Sunday, April 20, 2014

Starve Molech, Feed Peace / Kedoshim

On Thursday night, April 17, three masked men torched the entrance to the Abu Bakr al Sadik Mosque in Um Al-Fahmm in northern Israel. They wrote “Arabs out” with spray paint on an exterior wall before setting fire to the entrance and then fleeing like the cowards they are. Israeli police have expressed confidence that they will catch the people responsible, and I hope they do. The previous Tuesday the Deir Rafat Catholic monastery in Bet Shemesh was discovered to have been vandalized with spray-painted epithets including: “America is Nazi Germany,” “Price Tag — Peace Agreement,” “Jesus is a monkey,” and “Mary is a cow.” The tires of four cars were also slashed.

The reference to “price tags” identifies these acts of vandalism with a strategy of the extremists in the settler movement to exact revenge against Arabs who attack Jews, and the Israeli government for freezing settlements. Viewed through a broader political lens, the attacks were a response to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit earlier in the week; this fringe group opposes efforts to make peace, believing no sincere peace agreement is possible. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents; they are merely the most recent. In the past, extremists have targeted even Israeli military bases.

The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal succinctly encapsulated the attack on the monastery: "This is bad for the state of Israel, it is bad for us, it is bad for everybody. In this Holy Land we do not need these actions. Especially these actions against a monastery where we have sisters just praying for peace. They are not involved in any politics, so this really is a bad sign and we regret it very much.”

Indeed, all people of good will regret such incidents, but even more deplore them and revile those who engage in them. Here in America, we would rightly call these hate crimes: such behavior is morally reprehensible and entirely outside the scope of what Torah requires of us as Jews. This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Attacking mosques and monasteries is not what people commanded to be holy do. It is what thugs do. Profuse expressions of self-righteous religiosity do not make one holy. Devout adherence to strict rules of ritual observance does not make one holy. Hatred of those who are “other” does not make one holy.

Torah tells us what makes us holy and how to fashion a holy life:

You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I the Lord am your God. Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Lord am your God… When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruits of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of the laborer shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord… (Leviticus 19:3-4, 9-16)

These verses come from chapter 19 of Leviticus. Scholars have dubbed the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus “The Holiness Code.” You may have noticed that the first three commandments that frame the chapter are (1) revering one’s parents; (2) keeping shabbat; and (3) not engaging in idolatry. This frame establishes a profound religious worldview: our goal is to establish a society based on respect for family, appreciation of God’s creation, and clear values and priorities that steer us away from the myriad idolatries that blind us to genuine holiness.

You may also have noticed that virtually all the rest of chapter 19 points to human relations: how to treat others with respect and compassion—doing so is a reflection of how we regard God. Bottom line: loving God requires that we treat other human beings with respect and recognize the divine spark within them. That’s easy when they are our friends and neighbors and treat us decently. There is no reason to think that the congregants of the mosque or residents of the monastery do otherwise, but even if they do not, this is not an excuse to engage in the type of “price tag” behavior both deplorable incidents exemplify. Torah bids us—indeed commands us—to reach out and build bridges to others through honesty, decency, and compassion—not to set explosives to blow any potential relational bridges sky high because we are engaged in our own political and religious idolatries, as the extremist settlers are.

I am not including pictures of the torched entrance to the mosque or the graffiti on the monastery in this blog post because they don’t deserve additional publicity. They are repugnant. Rather I’m including other pictures and examples of bridge-builders:

  • Amal Elsana Alh'jooj [Amal-Elsana-Alh'jooj.jpg ], is a Bedouin and Israeli citizen who
    Amal Elsana Alh'jooj
    founded the Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. Among her many successes, she started a joint Israeli-Arab school in Beer Sheva called Hagar in 2006. Hagar describes itself as “a spring-board for social change.”

Galil School

  • Hands of Peace ( is an interfaith organization founded by Gretchen Grad (bond trader turned peacemaker) that seeks to develop leadership and peacemaking skills among Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens by bringing them together to get to know one another, talk openly and sincerely together, and befriend one another. (Take a look at the video here.) 
    Hand in Hand teachers
  • Neve Shalom-Wahat Al-Salam (“Oasis of Peace” in both Hebrew and Arabic) is a Jewish-Muslim village located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that was formed in 1970 on land donated by the Catholic Church.
  • Neve Shalom-Wahat Al-Salam  ("Oasis of Peace") School

  • There is an Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (, numerous Arab-Israeli dialogues in Israel as well as Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups throughout the United States, and even a group called Comedy for Peace.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. There are many more groups and programs that deserve mention. You can find many of them listed here. All are bridge-builders. The work hasn’t always been easy. But is there really any other ethical path? Torah tell us, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) not because it is easy, but precisely because it is so difficult yet so necessary.

In parshat Kedoshim we are told that God forbids us from giving our children to Molech. Who or what is Molech, and what is this prohibition about? I Kings 11:7 knows Molech to be an Ammonite deity to which people sacrificed children, a practice King Josiah abolished. It is likely that “Molech” is an amalgam of the consonants mem-lamed-kaf (meaning “rule” or “sovereign”) and the vowels of the word boshet (meaning “shame”). The Torah commentary Etz Hayim explains: “Molech represents the demonic, destructive face of religion, the cult of death and human sacrifice… It is the polar opposite of everything the Holiness Code stands for.” (p. 701) Engaging in ideologies of hatred and vengeance—elevating them so they rule one’s life and dictate one’s behavior, is shameful—deeply shameful. Torah tells us that one who gives his offspring to Molech defiles God’s sanctuary and profanes God’s holy name (Leviticus 20:3).

It is easy enough to catalogue the episodes of abuse and violence perpetrated against Israel and her citizens. And without any doubt, Israel has the right and sacred responsibility to defend and protect her citizens. But acts of gratuitous hatred, violence, and vandalism are offerings to Molech. They are shameful and unworthy of anyone calling himself or herself a Jew.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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