Opinion: Korbanot, or why Jews should act more like Mormons

Few would describe the book of Leviticus as a page-turner. Its often-turgid descriptions of sacrifices (or korbanot) can be seen nowadays as perfectly calculated to let shul-goers catch up on their sleep. When we as a people lost korbanot, however, we lost something deeply profound — and our relationship with God demands that somehow we recover it.

Modern Judaism replaces sacrifice with prayer. Yet while prayer is necessary, it is not sufficient. Sacrifice integrated people’s lives with their faith in a consistent way, because it demanded that they contribute the fruits of their daily labors. Prayer, as vital as it is, does not and cannot do this.

What, then, would sacrifices mean today? In the contemporary age, when contributions are made with a keystroke, monetary donations cannot serve as an adequate replacement. Consider also that the root of korban in Hebrew signifies that it is something that draws us near to God. For a relatively affluent community such as American Jewry, making financial contributions neither 1) truly qualifies as a sacrifice; nor 2) brings us closer to God — the essential purpose of korban.

Rather, the most profound sacrifice that any of us can make is that of our time. Abraham Joshua Heschel recognized as much, by seeing the Sabbath as a way of turning time from a profane into a sacred entity. Making an offering of time would do the same. Giving of our time also makes clear that all of our time on Earth is quite literally the gift of God and we are repaying that gift. 

Yet we must go beyond occasional volunteerism. Sacrifice is not a hobby; it is a way of life. 

If sacrificing time, then, represents the best form of modernizing the sacrificial system, yet volunteerism is inadequate both on spiritual and practical grounds, what else is left? It is unrealistic to expect Jews to give up their daily lives to service.

Or is it? We need not expect Jews to become lifelong itinerant monks, surviving through the begging-bowl. But we can promote a new idea of korban: two years of service, perhaps upon graduation from college, serving God through serving humanity. 

If this sounds vaguely like the commitment that young Mormons give to two years of missionary work, it should. One profound difference, however, stands out: The mission for Jews on korban will be tikkun olam, not increasing membership. We come close to God by giving of ourselves, not by building institutions.

In an ideal world, of course, Jews on korban would live in some sort of communal arrangement, by which they could rely on a supportive community as well as an intense Jewish experience. This model is beautifully exemplified by AVODAH, the national Jewish service corps (avodah.net). But AVODAH is a small organization, with houses only in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and New Orleans. (It is indeed embarrassing that Los Angeles does not support its own AVODAH house.)

So while AVODAH’s model is the gold standard, korban could be done in other ways, with Jews on korban working for such organizations as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or Teach For America. The American Jewish World Service runs long-term volunteering programs in the Global South. Israel now boasts a thriving civil society sector that could well use energetic, idealistic volunteers.

All very well and good, you might say, but who will organize this? At first, no one will. Korban need not constitute a formal, single institution (another way in which it will differ sharply from Mormon missions). Implementing korban can begin informally through current Jewish institutions, most prominently synagogues and university Hillels. Young children in shuls grow up thinking about and preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Perhaps teenagers begin thinking about their Birthright trip. Our task is to start saying, as a matter of course, “So if and when you go on your korban, you might want to …” Something can be encouraged without being mandatory: it can emerge bottom-up.

The key is to make committing to korban easy. That might sound contradictory, but it is not.  Because korban can deepen our spiritual lives, we should not expect that young people will necessarily arrive at the commitment before engaging in the practice. Most college graduates are somewhat unsure of what to do with themselves (which is why too many of them go to law school). Research has demonstrated that the “architecture of choice” — how people’s choices are arranged — makes a profound difference in what they choose. For example, people will save vastly more in their 401(k) plans if they are automatically enrolled and have to opt-out than if they have to opt-in. Similarly, graduating college students will choose korban more frequently if the options are placed in front of them.

Any community that can send tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel on Birthright trips can help make korban administratively simple and personally nurturing for Jewish 20-somethings. It can help them understand how crucial korban is for an engaged Jewish life. It can ensure that they know about the variety of opportunities available. It can support them wherever they may be, connecting them with Jewish resources and religious community.

There is no reason to consider korban political or partisan. Progressives, of course, will welcome its substantive focus, but conservatives often stress the need for nongovernmental, civil society solutions to social problems. Korban thus can transcend narrow political ideology during a time of growing U.S. political conflict.

In every generation, the Jewish community is challenged to develop new forms of worship and practice that maintain integrity with Torah. Late antiquity developed Rabbinic Judaism. Medieval Jewry saw the emergence of kabbalah and the first comprehensive codes. The late 18th and early 19th centuries became the time of the Haskalah. Zionism arose in the late 19th and 20th centuries. How will 21st century Jewry strengthen and re-energize Torah?

If not us, who? If not now, when?

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA and a rabbinical student in the ALEPH-Jewish Renewal ordination program.