The value of a bloody Torah

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
September 9, 2013
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If you surveyed adult Jews about the Biblical stories they remember from their Jewish education, it’s unlikely that the ritual recounted during the Avodah service would make that list. And yet, it’s most likely to be the portion they’ve heard read in synagogue more than any other (as Yom Kippur is a probable day for at least semi-regular attendance for most Jews who go to synagogue at all). What, then, might explain this disparity?

Most rabbis don’t choose to highlight the Avodah service. It frightens and confuses us. We worry that it sounds barbaric to modern ears and we don’t want them to turn away, confirming their suspicions that Judaism and Jewish ritual are irrelevant to everyday life in the 21st Century.

The Avodah service recounts the sacrificial ritual in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, based on Leviticus 16 and detailed in both the Mishnah and Talmud. It involves animal sacrifice, confession of sin and uttering God’s (otherwise unspoken) name aloud. The congregation bows down completely, prostrating themselves on the floor in humility, awe, and surrender, as if to beg for Divine forgiveness. According to the liturgy of the Avodah service, people believe that the ritual is real and would work.

Then, lots were drawn and one goat was sent free into the wilderness (the scapegoat) and another slaughtered as an offering to God to expiate the people from their sins.

It may seem obvious why these rituals are rarely taught in Religious Education. How could these details be relevant to modern Jewish life in the 21st Century diaspora? Isn’t it better to focus instead on the stories of Genesis: of families, siblings, journeys? Or to teach kids instead about the Exodus from Egypt, our obligation to help others, and revelations of God on Mount Sinai and the Burning Bush? Yes… and. Those stories in Genesis and Exodus will carry a child through much of the turbulence of a relatively normal childhood. But the stuff of adulthood: the losses, the unfairness of fate, the messiness of existence in the real world mirror much more so the book of Leviticus (of which the Avodah service is a part). Leviticus reveals the bloody, messy, chaotic parts of our Torah. And life is bloody. Life is messy. Life is chaotic and scary. Life feels as unpredictable as a seemingly random choice between one goat (sent alive into the wilderness) and the other goat (slaughtered as reparation for communal sins) that we read about on Yom Kippur.

We as rabbis and Jewish educators need to lean into our resistance to these texts, our fears about their irrelevance, and our anxiety that people will hear about them and turn away from Jewish life and living. We no longer have High Priests to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur; we no longer offer animal sacrifices; we do not choose one goat to set free into the wilderness and choose to slaughter the other in a seemingly random fashion. But the lives of the people we serve are as confusing and complicated as those of our ancient ancestors. And there is one thing that our ancestors had in abundance that we are sorely lacking: faith. They believed in the power of the ritual to work. They believed that the formula could change their lives, that they were, after all, freed from the weight of a burden at the end of Yom Kippur.

A little faith in magic, in ritual, in God, in Torah would work wonders for us, too. Yom Kippur and the Avodah service don’t take away the fear, the loss, the anger, or the realities of our lives. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to have hope, to believe in the power of change, or to submit ourselves to something greater.

This year on Yom Kippur, I will be praying to bring back a little of the faith in the power of ritual for us, in our time. And I will be praying that my colleagues: Rabbis and Educators everywhere, will learn to trust our tradition enough to teach it to the next generation.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

1 Comment

  1. I think the Jewish fellowship alone is worth the membership. Certainly at Aitz. In fact it is the ONLY reason I join and attend services. But what do you hope our faith in ritual will avail us.

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