> Re'eh

Of Human Sacrifice: The Suicide Bomber in Torah Perspective

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

"When Hashem, your God, will cut down the nations where you come to drive them away from before you, and you drive them away and settle in their land, beware for yourself lest you be attracted after them after they have been destroyed before you, and lest you seek out their gods saying, 'How did these nations worship their gods and even I will do the same.' You shall not do so to Hashem your God, for everything that is an abomination of Hashem, that He hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters have they burnt in fire for their gods." (Devarim 12:29-31)

The commentators [see Nachmanides, Seforno, Ibn Ezra] interpret the passage as an injunction against serving God employing the modes of worship with which the nations had served their idols. Nachmanides, explaining the background to this apparently odd injunction, says the prohibition against idol worship should be seen as a rejection of the misdirected focus of the worshipper rather than on his acts of service. There must be some validity attached to the form of worship, otherwise it is difficult to understand why God should be bothered by the whole phenomenon of idol worship. If the idol worshipper is not misdirecting valid acts of service that should properly be dedicated to God, there is nothing but self-delusion in his activities - the god he worships is nonsense and his acts of worship are misguided. It is difficult to see why God should be so concerned by the entire phenomenon of idol worship unless the forms of that worship constitute valid acts of Divine service.

In other words, it is not at all farfetched for intelligent Jews to conclude that the religious practices the nations used to worship their idols were legitimate ways to reach out to God. It doesn't take an enormous jump to conclude that they should/could use these forms of worship to attach themselves to God. Therefore, argues Nachmanides, God had to enjoin them from using these practices to worship Him. He had to explain that His utter abhorrence of idol worship is based more on the modes of worship themselves than on their misdirection. The service itself is an abomination.

The illustration cited by God is the practice of human sacrifice, in this case child sacrifice.


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And yet there appears to be a difference of opinion regarding the effectiveness of worshipping God with such abominations:

"When the king of Moab saw that the war was too difficult for him... He then took his first-born son, who was to reign after him, and sacrificed him as a burnt offering upon the wall, and a great wrath took affect against Israel; so they turned away from Mesha and returned to the land." (2 Kings 3:26-27)

The Midrash explains that Mesha, the Moabite king, had the idea of outdoing Abraham. Abraham only placed his son Isaac on the altar but never actually sacrificed him; yet that was a sufficient demonstration of devotion to merit miraculous treatment at God's hands. How much more would God perform miracles for someone who actually went through with the sacrifice of his heir. (Tanchuma, Tisa, 5) His thinking seems to have been right on - his sacrifice actually worked! "A great wrath took affect against Israel" and they were forced to retreat.

The Talmud discusses Mesha's sacrifice. Rav and Shmuel disputed the matter. One maintained that he sacrificed his son to God, while his colleague perceived Mesha's act as idol worship. The Talmud comments: if we accept the position which maintains that Mesha sacrificed his son to God, we can understand how a "great wrath descended upon Israel," but according to the opinion that the sacrifice was an act of idol worship, why should such an act provoke God's anger against Israel? [The answer to the question does not concern us here] (Sanhedrin 39b) It would appear that the Talmud considers it perfectly reasonable for God to accept an act of sacrifice that He Himself describes as abomination. How can we understand this?


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Perhaps it would be best to start by presenting the position of the idol worshipper. Why would anyone consider sacrificing his child an act of worship that would elicit a favorable response from his divinity? The obvious answer: there is no greater treasure in the world than a beloved child. Sacrificing such a child constitutes the supreme act of worship as it is offering one's greatest treasure to the divinity. The supreme act of worship represents the highest degree of recognition. In other words, the idea of child sacrifice is an offshoot of the assumption that God enjoys/craves recognition. If I offer God recognition, in return He will shower me with benefits. After all, if there is a god, why wouldn't he favor someone who recognizes him over someone who does not? Once recognition is a factor, the greater the act of recognition the more divine favor it is bound to inspire.

It isn't by accident that God picked this particular form of idol worship to reject. It requires rejection because there is some truth to the concept that underlies it.

