Thursday, 4 January 2018

Rav Kook and Science

So here is an interesting lecture. Professor Tamar Ross speaks about her paper The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Statements: Rabbi A. I. Kook and Postmodernism.

Professor Ross begins with the problem: what do we do, as men and women of faith, when new scientific theories/discoveries conflict with the accepted understanding of scripture?

She delineates 4 approaches:
  1. Why rely on science? Rationality is limited(Lubavich Rebbe)
  2. Allegory. Distinguish between content and presentation. Torah uses allegory to express itself. Torah's presentation is an allegory to scientific creation(Rambam on Aristotle's proof for eternal universe) Note: this also sounds like Professor Nathan Aviezer's "In the Beginning"
  3. Torah is not history/science book. It's narratives come to teach subjective truths, not empiric truths. Bereshit teaches us that we are dependent on a higher force, not a scientific account of creation(Yeshayahu Lebovich) Note: this sounds to me like Rabbi Natan Slifkin's The Challenge of Creation
  4. Scientific/moral insight as a form of continuing revelation. Beliefs are best chosen by world/people they create. Humanity must be ready for a particular revelation. Genesis is written in an epoch-neutral fashion(Rav Kook)

The rest of the lecture is selections from Rav Kook's writings that exemplify this fourth approach. This is worth listening to, but I won't go into detail here.

Professor Ross concludes by stating the relevance of this approach in our Postmodern age. In this time when objective truth seems so remote and we struggle with the question of what to believe, Rav Kook's approach can be a powerful tool for deciding which beliefs to promote.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Book Review: Vagueness Vanquished


Vagueness Vanquished: A Strategic Approach to Learning Gemara by Rabbi Peretz Segal is a 100 page handbook detailing the author's methodology for learning Talmud.

Rav Segal  gives his method the acronym StructaPoP, which has 3 phases:
  1. Structure- structural analysis of the text
  2. Power Questioning- to identify the problems or ambiguities within the text
  3. Paradigm Shift- finding a new model for understanding the sugia
After introducing the general methodology in Chapter 1, the following 3 chapters takes us a level deeper, with how to apply it to Mishna, Gemara, and Rishonim, respectively.

I had the privilege of attending Rav Segal's classes for the better part of a year in 2003-4. The book does a good job of presenting his technique and includes a moderate dose of his wry sense of humor. I even found a new idea to adapt to my current learning: for each textual section, go back and formulate and write down a title summarizing the topic of the section. This helps me keep track of the big picture and the flow of the meta-narrative.

I recall my move from Ohr Samayach to Har Etzion in 2004. At first, immersion into the Brisker methodology was a bit of a culture shock. The style of classes, their focus and even the vocabulary were completely different. Looking back, Rav Segal's methodology has a lot to say about 1) Structure and 2) Power Questioning, but not much about 3) Paradigm Shift, except that there should be one. What sort of new paradigm should we look for? How can we find it?  In the10 out of 100  pages dedicated to Paradigm Shift in the handbook, these questions are barely addressed. If anything, one would expect this to be the largest section! Structural analysis is fundamental, as is asking good questions, but at the end of the day, it is one's final explanation of the sugya that is the result of one's learning.

The Gush's Brisker Methodology, on the other hand, is all about the Paradigm Shift. The Brisker Derech focuses on developing a library of models for explaining the sugiot of the Talmud. So, to sum up, Rav Segal's shiur gave me a great basis from which to continue in the Gush, but the difference in emphasis took me a while to process.

Bottom line, I highly recommend Vagueness Vanquished as an introduction to Talmud learning methodology. It's an easy read and the tools for approaching texts are fundamental for the aspiring lamdan.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Book Review: Wrestling Jacob


I originally heard about Shmuel Klitsner's book Wrestling Jacob on Sarah Rindner's excellent Book of Books blog. It sat on my list of books to order for a long time, but recently made the cut when I was making an Amazon order and I found a used copy on the cheap.

What you get is 180 pages of close literary reading and Modern commentary on the story of Jacob and Esau. The analysis begins with Rivka's tempestuous pregnancy, continues through to the brothers' momentous meeting upon Jacob's return to Canaan, and ends with a final exploration of parallel passages in the Torah, specifically God trying to kill Moshe at the Inn and Bilaam's encounter with the Angelic swordsman.

