Thursday, March 10, 2011

Blood and its uses- killing for ritual retribution or redemption

Two weeks ago Mehdi Mohammed Zeyo (49) blew himself up at the entrance of a Libyan Army base, enabling the rebels to follow and take it over[1]. This is also the time of year Jews start reading the book of Leviticus with all its sacrifices. This got me thinking about ‘blood’ in the Jewish tradition, particularly when it is shed for some purpose or cause, such as retribution or redemption. 

We Jews think of ourselves as people who solve problems with words, rather than the sword[2]. A concern I have is that one of the features of the prejudicial mindset is to have an idealized vision of ones own group along with a negative view of the other[3]. In our case, this can be expressed in the view that Arabs are all or mostly blood thirsty killers but Jews are essentially gentle, non-violent accountants. It is perfectly appropriate for Jews to celebrate our strong emphasis on the sanctity of life, and even to argue for the merits of killing in certain circumstances as long as we don’t adopt a sanitized, “koombayah” view of our tradition, which in many cases does in fact condone or even mandate the killing of both people and animals. 

A Jewish high school girl is upset after an activity at an interfaith program. They were told to look at images and write their gut reactions. A young Muslim man, helping on the day, wrote “brutal killers” about an image of Israeli Soldiers holding big guns and prayer shawls. He said, he thought anyone who killed was brutal. “But they don’t want to kill anyone, they are just protecting us[4]”.

Unpacking both sides of this exchange is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that while the intention of Israeli soldiers is protecting Israelis, they very likely want to kill when they think they must. For this student the idea that they would ideally want to have their land and safety without resorting to violence, equates to not wanting to kill. If she thinks the same way about Arab violence then her opinions reflect a generous view of people. If she doesn’t, she has a mindset that is conducive to perpetuation of conflict.

Life- an absolute value?
The sources seem to tell a more balanced story. It is not correct that Judaism values life over every other priority. Yes, the murder of Abel is condemned by God's telling Cain, the “Voice of your brothers bloods, are screaming to me from the earth”[5]. On the other hand, it must be said that “Do not kill” is not one of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word for killing is Horeg, do not kill would be Lo Taharog לא תהרוג. The actual commandment is Lo Tirtzach, לא תרצח do not murder. Killing is often condoned, eg. when killing in self defence, it states “he has no blood[6]”. 

Shedding blood to address the shedding of blood
Another example is capital punishment. God tells Noah that “one who spills the blood of a man, by man his blood shall be spilled[7]”. It seems to be a way or making things right again, at least in part.

An old man from the inhabitants of Jerusalem told me that in this valley Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard (of Nebuchadnezar) killed 2,110,000 people… He (had) noticed the blood of Zechariah bubbling up warm, and asked what it was. They said: It is the blood of the sacrifices which has been poured there. He had some blood brought, but it was different from the other. He then said to them: If you tell me [the truth], well and good, but if not, I will tear your flesh with combs of iron. They said: What can we say to you? There was a prophet among us who used to reprove us for our irreligion, and we rose up against him and killed him, and for many years his blood has not rested. He said to them: I will appease him. He brought the great Sanhedrin and the small Sanhedrin and killed them over him, but the blood did not cease. He then slaughtered young men and women, but the blood did not cease. He brought school-children and slaughtered them over it, but the blood did not cease. So he said; Zechariah, Zechariah. I have slain the best of them; do you want me to destroy them all? When he said this to him, it stopped[8].

This seems to relate to the idea of the “Redeemer of the blood[9]”. When someone is killed (or murdered), the relatives of the deceased are called the “Redeemer of blood” and it is proper for them to kill the murderer after he is convicted and sentenced[10].

Animal’s blood and its use for atonement
When a man seeks closeness to God, or atonement for sins, the process in the Torah is to bring an animal sacrifice, and the sons of Aaron will bring close the blood, and sprinkle the blood on the altar, around[11]. Judaism contains a range of views about sacrifices, here are a few.

Even today in the lead up to our day of atonement some Jews rotate a live chicken above our heads, (Many Jews use money instead) while we recite this is my atonement, this is my exchange…this chicken will go to death while I go on to good life[12].  This echoes the idea that sacrifices are an “exchange for his soul, and through this he will be saved from the decree that has been decreed about him in heaven…[13]

There are views that see the sacrifices as serving educative, spiritual or psychological purposes. One argument is that it was just to help the Jews get over sacrifice centred idol worship[14], (A bit like a ritualistic nicotine patch, to deal with animal sacrifice addiction). There is discussion of the unusual sequence of words that introduce the sacrifices. “A man, who will bring close, from amongst you, an offering to God[15]”, this suggests that the sacrifice is really about man sacrificing his inner animal. It can be a violent or aggressive nature like that of a bull, or docile but self centred character like that of a sheep, these need to be brought close to God[16].

The use of blood is explained by pointing out that “the blood is the soul/spirit[17]”, “The blood,… is the visible messenger of the soul, which is also present throughout the body and controls the body but cannot be seen. It is indeed fitting, therefore, that the blood as the visible substance representing the soul, should be used in the offerings to symbolize the elevation and devotion of the soul to G-d, and the soul’s steadfast adherence to Him[18]”.

