This is truly a “frequently asked question,” one we hear often at Jewish Veg presentations.
While the questioner is sometimes a committed meat-eater who is hoping to trip us up, the reality is, this question is a surprisingly easy one to address.
It boils down to this:
The only reason that the Torah includes provisions for animal sacrifice is because in that part of the world, when it was written, sacrifice was the only form of religious worship people knew.
There was no synagogue. No church. No prayer book. Only sacrifice, to idols.
The Torah represented a huge leap forward, replacing idolatry with monotheism and limiting sacrifices to one central sanctuary.
To ban both idolatry and sacrifices all at once would have been too much for the Israelites to accept, some of Judaism’s most revered sages have stated.
The great 12th Century Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote:
“By this Divine plan it was effected that the … truly great principle of our faith, the existence and unity of God, was firmly established. This result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the (sacrificial) service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.”
Rabbi J. H. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of England from 1913 to 1946, stated that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, which were the universal expression of religious homage, his mission would have failed and Judaism would have disappeared.
The great Torah sage Rashi (1040-1105) also maintained that it was the Israelites, not God, who insisted on sacrifice.
The idea that God did not desire animal sacrifices was reinforced by several of the Prophets.
For instance, Jeremiah stated:
“For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
God, the Prophets told us, wanted good deeds, not sacrifice.
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though you offer me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy song; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-4)”
“What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)
Hosea, that’s what we want too. Mercy.