Holy Molech?: Kedoshim 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Chatter: Are there practices outside our religion that Jews should never engage in under any circumstances? If so, what are some examples? If not, what is different about modern times that can allow
us to have a positive or neutral view of other religious observances? 
In our Torah portion this week, we are introduced to Molech, a foreign god that demands sacrifices that we would consider repugnant today.

The Pitch: “Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt the person with stones.” (Leviticus 20:1-2)

Swing #1: “‘Say further to the people of Israel, speak further to the people of Israel, say to the people of Israel, speak to the people of Israel, command the people of Israel, you shall further command the people of Israel’: Rabbi Yosi the Galilean says: The Torah has spoken in many different forms of expression, and all of them should be interpreted [as follows]: Israel – These are the [male] Israel[ites]; An alien – These are the converts [to Judaism]; Who resides – to include the wives of converts; In Israel – to include women and slaves.” – Sifra

Swing #2: “While there is still considerable controversy about the matter, the consensus of scholars over the last decade concludes that child sacrifice was a part of ancient Israelite religion, to large segments of Israelite communities of various periods. Most modern scholars treat as separate phenomena hints concerning possible offerings of the first born and suggestions that parents made their children ‘pass through the fire’ as offerings to Molek though they make the point that both have to do with offering of human children in sacrifice to a deity; these phenomena are different manifestations of the same underlying belief in the efficacy of child sacrifice.” – Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #3: “Based on the comparative evidence, the relatively few explicit Biblical references, and those additional passages which may be defended as relevant, Molech emerges as a netherworld deity to whom children were offered by fire for some divinatory purpose. Less certain, though suggestive, are connections with the cult of the dead ancestors. What is certain is the profound (one hesitates to say ‘fiery’) impact of those few Biblical references on the imagination of later writers. In addition to those rabbis who sought to interpret the cult of Molech as non-sacrificial, others described in great detail the deity’s idol and cult, in terms borrowed from the classical/patristic writers on the Carthaginian practice. The Quran depicts Malik as an archangel who governs the damned on behalf of Allah. ‘“Malek”, they will call out, “let your Lord make an end of us!” But he will answer: “Here you shall remain.”’” – Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking & Pieter W. van der Horst, editors

Late-Inning Questions: While Sifra remarks that the rule prohibiting child sacrifice is directed to all of Israel, Niditch stresses that child sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient Israel, while the Dictionary quoted above confirms that Molech and its worship was a known concept in the ancient world.

Why does the Torah text need to stress the importance of avoiding idolatrous activity? Why is ancient Israel apparently so reluctant to abandon the practices of other nations? Why does the Torah try so hard to be counter-cultural? Must we strive for a similar level of counter-culturalism in our religious practice? Or, does making Judaism more accessible to the general public help encourage the religion’s survival?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I am so proud of the four young women – Sydney Delson, Sophia Fox, Mia Hellman, and Maddy Krawcheck – who are graduating tonight from our Beit Din class. They are the third Beit Din class, all of whom committed to learning 100 questions about key Jewish facts and concepts before celebrating their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. They will help us lead services tonight and we will honor them for their hard work. Kol HaKavod!

The Big Inning at the End: Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals threw the fifth 20-strikeout game in baseball history Wednesday night. In each 20-strikeout game, the pitcher has issued exactly zero walks. A coincidence? Hard to say, but certainly worthy of our appreciation.

Shabbat Shalom!