Monday, April 24, 2017

Childbirth and a New Understanding of Biblical Impurity - Torah portion Tazria-Metzora

Pregnant Phoenician goddess, c. 7th C BCE
This week's Torah portion opens with laws concerning childbirth and the ensuing status of impurity (tum'a) for the mother. One feature of these rules that begs explanation is why it should be that the duration of the mother's impurity should be twice as long following the birth of a girl (14 days, followed by an additional 66, for a total of 80 days) as for a boy (7 days, followed by 33, for a total of 40 days).

Really, there are several questions here:

1. Why should childbirth render the mother impure?
2. Why should the birth of a girl double the duration of impurity?

Which is all related to the meta-question:

3. What is the rationale for biblical impurity?

If we can answer the third question, perhaps we can understand the logic behind the first two.

The causes of biblical impurity


In order to explore the rationale, we first need to know the cases. What does the Torah view as imparting tum'a? Biblical impurity falls into three main categories, each of which has a number of subcategories:
  • Corpses
    • Human corpses
    • Certain animal carcasses
      • Incl. ashes of the Red Cow
  • Tzara'at affliction
    • Skin
    • Clothing
    • Walls of one's home
  • Genital discharges
    • Seminal emission
    • Abnormal discharges (zav, zava)
      • Incl. saliva of such a person (Lev 15:8)
    • Vaginal blood
      • Menstruation
      • Childbirth
These three categories are subject to the laws of impurity in all their intricacy - contagion, ablution (washing), laundering, waiting periods, isolation, etc. There is however an additional category which does not entail all the technical details usually associated with biblical impurity, but which the Torah nonetheless speaks about as producing tum'a:
  •  Cardinal transgressions
    • Idolatry (Lev 20:3)
    • Murder (Num 35:34)
    • Illicit sexuality (Lev 20:24-25)
The distinction between the previous categories and the last one is sometimes referred to as "ritual impurity" vs. "moral impurity" respectively. (See e.g. Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, 2000.) Yes, a murderer may become ritually impure by touching a human corpse. Yes, illicit sexual relations may entail ritual impurity via seminal emission. But that's not the "tum'a" the Torah is referring to in these cases. Rather, it's that one who engages in these activities brings impurity to the land, to the Sanctuary, and is seen as desecrating God's name.

Note that according to Jacob Milgrom (Yale Anchor Bible, Leviticus, Vol I, pp. 269-70), certain more intense, prolonged impurities in the ritual category (such as zov, abnormal discharge) also have the power to cast impurity upon the Sanctuary from afar. But despite the "danger" it is seen as producing, which may in some ways be similar to "moral" impurity, it is understood in the Torah to be inadvertent and is discussed without the accompanying language of condemnation.

Translations and historical context


To avoid confusion and misconception in our discussion of biblical impurity, we would be well-served to be more conscious of the English translations we use, and to acknowledge the historical context of the Torah's concept of tum'a:

1. The words "impurity" and "uncleanness" are negative formulations of purity and cleanness. Tum'a however is not a negative formulation of tahara (purity). They are two different words entirely.

2. Often added to the translation "impurity" is the descriptive term "ritual" or "spiritual." These have very different connotations however. "Ritual" impurity implies a cultural convention, whereby for purposes of ritual life (ability to partake in certain activities, especially those involving religious sancta) a person has a no-go status. "Spiritual" impurity implies an unseen, nonphysical force or malaise which rests upon a person. One is a "status," the other a "thing." There is no question that tum'a involves a status with legal/social implications. The question is whether, from the Torah's perspective, it is also considered a "thing," and if so, what is the nature of that thing. The alternative to tum'a being a nonphysical "something" is that it is a purely symbolic concept. (The nonphysical and symbolic interpretations of impurity might be mapped onto the mystical and rational worldviews, respectively. See my comment at the end of this piece.)

3. For people living in the modern age, the tendency is to think of the Torah's impurity laws as something uniquely "Jewish." But far from existing in a vacuum, these laws had parallels across the ancient world, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Mesopotamians, the Sabeans of southern Arabia (see Maimonides' Guide, Ch 47), the Hindus, Greeks, Persians, and so on. These cultures share many of the contexts of biblical impurity such as childbirth, menstruation, scale disease (biblical tzara'at) and contact with corpses, as well as remedial actions such as washing and laundering. Point being, in order to determine what biblical impurity is about, it's important to know that the concept of impurity was ubiquitous at the time, and (where possible) to distinguish between global/Near Eastern conceptions of impurity and the Torah's concept.

Israelite impurity laws: de-paganized, non-personified


Let's start with the concept of impurity held in the Ancient Near East. Jacob Milgrom describes the ancient world as being concerned with demons. The deities in pagan religion are
"dependent on and influenced by the metadivine realm, that... spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities, and... if humans can tap into this realm they can acquire the magical power to coerce the gods to do their will" (Anchor, Leviticus, Vol I, p. 42, based on Y. Kaufmann). 
Anything widely regarded in the ancient world as a source of impurity, such as menstrual blood, was recognized as a "repository of demonic forces" (ibid. p. 766). Demons wrought disease, mental illness and death upon those people and places they entered.

This is the Torah's starting point. It recognized the fact of disease and death. It maintained that certain physical states and substances were considered "impure." But the Torah negated demons as the cause of these things, as independent forces which human beings must do magical rituals in order to placate and exorcise from themselves.

To return to our earlier point, the context of impurity in the ancient world was not merely one of "ritual" impurity. It was clearly grounded in the notion of "spiritual" impurity, and demonic spirits in particular. In contrast, there is no indication in the Torah text that the concept of tum'a has anything to do with demons or spirits. Thus it stands as a clear break from the rest of the ancient world.

Though one might fairly ask the question: Were demons in fact expunged from the biblical worldview? The Bible speaks of quasi-independent, destructive beings/spirits/angels, such as: the Satan, which stands as Israel's accuser; malachim ra'im, "evil emissaries," Ps 78:49; the malach ha-mashchit, "destroying emissary," II Sam 24:16; and of course the mashchit, "destroyer," which passed over the Israelite houses in Ex 12:23. Zechariah 13:2 mentions ruah ha-tum'a, the "spirit of impurity," which may be a reference to an actual spirit. (Certainly the rabbinic tradition is rife with references to shedim, as well as the concept of ruah ra'ah, "evil spirit.") Though in the biblical instances, these "beings" are clearly under divine control, which is counter to pagan theology.

The question is, what was left in the Torah's concept of impurity after the demonology was expunged? Was tum'a thought to be a "destructive emissary" albeit under God's control and purged by God's rituals rather than by magical incantation? Such a notion has no support whatsoever in the Torah text. However, the idea that biblical impurity was solely "symbolic," or merely a legal/ritual "status," does not speak to the reality of the ancient world either. Clearly, tum'a was perceived as a tangible, destructive power, albeit completely de-personified. It endangered the individual as well as the Sanctuary and sacred objects, and it threatened the maintenance of the divine presence among Israel.

