On Sacrifice

On Sacrifice

On Sacrifice

On Sacrifice


The idea and practice of sacrifice play a profound role in religion, ethics, and politics. In this brief book, philosopher Moshe Halbertal explores the meaning and implications of sacrifice, developing a theory of sacrifice as an offering and examining the relationship between sacrifice, ritual, violence, and love. On Sacrifice also looks at the place of self-sacrifice within ethical life and at the complex role of sacrifice as both a noble and destructive political ideal.

In the religious domain, Halbertal argues, sacrifice is an offering, a gift given in the context of a hierarchical relationship. As such it is vulnerable to rejection, a trauma at the root of both ritual and violence. An offering is also an ambiguous gesture torn between a genuine expression of gratitude and love and an instrument of exchange, a tension that haunts the practice of sacrifice.

In the moral and political domains, sacrifice is tied to the idea of self-transcendence, in which an individual sacrifices his or her self-interest for the sake of higher values and commitments. While self-sacrifice has great potential moral value, it can also be used to justify the most brutal acts. Halbertal attempts to unravel the relationship between self-sacrifice and violence, arguing that misguided self-sacrifice is far more problematic than exaggerated self-love. In his exploration of the positive and negative dimensions of self-sacrifice, Halbertal also addresses the role of past sacrifice in obligating future generations and in creating a bond for political associations, and considers the function of the modern state as a sacrificial community.


The Hebrew term for sacrifice, korban, has evolved to designate three different but related meanings. This phenomenon occurred in other languages as well. In its primary use, a sacrifice is a gift, an offering given from humans to God. It involves an object, usually an animal, which is transferred from the human to the divine realm. In its second use, which emerged later, the term refers to giving up a vital interest for a higher cause. Someone may sacrifice his property, comfort, limb, or even life for his children, country, or in order to fulfill an obligation. This latter sense of sacrifice also entails giving, but in this case it is giving up or for, and not giving to.

Owing to the lack of actual transfer, this second meaning of sacrifice does not appear in either biblical or rabbinic Hebrew, nor does it appear in Greek or Latin. While the phrase [x sacrificed to] is abundant in the early layer of Hebrew, the phrase [x sacrificed for,] such as [x sacrificed his interest for,] is absent altogether. The second use arose only in later layers of Hebrew and the European languages. Yet there is an inner logic to the extension of the term's use from the first sense to the second. Though no transfer has actually taken place in . . .

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