Korbanot:  The Polarity between the Rambam and the Ramban

What is the place of Temple offerings?

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
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Both the Rambam and the Ramban share an equal belief that the purpose or goal of Jewish life is to aspire to become as close to God as a human being can.  Both assume that the Torah provides the only avenue of fulfilling that end.  In addition, both equally maintain that the system of Korbanot (offerings), which is heavily documented in the Torah, can play a role in the success or failure of this enterprise.  Finally, both are keenly aware that the practice of offering Korbanot to God appears to be an inherent part of human nature and occurred at the very beginning of human history.

We know from the Torah that both Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel), sons of the first man, each spontaneously offered a sacrifice to God.  We also know that when Noah and his sons left the Tevah (ark) the first thing that he did was to offer animal sacrifices to God.  God was pleased with that offering, and took an oath never to destroy  the earth due to the transgressions of man.

Even the patriarchs established altars and brought offerings.  Before the children of Israel left Egypt, and were liberated from slavery, they were required to offer a special offering which was known as Pesach Mitzrayim, i.e. the Paschal Sacrifice offered in Egypt.  Finally, the book of Vayikra gives us a very lengthy and detailed description of all the sacrifices which the Jewish people were required to offer, whether as individuals or as a community.

 The polarity between the Rambam and the Ramban occurs in their varied understanding of the purpose which underlay the sacrificial system.  Despite the various examples that were outlined above, the Rambam viewed the sacrificial system in primarily a negative manner in that it could block us from a true understanding of God, while the Ramban saw it as absolutely necessary in reaching both an understanding of and closeness to God.

The View of the Rambam:

To the Rambam, God had always wanted that his relationship with man lead to a process of greater understanding and greater love. That process, however, was only rooted in the mind.  The closeness between man and God would  be an activity of intellectual love which would transcend  ritual or symbolic factors.

It would be as if a prophet would come at this time and call for the worship of God and say, “behold God commands you not to pray to him, or fast, or turn to him at a time of need, but rather that your worship should be thought without action , , , and that we should base this great true foundation in our minds and that is the existence of God and His oneness . . .(Moreh haNevuchim, 3:32, Kapach Edition)

This idea (of loving, fearing and understanding God) is reflected in the Mishneh Torah.

"This honored and awesome God, it is a commandment to love and fear him. . .  and what is the way of loving and fearing him?  When one contemplates on His marvelous deeds and creation and sees a wisdom which has no boundary and no end, he immediately loves, honors, and glorifies and develops a great desire to know the great name". (Mishneh Torah, Yesodai Hatorah, 2:1-2).

Human beings, however, are unable to immediately grasp this great truth, thus one should not be surprised that the Torah is replete with regulations, commandments and restrictions.  None of these are ends in themselves, but rather are necessary to allow the mind to achieve the higher goal of knowing God and to be rid of all of idolatrous notions.

According to the Rambam, this (that the Mitzvot are a means to an end) was demonstrated in the Torah in the process of the Exodus.

[When they left Egypt,] “God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines, even though it was more direct . . .rather, God turned the people towards the wilderness, towards the Sea of Reeds”.  . .just like God turned them from the direct path which was his first goal, nevertheless, because of the doubt that they were physically not up to the task, . . .God directed them to another path in order that the first goal could be accomplished.  In the same way, God commanded all of the Commandments which were discussed, because of the doubt that their minds could not naturally understand, the first or ultimate goal.  (Moreh haNevuchim, 3:32, Kapach Edition)

"In addition,

"If one should ask, what prevented God from taking them through the land of the Philistines and give them the ability to stand up in battle and there would be no need for this circuitous process . . .one could also ask, since God’s ultimate goal, that this Torah be our knowledge, and that we should do the actions described in it, why did he not give us the ability to always accept it and to do it without the need to give us the incentive of reward when we listen and punish us if we rebel".(ibid)

The Rambam answers these questions in his classic understanding of the relationship between God and the world. “It is certainly possible for God to do so (e.g.give us the mind to understand without reward or punishment) but He never will. He will never change the nature of human beings through performing a miracle.”(Ibid). 

If human beings could miraculously change themselves to accommodate differing circumstances, the whole structure of creation would lose its meaning.  Free will would be destroyed and there would be no need for the Torah or the Prophets or any sense of accountability or responsibility by man.  Man who was the ultimate goal of creation, precisely because of his free will would cease to be man, and thus God’s creation would become meaningless.

In the process of relating to God, the act of sacrifice was regarded as the highest and most efficacious activity.  Precisely because it was so crucial and sacred to worshipers, it was also the most dangerous for it could easily lead to idolatry.  It was so deeply embedded in human behavior, that it could not be nullified, but had to be carefully controlled. 

The Rambam states,

"The sacrificial system was the most well known practice in the world and the general act of worship upon which mankind was raised was the sacrifice of living things in those temples where they raised statues and bowed to them and offered incense before them and where a separate sect of people were dedicated to serve . . . thus, the Divine wisdom . . .did not command us to abandon all these manners of worship and to discard and nullify them because that was then impossible to accept  because it is in the nature of man that he is always most comfortable in that in which he is habituated". (IbId).

In establishing the permitted sacrificial process, the Torah was careful to eliminate any aspect which could be related to or identified with any idolatrous practice.  Thus, any type of animal which non-Jews were loathe to sacrifice, the Torah specifically required them to be used for sacrifices.  The Egyptians worshipped sheep, other groups worshipped demons and pictured them as goats, and many idolators worshipped cattle ”as do Indians today who refuse to slaughter them.”  (Moreh haNevuchim, 3:46.)  

