This week we begin the Book of Leviticus, and with it we commence the laws of sacrifice. For us Reform Jews, living in the twenty-first century, these instructions may appear gruesome, barbaric and archaic. Yet for generations our ancestors communicated with God, and prayed to God, through sacrifices and the slaughter of animals.
Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum (writing in the shadow of the Holocaust) suggested that the end of sacrifice was the positive outcome of the destruction of the Second Temple. We can celebrate the fact that our synagogue does not smell like a giant barbecue, that no blood is spilt when praying to God, and that words have replaced sacrifices.
While the idea of animals being killed is uncomfortable at best, and tremendously distressing at worst, there is something fascinating about the detailed ritual which accompanied this form of interaction with God. There is a clear process for the Israelite and the Priest as the sacrifice is offered; almost everything is meticulously choreographed. ‘He shall lay his hands upon the head of the burnt offering … the priests shall offer the blood, dashing blood against the sides of the altars’ (Leviticus 1:4-5). There is a physicality to sacrifice which is often missing in our prayers.
It is for this reason that the Amidah is, for me, such a peak moment in the service. I appreciate the fact that we all rise as a community. We take three steps backwards and three steps forwards, as though we are literally coming into the presence of God. And then we bow, at several points, bending our knees and extending our backs. The Amidah is important because of the words we recite, but a significant part of its power comes from the fact that our entire bodies are used to praise God.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, joined Martin Luther King on his march at Selma. Afterwards he commented that it felt like his feet were praying.
Have we ever had an experience where it felt like our bodies were praying, or even just a single limb?
I don’t want to return to sacrifices, but I appreciate the idea that my body could be involved in my prayers. Without sacrifices, and with limited opportunity for physicality in prayer, our challenge is how we use our bodies in the service of God. The ancient Israelites prayed with their hands, placing them upon the head of their sacrifices. Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet, joining a civil rights march. How will we use our bodies to pray?
There is an entire spectrum from sacrifice to marching; each one of us will choose our spot and our way. Nothing needs to be harmed or killed. But perhaps we can find a way to supplement the prayers of our hearts with the actions of our bodies. The sacrifices remind us of this potential, and Abraham Joshua Heschel offers a fascinating example. The choice is up to each one of us to find ways to channel our prayers through our bodies.