There is a strong mystical tradition about what the offerings achieved. Perhaps linked to the phrase “my offering, my bread[19]” there is an interpretation that “the connection between the divine presence and the Israelite nation was (maintained) through the means of the offerings…just as the thinking soul will be found with the body through food[20]”.

Further clues can be found in other practices that are equated to sacrifices, from prayer[21], repentance[22], humility, and even suffering “afflictions are precious, just as sacrifices reconcile (a person with God), so do afflictions, not only that but in fact afflictions are most precious because sacrifices are with money while afflictions are in the body[23].  All of these suggest a deeply moral purpose to the sacrifices[24].

I have more work to do to figure all this out. However, what is clear to me is that there is more to it than it seems. I think this is true of so many things. I object strongly to the racist idea that Arabs simply love death, while Jews simply love life. The fact that an utter creep of a man, a savage murderer who happens to be an Arab and considers himself a Muslim told an interviewer after 9/11: "We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us[25] does not make it true for anyone except him and his fellow evil savages. 
In spite of the need to kill animals and even people in particular circumstances, the sanctity of life is a very important principle in Judaism, but it is not an absolute. The notion that life is sacred, is a view that is embraced by people of many faiths and none. Every bereaved mother has a massive hole in her heart, even while many nations honour those who killed and died to protect them. As king Solomon said, Everything has an appointed season… A time to kill and a time to heal....A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace[26].

(Artwork, a team effort between Nachman and his dad :)

[2] Midrash on Genesis 27:22 on the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are those of Esau, that the way of Jacob and his descendent is to use their voices in prayer, as opposed to Esau who is seen as the one who resorts to the sword. 
[3] In data gathered by Together For Humanity Foundation, we found that students would expressed far more positive views about others as well as slightly more negative views about their own group after they interacted with the “out” group. For example one group of Muslims students who spent 4 days with Jewish students, had the following shifts in attitude. Before the interaction, 68% of responses associated Jews with “Friendly” and “kind and caring”, afterward it was 80%.  In relation to their own group, Muslims. before the interaction,  100% of responses associated Muslims with the “Friendly” and “kind and caring”, afterwards it was 92% and 76% respectively.  
[4] Heard by the Author.
[5] Genesis, 4:10
[6] Exodus 22:1
[7] Genesis 9:6
[8] Talmud Gittin 57b, translation from, the story has another twist. “Straightway Nebuzaradan felt remorse. He said to himself: If such is the penalty for slaying one soul, what will happen to me who have slain such multitudes? So he fled   , and sent a deed to his house disposing of his effects and became a convert.”
[9] Numbers 35:19
[10] Maimonide, Yad Hachazakah, Book of Nezikin, Laws of a Murderer and protecting souls. 1:2
[11] Leviticus 1:5
[12] Machzor
[13] Rema, Torat HaOla, chapter 1, cited in Torah Shlaima, volume 25, p265
[14] Maimonides, in the guide for the perplexed, this view is hotly contested and mostly rejected based on the great emphasis on sacrifices in the Torah and the fact that sacrifices were offered by Abel before idol worship was an issue (Ramban and others).
[15] Leviticus 1:2
[16] Likutei Torah, Vayikra, Adam Ki Yakriv
[17] Tanchuma 96:14
[18] Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, cited in Rabbi Aharon Tendler,
[19] Numbers 28:2
[20] Kuzari, cited in Kasher  M (1992/5752), Torah Shlaima, volume 25, p265, He argues that “just as we cannot understand the reason for the sustenance of the soul with physical food, yet we see their use, similarly we will now know the reason for the need of divine presence for these offerings, yet we find the attachment of the divine presence with us, through them”.
[21] Talmud Brachot 26a
[22] Vayikra Rabba 87:2
[23] Shocher Tov 94, Torah Shlaima, volume 25, p270
[24] less obvious, but relating to giving is the idea “that filling the throats of priests with wine is like pouring wine on the altar (Talmud Yoma 71)
[26]  Ecclesiastes – 3:1-8


  1. its all mysterious this blood thing. . I remember seeing some graffiti on a wall about 30 years ago that said 'war is menstruation envy', it struck me, and I have never forgotten it. Disturbed kids who cut themselves speak of the relieving of emotional pain when they see the blood - is there something about needing to 'see' blood in a ritualised way, that satisfies an ancient urge? Does ritual give this urge expression, and attempt to protect this animal, which is man, from becoming blood thirsty?

  2. Interesting take, Donna. Blood is seen as life. Doesn't get more primal than that. Reasons for the prohibition against eating blood, include the idea that the character of the animal would be absorbed into the human through the blood.

  3. From a young Australian on my facebook page.
    "Yes I feel the same. I think you summed it up perfectly with "A concern I have is that one of the features of the prejudicial mindset is to have an idealized vision of ones own group along with a negative view of the other".