This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). With little introduction, the text immerses us in the details of sacrificial offerings to God. In this first parasha of the book, there is nothing else -- no narrative, no other laws or lessons.
Most of Judaism as we know it, the whole Talmudic tradition, did not even begin until after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. There have been no sacrifices. How has Judaism understood this part of the Torah? Not just a part -- this is literally the center of the Torah, the central book, just as the altar in the Mishkan was at the very center of the Israelites' camp.
There have been two sets of views, broadly speaking. One is associated with Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, 13th century Spanish rabbi). He viewed the sacrifices as indeed central to understanding a Jew's relationship to God. He linked the sacrifices of Leviticus back to Akedat Yitzchak, the story in Genesis of the binding of Isaac. There, a ram was sacrificed in place of a person. So too, Ramban taught, the sacrifice of animals was always supposed to represent the willingness of a person to give himself to God. To give his life to God, in thanks or in atonement for our wrongs.
The other view is associated with Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century in Spain and Egypt). Rambam viewed the sacrifices as part of the spiritual evolution of the Jews. We couldn't go from the paganism of Egypt straight to the worship of an invisible God solely through words, thoughts, and the heart. So God for a time instituted the sacrifices, and then as part of the broad plan we have moved beyond that to prayer.
Traditionally, Ramban's view was institutionalized in the Musaf prayers. In the Orthodox siddur, a Jew prays for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem so that we can resume korb'not chovotaynu, the obligatory sacrifices. Conservative siddurim have amended this to a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In the Silverman siddurim of the 1940s and after, the Musaf described Jerusalem as the place where "our ancestors performed their obligatory sacrifices." The current Sim Shalom siddur has that version and an alternative, which affirms God's desire that we worship in Jerusalem on "Your holy mountain" on each Shabbat. This sounds more like Rambam. (The two rabbis' names sound alike. In the know, we pronounce Ram-bam with an emphasis on the first syllable for Maimonides, and Ram-ban with an emphasis on the second for Nachmanides.)
From an intellectual and historical perspective, Maimonides is better. Not to mention political, especially today -- the thought of trying to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem should make us all shudder.
But Nachmanides pulls a lesson from Vayikra that we should not lose. He challenges us to think that our lives are owed to God. The chattat or sin-offering (like chet, the word we repeat on Yom Kippur for sin) comes when we put distance between ourselves and our God-ly purpose. A moment of doing wrong is a moment of forfeiting the value of our lives. Nachmanides might say that a Jew brings a sin-offering to dramatize that. To help us visualize what it would mean to give up our life and no longer be able to fulfill our mission. To have God say that we do not deserve the place we are occupying in the land of the living.
I think that we don't need to actually perform the sacrifices, now or in the future, to be goaded in that way. But the meaning behind them is in every sense at the center of the Torah.