This is evidenced by the fact that many of the biblical impurities stem from inadvertent, natural, and even desirable and vital activities of life, such as sexual relations. If tum'a was only a symbolic "bad," then it should not have been attached to such normal, necessary activities. This means it must have been understood as an inevitable "thing" to be encountered - and subsequently countered - in the world. Yes, it had its dangers, but aside from "moral impurity" such as idolatry and murder, normal "ritual impurity" was not a sign of sin. It was a natural part of life that had to be dealt with appropriately.

Of course one could posit, like Maimonides did in his Guide regarding sacrifices, that the laws of tum'a were a de-paganized concession to a people who could not let go of impurity-related taboos, being so ingrained in their consciousness and custom. In other words, the Torah knew that there was nothing - literally "no thing" - to tum'a. It was an ancient, pagan superstition, a misconception. But it had to be accommodated since the Torah needed to be accessible to people at the time. It could not expect them to be superhuman; the more important thing was to keep them from performing magical rites of demon exorcism. Similar to my thinking on Maimonides regarding sacrifices, it seems to me that such a line of reasoning does not fit the text, neither in the amount of material and laws devoted to the topic of impurity, nor in the Torah's exhortations to take measures to remove one's tum'a, lest a person bear his or her iniquity (e.g. Lev 17:16). Torah passages regarding sacrifices and the laws of impurity read not as "concessions" but as vital to the well-being of Israelite society, clearly important to the Priestly worldview.

So we are left with tum'a as a non-personified destructive agent. But what exactly is the "destruction"?

Death and Impurity


As we said above, the demonic forces were perceived as harbingers of disease and death. If we look back at the sources of biblical impurity, one can easily point to "death," or perhaps "erosion of life," as the central organizing principle of tum'a. Human corpses and animal carcasses are clear - they present death itself. Tzara'at is a skin disease that resembles decomposition and the wasting away of the body. Fluid ejected from the genitals (the source of life) is perceived as a loss of life, either because those fluids are "life fluids" (semen, blood), or because they are signs of disease (abnormal discharges). Blood is explicitly referred to in the Torah as nefesh, "life force" (Lev 17:11, 17:14; Deut 12:23).

"Life and death" is indeed a common way to frame biblical impurity laws. And it is a fairly persuasive thesis, one which Milgrom makes, among others. Yet I would utter a word of caution here, since it is all too easy to take a specific lens, such as "life and death," and then proceed to scour the material and collect a myriad of data points which corroborate the thesis. What we inevitably find are that the data points which do not fit are as many as those which do. For instance:
  • Why should only certain animal carcasses render a person impure, and not others? 
  • Why should tzara'at on one's clothes or walls, which do not resemble decomposition of the body, render a person impure?
  • Why would other, more serious diseases not bring about impurity?
  • Why should the emission of semen in normal sexual relations possibly render anyone impure, semen being the very seed of life, i.e. the antithesis of death?
  • Why should menstrual blood, or postpartum blood, which are normal, healthy functions associated with reproduction, be associated with death and render the woman impure? 
  • If blood is life, why does blood loss from areas apart from the genitals not render a person impure?
I have no doubt that a brilliant expositor would be able to answer each of these questions. But these answers would be defensive (i.e. the attempt to fill in holes in the thesis) rather than following any logical imperative within the text. Like I say, with a sharp enough mind, one can massage the content to fit the thesis. Thus, even with a compelling rationale such as "affirmation of life / distancing from death," which I do believe has some validity in our case, I'm not convinced that such a rationale can single-handedly explain the laws of impurity in all their detail. There are obviously other factors at work here.

Symbolism, Pragmatism and Taboo


In my previous post, I discussed the possibility that food taboos preceded the laws of "kosher signs" such as split hooves and rumination. Rather than deriving strictly from a hygienic basis (i.e. what animals are healthy to eat and which carry disease), or strictly from a conceptual basis (i.e. what animals symbolize the values of society and which do not), the kosher criteria are developed following hundreds (even thousands) of years of input, including:
  • Observation of the affect on people, i.e. health and disease
  • Conventional use of the animals across cultures
  • Symbolic value of various animals in the society
  • National myth and folklore
  • Polemical reaction to pagan societies and rites
At the time of the Torah, Israel is already in possession of a venerable tradition of how to regard the various animals, including which animals are "worthy" of consumption according to the values of Israelite society, and which ones are taboo. At that point, another symbolic layer is added (via the Torah) to impart added meaning, purpose and sanctity to the existing "worthy" traditions, which necessarily excludes - and deems abominable - those practices which are still in use but deemed "out of character" for the society.

I would suggest that the same process is at work in the biblical purity laws as a whole.

As we said above, all over the ancient world, there were a variety of taboos involving menstrual blood, childbirth, semen and other genital discharges, afflictions of the skin or walls of one's house, as well as dead animals and humans. How these taboos came about was no doubt a mixture of traditions, superstitions, folklore, observation, symbolism, nationalism, piled up layer upon layer, like a "tel," for thousands of years. Meaning one cannot point to any one factor as "the" reason for the taboos. Yet at the same time there are repeated themes we can identify, like artifacts distributed throughout the tel, which give us some information about certain components that went into the taboo.

For instance, it seems entirely reasonable that, being over three millennia removed from "germ theory," part of the motivation for taboos such as contact with human and animal remains, or suspicious genital discharges, or precautions such as quarantine, or remedies such as immersion in water, stemmed from observations regarding disease and death. It also seems evident that some of these laws were simply givens in the ancient world, and that no nation who aspired to be civilized - including Israel - could possibly have abandoned them. If your Hittite neighbors scrupulously washed themselves after touching semen, and remained separate from women during menstruation and after childbirth, would you as a holy nation refrain from these "proper," elevated social mores? It is likewise reasonable to assume that the Israelite version of these taboos would take into account its particular values, its national story, its theology and traditions as distinct from pagan societies.

In sum, a picture emerges that biblical impurity laws are built from an existing set of taboos and mores, which themselves stem from a mix of pragmatism (disease prevention), symbolism, lore and happenstance over thousands of years - including specific traditions handed down within the Israelite lineage. The laws thus involve a combination of conformity with surrounding societies and at the same time a concerted rebellion against them.

Which is why it is impossible to articulate a "one-size-fits-all" explanation that encompasses the entire purity system. It doesn't stem from a single concept - it developed organically from multiple sources, for multiple reasons, and then received its final "polish" and interpretation by the Priestly school and became sanctified as part of Torah law. That is, I would suppose, how this body of law came to be.

