Rabbi Wolpe defends animal sacrifice

July 31, 2011 • 4:47 am

Here’s a rabbi who should have held his tongue. It’s David Wolpe, whom we’ve encountered several times before. Over at HuffPo he writes “In defense of animal sacrifice.” (HuffPo notes at the bottom: “The title of this piece has been updated from ‘Why Animal Sacrifice is Good’ to ‘In Defense of Animal Sacrifice’ to more accurately reflect the views of the author.”)

Why would a liberal and sophisticated rabbi defend the wanton killing of beasts to propitiate a God in whom that rabbi barely believes? (Note: Wolpe is also a vegetarian.)

Wolpe first notes that many sacrifices are also used for food, adding, “what then is the difference between a sacrifice at the Temple and what happens in a modern slaughterhouse?”  Perhaps, except that many sacrifices aren’t eaten, and those that are are often practiced with horrible barbarity.  I myself have witnessed painful and dreadful sacrifices of goats and sheep in Nepal, and the animal is not only terrified, but takes a long time to die.

Nepal is in fact notorious for this kind of stuff; Wikipedia notes that “possibly the largest animal sacrifice in the world occurs during Gadhimai festival in Nepal. In the 3 day long sacrifice in 2009 it was speculated that more than 250,000 animals were killed while 5 million devotees attended the festival.” (If you’re not squeamish, there’s a video here.) It adds that the Hindu methods of sacrificing animals include piercing their hearts with a spike, or strangling them.

Granted, most modern abattoirs aren’t paragons of kindness (and I do struggle to justify my own carnivory), but at least the animals are eaten, and attempts have been made, by people like Temple Grandin, to minimize the pain and trauma of the slaughter.  But Wolpe’s own vegetarianism makes his endorsement of animal sacrifice doubly distasteful.

Wolpe’s other reasons?

1.  To raise our consciousness by sacrificing something:

A sacrifice of negligible worth is no certain sign of devotion. Love is demanding; the lover must offer something valuable. In ancient Israel, offering the products of labor — crops, animals — showed deep connection. Love for God was demonstrated by the readiness to give one’s most valuable possessions.

2.  To give us a sense of awe when we kill something.

By the time we get the cellophane wrapped package, flesh, sinew, blood and bones are sanitized and ready to go. It is as routinized as an oil change.. . . Not so in the ancient Temple. The full import of taking life was borne in upon the supplicant. The life was claimed with holiness, accompanied by prayers before God. The spectacle was not about product but about piety. When Jews sacrificed in the Temple, they reminded themselves of the Source of all life.

We do not honor life by taking it wantonly, particularly to please a being who does not exist.

65 thoughts on “Rabbi Wolpe defends animal sacrifice

  1. “Love for God was demonstrated by the readiness to give one’s most valuable possessions.”

    They should try to sacrifice their cars, Plasma TVs and iPhones. I am sure they are more precious to modern people than animals they don’t any have connection to.

    1. I was thinking of making a similar comment. I hate to play the “cultural context” card, but one could just about almost argue that it might have been a worthwhile exercise for goat herders a couple millenia ago to kill and then not eat the occasional animal, as a means of trying not to be so tied to personal wealth and possession.

      Of course that’s absurd today, at least in the developed world. If we think there is value in that sort of thing — and FWIW I think a reasonable case could be made — then yeah, it should be people taking their most prized possessions, ones they already have and actually want to keep, and giving them to charity. Not buying an animal for the sole sake of killing and discarding it, that’s just loony.

      1. Makes sense – Or So It Seems!

        Remember, sacrifices are worth more when they don’t hurt the sacrificer.
        Which was the greatest sacrifice of all time? Jesus spending a weekend in hell, hanging with the purgatory folks, or otherwise taking a long nap in a cave.

  2. As to the second point, I think there is a lot of value for us carnivores in participating in all aspects of the process at least once. One ought to be mindful of where this is coming from, and I agree with the rabbi that closing one’s eyes to it, only ever seeing the finished cleaned product, is not a great thing.

    But that has diddly-squat to do with animal sacrifice.

    1. Will this lead to greater sensitivity towards other living creatures or will psychological barriers push us further away, to think the animals are not worthy of even minimal concern?

