Quicksand and Child Sacrifice

What could quicksand and child sacrifice possibly have in common? It seems that they’re both something that people used to consider a major problem but are not part of our lives in any way.

If you’re a child of the 70s, you’ll recall that the go-to misadventure for any major character in an adventure series was to get trapped in quicksand. We kids learned that if something like this ever happened to us—a realistic prospect!—then we should stop struggling because that only made it worse. Eventually, if everything we saw on TV was to be believed, someone would come along, throw a rope, and we could sort of shimmy up onto more solid ground. It sounded like a real hazard—we figured there were dangerous patches of quicksand all over, just waiting for unsuspecting passersby to get sucked into.

I actually flashed back on this plot point of 1970s programming while reading the Torah portion last week. This past Shabbat we read Parshat Kedoshim, which contains a lot of rules, warnings, and prohibitions–also known as the holiness code. One such admonition is to never sacrifice your child to Molech. And in case you thought this might be one of those random Torah things, we actually keep reading about Molech. Verse after verse—Molech keeps getting mentioned. Don’t sacrifice your child to Molech. Make sure everyone else knows not to sacrifice their children to Molech. If you do sacrifice your child to Molech, things are gonna get very bad for you. Really, everyone, could you please just stop sacrificing your kids to Molech!

Molech, Molech, Molech. I guess maybe this used to be a thing.

No, no, I get it. The authors of the Torah lived in a time when neighboring pagan cultures were performing all sorts of abhorrent acts that any civilized society would reject, including child sacrifice and specific sexual relationships and activities as part of their cult worship. So it would only make sense for religious leaders of that time to make a distinction: you may see others doing that, so please remember that we Jews do this.

But this contributes to the tension that I feel when reading these passages—it turns the words of the Torah into dry historical text, of interest only in a vague anthropological way. Is it compelling to remember our ancestral, primitive past as desert wanderers? Yeah, kinda, I guess. Could our time and attention be better spent on more relevant ways to live a holy and moral life? Definitely.

I’m not picturing too many signs like this in front of synagogues:

  • We’re a warm and welcoming congregation!
  • Ask about our innovative Pre-K programming!
  • We will ensure that no child will be sacrificed to Molech!
  • Affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism!

A few years ago, I was honored to be part of a small team that was tasked with revising the Cantors Assembly Code of Professional Conduct. The original Code spelled out many useful and sensible policies, but also contained a list of things that were clearly outdated—recalling a bygone era in the life of clergy and society. So we revised it—brought it up to date—by taking out policies that were clearly irrelevant to any living cantor—and inserting information that would resonate with everyone, such as guidelines on the appropriate use of social media.

Similarly, our biblical holiness code is in dire need of a re-write. We can still keep a lot—the passages warning us not to steal or place a stumbling block in front of others, to render fair judgements, not to hate others—that stuff is timeless. But I think it’s finally time to put Molech to rest, along with how to properly interact with our female slaves, the penalties for bestiality (but why kill the poor animal just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?) and perhaps the most heinous and unthinkable sin of all: wearing wool and cotton together.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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