In the story told in countless works of Jewish history, and countless Jewish-studies classes, Judaism was until the year 70 CE—when the Romans tore down the Second Temple—a religion focused on the sacrificial cult. Thereafter, the rabbis who composed the Talmud transformed it into the religion of law and study that we know today. But this story fails to account for the enormous attention paid to the Temple and its rituals by the rabbis who lived and wrote in the 2nd through the 6th centuries CE. Mira Balberg offers an alternative view in her book Blood for Thought, as Shai Secunda writes in his review:
[In truth], the rabbis cannot be classified as anti- or post-sacrifice. . . . In [Balberg’s] account, the rabbis continued to focus on animal sacrifice long after the Temple’s destruction since, culturally speaking, there never was a complete rupture requiring a reconstruction. Practically, of course, a believer could no longer pick himself up, ascend the Temple Mount, and offer a turtledove on the altar. But even when the Temple stood in all its glory, sacrifice within its precincts was at best experienced sporadically, as many Jews lived at a considerable distance from Jerusalem. Both before and after its destruction, the Temple and animal sacrifice held a commanding presence in Jewish life and imagination, and were ceaselessly invoked in prayer, art, and religious study. . . .
Blood for Thought’s main contribution is to show how despite the rabbis’ preservation of animal sacrifice as an ongoing cultural paradigm, there was also a shift away from the past. The rabbis may not have revived sacrifice, but they did thoroughly reinvent it by excising anything “sacrificial”—that is, giving something up for a higher entity—from Jewish sacrifice. They consistently downplayed the roles of human giver and divine recipient by rendering emotionally charged moments like the laying of hands on the animal and the sacred consumption of the flesh [by the flames] on the altar ritually inconsequential.
Even the violent spectacle of sacred butchery was de-emphasized. What remained was the stark, entirely procedural act, termed “the work [or service] of blood,” consisting of precise movements and the perfect concentration of nameless priests, wherein the chief “drama”—if we can call it that—was the flawless fulfillment of ritual obligations that almost miraculously transformed parts of the slain animal from forbidden to permitted.