      As another example, look at how the views people hold towards other human life can shift when they’re given a gun and told to kill other humans. This doesn’t lead to greater empathy, it leads (at least in the short-term) to a self-protective deadening, and to demonizing the enemy. If this didn’t happen, wars would never happen.

      And looking at the Stanford Prison Experiment, this shift in perspective can happen very quickly and can happen even if the sorting was random.

      No, I don’t think forcing people to kill will help. Letting us see how our food animals are raised and killed could be very beneficial but to actively participate could backfire easily.

      1. In addition, it would be meaningless to demonstrate how we don’t, actually, in the real world, slaughter animals. There are still small, leisurely butcher shops, but on mode, the stuff we eat is massproduced.

  3. Religion (including the horrid depiction of a crucified man) seems to appeal to sadists. Instead of a sexual kick they seem to get a mystical kick (or am I wrong?).

    1. Wolpe’s points in favor of animal sacrifice – that devotion requires loss of something valuable, and that it gives a sense of awe delivering the full import of the sacrifice – would seem to be even stronger for human sacrifice. So the Aztec argument has been made – Wolpe’s conclusions are just sqeaumishly weak.

  4. A reality of dairying is that extra males are used for meat. In cattle, goats, and sheep, one male serves many females, so breeding males that are kept are a small number, and represent the best qualities you’re breeding for.

    I have refused to sell kids to local Muslims because halal slaughter is horrible; the kids are not stunned first, but their throats are slit while they are completely conscious.

    Kosher slaughter is the same.

    Humans are omnivores. But slaughter can be done in such a way that there is minimal trauma. I agree with Temple Grandin’s approach. L

    1. Civilized countries should outlaw halal/kosher slaughter, just as most outlaw bloodsports. That even the big humane orgs shy away from campaigning for such legislation says a lot about the special privilege of religion.

  5. ” … and attempts have been made, by people like Temple Grandin, to minimize the pain and trauma of the slaughter.”

    In Australia it is mandatory in abattoirs to have the animals stunned in a special constraint box to minimize trauma.

    Anything less is barbaric and religious ritual slaughter is abominable.

  6. Is this guy serious? Has he been fasting a bit too assiduously? This is just nuts, I think his friends and relatives should keep a close eye on him, he may be about to crack.

  7. A sacrifice of negligible worth is no certain sign of devotion. Love is demanding; the lover must offer something valuable.


    In order to demonstrate love, one must kill an innocent third party?

    How utterly abhorrent.

    The people I love don’t insist I wantonly destroy anything for their sake. Any sacrifices I make for them are entirely constructive, not destructive.

    Once, again, religion poisons everything.


    1. Another example of the extreme self-centredness of religion. The suffering and death of animals is a-okay if it teaches us love or something. The suffering and death of humans in Africa is also the act of a loving god because it give us the chance to rise up and show our love. No doubt the slow, painful, needless death of loved ones is also meant as a lesson for us.

      Any cruelty is justified provided that we have even the capability for some minor personal growth.

  8. I’m sick and tired of that first excuse. It is one of the great crimes of religion shown in bloody starkness.

    Rather than offer up crops and beasts to the community, say by giving 50% of your crops to the group and keeping 50% for profit, the excess is burned in an extravagant display of wealth. The sacrifice was no more than an absurd precursor the Hummer. “Don’t use the excess wealth of society to improve the society, use it to show off just how much better you are than the poor shmucks without.”

    Animal sacrifice was never anything but a tribe’s wealthiest members destroying vital resources in a sickening game of Beat the Joneses, a game still played today at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives a year. Sickening.

    1. Think by contrast of the potlatch ceremony, which would actually have some use: those who have much give to those who have little. By contrast, sacrifice of the form described by Wolpe is incredibly wasteful, not to mention, violent process.

  9. “Distasteful” is right on the money. A feeble attempt to ascribe a deeper meaning to the ritual of Stone Age people, who were afraid of thunder, lightning, flood, drought and the invisible gods that inflicted all those things on them.

  10. First off, isn’t the idea behind sacrifice that the animal isn’t eaten? How is it a sacrifice if it’s eaten? To attempt to justify animal sacrifice this way suggests that the Rabbi is struggling with it.

    Secondly, “To give us a sense of awe when we kill something” just sounds like bloodlust to me. I’ll admit this is overstating things, but it conjures up images of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. They too, would have had a sense of awe at taking another’s life.

