The one domino that must never fall

The one domino that must never fall

The democracy dominoes keep falling in Israel.

The recent overhaul of the judicial system beginning on July 24 was followed by work to prepare gender-discriminating legislation to be introduced in October. That was followed by an order four weeks ago to segregate two public swimming areas. Emboldened by such actions, charedi bus drivers began discriminating against and being abusive to women passengers.

Other such dominoes are just waiting to fall. If (or as) they do, the response from the general public very likely will rival, if not exceed, the weekly demonstrations we are seeing over the ongoing judicial overhaul. One demonstration took place in Bnai Brak just three weeks ago.

One domino, however, that must never fall despite the pressure building to do so is the offering of sacrifices on the Temple Mount (or worse — actually trying to build the Third Temple on it). That domino likely would lead to a new, more deadly Arab-Israeli war.

That is something its proponents need to search their souls about during the High Holy Days, which begin tonight.

The Temple Mount is Islam’s third holiest site — Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif (the Holy Sanctuary). Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a known supporter of that effort, although he has recently denied it. In 2006, he was part of a group that tried to offer a sacrifice on the mount. As an attorney in 2017, he represented several people who were arrested because, he said, “they want to perform a Jewish religious commandment.”

In April of this year, shortly before Passover began, six people were arrested for allegedly planning to sacrifice a goat on the site. (Police also seized the goat.) A fringe group  known as “Chozrim leHar” (“Returning to the Mount”) had offered a cash prize to anyone who succeeded in doing so. In years past, others have attempted to offer similar pre-Passover sacrifices. In 2018, an altar of sorts was created for that purpose.

There also are Israeli organizations that are actively preparing for sacrifices to resume on the Temple Mount. The Temple Institute, for example, has devoted the last 36 years to recreating the vessels and training the people required for the sacrificial service.

Considering the likely consequences if anyone succeeds in such efforts, it is fair to ask whether sacrifices were ever something God really wanted. The evidence from the Torah itself suggests it was not.

Currently, for example, we are reading the weekly Torah portions in the Book of Deuteronomy. Ostensibly, these readings represent the last words Moses spoke to the Israelites before he ascended Mount Nebo, there to die. Moses felt compelled to review and at times amend many of the laws God had given to Israel through him. Because he had very little time left, it is fair to assume that Moses devoted his “farewell address” to those laws he felt the Israelites most needed to concentrate on once they crossed over the Jordan into Canaan — the Torah’s moral and ethical code.

One area of law Moses never discussed anywhere in Deuteronomy, except in a very limited and specific sense, is the sacrificial cult and its rules. Frankly, throughout the Torah, Moses appears to have had no interest in sacrifices at first and only grudgingly accepted them later on. Consider the following:

• The patriarchs built altars following their indirect encounters with God, but after his direct encounter with God at the Burning Bush, Moses built no altar and offered no sacrifice. In the ancient world, a sacrifice of thanksgiving is called for after such a life-endangering encounter, but he offers none. (For the record, nowhere are we told that the patriarchs offered sacrifices on these altars unless it was in connection with an agreement they just made with an outsider. Sacrifices back then were considered crucial to sealing treaties. For that reason, Moses did order such sacrifices in Exodus 24 to seal the Covenant between God and Israel.)

• When he was saved from God’s wrath on his return to Egypt, Moses again built no altar and offered no sacrifice.

• He called for no sacrifice as the Exodus gets underway. He refers to the Passover offering he calls for in Exodus 12:21 as a “zevach Pesach” (a Passover offering), but he does so almost as an afterthought, a way to impress upon the elders the need for speed since the Israelites would have to leave Egypt the moment permission was granted. In fact, nowhere in chapter 12 does God, who commanded the offering, refer to it as a “korban” (the Hebrew word for sacrifice).

• Moses calls for no sacrifice either before or after Israel is rescued from Egypt’s attack at the sea. Indeed, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 indicates that Moses saw prayer, not sacrifice, as the proper way to worship God: “Then Moses and the Children  of Israel sang this song to the Lord.” No sacrifice, just a prayer.

• When his father-in-law Jethro sacrificed to Israel’s God in Exodus 18, Moses was conspicuously absent from the guest list. This suggests, at least, that Moses was unwilling to participate in what he saw as an alien, pagan ritual.

Moses’ ambivalence toward sacrifices may reflect a belief that God had neither need nor desire for them. God never originally asked for them, and God set up the sacrificial cult in such a way that eventually it would disappear. Several times in Deuteronomy we are warned that sacrifices may only be done at the Mishkan, the wilderness Tabernacle. No Mishkan, no sacrifices. We are told, in effect, to find another way to serve God.

God’s ambivalence appears to have been clear from the beginning. God never mentioned sacrifices to the First Human. God rejected the animal sacrifices offered by Cain. When Noah offered sacrifices after the Great Flood, God’s response was that “what the human heart forms is evil from its youth.” (See Genesis 8:21.)

To God, Noah’s sacrifices were evil.

God also did not mention sacrifices in the so-called Ten Commandments. The Israelites forced the issue when they made themselves a Golden Calf. These former slaves were much too mired in and accepting of pagan customs to understand that all God wants is for us to follow the Torah’s moral and ethical code, and occasionally offer a prayer or two, more as a reminder that God alone is our sovereign who must be obeyed than as a stroking of God’s non-existent ego.

God gave the people what they wanted, but God set up a system that would implode, and that was stripped of the magical qualities claimed by pagan cults. Maimonides, the Rambam, said as much in the 12th century:

“Because it was the firmly established and universal practice at the time to conduct religious worship with animal sacrifices in temples, and people were brought up to accept that, God…considered it unwise to command us to reject such practices outright. This is because human nature inclines to habit, and so man cannot comprehend [such a command]…. God, therefore, allowed these [pagan] practices to continue, but transformed them from their idolatrous trappings, redirecting their purpose to God….[Our] prophets often declared that…God could do without them.” (See his The Guide for the Perplexed 3:32.)

Rambam was only echoing what others had said before him. For example, we have this statement from a talmudic-era midrash:

“Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Levi…: [B]ecause Israel were passionate followers of idolatry in Egypt and would bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons [see Leviticus 17:7]…and because they would offer sacrifices on forbidden high places, causing punishment to befall them…, [God] said, ‘Let them offer their sacrifices before Me at all times in the Tent of Meeting, and they will be separated from idolatry and be saved.’” (See Leviticus Rabbah 22.)

The sacrificial service God designed was stripped of its pagan values and imbued with the sacred, but only as a compromise, a temporary alternative to the service of the heart. That is what Isaiah said of sacrifices in God’s Name, “Who asked that of you?” (See Isaiah 1:12.) That is what Jeremiah said also in God’s Name: “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifice.” (See Jeremiah 7:22)

Regardless of whether sacrifices were originally intended, however, the preservation of life (pikuach nefesh) takes precedence over virtually all of the Torah’s commandments. Many lives will be lost — Jewish lives and Arab lives — if these plans succeed and a new war breaks out. No number of sacrifices can ever atone for that sin, or for an even greater one — defying God, something the pro-Temple crowd’s supposedly true believers should take seriously.

If there is to be a Third Temple, and if sacrifices are to resume, God alone will make that decision, which will be transmitted to us through the prophet Elijah or the Messiah. We have waited for both of them for this long. We can wait a little longer.

May the dominoes stop falling and may 5784 be a year when sanity returns to Israel and spreads itself throughout the Jewish world.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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