by Mira Balberg
University of California Press, 304 pp., $95
Professor Andrew P. Cohen, the protagonist of Ruby Namdar’s recently translated novel The Ruined House, is a dapper chap with the perfect daily ritual: He exercises consistently, eats healthfully, and leads a seamless life of intellectual and material pleasure. Socially Jewish and crowned with a priestly last name, Cohen is unlettered in Hebrew and so unreligious he barely makes it to synagogue on Yom Kippur. The only temple the good professor frequents is his own gleaming Manhattan apartment, where he showily prepares slabs of filet mignon for fancy dinner parties—a shadowy ancestral memory of sacrificial ritual. In time, however, strange, primitive visions shock Andrew, like a bolt out of the blue. Vexed from 20 centuries of stony sleep, the ancient Jerusalem Temple and its messy sacrificial rite threaten the clean, modern edifice that Andrew—and modern Judaism—worked so hard to build. Then again, maybe the past is not as primitive as we think.
Just a few years after the publication of her Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature, Mira Balberg has somehow managed to write another path-breaking work on another formidable and arcane section of rabbinic literature—sacrificial law. Like her first monograph, which redescribed and reclaimed the complex and seemingly irrelevant rabbinic rules of purity, Blood for Thought: The Reinvention of Sacrifice in Early Rabbinic Literature shows how an ancient Jewish Temple rite persevered—nay, flourished—for centuries after the Second Temple lay in ruins, its cultic theater shuttered. This was again thanks to the Rabbis of late antiquity, who cut away the melodrama and distilled the sacrificial act into a sparse, almost modernist ritual. In her reconstruction of the rabbinic conception of sacrifice, Balberg challenges the equation of sacrifice with heady romantic cultism and the idea that Judaism as we know it—rabbinic Judaism—is an inherently postsacrificial religion. Along the way, Blood for Thought provokes much thought about the distinction between religious and secular rituals and ancient and contemporary “high priests,” be they Second Temple Jerusalemites or 21st-century New Yorkers.
The book opens with a discussion of another modern Hebrew novel troubled by the tenacity of the Jewish sacrificial rite: “I don’t need a temple,” opines a soldier in Haim Be’er’s The Time of Trimming: “If the minister of education had appointed me as a judge of the Israel Prize, I would give the prize . . . to Titus Vespasian who with the aid of Heaven liberated us once and for all from this nightmare of a slaughterhouse.” This is a polemical version of a common view, uttered often and with conviction among polite company, and it is, to some extent, historically accurate. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in Jewish history that shifted the balance of power from the priests toward the Rabbis, so that a public, priestly religion gave way to the more interior forms of worship and study that now characterize Judaism. Guy Stroumsa has gone so far as to describe the Temple’s destruction as the singular moment “that activated the slow—overly slow—transformation of religion to which we owe, among other things, European culture.”