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Focused Passion

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

One of the most horrific pagan rituals practiced in the ancient world, known as Molech, is mentioned - and prohibited - in this week's Torah reading, both in Parshat Acharei Mot and again in Kedoshim. This was a child-sacrifice ritual, where a child would be passed through fire, and it should come as no surprise that it is prohibited by Torah law. What is surprising, though, is the context in which this law is transmitted:(1)

Do not commit incest, taking a woman and her daughter; do not [even] take her son's daughter, or her daughter's daughter, since this constitutes incest. Since they are blood relatives, it is a perversion. Do not take a woman and [then take] her sister as a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, as long as [the first one] is alive. Do not come close to a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is ritually unclean because of her menstruation; this is a sexual offense. Do not lie carnally with your neighbor's wife, to defile yourself with her. Do not give any of your offspring (lit., seed) to be initiated to Molech, so that you do not profane the name of the Almighty: I am God. Do not lie with a male as you would with a female; this is an abomination. Do not perform any sexual act with an animal to defile yourself with it. Likewise, a woman shall not give herself to an animal and allow it to mate with her; this is a detestable perversion. (Vayikra 18:17-23)

In Parshat Aharei Mot, the law of Molech is sandwiched among a list of sexual prohibitions and perversions. Although the larger headline is a more generic instruction to refrain from the pagan practices of both Egypt and Canaan,(2) the specific sequence within the chapter is puzzling. Conversely, in Parshat Kedoshim, the section begins with Molech, and the prohibition is repeated and discussed in much more detail:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, 'And to the Children of Israel, you shall say: If any person, whether a born Israelite or a proselyte who joins Israel, gives any of his children to the Molech, he must be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him to death with stone[s]. And I will direct My anger (lit., "set My face") against that person, and will cut him off (spiritually) from among his people, because he has given his children to the Molech, thus defiling what is holy to Me (or, My Sanctuary) and profaning My holy name. And if the people of the land hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his offspring to the Molech, and do not put him to death, then I will set My face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off - and all those that prostitute themselves in this way, following him and prostituting themselves for the Molech - from among their people. If a person turns to the mediums and oracles so as to prostitute himself to their ways, I will direct My anger (set my face) against him, and will cut him off (spiritually) from among his people. Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the Almighty your God. Safeguard My decrees and keep them: I am God who sanctifies you. Any person who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. Since he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood shall be upon him. If a man commits adultery with a married woman, and she is the wife of a fellow Israelite, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Vayikra 20:1-10)

In Parshat Aharei Mot (chapter 18), prohibitions are listed, without any mention of the penalties associated with transgression. Only in Parshat Kedoshim (chapter 20), the penalties for these outrages are introduced. In Kedoshim, Molech is the first law mentioned, followed by various pagan practices involving necromancy. Sexual prohibitions and their punishments, are listed only after these other two categories.

When Moshe repeats these laws and instructs the nation before his death, the law of Molech is repeated - not only in the context of necromancy, but in the very same verse:

When you come into the land which the Almighty your God is giving you, do not learn to commit the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone that makes his son or his daughter pass through fire, who practices divination, who divines auspicious times, who divines by omens, who practices witchcraft, who uses incantations, who consults mediums and oracles, or who attempts to communicate with the dead (a necromancer). Anyone involved in these practices is repulsive to God, and it was because of repulsive practices such as these that the Almighty your God is driving out [these nations] before you. You must remain totally faithful to the Almighty your God. (Devarim 18:9-13)

It appears, then, that the context in which Molech is first introduced, within the list of forbidden relationships in Parshat Aharei Mot, is somewhat irregular and presents us with a challenge as to the precise understanding of the prohibition. Apparently, the Targum Yonatan addressed this problem without raising it explicitly, and his solution resolves this contextual challenge: In his understanding of the verse, a few additional words describe the prohibition: "Do not give your seed to a gentile women who will become pregnant and bear children for idolatry."(3) This fascinating explanation of the verse explains why the law of Molech is mentioned in the list of forbidden sexual relations: in the Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan's formulation, the problem is one of intermarriage, because children produced from such a union would be subject to the whims of the mother and her pagan sensibilities and practices.

