Let's put it this way: Leviticus doesn't make it easy for Jews. In fact, it causes a whole slew of practical problems for contemporary Jewish communities. Not only can its ethical and purity rules be difficult to adapt to contemporary life, but since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, there isn't even a place to follow the rules for Tabernacle offerings (for some more FAQs about sacrifices, check out JewFAQ).
Further complicating matters are centuries of analysis by learned rabbis in the Talmud, Mishnah, and Gemara, which serve as a touchstone for rabbinical teaching today.
To top it off, interpretations of Leviticus can also differ among the leading branches of Judaism. Traditions vary on such issues as kosher law, Sabbath observance, the continued application of rules for personal impurity, and—big surprise—same-sex intercourse. For the Orthodox, Leviticus is a book to be rigorously studied and applied; for the more liberal Reform tradition…well, let's just say that descriptions such as "stultifying and prosaic—like the first line of a recipe—and obsessed with irrelevant minutia" are not exactly ringing endorsements.
Despite the many differences, though, the various branches of Judaism tend to share the same core response to the current meaning of sacrificial offering law. Nowadays, in the absence of the temple, the offering laws can be observed through repentance, prayer, and the pursuit of personal purity (whatever that might mean). The specific types of sacrifices provide lessons on such matters as thankfulness, awareness of sin, and ethical dealings with others. Done and done.
This approach to the offering laws treats them as instructive metaphors for acts of devotion and social responsibility. Yep, metaphors. That means don't sacrifice the animal; just do something that represents sacrificing the animal.
From this perspective, prayer itself is regarded as a form of sacrifice. According to the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, prayer is superior to animal sacrifice and sacrifice was just an accommodation to ancient customs. Kind of like how news websites today accommodate popular expectations with cat videos. (But let's be honest—cat videos will never go out of style.)
Other aspects of the offering rituals also continue to have a spiritual application. For example, although the literal altar fire has been out for centuries, Jews can keep the spiritual altar fire burning through prayer, repentance, and good works (source).
If everything's so hard without the temple, why don't they just build one? We mean, if humans can construct the Burj Khalifa, the temple shouldn't be that hard, right? (Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration.)
Whether the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt and temple sacrifice should be restored is, as you might imagine, a subject of heated debate. Some people believe that animal sacrifice is an obsolete practice, while others believe it to be required once the temple is restored in Jerusalem (source).
And it's not just the Jews who have something to say about it. Many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians believe that the restoration of temple sacrifice in Jerusalem is destined to happen. Except, for Christians, it's a sign that Jesus will return to Earth soon. So yeah, it's not really a six-of-one kind of a situation.
So we can all agree on one thing: no one can agree on anything. In fact, opinions regarding the ongoing relevance of Leviticus in its specific details can vary widely even within a particular branch of Judaism. Some rabbis try to make Leviticus happen; others are ready to let it fall the way of yolo.
And of course, one of the most important questions is as follows: to eat bacon or not to eat bacon? Some Jews adhere rigorously to the kosher law (or kashrut) as refined over centuries of rabbinical commentary. Others are all about the cheeseburger.
Leviticus manages to give us a rule about everything that's ever existed (except what to do when our DVR can only record 4 shows at once but there's just so much good TV on Tuesday nights!). So let's take a look at a few more:
Leviticus is more important to Christianity than one might think. For Christians, Leviticus hands us the Old Covenant, while Jesus embodies God's New Covenant. Out with the old and in with the new. As branding strategies goes, even if New Coke doesn't end up replacing the previous product, sometimes it can lead to a successful spinoff.
The Christian connection to Leviticus goes back to Jesus himself. When Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39), he's taking it straight from Leviticus 19. Don't worry—plagiarism wasn't a thing back then. And throughout the Gospels, Jesus has a knack for cleaning up people who are unclean or imperfect according to Leviticus. Leprosy, disabilities, out of control menstruation—you name it.
It's not just about the Gospels, either. The New Testament's Book of Hebrews is kind of like Leviticus 2: Electric Boogaloo. Offerings, atonement, redemption—all the good stuff in Leviticus has now been done by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is a deeply treasured principle among many young Christian people, since it gets them off the hook from actually having to read Leviticus.
New Testament professors aren't so lucky. See, the majority Christian view of atonement isn't about saving the community from how imperfections can mess things up (see: Leviticus), but saving individuals from God's anger through the offering of Christ as the perfect blood sacrifice (source). So that means you'll need to check out Leviticus if you want to see the other side of the coin. Plus, Hebrews has a knack for turning Leviticus against itself. For instance, it repeatedly calls attention to the fact that human priests are imperfect (Hebrews 7:23-28), thus lumping them in with the rules in Leviticus 21 against priestly imperfection and pollution.
Of course, not all Christians share the modern majority interpretation. The medieval theologian Saint Anselm, for example, viewed atonement and redemption in terms of compensating God for a debt. Although this view is largely rejected today, it echoes the rhetoric of compensation in Leviticus, so score one for old Anselm in the Hebrew Bible book of alluders.
Big surprise: the most widely held Christian view of Leviticus is that it is fulfilled in the person and life of Christ. But Christian applications of Leviticus can vary widely, and they often don't divide neatly along denominational lines. Some of the differences represent split views of unclear passages, while others can seem like the result of too much time spent chewing the cud.
Of course, one of the areas where this has been at hot-hot-hot issue is same-sex relationships. For some Christians, the laws in Leviticus prohibiting same-sex sexual relations falls under the category of binding moral law (source). Translation: don't do it.
Christianity is also not particularly known for having a don't-ask-don't-tell policy. For centuries, confession manuals in the Roman Catholic Church included rather detailed questions regarding a penitent's sexual behavior (source). Modern scholars believe that if the Church had been able to record these confessions, being a religion professor would be a lot more fun.
Others Christians believe that the passages in Leviticus regarding same-sex intercourse are not binding moral law (source). Popular reasons cited in support of this argument include Christ's fulfillment of the Torah, limitation of these laws to pagan temple prostitution or rape, the laws' apparent basis in ritual restrictions against the mixture of certain bodily fluids, the laws' lack of any reference to loving relationships or sexual orientation.
For more on this hot topic, head over to "Hot-Button Issues and Cultural Debates."
Again, the zillion laws in Leviticus mean a zillion different kinds of practical procedure. Let's take a look at how some of these unfold in the Christian tradition, bullet-point style:
Several of the laws in Leviticus regarding purity and sexual ethics might sound familiar to Muslims: namely, various bathing rituals and the prohibition against eating pork. Islam also regards Moses as a prophet and respects the revelation that he received from God.
And therein lies the rub.
According to traditional Islamic doctrine, the Torah in its present form is corrupt and unreliable (source). Why? Because the laws weren't recorded until hundreds of years after Moses heard them from God; and then, centuries later, they were lost again during Babylonian captivity. That means that the Leviticus that Jewish leaders in the 6th century cut and paste from surviving earlier material is an impure mix of the human with the divine.