That being said, the purity system of the Torah has a certain logic and coherence, and I believe we can still make substantial inroads in understanding how it works.

Pluses and Minuses


When the Torah speaks about the destructive power of impurity upon people, the phrase it employs is "tamei le-nefesh." (See Lev 24:4; Num 5:2, 9:6-7, 9:10.) It is damaging to the nefesh, a person's life-force. Damaging how? I believe Milgrom comes close to the answer. In speaking about the force of impurity polluting the Sanctuary, he offers the following analogy (emphasis mine):
"Let electromagnetism serve, mutatis mutandis, as an illustrative analogy. The minus charge of impurity is attracted to the plus charge of the sanctuary, and if the former builds up enough force to spark the gap, then lightninglike it will strike the sanctuary." (Anchor, Leviticus Vol I, p. 270)
Does impurity warrant the analogy to a "minus charge"? I believe it does. (In fact I used that exact terminology and wrote about it at length in my book Ohr HaShachar, and only today I discovered it in Milgrom's writing!) To understand the plus-minus distinction, we can look at other statements by Milgrom:
"There can be no doubt that the antonym of kadosh 'holy' is tamei 'impure'."
"[I]f tamei 'impure' stands for the forces of death, then kadosh 'holy' stands for the forces of life." (Ibid, p. 731, 733.)
In other words, "plus" (kedusha, holiness) equals life-force, "minus" (tum'a, impurity) equals death-force. Only here is where I differ with Milgrom. Instead of "death-force," I would call it "anti-life-force." It may sound like a negligible semantic distinction, but it actually makes a significant practical difference. Because a death-force is a "something," whereas an anti-life-force is a "lack."

We spoke above about the question of whether tum'a is a "thing" or merely a symbolic concept. I balk at the notion of tum'a as purely symbolic, for reasons I cited earlier. But I also balk at the idea of tum'a as a "thing." That is why I refrain from using the translation "pollution" to describe it. Because pollution connotes "stuff."

Instead, my speculation is that tum'a is in actuality a "minus," a vacuum capable of pulling in and draining life-force, i.e. kedusha.

Therefore, instead of conceptualizing tum'a as a "substance" that is transferred from one party to another, we might understand it as a "lack" which causes one party to draw life-force from the other. To illustrate, I offer two diagrams from my book (Ohr HaShachar, pp. 95-6):



Tum'a construed as a "lack" better conforms to Priestly theology, which rejects the idea of "dark forces." Instead of kedusha and tum'a conceptualized as God being pit against forces of evil, it is merely divine life-force vs. the lack thereof. This concept also may help to better explain the issue of impurity following childbirth, and the disparity in length of impurity based on the gender of the newborn.

Childbirth impurity and gender - a new understanding


We said initially that in order to address the question about why a female newborn would occasion twice the duration of impurity, we'd first need to know why childbirth causes impurity altogether. And to understand that, we'd need a rationale for impurity in general.

We've actually emended this process over the course of this piece. The "rationale," i.e. the set of reasons, behind biblical impurity, turns out to be fairly opaque and cannot be fully ascertained. As we said, it grew organically out of a combination of variables, over a long period of time, and involved universal taboos as well as a particular Israelite take on the concept (i.e. devoid of demons). Impurity accompanying childbirth is likewise a tradition the Torah shares with surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures. It was a social fixture, with variations across different societies:
"In ancient Persia, parturients and  menstruants were routinely quarantined... In ancient Greece, the Cyrene cathartic law decreed that for three days the new mother pollutes all who enter under her roof... [Among the Hittites,] the woman is kept in isolation for the last two months of her pregnancy. On the seventh day after the birth a sacrifice is offered... The Hittite rite speaks of the purification of the child [in addition to] the mother, and it is not limited to the postparturition period, as in Israel, but embraces the preparturition period as well." (Milgrom, Anchor, Leviticus Vol I, pp. 763-4)
And indeed the same is true of the disparity of impurity based on gender:
"Comparative material also duplicates the disparity in the purificatory periods following the birth of a boy and that of a girl, with the period following a girl's birth nearly always being longer. Thus in India a new mother is barred from the religious rites for thirty days if the child is male and forty days, if female... The Hittites who lived within Israel's cultural continuum exhibit an even more striking parallel: 'If a male child is born...when the third month arrives...they cleanse...and if a female child is born...when the fourth month arrives they cleanse'." (Ibid., p. 750)
Milgrom says that the reason for the gender distinction is unknown, but he offers the conjectures of others, which include:
  • The postnatal discharge for a female lasts longer (which is certainly factually wrong).
  • It reflects the relative status of the sexes in the Torah, wherein the redemption price of a woman is half that of a man.
  • According to a legend (in Jubilees), Adam was brought to Eden on the 41st day, Eve on the 81st day.
  • The Talmud cites a view that a male embryo is formed in 41 days, the female in 81 days.
  • Aristotle says that the male is formed in 40 days, the female in 3 months. (The last two positions are, needless to say, in error.)
The origin of the Torah's distinction is unquestionably murky. It could be that, as we quoted above, it comes down to social mores at the time. But I suspect that what troubles people (myself included) about the disparity is the potential conclusion that the Torah is saying that there is something "more impure" (doubly so, in fact) about a girl.

Milgrom rebuffs this notion by quoting the Talmud:
"For [the Sadducees] say, 'The bones of a donkey are pure, but the bones of Yohanan the High Priest are impure.' ... As is our love for them, so is their impurity." (Yadayim 4:6)
In other words, the ability to become impure indicates, if anything, something of greater value, not lesser. And I would add to that: It reflects greater kedusha, greater life.

Let's plug this into the idea of tum'a as a minus charge, a lack. The following is the speculation I offered in my book:
"In childbirth, not only does the mother lose nefesh (life-force) through the loss of her own blood, but she also loses the nefesh associated with her baby. During pregnancy, the nefesh of the baby is subsumed within the nefesh of the mother. At birth, when the baby separates, this is experienced by the mother as a loss, a sudden reduction of her total nefesh. Therefore, when the Torah says that the birth of a girl imparts twice the tuma as that of a boy, this implies not that a girl is more “tamei.” Just the opposite—it implies that a girl possesses twice the nefesh, double the life-energy. Thus, her leaving the mother constitutes double the loss of nefesh and requires twice the amount of time to be healed, replenished." (Ohr HaShachar, pp. 94-5)
In this formulation, the birth of a girl occasioning a longer period of tum'a implies that the mother incurred a greater loss, due to the extra life-energy of a female. Thus even the translation "impurity" does not fit. The mother is not "impure" - she is in a minus state. And being in a minus state means she is liable to draw from others, so the rules of separation apply.

Tum'a therefore can be defined as a "depletive force" with regards to life-energy, as it pertains to the personal (nefesh) as well as the sacred (kedusha). Tamei means "depleted," possessing a lack or minus.