Klitsner's methodology is interesting. He has a long introduction detailing methodology and assumptions. It's important, so let's summarize the salient features:
  • Close literary readings
    • as opposed to Critical readings which put idiosyncrasies down to progressive changes/additions
    • as opposed to Fundamentalist readings which explain-away ideosyncrasies
    • instead, Klitsner takes idiosyncrasies/repetition as an authorial choice with a literary payload
  • Bible as a "Divine Anthropology" of Jewish people
    • As opposed to novels or even Greek classics which focus on Human individuality
  • Subtext gives insight into authorial intent

Rabbi Klitsner
Klitsner ultimately suggests these stories have as a theme, the struggle between Human autonomy and Divine destiny. Yet he contrasts how this theme plays out in the Bible with how it plays out in Greek literature. In Greek literature, people must follow their destiny as determined by the Gods, when they break this mold, bad things happen. The Bible carries this theme in the opposite direction. Characters try to fulfill their divine destiny, but suffer when they use illicit means to achieve those ends.

This is a very Modern literary reading, with the focus being on Jacob's individual religious experience, his inner struggle, and his eventual redemption.

Bottom line, Wrestling Jacob is a great book for anyone interested in Literary Bible studies. It's a short book, but is dense with ideas, close readings, and intertextualities. Highly recommended!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh 2016

I recently had the opportunity to attend Herzog College's annual Tanach Conference, Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh. The conference takes place on the Herzog/Har Etzion campus in Alon Shvut over five days, and had 7000 attendees this year. Each day has five time slots, with seven parallel lecture tracks for a total of 175 lectures!(As you might imagine, just choosing what to sign-up for was a somewhat daunting task) The lectures are given by teachers at the college, as well as by prominent Israeli Tanach scholars. In any case, I'm only going to summarize the 10 lectures I attended over the course of two days.

Wednesday

המבנה והמסר של הספר השני בתהלים, חטא דוד ותיקונו, ד"ר גזונדהייט בני

Dr. Benny Gezundheit has a passion for structure and a love of visual aids. His lecture on the structure of the 2nd book of Tehilim came with 7 colored handouts summarizing the structure of the book at large, as well as a more detailed look at books 2, 3 and psalm 51. He argues, quite convincingly, that the second section of Davidic psalms, appearing in chapter 2, is arranged to tell an aggadic story of David's path from the sin of Bat Sheva to repentance and redemption. He also identifies a chiastic structure by which this section is surrounded by psalms of the Levitical authors, Assaf and the descendants of Korach, thus suggesting the physical layout of the Temple.

דוד, יונתן ומפיבושת: הטרגדיה מאחורי אהבה שאינה תלויה בדבר, הרב בזק אמנון

Rav Amnon Bazak read us through the passages where David interacts with Yonatan and his son Mephiboshet. He points out the text's repeated emphasis of Yonatan's returning to his father's house. This suggests a tragic reading whereby Yonatan is torn between his love of David and his familial affiliation, ending in his death beside his father. This explains David's anger at the loyal Mephiboshet at not following him, and his strange decision to divide Mephiboshet's inheiritance with Ziba, as an expression of David's disappointment with Yonatan's mixed-loyalties. My favorite moment from the Yemei Iyun was when Rav Bazak read the passage where David rescinds Mephiboshet's inheritance- there was an audible gasp from the audience at this emotionally loaded passage.
WATCH

כיצד מונים את המצוות?, הרב סבתו חיים

Rav Sabato takes us through the history of medieval exegetes and their efforts to count the 613 mitzvot. He points out the Ramban's ambivalence about the number 613, based solely on Rav Shimlai's statement in the gemara.

משנולד יוסף נולד שטנו של עשו – צאצאי רחל נלחמים בעמלק, שלוסברג יעל

A review of biblical conflict between Yaakov and Eisav and their descendants. She pointed out some very suggestive patterns in these passages, noting that Yosef tends to attack directly while Binyamin schemes. She concludes that Shaul's mistake with Amalek was that he is a descendant of Binyamin yet he attacked them directly. This argument did not sit well with me. It smacks of mysticism and doesn't really gel with the story, as far as I can tell(Shaul's direct attack works fine, it's the aftermath in which he fails.)

