It feels like us moderns are the first ones in history to feel awkward when we read the beginning of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). This book of the Torah lays out many of the particulars of the korbanot, the animal sacrifices and other offerings that were brought in the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash. Actually, from the writings of Maimonidies and other Medieval Jewish scholars, it is clear that they too felt that this part of the Torah needed to be reconciled with their less favorable attitude toward animal sacrifice. Maimonidies’ own approach to the signifigance and meaning of korbanot in Judasim, aside from being fundamental in its own right, contains an underlying message that reinforces the importance of a basic life skill.
Maimonidies in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:32) adopts the rationalist position and explains that karbanot have to be understood within the milieu of the ancient world. Imagine if around the time that the Torah was given there had been a book that was published that served as a handbook for idolaters. The Dummies Guide to Idol Worship (you may recall a similar and contemporaneous imaginary text that was mentioned here) would have listed animal sacrifice as one of the highest ranking and most common forms of worship. Maimonidies explains that if the Torah would have arrived and completely scrapped the current religious system and then have created a new and completely original religion and also a new form of religious worship, the change would have been too extreme (and evidently would not have been as effective or would have failed). Instead, the Torah introduced its new religion and retained, as much as possible, whatever forms of religious worship that were compatible with that new religion. So whereas generally animals were sacrificed to pagan gods, the Jews came along and sacrificed them to the true God and Creator. This arrangement would uproot any trace of an idolatrous mindset that lingered in the Jewish people while strengthening its faith in the Almighty.
Although Maimonidies’ explanation raises many significant points and difficult questions, when taken at face value it reminds us of an axiom of personal growth. There’s a generally accepted idea that says it is part of human nature that deliberate but abrupt attempts to change our character, habits, or attitudes often fail or backfire. Those types of paradigm changes are generally only successful when done gradually and taken step by step. In spite of this common knowledge, we will still often make drastic changes or fall for quick fixes. The Maimonidean approach to karbanot can galvanize us to be able to avoid falling into this trap. According to his explanation, none other than the Almighty Himself demonstrated the truth of this condition of effective change. Apparently, Judaism would have ideally had no animal sacrifices. Nevertheless, to cater to this reality of our makeup the entire institution of karbanot, which makes up such a large percentage of the Torah’s legal and ritual system, did make the cut and became an integral part of Judaism. This consideration was important enough to dictate how the Torah and Judaism themselves would ultimately look. We can also be mindful of how important gradual change is and be successful in our attempts to grow.