Final notes


I'll conclude with two points:

1. The above definition of tum'a begs more precise definitions of other key related concepts, including kedusha, tahara, chol, cheit, and kapara. In my book, I lay out all these concepts and their interrelations. I hope to present them in future posts, but for now I'll give a quick run-through:
  • Kedusha, as Milgrom suggests, is the force for life. I would add that it implies "high intensity" life-force achieved via restriction and separation, i.e. abundant life-energy compressed within a confined space (or time).
  • Tahara is the neutral, conductive state (ready to conduct kedusha). If tum'a is a minus, tahara is zero charge.
  • Chol is that which is unrestricted, normal, unintense. As a verb, le-chalel, however, the connotation is negative (literally and figuratively), as it implies an act that induces chol, i.e. depletes (imparts a minus) to kedusha.
  • Cheit conveys a plus charge, excess, which as "transgression" implies taking something that does not belong to you. Therefore it must be purged, e.g. via a chatat offering. The cognate le-chate, however is positive (literally and figuratively), a procedure wherein "excess" is added to that which is tamei (minus charged) in order to restore tahara (neutrality, conductivity).
  • Kapara is the process of neutralization, "cancelling out" a destructive charge, whether plus (cheit) or minus (tum'a). Hence the concept of kofer implying "negation."
2. I recognize that these definitions are obscure and technical relative to their common English characterizations: "purity," "sin," atonement," and so on. One might even say that it rings of a "mystical" worldview. In fact, when writing my book, I often found the most citational support in mystical works such as those by R. Tzadok Hakohen. This requires a post unto itself, but I share sympathies with both the rational and mystical formulations of Judaism.

The rational is relatively "clean" conceptually. It makes fewer claims and assertions about reality and therefore yields a less dogmatic, more intellectually honest religious space. But the mystical has an appeal even to the scientific-minded person, since it speaks in terms of the dynamics of "things" in existence rather than symbolic representations alone. The idea that a light switch "turns on a light" has more allure than saying that the switch merely "symbolizes" light, which in turn "symbolizes" vitality, etc. However, if the "turning on" function turns out to be a dubious claim, I'll take symbolism.

The other advantage of the mystical worldview is that it may in fact comport to a greater degree with the ancient biblical mindset. The world of the Torah was indeed permeated with notions of supernatural entities. It was replete with feelings and intuitions, much more so than the abstract conceptual space of the Greeks and the sages of the Talmud. And even though terms like "plus charge" and "minus charge" sound technical, indeed anachronistically so, it could be that states of "lack," "excess," "intensity" and "neutrality" are very much the kinds of sensations which the Torah's original audience felt on a daily basis. It could be that the notion of "purging excess" or "replenishing a lack" would be all too familiar for ancient Israel. So even if a person (like myself) does not adopt the claims of mysticism, some of its ideas may serve as an aid to the student who wishes to enter into the biblical head space and understand the world from a more ancient perspective - that, as well as learning more about the historical context of the Torah, a fantastic aid to understanding. Yes, mysticism and biblical scholarship - strange bedfellows, to be sure. But also strangely compatible!


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hooves and Cud: Criteria or Preexisting Taboo? - Torah portion Shemini

It's so gratifying to find an author who speaks your language, who addresses the topics you want addressed and poses the questions you want asked. That's been my experience reading Jacob Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus. And his section on pure/impure animals is no exception.

Non-kosher animals and food taboos


A line of thought occurred to me about the "kosher signs" - e.g. split hooves and rumination for quadrupeds - that maybe these signs were chosen after the fact. Perhaps there was a long-standing tradition about what animals the early Israelites would eat, and which ones they found detestable, i.e. had a taboo against. (Sheep, goat and bovine domestication, after all, go back roughly 10,000 years, and pig domestication nearly 13,000 years.) And only later did the Priestly school devise a rule to fit the existing taboo, in effect painting a target around a set of previously shot arrows.

My sense is that our drive to offer "explanations" often puts us at odds with factual truth. Meaning, we tend to ascribe an abundance of systematic thought and premeditation to things that in real life came about in a much more organic, happenstance fashion. Say that "X" is a given in our world. How did we actually wind up with X? Well, A led to B, and then C came along, and after a while we had a little of X, Y and Z, and eventually Y and Z fell away and X remained. That's how it really took place. But when we look in the historical rear-view mirror, there's a cognitive bias that takes over. Now that X is a hallowed tradition, we want to think of it as having entered our culture for a specific "reason," as being ideologically motivated, or even divinely prescribed. So we interpret history, and circulate explanations for X, in a way that matches our expectations, that lives up to the "honor" of X.

The Torah offers numerous etiological passages about how existing realities came to be. Where did the world come from? Where did pain in childbirth come from? Where did the enmity between Israel and Edom come from? These are etiological narratives. But the kosher signs could perhaps be understood as an etiological rule, answering the question: Where does the delineation of kosher/non-kosher animals come from?

I also want to stress how potent "food taboos" are, in our minds and culture. To give an example, for most modern Westerners, if they went to a restaurant and discovered that the item on their plate was in fact horse ribs, or poodle cutlets, they would predictably recoil, or wretch, and probably call their attorney. Unless they were all but starving, there's no way they would willingly eat it - the very idea would be utterly revolting. But in truth, is there anything "inherent" about horse meat or dog meat that makes it revolting? Is it unhealthy? Does it taste bad? It may be both of those things, but it may be neither of them. In any case, that's not the "reason" people find such meat detestable. It's a cultural taboo, plain and simple. Other cultures don't have that taboo and have absolutely no problem eating it.

Point being, food taboos are hugely powerful, even among rational, scientific-minded, modern folks, despite the fact that the "reasons" for certain meats being acceptable and others detestable are wholly subjective, and even hard to describe, the sources of these delineations existing in a murky and distant past. Why would we expect it to be any different for Israel and its food taboos? Only whereas we take our food taboos for granted and otherwise gloss over the topic, the Torah preferred to cast the taboo as a divine command, and to lay out a set of identifying criteria that fits the animals eaten, e.g. split hooves and rumination.

That's the intuition I began with. And lo and behold, Milgrom brings up this very issue!

Milgrom's question - hygienist vs. anthropologist


Speaking about the kosher signs, Milgrom asks:
"[W]hich came first, the criteria or their application? Were the animals first tabooed and criteria were later devised to justify the taboos or, the reverse, criteria were drawn up first which then were used in classifying the animals?" (Milgrom, Yale Anchor Bible, Leviticus Vol. I, p. 727)
In Milgrom's assessment, these choices track two well-known approaches to the issue: hygienic and anthropological.