    1. There are several types of Jewish sacrifices. IIRC, some are entirely eaten by the offerers, others are shared between the offerers and the priests, some are partially eaten (by offerers and/or priests) and partially burned, and others are entirely burned. There is supposed to be some connection between its purpose and which type it is.

    2. Sacrificial meat was almost always eaten, and usually distributed free to the poor, see my comment below.

      1. I recommend Walter Burkert’s ‘Homo Necans’ – Man, the Slayer – which is all about sacrifice and the reasons for it. It is very good.

  11. I thought the priests ate the sacrifice afterwards? Except on festival days I’m guessing. There’d be an oversupply then.

    1. Depends on the religion and the type of sacrifice.

      In Islam the sacrifices at Eid al-Adha are always eaten and the meat must be shared with the poor. If it were done humanely, it would be no worst than regular slaughter in the US (and probably a bit better since those who couldn’t afford meat would get a portion).

      I do like the Greek myth saying how it was decided which bits of a sacrificed animal went to the gods and which the worshipers got. Prometheus divided the sacrifice by surrounding the bones with glistening fat and the meat by the stomach and gave the Zeus the choice. Zeus chose the fat only to realize and be furious when he found it surrounded bones; men got the meat. The gods were bound by Zeus’s initial decision for all future sacrifices.

        1. Then Zeus was a crybaby and didn’t want to share the fire with the other kids. Prometheus had to go after him and get it back.

  12. “Love is demanding; the lover must offer something valuable. ”

    The story of Isaac anyone? Ritual/religious sacrifice teaches us nothing but an ability to kill for god with little question or discomfort.

    I am also a “guilty carnivore”. I am well aware of the environmental, health, and moral issues involved with consuming plastic wrapped meat and fast food burgers. I think we can do better – for the animals, for the environment, and for us. I am glad there are people like Temple Grandin that can exist in that gray area and do some good. She has a connection to the animals, but a practical sense of the demand for animal products – rather than place herself squarely on either side of the factory farm fence she is able to utilize her unique skills to benefit us all. This reminds me of my two favorite Ted Talks:

    Weekday Veg – Graham Hill

    Why the World Needs All Kinds Of Minds – Temple Grandin:


    1. My friend (now sadly out of touch as the work takes her away for too long) Raven has adopted a similar approach for the geese and chickens she raises on what amounts to her poultry farm. She figures if she gives the birds a massively hedonistic lifestyle for the time they are alive (including a calm and painless death), it makes up for the unfortunate fact that they are killed for our benefit. Raven herself would be dead if it weren’t for meat, since she has various diseases which make eating vitamin K and others very dangerous – so no green vegetables beyond the tiniest of amounts.

  13. I struggle to understand how a vegetarian can justify such an abominable practice. Why would a “god of love” reward people for cruel treatment of his creatures?

    However, to be fair, all animal slaughter seems to me to be as unnecessary. Yes, humans are omnivores, but it we are not obligate meat-eaters and in fact it is widely acknowledged that plant-based diets are healthy and possibly healthier than most omnivorous diets. And to the slaughtered animal it makes no difference whether they are eaten afterward. It is still unnecessary cruelty.

    To say that abottoirs are paragons of kindness is putting it mildly… People seem to have a lot of faith in modern slaughterhouse practices, but I would encourage people to research the matter for themselves – it’s easy to say “slaughter can be humane” but the practice is very difference. Compliance is a huge issue, a large number of animals are not stunned properly because of production line speed and so on, and suffer immensely. Slaughterhouse workers often, quite understandably and probably naturally, become detached and commit unthinkable acts of cruelty. And even if the slaughter is carried out in accordance with “humane” laws, the life of an animal on a factory farm is just about as hideous an existance as one can imagine.

    Sorry for the tangent, not trying to be controversial, just wanted to raise these points.

    1. I do think you raise some good points. Even if one is not a vegetarian, it is a good idea to know where your meat is coming from. Perhaps if more people, there would be more of an outcry to not only ensure slaughterhouses are in compliance, but to find ways to make the lives of animals that will become food better.

      Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t California pass a law a few years ago regarding the humane treatment of food animals–not only during slaughter, but during their lives as well?

