There are two competing theologies about the basic meaning of sacrifice: one is called “Substitution Theology,” and the other is called “Communion Theology.” In Substitution Theology, the sins of the sacrificer are transferred onto the sacrificial victim through the laying of the hands. Instead of offering his own self as atonement for sin, he substitutes the animal, another life, for his own, hence the term “Substitution Theology.” This theory is Christian in its orientation, because that’s the death of Jesus functions in Christology: Jesus died on the cross as atonement to take away the sins of the world.
There is strong evidence that Substitution Theology is not driving function in the Levitical system. For one thing, it wouldn’t make sense to bring an animal laden with sin into the sanctified precincts of the Mishkan’s courtyard. In fact, there is one place in Leviticus where the sins of the people are explicitly transferred…. Azazel. (cf. Leviticus 16:21; Hertz p.483) and he is sent in the opposite direction! Also, there is a subtle, but crucial, distinction in the ritual of semicha for the Azazel: two hands, not one! (cf. Lev. 1:4; 3:2; 4:4)
What about Communion Theology? In Communion Theology, semicha signifies ownership, belonging, attachment, and identification. Remember the basic meaning of qorban: “coming close,” achieving intimacy, or communion. And this is also the root meaning of atonement, “at + one + ment,” being at one with the Creator, especially after alienation through transgression. There is evidence that atonement was achieved in the Levitical system through confession and teshuvah, much as today; the offering sealed the individual’s coming clean, but did not effect it.
So if sacrifices didn’t wipe transgression clean from the individual, but merely came at the end of the process of teshuvah, what did sacrifices wipe clean, and in particular, the so-called chatat, sin-offering, wipe clean? Answer: the residue of impurity that is deposited in the Mishkan everytime someone, anyone, sins. It wasn’t enough for the individual to be absolved; the sanctuary itself needed to be purified from the residue of transgression. For this reason, Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, and leading exponent on Leviticus, prefers to translate chatat not as sin-offering, but Purification Offering, because the sacrifice purified the sanctuary from the defilement of transgression. Transgression was like dirt; it accumulates, it builds up over time. Like vacuuming and dusting your house, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to get rid of. The Shechinah could tolerate a modicum of filth, but eventually, the Mishkan could become so polluted that God would be forced to depart, abandoning the people to Exile, an existential tragedy.
One the deepest problems in religion, perhaps the deepest problem, is the conundrum of theodicy: how can a just God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why do the wicked go unpunished? The pious answer is that the righteous will be rewarded in heaven, and the wicked will be punished in the next world. But the Priestly writers of the Levitical system offer a different answer: there may not be a correspondence between wrongdoing and punishment on the level of the individual, but there is always correspondence between wrongdoing and punishment on the level of society.
Jacob Milgrom dubs the theodicy of Leviticus as “the priestly Picture of Dorian Gray,” after the novel by Oscar Wilde. In the novel, after Dorian is granted eternal youth, he embarks upon a career of increasing evil. Oddly, his evil acts do not affect his youthful appearance, but his portrait, hidden away, becomes increasingly ugly and grotesque. In just this way, according to the Leviticus, an individual’s sins may not show up on his own countenance, but they will most certainly pollute and disfigure God’s sacred dwelling place.
Note that embedded in the priestly outlook is a notion of collective responsibility, that whenever any person transgresses, we are all culpable, and bear the consequences. In this answer to theodicy, the punishment for wrongdoing occurs directly in this world, not in the next, only it happens to all of us, not necessarily to the individual who committed it. Think about it. If a person cuts in line at the register, he might get away with it, but the guy at the end of the line is late for his appointment. If a shoplifter succeeds in stealing merchandise, she may get away with it, but we all suffer in the form of higher retail costs. If energy-producing industries go unregulated, they may get away with it, but we all suffer with the resulting pollution. So there is justice, only it’s justice at the macro level. The wider the view, the more readily apparent it is that no misdeed goes unpunished. (cf. Milgrom, Leviticus, page 33)
It’s this kind of unbiased fresh reading of Leviticus, I think, that can reveal to us enduring messages that are as relevant to us today as they were to the Biblical authors, perhaps more so. May we take inspiration and guidance from them.
Recognizing that on the level of collective responsibility, if not always on the individual level, all transgressions have ensuing punishments, there is no alternative, indeed, all deeds have consequences, for worse or for better, let us always remain aware of how our actions affect others and the world as a whole, that we do not live in isolation, but rather in a vest web of interactions that encompasses not on the world but the Shechinah, the Presence of God, as well. Let us rededicate ourselves to making a clean home where we periodically purge the impurities that inevitably build up over time, where God will desire to dwell, and where we will want to dwell as well. It’s always nice to come home to clean house, and here I don’t mean just dusting and vacuuming, I mean cleaning house in the spiritual sense as well. In fact, let that be our kavvanah is we clean house in preparation for Pesach next week.