יצחק ורבקה יעקב ועשיו, הרב מדן יעקב

Rav Yakov Medan asks if scripture is consistent with Chazal's characterization of Esau as wicked. He points out that no explicit sin is mentioned regarding Esau, though his attitude towards the bechora is disappointing. Not only that, but Yitzchak's love of Esau the hunter seems justified since food  for the wandering household is scarce, and the treaty Avimelech and Phichol is likely the result of Esau's raids. Rav Medan argues that Yitzchak actually intended to give Yaacov the blessing of Abraham while Esau was to be the military leader. Rivka misunderstands, thinking that Yitzchak intends to give both roles to Esau, resulting tragically in Esau's exclusion and the eternal enmity between the brothers' descendants.
WATCH


Thursday

בכיו של נביא – אלישע בדמשק, הרב סמט אלחנן

Rav Elchanan Samet  points out the curious story of Elisha's prophecy to Hazael. Why is the prophet in Damascus? Why does he break down and cry mid-prophecy? Why does he reveal so much to Hazael? Rav Samet answers these question by pointing out that the worst of Elisha's prophecy was not actually inflicted on Israel. Elisha used his prophecy to build his reputation among the Aramean elites. As a result, they tempered their approach to Israel and the harsh prophecy was only partially fulfilled.
WATCH

ערכה של יוזמה אנושית בספר שופטים, הרב מרקוס יוסף

Rav Yosef Marcus points out that the six judges in the book of Shoftim are not listed in chronological order, rather in order of descending spiritual level, a well established reading of the book. He adds that there is an additional point here in that they also descend in regard to the amount of personal initiative they take in their service of God, thus estabelishing personal initiative as the central value of the book of Judges:
  1. Otniel is Caleb's son-in-law/partner, paragons of bravery and initiative
  2. Ehud is also quite proactive and inventive in his strategy to overcome Moav
  3. Devora/Barak are already a step down. Devora takes the initiative, but Barak needs a good deal of convincing and his honor is passed-on to a woman as a result
  4. Gidon doesn't take initiative, but follows an Angel's instructions
  5. Yiftach only saves Israel on the condition that he is granted permanent leadership status
  6. Shimshon helps Israel not out of his own will, but providentially as he pursues his own agenda
This was a great shiur and I'll just take a moment to add my own twist on Sefi's idea. Many organizations go through a similar life-cycle. They are founded by highly motivated individuals, but as they grow and mature, they take on a more corporate structure, manned with by professionals who do things in a more careful, organized fashion. Perhaps the judges' descending initiative is not the result of their descending spiritual level, but rather is a separate track. Perhaps the point being made here is that, while the young nation can be founded by Otniels, the mature nation requires a more organized form of government, otherwise, the spiritual momentum cannot be maintained. In this way, Judges makes the argument for the appointing of King Shaul that follows in the book of Shmuel.

איך נראתה "יהדות" בתקופת השופטים?, ד"ר משגב חגי


Hagai Misgav asks how Jewish ritual/law looked in the days of the Judges, long before the codification of Jewish practice based on the discussions of the sages recorded in the Talmud. He points to a number of interesting text that give us hints:
  1. Yibum and inheritance laws in sefer Ruth differ markedly from scripture and our accepted understanding of it
  2. Shoftim mentions a number of holidays unknown to us today
    1. The Shiloh Holiday
    2. The Festival of Yiftach's Daughter
    3. Zevach Mishpacha
    4. Rosh Chodesh feast, pilgrimage to the prophet
WATCH

מגילת אסתר כסיפור קומי, ד"ר ורדיגר תמר


Tamar Vardiger claims that, while the Tanach contains many humorous passages, such as the story of Bilaaam, Megillat Esther is unique in that the entire work is a comedy. She argues that Esther, Ahasueros, and Haman embody the comedy archetypes of the Trickster, the Fool, and the Villain. She details how nearly every scene in the Megilla acts to undermine our expectations of what will happen next, and how Ahasueros, Haman, and the Persian Legal System are humorously undermined time and again. In light of this reading, Dr. Vardiger argues that the Megilla's purpose is to temper the great Chillul Hashem of the Persian exile by showing that those who appear to be in charge rule, in truth, at the mercy of the one true God.

