Q: In the Old Testament, there are passages regarding animal sacrifices as sin offerings. In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus’ crucifixion was the (ultimate) atonement for sin. Has Judaism abandoned animal sacrifice? If so, did the crucifixion have anything to do with this change? – G., Wading River, N.Y.
A: The sacrifice of animals was performed at many Temples in biblical times but was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem by King Josiah in the 7th century. The sacrifices were not only of animals. One was a barley cake mixed with incense and oil that was burned on a fire pan. Some sacrifices were specifically for the purpose of atoning for sin.
The Yom Kippur atonement ritual was particularly vivid. The sins of the people were pronounced by a priest while he lay his hands on the head of a goat. The goat was then taken out and released into the wilderness. This is where the phrase “scapegoat” comes from, referring to a person or group blamed for the sins of others.
Jesus’ crucifixion is an atoning sacrifice that draws upon the power of the ancient biblical sacrificial rituals – but it expands the notion of atonement dramatically.
The Temple sacrifices described in the Bible were atonement for individuals or for the community living at that time. Jesus’ sacrifice was atonement for the original sin of Adam in disobeying God in the Garden of Eden, as well as for all people born since Adam, or who would ever live in the future. This was a scope of atonement that far exceeded and actually transformed the very notion of atonement in the Bible.
As far as sacrifice in Judaism is concerned, the cessation of animal sacrifices had nothing to do with the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans. It was solely the result of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans. After their murder of most of the Jewish priests in charge of the Temple rituals, sacrifices could no longer be offered.
What happened then was almost like the creation of a new religion called rabbinic Judaism. Rabbis replaced the priests as the religious leaders of Judaism. Priests inherited their position from their father’s side of the family. Rabbis were chosen from among Jewish men who’d achieved a high level of learning in the rabbinical academies. Prayers replaced animal and grain sacrifices. The Jewish holidays remained the same in the transition from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism, but their ritual content changed dramatically. The Passover sacrifices were replaced by the Passover Seder ritual.
The synagogue as a place of prayer and study replaced the Temple as a place of sacrifice. The notion of atonement also changed in rabbinic Judaism. According to the rabbis, atonement could no longer be accomplished by slaughtering animals or by the death of any surrogate. Now, the only way to atone for sins committed against another was to ask forgiveness from the person you’d hurt. For ritual sins against God, atonement could be achieved by confessional prayers to God.
That’s where things stand today regarding sacrifices, although a few extreme Jews want to see the Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt, which would entail destroying Muslim holy sites – a violation of Jewish law. Personally, I don’t favor rebuilding the Temple because I’m revolted by animal sacrifice. The idea that my moral shortcomings can be corrected by the death of an innocent creature makes no spiritual sense to me, compared to the hard but necessary work of facing those I’ve hurt and asking them to trust that I won’t hurt them again.
The final lesson about sacrifices is that their transformation over time shows that religions can take even deeply held rituals and change them to meet our new and hopefully more humane understandings of our relationship with God and each other.
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