms more concretely convey a sense of motion and relationship. The pilgrim “comes near” (Hebrew root q-r-b) to the sanctuary with the animal he has brought for sacrifice, which itself, in its journey from life to death, helps to bridge the gap between mortal humans and the immortal deity. The sacrifice is thus a “nearbringing,” or as I less radically formulated it, a “near-offering.”
As for olah, which stems from a common root that conveys ascent, one gets the sense that it is not only the smoke of the sacrifice that ascends heavenward, to be (in the Bible’s language) savored by God, but the one who brings the animal is also to experience an elevation of purpose and relationship to the divine. In their religious vocabulary, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all portray prayer as soaring up to God (see the great poem chanted on the eve of Yom Kippur, “Ya’aleh” (“May our supplications ascend to you…”), but it is the visible, vertical testimony of sacrificial smoke in which this process perhaps originated. Here, too, a coined term such as “highbringing” or my “offering-up” seems warranted.
These observations will probably not have much resonance for vegetarians, who will seek other kinds of symbolism in their quest for spiritual meaning (although plants, too, certainly appear to reach upward). But we should keep in mind that the Levitical terminology of animal sacrifice does go some distance toward imbuing the ancient practice with a theological dimension. Leviticus lays out in considerable detail the purposes for which these sacrifices were brought: forgiveness for error, expiation of guilt, and creation of community through a meal, among others. It was the genius of the Roman-era Rabbis, in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction in the year 70, to have found an adequate substitute for the universal, centuries-old and visceral practice of sacrificing animals on an altar: prayer and the study of sacred texts. These, too, took on the sense of nearness and ascent, whether intellectual, spiritual, or mystical, transforming them into acts of intimacy and inner elevation. From the biblical designation of the location of animal sacrifice mysteriously termed “the place which God will choose” (see Deut. 12:5, for example), usually but not unanimously taken by scholars as Jerusalem, post-biblical Judaism came to situate the service of God in the place of the heart and the place of community—wherever they may find themselves.