Thus the Torah requires that these (sheep, goats and cattle) are the animals which Jews are required to use.  Finally, “when Idolators offered grain products, they were always leavened, for that is the most edible and pleasing.  The Torah thus requires that only unleavened meal offerings be placed on the altar.” Ibid.  In this manner, the Rambam goes through every detail of the sacrificial system to demonstrate how the Torah formulated what was directly opposed to the practice of idolaters. 

Use of sacrifices appear to be only a temporary solution.  The Prophets stressed that sacrifices, “are not the goal in themselves and God does not need them . . . the ultimate goal is that you shall reach Me (God) and not worship anyone but me, and that I will be your God and that you become my people.  The commandments about sacrifice and going to the Temple exist only because you should comprehend this fundamental principle.”  (Ibid 332).

The Torah maintains the sacrificial system to accommodate the human need to relate to God.  That, however, comes with the caveat that the sacrificial system is only a means to a greater goal and that system should not divert us from that greater end of relating to God.

The Position of the RAMBAN:

The Ramban challenges the Rambam’s basic assumption.  He argued that according to the Rambam the primary purpose for the sacrificial system is to nullify any impact that the idolatrous practices of the nations of the world would have upon Israel.  The Rambam, however, did not see any positive value in the practice itself.

'God forbid that there should not be in them (sacrifices) any benefit or will, but only a negation of idolatry of the fools.  It is more proper to understand the purpose that is said about them.  For the behavior of human beings are completed through thought speech and action.  God commanded that when one sins and brings an offering, he must lean his hands on it to counteract the action, and confesses with his mouth to counteract the speech, and offers the entrails and the kidneys for they are instruments of thought and desire.  The limbs are in opposition to human hands and feet which do all of man’s work.  He throws the blood as opposed to his blood in his soul, so he should think of his sins which were against God . . . and that his blood should be spilled and his body be burned, but for the grace of God who accepted from him a substitute." (Ramban on Vayikra, 1:9)

The Ramban concludes his analysis in a startling manner:

"In truth, there is in the sacrificial practice a hidden foundation.  You may enter it through what our Rabbis said in the Sifri and at the end of Tractate Menachot.  Rabbi Shimon ben Azai said, come and see what is written in the section dealing with sacrifices.  It does not state there either E-l and not Elo-hecha and not Elo-him and not Shad-ai and not Tzvaot, but only yud – hey – the Divine name, in order not to give an opening to the antagonists to argue". (Ibid)

(Rashi explains that the term “antagonists” refer to those who maintain there is more than one god in the world and each ordained another sacrifice.  (Menachot 110a.)

The main way of knowing this one God is through the fire which consumes the sacrifice.  “This subject is totally explained in the Torah when it states,’My fire (Isheh) which is bread to My fire’. . .This is the same way that God showed it (the fire) to you on the Mountain at the giving of the Torah.” (Ramban, Vayikra 1:9).  Thus, the fire of the sacrifice reproduces God’s revelation at Sinai which also occurred as fire.  This was the moment that God reached out to man.  

To the Ramban, the sacrificial system is the closest way to reach and interact with the one true God.  It emphasizes the essence of God’s unity more than any other activity and focuses our minds on God more than any other process that is available to the human being.

Thus the Rambam and Ramban reach the same goal and achieve the same ends, but arrive at that goal from opposite directions in their understanding of the sacrificial system. To the Rambam, the Torah enacted the sacrificial system to establish a barrier between belief in idolatry and the belief in the true God.  Once the barrier has been established, the mind is left free to rise and reach further and deeper in the understanding and man’s relationship to God.  The sacrifice is not a constituent part of that understanding.  It is merely a means to an end.

To the Ramban the opposite is true.  The sacrifice itself is a constituent part of that understanding.  It is the highest manner in which God is revealed to man.  In the fire of the sacrifice, where God consumes the sacrifice, as in no other existing object, can man experience the presence of God.  

We are now left to deal with one question:  When the Temple is rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah, will the sacrificial system be reconstituted?  It is obvious that according to the Ramban, it will have to be.  Without the Karbonot, there will be no point in having the Temple.

How would the Rambam answer this question?  It is interesting to note that the Rambam also stressed that the sacrificial system would have to be reestablished.  He states so clearly.

The King Messsiah is destined to arise and return the kingdom of David to its original status and reign.  He will build the Temple, gather the exiles of Israel, and reprise all the laws and statutes as they were previously, and sacrifices will be offered.  . .(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1)

This is despite the fact that according to the Talmud, the Prophet Zecharyia, who lived at the beginning of the Second Temple, prophesied that the desire for idolatry would be removed from Israel. See Sanhedrin 64a.  Nevertheless, during Second Temple, sacrifices were offered.  Why were sacrifices required then and why should they be required according to the Rambam, with the reestablishment of the Third Temple? 

This difficulty is explained by the opinion of Shmuel in the Talmud: “There is no distinction between this world and the days of the Messiah except for the subjugation of Israel to the other nations (which will no longer occur).”  (Sanhedrin, 91b).  Upon this the Rambam elaborates:

Do not think that in the days of the Messiah, any aspect of the normal course of the universe will be nullified or that there will be any novelty in God’s creation.  The world will continue in its normal course.  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 12:1)

That normal course includes human thought, behavior and nature.  As we noted above, God will never miraculously interfere in changing human nature.  Thus, mankind will always be succeptible to the seduction and corruption of idolatry.  Man will always require a barrier to protect him from the frailty of his nature. The Jewish sacrificial system, thus must always remain as that barrier.   

Thus, the Rambam who is a rationalist emphasized the capacity of the mind itself to discover what is possible about God, but it must always be freed from obstruction in order to accomplish that goal.  To the Ramban, who was also a mystic, experience and revelation play a greater role than pure thought.  It is the experience of the sacrificial system and its various components which is the key to that revelation.