"All that the Holy one, Blessed is He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory, as it is written, 'All that is called by My name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it.'" (Isaiah 43:7)

"And it is written: Hashem shall reign for all eternity." (Exodus 15:18) (Avot Ch.6,11)

The commentators explain that all things derive their potential to exist from their ability to reflect God's existence. The purpose of creation is to inspire recognition of the Creator. There is nothing we can possibly contribute to God other than our recognition. After all, in a created universe, which requires the ceaseless input of Divine energy to keep it going by definition, we accomplish absolutely nothing besides providing God with recognition. Whatever we do in such a universe requires the direct input of Divine energy to get it done. It isn't we who actually do anything; it is the divine energy that flows through us that powers our activities. All we can do is validate creation by using it to acknowledge God as our Creator.

Since God gave us free will, this recognition is truly ours to give. It is the only commodity God cannot create for Himself in the context of the free will universe He decided to Create. In short, the purpose of creation is to reflect God's glory. It takes intelligence to recognize God's glory. The only being equipped with both intelligence and free will in the entire creation is man. The purpose of the universe is therefore to provide man with information from which he is able to deduce the existence of the Creator and acknowledge Him as his master. This explains the combination of the two verses cited by the Mishna. The first verse declares that the purpose of creation was the glory of God. The second verse relates to its validation. We validate the universe when we acknowledge God as its ruler.

So why is the person who sacrifices his son and demonstrates his recognition with the greatest possible intensity committing an abomination? Isn't this the very act that God asked Abraham to perform, an act whose merit lives on until the present day?


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To answer this question we must reconcile an apparent disagreement within Jewish sources regarding the purpose of Divine service. On the one hand we find the following statement in the Midrash: What difference could it possibly make to God whether you slaughter the animal by cutting its throat [as the Halacha commands] or by chopping through the back of its neck? Indeed! The Mitzvot were only given to purify people, as it is written, "Every word of God refines; He is a shield to those who trust in Him" (Mishlei 30:5) (Bereishit Raba 45,1). In other words, our acts of Divine service are done entirely to purify ourselves so that we may spiritually benefit. They do absolutely nothing for God who is personally indifferent to our acts of devotion.

On the other hand we find the apparently opposite viewpoint: When Israel engages in non-righteous deeds they weaken the power of the Holy one, Blessed be He, as it were, and when Israel acts as it should they lend strength to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, as it is written, "Give invincible might to God, Whose grandeur rests upon Israel..." (Psalms 68:35) (Zohar, Bo, 32b). According to the Zohar, we infuse God with strength by performing the Mitzvot and weaken Him when we ignore His will and transgress. Can these apparently diametrically opposed points of view be reconciled?

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna, presents the following idea to affect a reconciliation in his work Nefesh Hachaim (Gate 2, early chapters). There are potentially two main ways we can relate to God. One way is to relate to Him as a fellow intelligence. That is to say, although God is our Creator Whose intelligence is incomparably superior to our own, He is also nevertheless a fellow sentient intelligence. The following situation can serve as a useful metaphor to understand this idea. I happen to have gone through school with the President of the United States. Today he is my President, but when I speak to him, I will tend to relate to him as the friend of my youth, rather than as my ultimate superior and commander-in-chief.

The Midrash is addressing this aspect of relating to God. The point that the Midrash is attempting to make concerns the futility of addressing God as a fellow sentient being. We cannot comprehend Him, we have no vocabulary that could describe Him, and in fact we do not share a common existence with Him at all. In this aspect He is entirely indifferent to anything that we may do or to any act of service of ours.

The Zohar on the other hand is addressing the idea of relating to God as our Creator. As the Creator of the world, Who wants His enterprise to succeed, what we do matters very much to God. Creation requires His constant input and this input can only be delivered by making use of our recognition. If we willingly recognize God as the source of all being and ask Him for His input, He is able to provide it through the channel of this recognition.

To the extent that we take the universe as a self-contained whole and fail to recognize it as the expression of God's input, He is unable to provide the universe with any fresh input. He created the universe in such a way that we control His connection to it. We must reconnect the universe to God as its source through voluntary acts of worship to empower God to provide the inputs the universe requires to succeed in the way that God intended. In this sense He very much needs our service.


