Although People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is often over-the-top (they compared chickens to the Holocaust), most Jews are in favor of the ethical treatment of animals. In this week’s parsha of Vayikra, much of the parsha is about animal sacrifices in the Temple. How do we as Jews reconcile animal sacrifices with the ethical treatment of animals? Why was this done and, if we ever rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem, would we restart the sacrifices in such a Temple?
To the 21st Century Jew, a lot of this parsha sounds ancient and archaic – and it is. There are certain Jewish sects that believe if the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices should be reinstated. Most modern Jews would utterly reject this – for good reasons. The Torah was written by men at a time of agricultural societies and primitive superstitions. Animal sacrifices, and even human sacrifices, were fairly common to other societies that existed at that time. Maimonides argued that the reason for animal sacrifices was a concession to the primitive stage that humans were at when G-d gave them the 613 commandments. It would have been too drastic of a step, he argued, to not have them as a form of worship. This seems an unnecessary and convenient rationalization of the practice.
It may be better for modern Jews to recognize that our religion, like our civilization, evolves. Temple worship was abandoned when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. In its place came rabbinic Judaism – a very different form of Judaism that was not based on the Temple, the priests or animal sacrifices. In some ways, it was a new religion for a new time. Judaism evolved because it needed to change to survive. Even today Judaism continues to evolve, as all religions and worldviews should do to keep up with modernity. Today’s Judaism would not even be recognizable to Jews who engaged in animal sacrifices or early rabbinic Judaism. It is a different world – and Judaism has changed to accommodate it.
PETA and today’s Judaism do not have any problems. As Jews, we respect the rights of animals to be treated in a humane manner. We don’t place animal life on the same level as human life, but we know that we are prohibited from being cruel to animals or to cause them unnecessary pain. Animals even share Shabbat with us. According to the Torah, humankind is given dominion over animals to use for legitimate purposes.
Nonetheless, in our day, animal sacrifices are not kosher – nor should they ever be again.