      1. Yeah, that was Prop 2 a few years ago, but its reforms were minimal. It ensures that farmed animals have the space to stand up and turn around, essentially. So it provides a fraction more space for battery hens, sows in gestation crates, and veal calves, essentially.

        However, it changed nothing fundamental about the cruel way in which animals are treated for their entire lives: kept in confinement with hundreds to thousands of other animals, with no ability to carry out natural behaviours and zero mental stimulation such that many self-mutilate or attack other animals. They are still subjected to mutilations without anaesthesia such as debeaking (where the beak is cut off causing acute and chronic pain), removal or tails and teeth for pigs, horns for bovines and toes and beaks for turkeys. I stopped consuming all animal products when I learned about the treatment of animals by the meat, dairy and egg industries. It’s just so awful and unnecessary.

  14. To clear up a few misconceptions, in Graeco-Roman sacrifice:

    1. The animal was stunned by having it spinal chord cut with an ax before the throat was slit.

    2. Except on rare occasions when the entire carcass was burned as a sign of piety (and this what Holocaust actually means, which makes the modern usage questionable since it was originally a good thing), the thigh bones of the animal was wrapped in sheets of fat and burned. The rest of the meat was cooked and distributed to the on-lookers. This usually meant a transfer of wealth in the form of free food from the rich to the poor and was the most common form of charity in the ancient world. The hide was given to the actual butchers as their fee. The skull and other bones were usually kept to decorate the sacrifice ground in front of the temple. The way certain monks in Italy used human bones to make baroque decorations in their crypts gives one some idea.


    It is also recreated int he decoration of a number of museums



    Carnegie Libraries across the country, oddly enough.



    imitating English Examples:


    1. Dr Michael Scott did a fascinating couple of programmes for BBC 4 on the evolution of ideas of luxury in Western society, starting with the Greeks and the animal sacrifices being shared among all. How it was often the only time the poor got to eat meat.

      It really resonated with me as I remember my mother talking about how meat used to be eaten only once a week but when her brother started working and bringing in money he insisted on meat every day.

      As an aside, and it might just be a personal bias, as I’ve been vegetarian nearly all my life, but peoples relation to animal flesh and the wearing of leather and furs, etc. always seemed to have an element of magical thinking. When I first became vegetarian at the age of 12 my parents would beg me to at least eat a little meat, even just once a week. As if it contained some magical essence.
      The same way people talk of being the top of the food chain.
      I remember one conversation with some Muslims, who couldn’t get their head around my vegetarianism, and their idea that to be truly virile one needed to eat meat.
      It is as if meat eating is more than just nutrition, that there is a very primal, magical sense lurking in even the most rational of humans.

        1. Ah, someone else has already recommended Homo Necans (I have just recommended it above, having come late to the party). It is a very good book.

      1. Reminds me of a book on vegetarianism that I read years ago. The author talks about how a farmer said, with a straight face, that the only way to grow big and strong was through eating meat. The whole time he was standing by a prize bull – a symbol of power and virility who is, of course, a vegetarian (herbivore).

        1. The bull had evolved over millions of generations to be a herbivore, the farmer to be a omnivore, so do you think that could be the logical error called false equivalence?

    2. Unless we admit that the roman sacrificing was in some key way not a silly magic ritual used to appease some imaginary problem and boost ones karmic standing, I think the modern usage is mostly approriate.

      Nazi apocalyptic blood-and-earth prophecies, anyone? Jewish and aryan reality-warping, collective super powers?

  15. Not on topic, but you might be interested in a conference being held in Banff by the Seventh-day Adventist church on the teaching of creation and evolution. Here is a link summarizing one of the addresses: http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2011/07/31/banff-dispatches-macroevolution-long-chronology-humility

    As you may know, a liberal university within the system is going into the third year of an all on assault from the church hierarchy over it’s teaching of science. Spectrum Magazine has covered it well and you can find the info by searching. I can provide detailed info if required.

  16. “2) To give us a sense of awe when we kill something.”

    That can’t be original. Sounds like something Hannibal Lecter would have said.

  17. I just don’t understand how taking another’s life, a life of an innocent, helpless animal, can be anything other than evil. I find no excuse for barbarity in the slaughterhouses or animal sacrifices, and I find most of this mindset of humans being superior and animals being dispensable for our use, came from religion. Despicable. (I became vegan after watching a factory farm video, and was totally in shock after seeing a video of a bull fight.) I will continue to try to stop such cruelty, because there is no god stepping in to help, and one who “needs a bigger sacrifice and more blood” is sick.

