One of the difficulties presented by the system of sacrifices which we begin to read about in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is that sacrifices run against the grain of some of our key modern sensibilities. They seem a bit magical, as though by killing and burning parts (or all) of an animal, we balance our accounts with God. We can resort to symbolic or allegorical forms of interpretation, but behind the scrim of those approaches lies the observation of philosopher (and former Northwestern faculty member) Charles Taylor, one of the most significant thinkers about religion and modernity today:

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.

Taylor argues that this distinction, between inner thought and outward reality, lies at the heart of modernity. And there’s no question that, to use his phrase, it marks an inescapable framework of our experience. While our ancestors might have said that God resides in the Temple, that He literally spoke to Moses from the burning bush, or that the ashes of a red heifer literally made someone clean, today we would call people who made these claims crazy. Of course, we have ancient sources–beginning even as early as the book of Deuteronomy–that begin to make the inner-outer distinction. But Taylor would argue that it is in modernity that such formerly marginal thoughts become central, the basic frameworks of our thinking. And that’s what makes Leviticus so challenging for so many.

One of the other places where the ancients were perhaps ahead of their time was in Rabban Gamliel’s statement about Passover: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as though s/he personally left Egypt.” As I have written about elsewhere, the key point in this sentence is “as if,” which demonstrates the Rabbis’ awareness of the symbolic nature of the seder. It presupposes historical distance: we are not literally leaving Egypt, we are remembering something that happened a long time ago. Like Civil War re-enacters, we can put on the costume and play for a while, but at the end of the day we will go back to our homes in our own space and time.

This “as if” awareness is instructive for us today. Few of us are likely to become mystics, shedding the idea of separation and individualism so fundamental to our modern situation. But we also don’t have to reject the idea that our relationship with the past, with the world, and with each other is devoid of mystery, either. The feminist Catholic theologian Susan Ross provides a helpful insight in this regard, as she explores the ideas of “expressive ambiguity” and “symbolic complexity.” Both, she writes are “ways of suggesting that symbols be understood in their capacity to open new ways of seeing reality, not so much to close them, to restrict possible meanings.”

The seder, which we will enact in less than two weeks, is just this kind of ritual, with this approach to symbolism. We uncover the matzah, and we talk over it. We use the symbols of the seder plate to open up conversation, discussion, and reflection. While we maintain our historical distance when we eat the matzah and maror, we also move somewhere in time as well. As Ross adds, ““Symbolic thinking is marked by an ability to hold together multiple ideas and meanings without collapsing them into an either/or dichotomy, and a willingness to enter into a world of meaning that is neither purely material nor utilitarian.”

To quote one of my teachers, who I’ve quoted before, “It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.”