ניסי אלישע - מה באו ללמדנו?, הרב מדן יעקב

In this lecture, Rav Medan draws attention to the abundance and variety of miracles performed by the prophet Elisha. What is the purpose of this uncharacteristic focus on minor wonders? The Rav's answer is to point out that the 45 year period of Aram's domination of Israel, a domination facilitated by Elisha's own actions, was a terrible time. Jewish men were routinely slaughtered, their woman and children sold into slavery, while those who remained suffered from decimated crops and starvation. During this difficult time, Elisha wandered the land, performing miracles and giving the people hope for the coming redemption.
WATCH

Online Resources

So, as you can see from this sampling, Yemei Iyun had a really impressive selection of lectures. You can see some more of the conference's lectures at https://www.youtube.com/user/michlalaHerzog
(Note that only the lectures that took place in the Alon Shvut synagogue were filmed)

We were also given a demo of Tanakh Herzog, the college's new online tanach learning platform http://www.hatanakh.com/
It makes for a very respectable alternative to http://www.929.org.il/

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Bilaam and the Anti-Akeida

In parshat Balak, we meet the character of Bilaam the sorcerer. The midrash compares Bilaam with Moshe.

תנחומה במדבר כב
כשם שהעמיד מלכים חכמים ונביאים לישראל, כך העמיד לאומות העולם, ונבדקו מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של ישראל עם מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של אומות העולם.
...
העמיד משה לישראל שהיה מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה. העמיד להם בלעם, מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה.
ראה מה בין נביאי ישראל לנביאי האומות. נביאי ישראל מזהירין את האומות על העבירות. וכן הוא אומר: נביא לגוים נתתיך. ונביאים שהעמיד מן האומות, נותנים פרצה לאבד את הבריות מן העולם הבא.

Bilaam as Foil for Avraham

 
Yet, as Rav Ari Kahn points out, a close literary analysis suggests that it is Avraham, not Moshe, we should be comparing him with. To summarize his major points:
  • Bilaam is hired by Avraham's disinheireted descendents, Moav and Midyan, to undermine the children of Yitzchak's success
  • Bilaam comes from Aram, the same land as Avraham
  • Like Avraham, Bilaam is described as having the power to bless and to curse
  • Bilaam's journey begins with the same early start and saddling of his donkey as Avraham's

Bilaam's Journey as Anti-Akeida


Yet, despite all of the similarities, there are also key differences between the two. In fact, if we look closely, Bilaam's journey parallels that of Avraham in the Akeida:

  1. The Akeida story begins with Avraham being commanded to undertake the journey. Bilaam, on the other hand, is first commanded not to proceed, but is then commanded grudgingly, with explicit limitations placed on his mandate.
  2.  Both Avraham and Bilaam get up early to undertake the journey, with gender-swapped donkeys.
  3. In the Akeida, the Angel interferes with Avraham, stopping his knife-hand. In Bilaam's story, the Angel itself wields the blade, interfering with his journey in a way that highlights his ineptitude.
  4. The journey ends with Avraham ascending the a holy mountain. Bilaam, on the other hand, ascends the "Heights of Baal", clearly an idolatrous cult location, and there, of all places, attempts to win God's favor.
  5. Avraham ultimately sacrifices a ram caught by it's horns in a bramble, a powerfully symbolic offering that is accepted by God. Bilaam, on the other hand, brings ever more extravagant sacrifices, but to no avail. He reminds us of  some poor shlub stumbling around in search of better cellular reception.
  6. As a reward for his selfless obedience, Avraham, his descendants, and the nations of the Earth are blessed. Bilaam, on the other hand, is forced to bless Israel, much to the chagrin of his employer.

A Parody of the Akeida


Shakespearean Donkey Humor
Ultimately, what parshat Bilaam offers us is a parody of the Akeida, performed by a poor imitator of Avraham. The parallel is clear enough, the question remains: Why does the Torah chooses to provide us with this bizarre reenactment of the Akeida as a Comedy of Errors?