The hygienic approach (cited traditionally by Rambam, Ramban, Rashbam, and more recently by the archaeologist William Albright in 1968) asserts that the animals proscribed by the Torah were known to be disease carriers. As Milgrom says, "the pig is a bearer of trichinosis, the hare of tularemia; carrion-eating birds harbor disease, and fish without fins and scales attract disease because they are mud burrowers." But Milgrom also cites objections to this theory, such as the camel being "a succulent delicacy for the Arabs to this day, and there is no evidence that they suffer gastronomically." Also, "[I]f hygiene were the sole reason for the diet laws... Why were poisonous plants not prohibited?" (Ibid, p. 719)

The anthropological approach's most well-known exponent is Mary Douglas (1966). Upon observing complex dietary regulations among various tribes and cultures, Douglas concluded that humans have a fundamental need to mentally organize the world around them into categories of beneficial vs. harmful, pure vs. impure. One aspect of Douglas' approach is her theory of "dirt," which she defines not in the hygienic sense but rather as "matter out of place." So for instance, land-going creatures are pure ("in place") when they walk on four legs, upon hooves. But they are impure ("out of place") when they crawl or walk on their paws. (To be honest, I don't understand why that would be, but I haven't read Douglas' material, so I'll assume she explains it better.) And more generally, "pure" and "impure" designations of animals also represent values ("good" and "bad") held by the society. Milgrom rebuffs Douglas's theory of dirt, since it doesn't account properly for things like cloven hooves (as opposed to solid), but he accepts the values-orientation as a viable explanation for kosher signs.

To sum up: The hygienic approach starts with observation. First, one observes aspects of the natural world, and afterward, kosher signs are constructed as an aid to help people identify which creatures to ingest and which to stay away from. The anthropological approach starts with conceptualization. Kosher signs are based on what the society values, what it considers to be "in place" or "out of place." Only then are animals observed to see whether they fall into the "pure" category or not.

Camel, hare, hyrax and pig - Milgrom's key


Milgrom offers a solution based on the four "anomalous quadrupeds," the land animals the Torah mentions with only one kosher sign and not the other, namely: the camel, hare, hyrax and pig. According to Milgrom, if these are merely examples of one-signed creatures, and ancient Israel knew of other such animals, then the hygienist is correct. If this is a complete list however, the anthropologist is correct. He notes that the list is incomplete. With the llama and hippopotamus there are six one-signed animals, not four. However, the llama was South American, unknown to ancient Israel, and despite the hippopotamus being known to Israel, its cloven hooves were too subtle to detect. Therefore insofar as Israel was concerned, the list was complete. So Milgrom says:
"The verdict is clear and decisive: the criteria came first and only afterward four anomalies were found." (Ibid, p. 728)
In other words, the anthropological approach is correct.

Frankly, I'm baffled by this. First off, why does a "complete list" rule out the hygienic hypothesis? (If anyone can explain this to me, I'd be most grateful!) Second, why can't we say that the taboo came first, followed by signs (as an aid to circumscribe the taboo), followed then by the identification of anomalies? Milgrom makes a good point that the hyrax lived in outlying areas and was not a candidate for Israel's diet. Meaning it's not that the hyrax wasn't eaten because it was known to be "diseased." Rather, it was seen in the wilderness and assessed based on kosher criteria, appearing to be ruminant but lacking cloven hooves. That explains why the hyrax made the list of anomalies. It doesn't imply however that sheep and goats are allowed only because they were observed to possess the right signs. These animals had been raised as livestock going back to the end of the Ice Age!

Milgrom himself acknowledges that even before the kosher signs were devised, the pig had long since been a detested animal - not only among Israel, but widely throughout the Ancient Near East. Indeed, the pig was used by surrounding cultures in chthonic cultic rites specifically involving the deities of the underworld, a practice which penetrated Israel to a degree and added further ideological fuel to the taboo. Herotodus describes the Egyptian priesthood as abstaining from pork. Perhaps pork consumption was considered unfitting for Israel, as an aspiring "kingdom of priests." A notable exception of pork-consumers was the Philistine people, Israel's arch-enemy through the early monarchy. According to Milgrom, the Torah added the criterion of rumination specifically to exclude the pig. Otherwise, cloven hooves alone would have sufficed.

In other words, Milgrom admits that at least in the case of the pig, the taboo came first. In this particular case, the taboo may have been in part a question of religious revulsion. Compare that to other non-kosher animals - lions, bears, donkeys, dogs, and so on. These were likely no less taboo, on account of their meat being seen as revolting or unclean, just that they lacked the religious/ideological connotations of the pig. The four-legged animals eaten by Israel (including occasionally-eaten wildlife such as deer) were observed as all sharing the characteristic of being cloven-hooved, and unlike the pig they also chewed their cud. That's how the criteria came to be - or so one could postulate.

So to sum up the anomalies: The camel and hare were animals eaten by other peoples but were a culinary taboo for Israel. The pig represented a religious/ideological taboo in addition to any culinary taboo, so it had to be included in the list. Or more accurately, if not for the pig, there would be no "list" of anomalies, since cud-chewing wouldn't have been a criterion. The hyrax was taboo like any other wild, non-domesticated animal which bore no resemblance to a livestock animal like sheep or cattle. It probably never occurred to ancient Israel to eat such a thing. Yet it looked like a ruminant, so it made the list.

My tentative conclusion - some truth on each side


From time immemorial (think Cain and Abel's sacrifices), certain animals such as sheep were considered "proper" to eat, and other animals not. And every culture, including Israel, had its own long-standing norms and taboos. So I'm not convinced of Milgrom's position in the "chicken-egg" (which came first) debate. To posit that the kosher signs determined which animals to eat and which not strikes me as historically implausible. It seems to me much more likely that the kosher signs came to circumscribe and reinforce existing taboos.

However, I do think the anthropological approach has merit. As Milgrom rightly points out, the term kadosh ("holy") appears frequently in proximity to dietary laws. Israel is to be holy, which in part relates to maintaining a reverence for life - not consuming blood ("life") nor animals such as predators or scavengers which themselves consume blood, limiting the number of animal species whose lives can be taken for food, limiting the conditions in which animal life can be taken, e.g. using certain slaughtering techniques, eating the meat in the Sanctuary, etc.

I should add that I don't fully subscribe to the "hygienist's" approach either. Yes, looking at the purity laws (notably involving skin ailments, bodily discharges, dead things, contamination, quarantine etc.), one would be hard-pressed to leave health concerns out of the picture entirely. However, as I mentioned earlier, food taboos can exist without having anything whatsoever to do with disease. What's more, the very concept of "disease" as relating to physical health is a modern one. For ancient peoples, the physical, moral and religious spheres were inseparably bound together, in part because they didn't understand the physiological basis of illness. (That said, they may have had a "holistic" edge on us moderns, by recognizing and accounting for the interconnectedness between physical, mental and emotional well-being.)