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It is in this light that we must interpret the statement that everything was created for His glory. The entire universe can continue to exist because everything it contains can provide the basis for the recognition that God is its Creator. It all connects back. Any portion of the universe that could not be reconnected in this way could not exist, because there would be no way to draw the Divine energy into it required to continue its existence.

The function of acts of worship is to focus the human intelligence on the task of reconnecting the universe to its source and thereby drawing the energy required to perpetuate existence, a result that God very much desires in his identity of Creator. We help Him out by supplying Him with the ability to provide us with the universe in which we live, a will He expressed when he created the universe in the first place.

Given that this is the function of acts of worship, imagine an act of worship that is the embodiment of ultimate recognition of God's existence but is simultaneously the ultimate expression of the separation of the universe from God? Such an act of service would be the greatest abomination. On the one hand it is the greatest possible act of worship because it is the ultimate in recognition, but it defeats its very purpose because instead of reuniting the universe to God it is the ultimate act of separating it from God. Human sacrifice is precisely such an act.


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Murder is the ultimate act of separating the universe from God. Human beings are the only creatures who have the potential to reconnect the universe to its source through their acts of recognition. Every human being is the very expression of the connection. The life force and intelligence of a human being are sacred. It is the avenue through which Divine energy flows into the world. It provides us with the only glimpse of God.

When a parent sacrifices his child or a community one of its members, he asserts ownership of this Divine resource. You can only offer what is yours. It is absurd to destroy something that belongs entirely to God and then turn around and point to the very act of destruction as a demonstration of your overwhelming recognition and your utter devotion.

Abraham's test was really a rejection of human sacrifice. The readiness to offer your child to God is the ultimate act of devotion, but the actual killing of that child as an act of worship an abomination. A child is your most precious treasure but he is not your possession. You can sacrifice animals and plants to God because God awarded everything in the universe to man to make use of as a means of reconnecting the universe to God, but to sacrifice your fellow human beings is a perversion of the very purpose of human life. The spirit of God is manifest in the world only in man's intelligence. Sacrificing a human being is destroying Divinity itself as an act of worship to the very Divinity whose image you are destroying. There is no greater anathema.


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So how did Mesha's sacrifice work to save him? Radak (Ibid.) says the following: The extreme abhorrence of human sacrifice derives from the very greatness of recognition and devotion that it represents. The greater the spiritual power of an act, the greater the spiritual harm caused by its perversion. But the devotion involved in Mesha's act cannot be denied.

God was in the process of miraculously delivering the Moabites into the hands of the Israelites. Miraculous aid is evidence of the powerful connection between God and the beneficiary of the miracle. Mesha's act was an act that embodied the most intense devotion to God. While the sacrifice itself was anathema and it failed in its purpose of connecting Mesha to God, His devotion cast a very unfavorable light on the people of Israel who were not even close to this degree of devotion in their own Divine service.

The attribute of Justice argued before the Heavenly throne: "How can You provide miraculous aid to Israel in their attempt to defeat a person who is so devoted to You? It's true that his act of devotion is an abomination. But shouldn't You require a greater demonstration of effort from the Jewish people who voluntarily took on the task of reconnecting the world to you before you pour out all this Divine energy on their assistance? How does it make sense to supply the Divine energy to miraculously defeat the person who is so devoted to You that he is willing and ready to sacrifice the thing he holds most precious in your honor to an Israel that tolerates the practice of idolatry in its midst, and is lukewarm at best in serving You?"


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We are looking at today's headlines. The Moslem suicide bomber is reenacting Mesha's act of sacrifice. There is no greater abomination than the sacrifice of human life as an act of Divine service, but such an act nevertheless constitutes an expression of intense devotion to God and the ultimate degree of recognition of His existence. The Attribute of Justice stands on the sidelines watching. Where is the Jewish self-sacrifice to offset this act of misguided devotion? Where are the Jews who serve God with similar devotion or who are prepared to lay down their lives in defense of the Jewish people? How can Jews possibly go about their lives as usual pursuing their everyday little pleasures in the face of such great devotion and self-sacrifice to God demonstrated by their enemies? How can You provide them with the miracles that are required to stifle the phenomenon of suicide bombers for good?


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