Korbanot as a Live Option

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rachel Katler

There is a famous disagreement between Rambam and Ramban regarding sacrifices.  While Ramban (Vayikra 1:9)  thinks that sacrifices are a valuable method of worshiping Hashem in all times and places, Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32)  sees their value as stemming from the forms of worship that Bnei Yisrael was already used to.  For him, they signify a continuity of sorts, with forms of worship that Bnei Yisrael was used to, allowing them to gradually ease into new paradigms.  They are not so much intrinsically valuable for him, as instrumentally valuable.

While certainly the question of whether or not the sacrifices are valuable in themselves is an important one (as Ramban’s strong language notes) I would like to address a slightly different distinction: that a belief may shed a different sort of light on this debate.  This is the distinction between living and dead hypotheses as suggested by William James.  According to James, a live hypothesis is one which appears to be a real possibility to an individual.  For example, both Rambam’s and Ramban’s understanding of sacrifices are probably live hypotheses to you—it seems likely that either of them could be correct (such a choice, between two live hypotheses, is a live option).  On the other hand, a dead hypothesis fails to have any such credibility.  It’s not that it’s considered and then dismissed, but rather, it fails to even make it to consideration. There is no sense in which it seems to be a genuine possibility.   Crucially, what is a live or dead hypothesis will be dependent on the person in question.  What is a live option for one person may be a dead option for another based on their time period or the place where they are living.[1]

Looking back at Rambam, he writes that telling Bnei Yisrael not to serve Hashem with sacrifices would be the same as telling someone nowadays not to serve Hashem with prayer.[2] It would just fail to make sense to them in some fundamental way.  To phrase it differently, being asked to serve Hashem with only thoughts and not with action or prayer fails to be a live hypothesis for us.  It is too great a divergence from what we’re used to for it to appear to be a genuine option at all—it is a dead hypothesis in every relevant sense.  Similarly, for Bnei Yisrael, the idea of serving Hashem without sacrifices was not a live hypothesis.  It was so beyond the bounds of experience in their time and place that they couldn’t even make it to the next step of deciding whether Hashem should be served that way or not.  It was beyond the realm of relevant possibility. In contrast to them, in our time and place, not serving Hashem with sacrifices is a live (if not ideal) option—it makes sense to us and is something that we can consider reasonable.

In light of this, it is possible to read Ramban’s disagreement with Rambam as an argument about whether or not sacrifices are a live hypothesis in all times and places, whether they are something that makes sense only against a particular cultural background or whether humans have an understanding of them that transcends particular times/places.  In citing the fact that Adam and Noah sacrificed even before the advent of avodah zarah, Ramban is showing not only that korbanot exist exclusive of their idolatrous connotations, but that they exist in a more fundamental way in the human consciousness.  They are, in a sense, always live hypotheses for people.

Rachel Katler (SBM 2010) is currently finishing her master’s degree in philosophy at Brandeis University.

[1] William James, The Will to Believe

[2] והיה נעשה זה אז, כמו אילו [שמז] בא נביא בזמנים הללו, וקורא לעבודת ה’, ואומר, הנה ה’ ציווה אתכם שלא תתפללו לו ולא תצומו ולא תשוועו לפניו בעת צרה, אלא תהיה עבודתכם מחשבה בלי מעשה כלל.


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