I am a bit shocked by the Bible's emphasis on animal offerings. It seems quite violent and inhumane. Is that really what Judaism teaches?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The idea of how animal offerings worked is often misunderstood. Many believe that sacrifice was the only way to achieve atonement. Actually, atonement always was accompanied by sincere prayer, teshuva (spiritual return), and charity. Hoshea (8:13) decries people bringing offerings without making an attempt to get closer to God. For this reason, their offerings were rejected.
Animal offerings aided the atonement process, as they drove home the point that really the person deserved to be slaughtered, but an animal was being used in his/her place. The offering also helped atonement in many mystical ways. But we should not mistake the animal offering for more than what it is. It was an aid to atonement; it did not cause atonement.
Logically, how can one think that the death of an animal could atone for their sins? If a person were to commit an atrocity, such as murder, could one possibly think that slaughtering a cow and a sheep would atone for that sin? Of course not. God is not appeased by gifts and animal slaughter. God, the true judge, provides atonement for those who sincerely desire to fix their ways. An offering must be accompanied with the will to get closer to God (prayer), a promise to observe the words of the Torah more carefully (teshuva), and concern for God's creation (charity).
The verse says: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit" (Psalms 51:19). This teaches us that a person who does teshuva is regarded as if he had ascended to Jerusalem, built the Temple, erected the Altar, and offered all the offerings upon it. (Midrash - Vayikra Rabba 7:2)
When a person transgresses a mitzvah in the Torah, he destroys some of his inner holiness. He cuts himself off from the Godliness that lies at the essence of his soul. When a person does teshuva -- "spiritual return" -- he renews and rebuilds the inner world that he has destroyed. On one level, he is rebuilding his personal "Temple" so that God's presence (so to speak) will return there to dwell.
Today, without the Temple service, one of the most powerful ways to teshuva is through the inspiration of prayer. In fact, the Talmud (Brachot 26b) says that's why the main "Amidah" prayer is recited at the exact same time that the daily offerings were sacrificed!
The text of the "Amidah" was formulated by prophets who knew how to awaken deep yearnings within the Jewish soul. Through prayer, we are to achieve a spiritual desire for a full and total connection to God.
The following is from the Jewish prayer book:
"Master of the Universe, You commanded us to bring the Daily Offering at its appointed time; and have the Kohanim perform their service, and the Levites sing and play music at the platform, and the Israelites attend at their stations. And now, because of our sins, the Holy Temple is destroyed and the Daily Offering discontinued. We have neither a Kohen at his service, nor a Levite on his platform, nor an Israelite at his station. However, you have said, 'Let the offerings of our lips replace bulls.' Therefore, let it be Your will, our God and the God of our ancestors, that the prayer of our lips be considered and accepted and regarded favorably before You as if we had offered the Daily Offering at its appointed time, and stood in attendance at its service."
Also, we have an oral tradition from the time of Moses (when the sacrifices started) that God considers the study of offerings as if the offering was actually brought. This is evident from Leviticus 7:37 in which it states, "This is the law of the elevation-offerings..." (Talmud - Menachot 110a)
(additional sources: "Noda Beyehuda" I, O.C. 35; "Chatam Sofer" Y.D. 236 & 318; "Kovetz Teshuvot Chatam Sofer" 59)