As we already noted, our story is about Moav and Midyan trying to better their lot among the descendants of Avraham's household. Hashem's answer is a farcical version of Akeidat Yitzchak. The message is clear, it is not only Avraham that God singled out as worthy, Yitzchak, the object of the Akeida, was also selected. Bilaam's bumbled reenactment of the Akeida demonstrates that he is no Avraham and Moav/Midyan are no Yitzchak.

Unfortunately, our parsha's antagonists don't internalize this message and more severe consequences follow in Parshat Pinchas.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Genesis and the Splitting of the Sea

This post is in memory of my mother, Shira bat Sarah, who passed away April 13th, the 5th of Nissan, תשע"ו. She always supported me in all my endeavors, Torah or otherwise, and she is dearly missed.

On the 7th day of Passover we read the parsha of the splitting of the sea, so lets talk about that. Having read Genesis, the splitting of the sea comes as a surprise. This is because Genesis has already told us twice what to expect from the Exodus.

The first time is implicit via the short story of Avraham's descent to Egypt(Genesis 12). This proves to be the blueprint for the Children of Israel's later sojourn there in the spirit of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, as we saw previously

י וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ. יא וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ, הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. יב וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים, וְאָמְרוּ, אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת; וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי, וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ. יג אִמְרִי-נָא, אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ--לְמַעַן יִיטַב-לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ, וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ. יד וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, כִּי-יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד. טו וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה, וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה. טז וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב, בַּעֲבוּרָהּ; וַיְהִי-לוֹ צֹאן-וּבָקָר, וַחֲמֹרִים, וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת, וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים. יז וַיְנַגַּע יְהוָה אֶת-פַּרְעֹה נְגָעִים גְּדֹלִים, וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ, עַל-דְּבַר שָׂרַי, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם. יח וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה, לְאַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי; לָמָּה לֹא-הִגַּדְתָּ לִּי, כִּי אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא. יט לָמָה אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וָאֶקַּח אֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה; וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ קַח וָלֵךְ. כ וַיְצַו עָלָיו פַּרְעֹה, אֲנָשִׁים; וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְאֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.


The second time the Exodus is foreshadowed in Sefer Bereshit is in Avraham's vision at Brit Bein Habetarim (Genesis 15)

יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי-גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם--אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה. יד וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Neither passage gives us a hint that the Splitting of the Sea is still to come. We're led to believe that the Egyptians will be punished, that Bnei Israel will leave Egypt for the Promised Land, and that they will do so with the riches they gained in Egypt. All this comes to pass and that should have been the end of our interaction with Pharaoh and his minions. Instead, Hashem instructs Moshe to set a trap for the Egyptians (Exodus 14), resulting in the destruction of Pharaoh and his fully assembled army.

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת, בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם: לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן, נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל-הַיָּם. ג וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם, הַמִּדְבָּר. ד וְחִזַּקְתִּי אֶת-לֵב-פַּרְעֹה, וְרָדַף אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-חֵילוֹ, וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן.

I'd like to suggest that the message here is as follows. Up until this point, everything Hashem has done has been "in the merit of the fathers". The plagues, the Egyptian gold and silver, the Exodus- it is all being done because it was promised to Avraham. How is Kriyat Yam Suf different? It is extra. It is being done, not to fulfill a covenantal obligation, but solely for the sake of the generation of the Exodus. Specifically, Egypt's finest are mustered and crushed in order that Israel be freed from bondage not only physically, but psychologically as well.

יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ--הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם: כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת-מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם--לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם. יד יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן.

In this sense, Kriyat Yam Suf is not part of the Exodus, the fulfillment of God's pact with Abraham, rather it is preparation for the next step, for Mount Sinai, God's new covenant with the Nation of Israel.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Korbanot as National Ritual

Sefer Vayikra begins with God commanding the sacrificial service to be performed in the Mishkan, and later in the Mikdash. But for all the chapters of detailed description of korbanot, these passages present us with a considerable challenge of understanding.