Further, one phrase I was surprised that Milgrom did not comment on is tamei hu lachem, "impure for you" (Lev 11:4, my emphasis added), relating to the anomalous, one-signed animals. As I mention in my book Ohr HaShachar, this phrase implies that these animals are impure "for Israel," i.e. not necessarily for others. If impurity is equated with disease, how could the Torah say that a certain meat is impure "for you"? Would only Israelites contract the disease? Clearly "impure for you" implies something else in addition to the threat of contracting disease. (And I hope to get into that in my next installment.)

So yes, the origin of food-related taboos may have had a health "component" to it. But the language the Torah uses to describe these laws is not merely technical or pragmatic; it's symbolic and values-driven. We tend to think of the Torah as the "source," with texts like the Talmud and Midrash being "commentaries." But it seems to me that what's likely here is that the Torah itself is commenting on, explaining, organizing and infusing religious meaning into a preexisting set of norms and taboos. Which one might say makes the Torah sound more prosaic. To me, it makes the Torah all the more familiar and relatable, less like an Ancient Near Eastern text and much more like the Judaism I know - taking "what is" and imbuing it with positive meaning.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Haggadah Bites: The Bread of Poverty

The Maggid portion of the Haggadah opens with a statement in Aramaic, which doesn't appear in the Talmud but dates back at least as far as the Geonic period. It appears in the Seder of Rabbi Amram (9th C. head of the Sura academy in Babylonia). Here's the text, followed by two questions and reflections.
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל
כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח
הָשַׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל
הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵּי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat.
Whoever is in need, let him come and partake in Passover.
This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel.
This year [we are] slaves; next year, free people.

What matzah are we talking about here?


When the Torah refers to matzah, it's talking about what the Israelites ate while leaving Egypt, when they didn't have time to wait around for the dough to rise, etc. But if that were the matzah under discussion, not only should the text have said that it's the bread we ate "while leaving Egypt" rather than "in the land of Egypt," but it would rightly be called the "bread of freedom" rather than the "bread of poverty."

This matzah we hold up represents something the Torah doesn't actually speak about, an unleavened bread eaten while enslaved, hence "the bread of poverty" eaten "in the land of Egypt." Why does the Haggadah refer to matzah that's different from the one everyone knows about in the Exodus story? And why suppose that our ancestors even ate matzah at all during slavery?

Ancient Egypt was famous for its fermented grain technology, perfecting the use of sourdough starter (se'or in Hebrew) and eventually isolating yeast cultures. It was an important craft and trade. There were royal bread makers. The type of bread you ate went along with your status. Leavened breads made with fine flour were a high society item, and they were used in ritual offerings to the gods.

Although the Torah likewise calls for solet (fine flour) in the mincha sacrifice, it prohibits using chametz (leaven) in sacrifices. According to Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Yale Bible, Leviticus Vol I, pp. 188-9), the reason for this prohibition is that chametz was considered a symbol of "corruption." But perhaps that stems in part from a perception about Egyptian practices being corrupt, and leaven being symbolic of Egypt. And of course the Torah also prohibits the consumption of leaven during Passover. Not only that, but it warns against seeing or finding leavening agents in our homes, lest we be "cut off" from the people. Perhaps these laws are less a reflection of the "leaving Egypt" aspect of matzah, explicit in the Torah, and have more to do with the implicit "Egyptian society" associations of chametz.

The Torah's stringency about leaven may be saying that it's simply not fitting to celebrate our liberation from Egypt while at the same time partaking of the quintessential Egyptian product. Perhaps it would be something like eating bratwurst and sauerkraut, or other iconic German foods, during a time specifically set aside to commemorate the liberation from Auschwitz - an act of dis-identifying with the Jewish people. In the same way, eating leaven on Passover might have been viewed as "cutting oneself off" from the people.

But it also explains why matzah here is called the "bread of poverty," not the "bread of freedom." This particular bread is symbolic of the underclass of Egypt - the poor and enslaved. I say "symbolic," as opposed to asserting that the Egyptian underclass only ate unleavened bread. Surely they ate chametz, simply by allowing their dough to stand for 18 minutes, and they used se'or/sourdough starter, as evidenced by the Torah telling the Israelites to remove the se'or from their homes. But matzah is physically "lowly" bread, "impoverished" in both form and taste, and hence symbolic of the slave class.

It's a beautiful transformation then that this bread ended up, by way of the exodus, representing freedom. It is freedom not only in the sense of being eaten "on the way out" of Egypt, but freedom also by not being chametz and thereby constituting a rejection of that which symbolizes Egyptian society, a civilization we recall for its systematic enslavement and brutality.


Isn't it incongruous to say "next year in the land of Israel"?


One might in fact argue that, living as we do with full access to a sovereign Jewish state after 2000 years, that it's not only incongruous, negating historical reality, but a show of extraordinary ingratitude to say the statement, "Now we are here; next year in the land of Israel."

But of course such an interpretation ignores the preceding statement, "Now we are slaves; next year, free people." Meaning, both statements are in the frame of make-believe, imagining ourselves to be slaves in Egypt. It's like the statement said later in the Haggadah: "If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt." Would we really? 3,300 years later, people around the world would be on Facebook, planning manned voyages to Mars, and watching the Kardashians, and meanwhile in Egypt there would still be a Pharaoh with us as his slaves? Obviously not. It's a statement of severity that's intended to set the mood, to put the image in our minds of our families, our children, being slaves.

The point of the Passover Seder, and recounting the narrative of the exodus from Egypt, is not to achieve maximal historical veracity and authenticity, but to ritually recall our national story, the way we choose to remember it, and that refers both to "what" we say and "how" we say it.

Think about the last of the four questions: "On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline."

Here's a place where we truly feel the gap in history. Unless we're talking TV dinners on the sofa, very few people eat reclining. If anything, eating while lying down reminds us of being infirmed, sickly. We’re so used to eating upright that it seems strange and even awkward to try to eat while reclining. Even the pillow we add to our chairs doesn't necessarily make it more comfortable or "luxurious." And to sit in a chair and lean to the left out into the air, when drinking the four cups and eating matzah, is truly bizarre. The "authentic" thing to do would be to lie down on one’s side and eat. The conceptually "meaningful" thing to do would be to eat in the most comfortable, luxurious way possible, which ironically for most people would mean sitting upright in a chair. Leaning awkwardly in one’s chair is none of those. However, its awkwardness makes it one of the potentially more memorable points of the Seder. Tradition creates its own meaning.

We could ask the same thing of our "Bread of Poverty" statement. How can one hold up an Ashkenazic perforated cracker and claim that "this is the bread" our ancient Israelite forebears ate? It's like if we were to hold up a bottle of Coca Cola, and said, "This is what our ancestors drank..." This kind of matzah surely does not resemble in the slightest the unleavened bread of the ancient world. But again, the point is not to attempt to accurately recreate the historical reality. Rather, it's to imaginatively create a story which impacts our conscious reality.

