My Jewish friend asked me why the issue of sacrifice is such a big deal to Christians since it is not a big deal to Jews. Then she quoted Psalm 51:16,17: ‘For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.’ How do I answer her?”
Certainly contemporary rabbis have interpreted this passage to de-emphasize the importance of sacrifice or even to say it should have no place in present day Judaism. Nevertheless, according to rabbinic principles of interpretation, the Psalms cannot be allowed to contradict the Torah (Law), which clearly prescribes such sacrifices. In the Jewish method of Bible study, all the Prophets and Writings must be in agreement with the Chumash (the first five books of the Bible).
The rabbis are responsible then, to harmonize this text in Psalm 51 with the rest of Scripture. This is not difficult. David was saying that a broken and contrite heart is the basis of sacrifice and that the action of sacrifice without the proper attitude is empty and accomplishes nothing.
You may be able to determine if your friend is serious about this passage—and not merely using it to disregard the sacrificial system—by asking him or her: “Do you pray to God with a broken spirit and a contrite heart to ask for His forgiveness?” Someone who is truly sorry for his or her sins and approaches God in humility is someone who would be ready to ask Him if anything else is required. That person should be open to asking God to show him or her the truth about Jesus. Someone who is only quoting this Scripture as an argument will not take seriously the admonition of a broken spirit and contrite heart. If that is the case, you may want to gently point out that if your friend really believes this text is the alternative to sacrifice, he or she needs to deal with what the text says.
You can also point out that the prayer book for the Rosh Hashanah service says,
But on account of our sins, we were exiled from our land and removed from our own country, and we are unable to go up in order to appear and prostrate ourselves before thee, and fulfill our obligations in thy chosen house, that great and holy temple which is called by thy Name because of the Hand that hath been stretched out against thy sanctuary.
May it be thy will, O Lord our God, and God of our fathers, merciful king, that thou mayest again in thine abundant compassion have mercy upon us and upon thy sanctuary and mayest speedily rebuild it and magnify its glory.…We will prepare before thee the offerings that are obligatory to us and continue offerings according to their order and additional offerings according to their enactment.
The rabbis recognize that God requires sacrifice. That is why it is traditional to pray that the Temple will be rebuilt and that sacrifices will resume. Judaism is greatly affected by what we might call “modernism,” which involves a skeptical view of the Scriptures and particularly of such “antiquated” things as the sacrifice. In the Judaism of my grandparents, the rabbis anticipated and prayed for the time when the Temple would be rebuilt and sacrifices would resume. They also prayed faithfully for the coming of the Messiah. Today, only a minority of Jewish people truly believe that God will actually send a personal Messiah.
When answering people who tell you that Judaism is not concerned about this or that, keep in mind that this usually indicates a shift that religious leaders feel is necessary to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. The need for a sacrifice is seen by some as a threat to our survival on two counts: first, sacrifices are not an option without the Temple, and second, if sacrifice is still necessary, then Jesus’ claims ought to be explored. Similarly, the promise of a personal Messiah could be considered a threat to our survival, since those looking for a literal person to fulfill the biblical prophecies might be tempted again to examine the claims of Jesus. But what will happen over time if the clear writings of Scripture are either discarded or reinterpreted so that they conflict with each other? Without the Bible as our foundation, survival is stripped of the sense of destiny for which we were created.
The sacrifice of Yeshua was well established before the destruction of the Temple. His was the ultimate sacrifice foretold in the Suffering Servant passage (Isaiah 53) and heralded by John the Baptist who pointed to Jesus and announced, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” It is ironic that Bible-believing Christians have the benefit of atonement through God’s Messiah who is our once and for all sacrifice, while most of my Jewish people have yet to see their need for the sacrifice or the Messiah.