Animal sacrifice was as difficult to explain to the medieval Jew as it is to us. Rabbi Judah Halevi (Kuzari, Part III, Paragraph 53) suggested that animal sacrifice was no different than any other religious ceremony commanded by God. Even if we cannot fully understand the purpose, performing the sacrifices is a measure of our obedience. In fact, while the efficacy of sacrifice might be in question, the satisfaction the propitiant receives from performing the rituals correctly is never in question. Maimonides, however, offers a far different explanation.
In his Guide of the Perplexed (Part III, Chapter 46), Maimonides boldly asserts that animal sacrifice in the Torah was intended to repudiate idolatry. The Egyptians, for example, revered sheep. That is why shepherds were held in contempt in ancient Egypt (Genesis 44;34) and why Moses refused Pharaoh’s suggestion to slaughter the paschal lamb within the boundaries of Egypt (Exodus 8:22). Some Sabean sect worshipped demons that took the form of goats and therefore abstained from eating goat flesh. And most idolaters legislated against the slaughtered of cows. “Therefore,” says Maimonides, “the people of India up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered.”
Maimonides concludes: “In order to eradicate these false principles, the Torah commands us to offer sacrifices of these three kinds: ‘You shall bring your offering from the cattle of the herd and the flock…’ (Leviticus 1:2). Thus the very act considered by the heathens to be the most irreverent is the Israelite means of approaching God and obtaining His pardon for sin. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite.”
Ultimately, Maimonides insists, animal sacrifices will be eliminated for the entire sacrificial cult was a concession to attitudes of ancients who could not imagine divine service without them (Guide, Part III, Chapter 32). God really desires our prayers alone. Until the time when prayer supplants sacrifice, every sacrifice performed is a thumb in the eye of idolatry.