Not accurately but imaginatively. Not recreate but create. Not history but story. Not objective reality but conscious reality. And I'll add: Not memory but sacred memory. Sacred memory includes 1) the collective memory of the people, wherein kernels of historical memory are fashioned into sacred stories that are passed on and shaped throughout time, and 2) the memories we produce with our own families. The specific set of traditions we experience year after year - the songs, the foods, the mishegoss, the dynamics among various family members, the quirky traditions which our family has and which over time become inexplicably beloved - that is what makes our memories of the Seder sacred.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

What's the Real Reason for Sacrifices? - Torah Portion Tzav

Sacrificial altar, Tel Be'er Sheva, 8th C. B.C.E.
The question in the title seems like a reasonable line of inquiry. But in fact it's misleadingly simplistic. Here's why:

1. There are different categories of "reasons."

a) The theoretical/historical "reason behind" something.
b) The reason people typically cite when asked.
c) People's actual internal motivations for doing it.

Sacrifices aren't like say, lightbulbs. With the lightbub, the reason for inventing it, the reason people give for using it, and the actual motivation for turning it on, are all one and the same - being able to see in the dark without a candle. When it comes to sacrifices however, the theoretical or historical reason they exist (e.g. the belief that success requires sacrifice to the god) might have little to do with what the offerer in Temple times might give as the reason (e.g. the desire to serve God), and what the person "says" may not really express their real-life motivations (e.g. guilt, societal pressure).

So when we're talking about the "reason" for anything, we really need to clarify what category of reason we're referring to.

2. Multiple reasons may be at work simultaneously.

Even if we're talking about the theoretical "reason behind" sacrifices, who says there's necessarily just one? Sacrifices may be designed to alleviate guilt, to bring a person closer to God, to propitiate God in order to secure a blessing, and so on. These aren't mutually exclusive reasons.

3. It depends on the society.

Israelite society is not the same as Canaanite society, which is not the same as Egyptian society, etc. Each has its own set of values and beliefs, ideas about what God is (gods are) and what humanity's relationship is to them. This no doubt manifests in that particular society's concept of what offering sacrifices is about. Plus, even in a single society, you have:

1) Divisions within that society (e.g. mystical vs. rational approaches).

2) Different conceptions over time (where the reasons given in generation X aren't necessarily the same for generation Y).

4. It depends on the sacrifice.

Aside from the most general description, you can't really talk about "sacrifices" as a whole, any more than you can talk about "going out in the morning" as a whole. After all, I might get up and go to the store. I might go to work. Or I might just be going out for a little exercise and fresh air. The Israelite sacrificial system has the olah, shelamim, mincha, chatat, asham, etc., with different variations of each. So it's simplistic, even incorrect, to try to assign a single "reason" for all of that. Even if there's some conceptual overlap among them, each sacrifice clearly has its own reason, or set of reasons.

Therefore...

When we're talking about investigating the reasons for sacrifices, there are some things we need to get clear before even embarking on the conversation: We're speaking about Israelite sacrifices (which don't necessarily reflect on those of other societies), and specifically the mentality behind the Priestly tradition wherein the laws of sacrifices are primarily found (which doesn't necessarily reflect on the laity, the prophets, or other strata of society). We're probably talking about the theoretical reasons more than anything, though there may be something to say about Israelite psychology and motivations which can enter into the picture. Perhaps there are some general characteristics that can be gleaned about the Priestly concept of sacrifices (which we'll be focusing on here), but to really understand the system, we need to get into the specific types of sacrifices and their roles.

Now that I've given that preamble, I want to again utilize Jacob Milgrom as a starting point to discuss the concept of sacrifices. (See Anchor Yale Bible, Leviticus Vol. I, pp. 440-443.)

"Researchers in primitive and comparative religions," says Milgrom, "distinguish four possible purposes behind the institution of sacrifice." They are:

1. "To provide food for the god."


This is an interesting one. The language of the Torah does seem to support such a notion: "food gift" (lechem isheh), "my sacrifice, my food" (korbani lachmi), etc. There are morning and afternoon sacrifices, i.e. "meals." The fire of YHVH is described as "consuming" the sacrifice, the same verb used to convey "eating." The sanctuary has a "table" with bread inside it. And of course, the Mishkan and sacrifices were embedded in an ancient world where proper care and feeding of the gods was the norm.

"Nonetheless," Migrom concludes, "these words, objects, and mores are only fossilized vestiges from a dim past, which show no signs of life in the Bible." Meaning, the "feeding" talk is just that - talk. It's an anthropomorphic language that reflects earlier notions of sacrifices. The idea of YHVH actually having to "eat" would have been anathema to Israel.

I have a couple of questions on this interpretation. 1) Is all the food/eating language in the Torah a vestige of the past, or is it a nod to the mentality at the time among Israel's neighbors, for whom the god(s) needed to be "fed"? 2) Assuming that the Priestly school did not buy into the "feeding" concept, why did they feel the need to present sacrifices in those terms? Was it "traditional"? Or did the Israelite laity believe in the idea, and therefore it was a sort of capitulation to the masses?

2. "To assimilate the life force of the sacrificial animal."


Milgrom states that this kind of thinking reflects animistic religions (i.e. the belief that all things - even rocks, rivers, wind, etc. - are alive), but that it's not carried by the Bible.

I find this confusing. First off, there's a difference between the belief in a "life force" that is transferable from one living thing to another, and the belief that an inanimate object is alive or possesses a spirit. But putting aside the animism reference, I agree. I don't see any textual signs in the Torah that would point to the offerer absorbing the life force of the animal. However, I do think that "life force" may be a part of it, only that it works in the opposite direction. Like I conjectured in my previous post, it could be that it's the animal which absorbs (part of) the offerer's life force, and the Mishkan which ultimately assimilates it, via the blood.

The second part I find confusing is that Milgrom mentions the "substitution" theory of sacrifice as a derivative of the above rationale. I'll call it "2a."

2a. "The animal lies on the altar instead of its offerer."


Milgrom rejects this as being a motivation for Israelite sacrifice on several grounds:

1) There are primitive societies found by anthropologists where substitution plays no role in the sacrificial system... Honestly though, I don't see what that proves about Israelite sacrifices.

2) The primary source for substitution, Lev 17:11 (that the animal's nefesh is in its blood, and that this blood atones for our own nefesh), can be explained using a different interpretation (which Milgrom offers in Vol. II)... I haven't read it, so I can't comment just yet.