      1. Three years ago I fought the local diocese over this issue. (I lost.) Spain being so important to the church, the Catholics make a special exception for bullfighting in their teachings on kindness to animals..

        1. About ten years ago I asked Opus Dei if they supported the death penalty. They answered yes; I cannot remember the convoluted theological arguments they advanced. About five years ago I asked again the same question, and they replied that they now opposed the death penalty. So you should not give up questioning Catholics about some of their absurd attitudes– there is a glimmer of humanity.

          1. We used to think that God approved of the death penalty, and thought we had excellent reasons to come down on the “pro” side of things as opposed to not being confident in our judgements of God’s will.
            Now we realize that we were wrong, and have excellent reasons to come down on the “opposed” side of things.

            Basically, that?

  18. I just read an article by David Wolpe on Huffington Post. He is a mindless troll, not worth spending your time.

    1. The problem is he’s got a loud megaphone and lots of people respect his thinking.

      Ignoring somebody like that generally isn’t an effective way to counter the insanity that tends to result.

      While I’ll agree with you in the abstract that there are more constructive things Jerry could hypothetically be doing with his time, unless he (and the rest of us) take the time to tamp out the fires that such as Wolpe keep lighting…well, that’s like suggesting that we get rid of our firefighters and reassign them to construction jobs.

      In other words, sometimes preventing destruction has a greater net gain than effecting construction.



  19. He’s the kind of guy that would defend this, too:

    Judges 21:10-24

    So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin.” Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan.

    The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives. But there were not enough women for all of them. The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the LORD had left this gap in the tribes of Israel. So the Israelite leaders asked, “How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead? There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever. But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under God’s curse.”

    Then they thought of the annual festival of the LORD held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem. They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, “Go and hide in the vineyards. When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife! And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, ‘Please be understanding. Let them have your daughters, for we didn’t find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'” So the men of Benjamin did as they were told. They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance. Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them. So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes.

    Think of the awe those poor bastards felt when they were being killed. Think of the awe those young women felt when they were bonded into marriage-rape. Think of the awe those daughters felt when their fathers sent them out into the fields to be kidnapped and raped by their ‘husbands.’

    That’s just a whole lot of fucking ineffable-wonderment awe…

  20. Dear Mr. Wolpe:

    Stay away from my family. No kidding, you come near my family, and we’re going to have a problem.


    1. Earth to Kevin:
      Being a bully on the internet is not an admirable trait.

      I know Rabbi Wolpe. He is a colleague. He is the mildest person you’ll ever meet.

      You don’t have to like his theological musing. But you don’t have to be a bully, either. By the way, I’m sure that Rabbi Wolpe doesn’t want to come near you nor your family. He has better things to do.

      1. While the Rabbi may well be a very mild person in person, this justification of his for the ritualistic slaughter of animals is indistinguishable from those claimed by troubled children who grow up to be mass murderers.

        I’d like to think that this is more a result of his cognitive dissonance in being unable to reconcile his tradition of calling YHWH a love god with the mind-numbing horrors the Tanach is filled with, the sad fact is that it really doesn’t matter. He’s gone way beyond the acceptable bounds of modern civilized behavior with this essay of his, solidly into freaky “but he seemed like such a nice guy — I never would have suspected” territory.



      2. No kidding, if you think this is the picture of a “mild” person, then you’ve got a lot of learning to do about human nature.

        He’s “outing” himself as a psychopath.

        Ted Bundy was charming in person, too.

  21. the idea that some omnipotent being “needs” to be shown “love” by dead animals is rather disgusting and pathetically hilarious at the same time. Again, we see that these gods are fictions of human imagination, just as petty and ignorant as the humans themselves. If this god exists, why doesn’t it say “stop with the animals already”?

  22. A sacrifice of negligible worth is no certain sign of devotion. …Love for God was demonstrated by the readiness to give one’s most valuable possessions.
    And so the ultimate sacrifice would be suicide or worse murder of family members ?

    Oh I see Abraham was right.

    To give us a sense of awe when we kill something.

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