The Yom Kippur Service
In particular, the scripture itself seems undecided regarding the importance of korbanot. On one hand, a large proportion of the Torah's normative portions are dedicated to the korbanot, the mishkan where they are brought, and the responsibilities of the kohanim/leviim who carry out the service. On the other hand, the later prophets seem intent on diminishing the importance of the korbanot in favor of other commandments. For example:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-יְהוָה, קְצִינֵי סְדֹם; הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ, עַם עֲמֹרָה.  יא לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי.  יב כִּי תָבֹאוּ, לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי--מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם, רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי.  יג לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ, הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא--קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא, לִי; חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא, לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה.  יד חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי, הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא.  טו וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם, אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם--גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה, אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ:  יְדֵיכֶם, דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ.  טז רַחֲצוּ, הִזַּכּוּ--הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם, מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי:  חִדְלוּ, הָרֵעַ.  יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה. (ישעיהו א)

כב כִּי לֹא-דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים, בְּיוֹם הוציא (הוֹצִיאִי) אוֹתָם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם--עַל-דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה, וָזָבַח.  כג כִּי אִם-אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר, שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי--וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, בְּכָל-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, לְמַעַן, יִיטַב לָכֶם. (ירמיהו ז)

כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט.  כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע.  כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. (עמוס ה)

These contradictory sources leave us with a quandary as to the significance of this service and it's status relative to other mitzvot.

The Oresteia


Before we take on this question, I'd like to turn to Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's book All Things Shining, and its discussion of the Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus around 458 BCE during the Golden Age of Athens. But as Dreyfus and Kelly point out, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play.

At the end of the play Athena affirms the new way of life she has established in Athens...The former Furies, now the Kindly Ones, and the Olympian gods then march out of the theater together singing the glory of Athens, inviting the audience--the citizens of Athens themselves--to join them saying: "Singing all follow our footsteps." Thus both groups of gods together with the citizens of Athens walk right out of the play into the streets of Athens chanting the city's praise.

...Each year the citizens of Athens selected a new prize-winning tragedy to be performed at the expense of the city for just that year. The Oresteia was the only play that was performed at the city's expense year after year. (pp. 98-99)
Indeed, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play. It was a National ritual publicly funded and participated in by the masses year-round. But what purpose did this practice play in Athenian society?

Clytemnestra sacrifices a ram in Taneyev’s adaptation of the Oresteia
The play itself, then, becomes a glamorized example--indeed a genuine paradigm--of what the Athenians have accomplished...they have reconciled the old gods--the angry, bloody emotions of outrage and revenge--and the new gods, with their tendency towards detachment and moral fanaticism.

The mass-ritual of the Oresteia asserts clearly what is essential in Athenian culture(in particular the successful reconciliation of two competing spiritual traditions). Not only that, but it strengthens those values in the broader culture by celebrating them publicly and having the citizens of Athens themselves participate in that celebration.

The Korbanot as National Ritual


Returning to the temple service, what if we were to view it, as with the Oresteia, as a sort of National Ritual meant to emphasize and strengthen that which is essential to Jewish culture. Suddenly the scriptural contradictions fall away. On one hand the Chumash goes into great detail designing this central cultural edifice. On the other hand, the Neviim Achronim de-emphasize it in favor of other mitzvot because it has little inherent value. Rather, the primary value of this mass ritual is to strengthen that which is essential, such as the Justice and Charity that Amos calls for.

But if this is the correct view of the korbanot, then what are the values they promote and how? There is lots of potential for analysis here. For now, however,  I'll simply refer you to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' recent shiur on the topic:
What, then, was sacrifice in Judaism and why does it remain important, at least as an idea, even today? The simplest answer – though it does not explain the details of the different kinds of offering – is this: We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for. That is why, when they were a nation of farmers and shepherds, the Israelites demonstrated their love of God by bringing Him a symbolic gift of their flocks and herds, their grain and fruit; that is, their livelihood. To love is to thank. To love is to want to bring an offering to the Beloved. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.