This solution is considered, and rejected out of hand, by the sages of the Mishna:

If he introduces euphemisms into the portion dealing with forbidden marriages, he is silenced. If he says, [instead of] 'do not give any of your seed to be initiated to Molech', 'do not give your seed to gentile women (who will become pregnant and bear children for idolatry)', he is both silenced and rebuked. (Mishna Megila 4:9)

The Mishna clearly rejects this teaching, but the Talmud is far less unequivocal. This teaching is retained, albeit not as a majority opinion: at the very least, one Talmudic sage apparently served as the source for the Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan's reading:

"If one says, 'Do not give any of your seed to be initiated to Molech', etc.: In the school of R. Yishmael it was stated: The text speaks of an Israelite who has intercourse with a Cuthean woman and begets from her a son for idolatry. (Talmud Bavli Megila 25a)

While this approach solves one problem - the context of the Molech prohibition in Parshat Aharei Mot - it creates others: the verse now fits neatly into the context of illicit relationships, but it does so by ignoring the other two times Molech is mentioned. In similar fashion, the Ramban(4) prefers to address Molech primarily in the context of the majority of the sources: Molech is seen as an idolatrous ritual which was believed by its practitioners to be magical. This type of magic is completely forbidden, and the Torah ends the discussion with a general demand that we reject all such behavior and banish any thoughts of incorporating outside practices into our service of God. There is nothing redeemable about idolatry; it must be completely eradicated so that we may serve God with a whole heart. We are to be tamim - perfect - in our service of God. Once again - the problem is solved by focusing on one context and ignoring the other, rendering the admonition against Molech part and parcel of the "industry" and all the processes that lead to and support idolatry but devoid of any intrinsic connection to sexuality.

Let us examine the language of the sources the Ramban focuses on, paying particular attention to the description of the adherents of these magical practices:

Then I will set My face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off - and all those that prostitute themselves in this way, following him and prostituting themselves for the Molech - from among their people. (Vayikra 20:5)

The words zonim and liznot are often translated as "to go astray"; we have translated it as "to prostitute oneself". This is a term that is most often found in connection with illicit sexual contact, though it is often used, perhaps metaphorically, regarding idolatry as well. A precise definition connotes an illicit relationship, particularly relations with a stranger.(5) The fact that this term is used in this context serves as a link between Molech and sexual sins, returning us to the context in Aharei Mot, the first appearance of Molech, in the context of forbidden relationships. Rashi's comments on this section are instructive: such practices defile the Jewish People, who are, as a collective, married (literally, set apart, 'holy') to God. Thus, any practice of idolatry is like cheating on a spouse.(6)

The Recanati(7) expands a teaching found in the Mechilta to elucidate this idea: One of the axioms of Jewish thought is centrality of the Ten Commandments that were engraved on the Tablets of Testimony. Almost equally axiomatic is our understanding that these ten principles were divided into two groups of five. However, the Mechilta teaches that the commandments should be read as two parallel or balancing principles, read from right to left. Thus, the first and sixth Commandments are a balanced set of principles that reflect and refract upon one another. The first commandment is belief in the existence of God, and the sixth is the prohibition against murder. When read in this fashion, the lesson derived would be that knowledge that there is One God who created and sustains the universe should prevent us from committing murder: God is One, and He created each of us in His image, and we may not counteract this creation or diminish this image by taking another human life.(8) Likewise, the second Commandment should be read together with the seventh, linking the prohibition of idolatry with the prohibition of illicit sexual behavior. If this is so, the placement of Molech within the context of sexual sins seems its natural milieu.(9)

This relationship, this context, may tell us even more about Molach. Judaism does not reject sexuality; Jewish law creates a context in which human sexuality can be channeled towards the creation of holiness in our lives. Much of the book of Vayikra is dedicated to these very laws, to the method for creating holiness.