3) The chatat sacrifice "purges the sanctuary but not the wrongdoer"... I'm not sure about that. My own theory is that cheit (sin) is envisioned as an "excess" carried on the person, and that the chatat purges that excess, and then gives it to the Mishkan, filling the "deficit" it had previously accrued due to the tumot (impurities) of Israel. So the person is purged, and the sanctuary restored, in one sacrifice.

4) The scapegoat, which carries off Israel's sins into the wilderness, "does not even die or, for that matter, rate as a sacrifice"... That's an interesting point about not being a sacrifice. As far as dying, it's true in the Torah's own account. But in the rabbinic tradition, the goat is pushed over a cliff to its death (TB Yoma 67b). Even if we go with the Torah account that the goat doesn't die, again I'm not sure why this discounts the idea of substitution being a part of the Israelite sacrificial system - especially since Milgrom himself says that the scapegoat is not a sacrifice!

3. "To effect union with the deity."


Milgrom does not see this as being a rationale for Israelite sacrifice. The reason he gives is that the sacrifice is eaten "before YHVH," and not "with YHVH."

I'm not quite sure why he necessarily equates "union" with eating together, as opposed to the act of sacrifice itself. I can see several possibilities for "union" here:

1) Union via substitution. Milgrom refutes this, especially (like I mentioned in my previous post) in presupposing that "death brings one closer to God." But if the olah going up in smoke is seen as transforming/transporting it to the divine/spiritual domain, and if that animal is "standing in" for the human, isn't it possible at least that there is some sort of human-God union being represented here?

2) Union via purification. In the Priestly tradition, YHVH can only "dwell among" the Israelites when they are in the state of purity. So very simply, if sacrifice effects "atonement" (kapara) and "purification" (tahara), then it creates the possibility for union with YHVH.

3) Union via gift-giving. Apart from gift-giving as a form of propitiation (which we'll get into in a moment), there's gift-giving purely as a form of gaining closeness with the receiver. As Milgrom says, the words isheh, matana (Lev 23:38) and other terminology, implies gift-giving. Which actually brings up an interesting English-language distinction between the words "sacrifice" and "offering." The former implies "giving up" something of yours, the focus being on you. The latter implies "giving" to another, the focus being on the other. Just a distinction to possibly consider in terms of how to express the idea of "union."

4. "To induce the aide of the deity by means of a gift."


This is the rationale that Milgrom believes "manifests validity in all sacrificial systems," including the Israelite sacrificial system - again, in general terms, notwithstanding the particular functions of the various sacrifices. In other words, we offer gifts in exchange for divine help, which Milgrom divides into two categories:

1) "External aid, to secure fertility or victory, in other words, for blessing"
2) "Internal aid, to ward off or forgive sin and impurity, that is, for expiation"

However, the examples Milgrom gives all seem to point to "expiation" as the divine help. I can understand divine blessing being something sought after, but my impression is that this is more associated with Israel keeping up its half of the covenant, not something related to sacrifices per se.

Moreover, I think there are two ways of looking at this rationale. One can, like Milgrom, look at Israelite sacrifices in the framework of "exchange." But rather than "I give X to you so that you give Y to me," it could be that the thinking is simply to give a gift, an offering, and that through the offering any number of things might be accomplished: expiation (purging) of sin/guilt, purification and therefore closeness with YHVH, or a strengthened sense of citizenship, that one has appropriately given something of value to YHVH and thus shown their dedication and gratitude.

Milgrom offers a couple of additional rationales for sacrifice. I'll briefly mention the one he focuses on:

5. "Killing the animal evoked feelings of guilt that could only be assuaged by dedicating the victim to the deity."


I thought this was interesting. Consuming meat involves taking the life of the animal, so people wanted to dedicate the animal to their god in order to feel okay about the act of killing. Milgrom brings up the Sumerian myth of Lugalbanda, where the hero is a vegetarian but "receives divine approval in a dream to sacrifice whatever animals he can trap," and "the slaughtering itself is carried out according to divinely inspired prescriptions," and the Sumerian deities are invited to partake in the meal. In other words, sacrifice allows for the consumption of meat.
 
This is related to the rationale I hear people discuss even today when trying to justify the institution of animal sacrifice - i.e. that sacrifices at least acknowledge the killing, that eating animal flesh is a dispensation we're allowed only if we do it conscientiously. In a world of mass cruelty in industrial meat production, the idea of imbuing the process of killing animals for food with sanctity, solemnity and consciousness, is a considerable "step up." It's hard to disagree with that. Although it doesn't really account for killing an animal only to burn it whole on the altar.

The rationale I would add: Psychological health and well-being


It seems to me that on a certain level, what underlies all the God-language and sacrificial procedures is the attempt to maintain and restore psychological health, as individuals and as a society. Particularly, I'd divide this into three categories:

1. Purging guilt. It's not healthy to walk around with guilt weighing on the mind. It's much better to have some sort of procedure, a concrete action you can take to feel like you can put it behind you. That goes for sacrifices like the chatat, asham, and the olah, ones which effect kapara, atonement. The purging comes from taking something you own and giving it, an outward movement that also carries with it the psychological content which needs to be expelled. Like I said above, it's aided by hand-leaning on the animal and the sense that one's "excess" is purged by way of the animal's blood.

2. Sharing joy. Sacrifices like the shelamim and the todah are likewise "outward" in nature. But rather than purging guilt, it's taking some of one's concentrated joy and expressing it. It's not "excess" in the unhealthy sense. However, would-be joy that's bottled up and does not have an outlet for expression becomes stagnant. The "joy" really comes in the release, where it manifests as sharing with others. This is perhaps an odd analogy, but it's something like the prototypical guy in a bar who gets a piece of good news and yells, "Next round of drinks on me!" It's a psychological wholeness that comes with having the community bear witness to one's joy, and even experience it vicariously, aided by giving them something (e.g. food or drink) to likewise feel excited about. 

3. Expressing communal commitment. Beyond sharing one's joy, there's a larger psychological need to express one's commitment to the society. One part of that is gaining a sense of solidarity and identity with the society, feeling a part of the structure in which you live, as opposed to living on the fringe and feeling alienated or cynical. Another part is about reciprocity, not feeling "whole" when you benefit from a society without properly giving back to it. The Temple was once the central communal institution for all of Israel. By making the pilgrimage and "paying one's dues," it was possible to at once identify as a member of the larger society and to give back to that society.

I would also say that these three aspects of sacrifices and Temple life map incredibly well onto the subsequent (and current) model of "prayer in place of sacrifice" (tefila bimkom korban) and the synagogue (beit knesset). Prayer allows one to purge guilt feelings, or to express elation and gratitude, along with articulating uncertainty, frustration, hopes, one's desires in life, etc. And synagogue allows one to share life events with the community, to identify as part of something bigger, and of course, to "pay dues" and thereby contribute to the thing you derive benefit from.