As a whole, the book of Vayikra transcends time. The thread of narrative is abandoned and laws are introduced in what at times seems to be an indiscriminate fashion. There is, however, one major exception: the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon. In fact, the narrative account of their deaths could just have easily been included in the book of Shmot or the book of Bamidbar, as were other events that transpired on that same day, Rosh Chodesh Nisan of the second year following the Exodus. That was the day the Mishkan was erected, and it is mentioned both at the end of the book of Shmot,(10) and discussed in much more detail in the book of Bamidbar, particularly in Parshat Naso.(11) Had the narrative of their deaths been told in Naso, along with the rest of the events celebrating the consecration of the Mishkan, the narrative would have been more organic.

Why, then, include the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Vayikra, a book of laws of purity and ritual? There is a sobering lesson to be learned from their deaths - a lesson that goes to the very heart of book of Vayikra: The Mishkan presents an opportunity for man to approach God, to come close, to consummate the intimacy we enjoy as a nation and as individuals with the almighty. Nonetheless, this intimacy must necessarily have limitations. The most profound intimacy runs the risk of becoming profoundly devastating if there are no boundaries. Ecstasy can become destructive, deadly, if we are lost in it. Nadav and Avihu paid no heed to the boundaries placed on intimacy, and were consumed. This is the pivotal moment of the book of Vayikra: Before this point, the book is dedicated to the laws of the Temple, to the creation of this physical point of intimacy. After their deaths, Vayikra turns to laws of holiness, of creating separations and boundaries that define and thus enable us to experience this intimacy without the danger of it consuming us. Holiness defines the space in which intimacy can exist; holiness is synonymous with separation.(12) For the most part, these are not laws of rejection as much as laws of context.(13)

The laws regarding sexuality are a case in point. Physical intimacy is not rejected as "unholy"; rather, Torah law dictates context in order to insure that the powerful, almost magnetic pull of human desire is harnessed and focused, bounded in a context that will result in holiness. As in human relationships, our intimacy with the Divine should not be ruled by unbridled passion. The ability to focus our passion, to create boundaries, raises us to a level that is more God-like, whereas failure to focus and control passion can be devastating - whether in the Temple, like Nadav and Avihu, or the bedroom.

Had the prohibition of Molech been mentioned only in the context of pagan practices of magic and necromancy, we would learn that such behavior can not be redeemed and must be completely and summarily eradicated. But this not a complete picture: the prohibition against Molech also appears within the context of sexuality, a powerful urge which must be harnessed, focused and used in areas of holiness. This context teaches us that Molech, too, must be harnessed rather than rejected.

In a letter written in 1911, Rav Kook discusses the binding of Yitzchak, the Akeida, comparing the test that Avraham endured with the pagan practice of Molech.(14) Rav Kook ascribes the mindset of the adherents of Molech as a holy feeling within the hearts of parents who were willing to sacrifice even what they held most dear in order to build a relationship with the deity. Surely, the most salient element of the Akeida is that Avraham is ultimately told that God does not desire such offerings. And yet, we wonder about Avraham's desire. He, to, was willing to give his beloved, long-awaited son to God. Are these feelings positive, or should they be rejected?(15) If these feelings can be separated from pagan practice, do they represent something positive, something Judaism should incorporate, or something that should be rejected? In the words of one contemporary author, "With the introduction of Abraham's refined monotheism in the world, it was necessary to counter the objection of paganism: can the Torah's abstract concept of God compete with the reality of tangible idols? Can monotheism produce the same coarse vitality, the same passionate devotion as paganism? Or is it merely a cold, cerebral religion - theologically correct, but tepid and uninspiring?"(16)

On the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu approached the Divine with passion, and they were severely punished. Is our conclusion to be that Judaism rejects such passion? Or might we say that their emotion was appropriate, but the means through which they expressed their joy, their ecstasy, was mistaken? We may look to another episode in our history that bears similarity(17) to the case of Nadav and Avihu, but which ended very differently: King David brought the Ark and the Tablets of the Covenant "home" to Jerusalem. The scene of this great day is described in the book of Shmuel: he saw the ark which contained the precious Tablets; he danced in front of the ark with complete abandon:

And it was so, that when they that bore the ark of God had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the God with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the Ark of God with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. And so, as the Ark of the God came into the City of David, that Michal the daughter of Shaul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before God; and she despised him in her heart. And they brought in the Ark of God, and set it in its place, in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before God. And when David had finished offering the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the God of Hosts. And he distributed among all the people, among the whole multitude of Israel, both to men and women, to every one a cake of bread, and a cake made in a pan, and a sweet cake. So all the people departed to their own houses. Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Shaul came out to meet David, and said: 'How honorable is the King of Israel today, who uncovered himself today before the eyes of the handmaids of his servants as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!' And David said to Michal: 'Before God, who chose me above thy father and above all his house to appoint me prince over the People of God, over Israel, before God will I make merry. And I will be yet more vile than thus, and will be base in my own sight; and with the handmaids of whom you have spoken, among them I will feel honor.' And Michal the daughter of Shaul had no child until the day she died. (II Shmuel 6:13-23)

David's dance was derided by his wife; she thought that such behavior was unbefitting a king. As a daughter of Shaul, she thought herself as an expert in protocol and appropriate behavior for a king; she thought that David had debased himself. God thought differently: immediately following David's display of passion, ecstasy and abandon before the Ark, He sent a message to David, that he will be the one who will see to it that a house of God is built, and his kingship will endure forever.

And it came to pass that same night, that the word of God came to Natan, saying: 'Go and tell My servant David: Thus says God: Will you build Me a house for Me to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought the Children of Israel up out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a Tent and in a Tabernacle. In all the time I have walked among the Children of Israel, did I speak a word to any of leaders of the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to feed My people Israel, saying: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar? Now therefore thus shall you say to My servant David: Thus said the God of Hosts: I took you from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over My people, over Israel. And I have been with you wherever you did go, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make a great name for you, as great as the names of the greatest people on the earth. And I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disquieted no more; the children of wickedness will no longer afflict them, as they have done from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will cause you to rest from all your enemies. Moreover, God tells you that God will make a house for you. When your days are fulfilled, and you sleep with your fathers, I will set up your offspring after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him , and he shall be a son to Me; if he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men; but My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Shaul, whom I removed before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made secure forever before you; your throne shall be established forever.' Nathan spoke all these words, and relayed all this vision, to David. (II Shmuel 7:4-17)

Molech shares a root with the word melech, "king:" The practitioners of Molech accepted upon themselves complete subservience.(18) They worshipped with their entire being. They were willing to sacrifice their most precious "possessions" in service of the deity.

David's total devotion to God, expressed by his complete sacrifice of ego, catapulted him to a position of royalty forever. David would be melech (king) - forever. Furthermore, he and his descendents would build the House of God. Apparently, David's complete abandonment of self is accepted by God, and is a foundation of both the Davidic dynasty and the Beit Hamikdash.(19)

The horrific practice known as Molech must be eradicated; the Torah categorizes this practice together with other pagan, superstitious behaviors. However, the core passion that this practice reflected, the willing subservience to a higher power, is what lies at the core of our acceptance of God as King. This should not be discarded. It should be brought into our lives, focused and concentrated through Torah law, as an essential component of holiness.



1. This question, while ignored by most commentators, is raised in one Midrash. See Pisikta Zutrata (Lekach Tov) Vayikra Acharei Mot page 51b.

2. See Vayikra 18:3-5.

3. Vayikra 18:21.

4. Ramban Vayikra 18:21.

5. See Menachem Zevi Kaddari, A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (7Ramat Gan : Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), page 255f.

6. Rashi, Vayikra 20:3.

7. Recanati Vayikra 18:21.

8. Mechilta d'Rebbi Yishmael, Yitro, Masechta d'b'Chodesh, parsha 8.

9. To see how this approach explains the other commandments, see Rashi, Shir Hashirim 4:5.

10. See Shmot 40:33.

11.See Bamidbar chapter 7.

12. See Rashi Shmot 19:2.

13. See Midrash Rabbah Vayikra section 22:10.

14. I have discussed this letter previously in connection with the Golden Calf. See

15. Iggrot Hara'ayah, volume 2 page 43.

16. Rabbi Chanan Morrison,

17. This section is read as the Haftorah of Parshat Shmini, where the episode of Nadav and Avihu is told.

18. See Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 64a.

19. See Kedushat Levi Avot 2:6.


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