I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a guest at a synagogue service when we read a text similar to the one we read this weekend. The Book of Leviticus is full of such texts – about High Priests and purification rituals and sacrifices of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of blood on altars.
We ‘insiders’ just take these texts for granted. We think: this is where we have reached in our annual cycle of reading. We don’t have a choice. These are our sacred texts, they have been read or chanted word for word, unchanged, week by week, for two millennia. They are central to what’s held the Jewish people together for all this time.
But if you are an outsider - if you aren’t Jewish, or if you are Jewish but an infrequent visitor to services - you come to the synagogue and hear about all these arcane and sometimes frankly repellent cultic practices that Jews don’t do anymore and haven’t done for 2000 years, because we don’t have a Temple any more (thank God, one might say). We’ve moved on into a completely different way of expressing our religious and spiritual identity. The synagogue service is part of that.
And – apart from a small fanatical minority – the vast majority of Jews never want to have anything ever again to do with relating to God, to the divine, in that archaic fashion. And yet we still read these texts, devotedly, and study them and delve into them and repeat them and teach them to our youngsters - as if they contain hidden depths of meaning and significance.
So if you come in from the outside you might well think: what a weird people this is, the Jewish people, the so-called ‘people of the Book’, immersed in these ancient stories and texts and rituals, that seem to bear no relationship to everyday life, to modern life.
Take just the three verses that begin chapter 20 of Leviticus, with their repeated refrain “Don’t give up your offspring to Molech” - Molech was one of the local Canaanite gods at the time these texts were composed, when child sacrifice was still prevalent. “Don’t give up your offspring to Molech” means ‘don’t sacrifice your children’ - that’s what the other tribes do, the other people in the region; but for you, the Israelite community, it’s a crime condemned in the strongest possible terms. It deserves a death penalty in its own right, the Torah says.
And we read it and think: child-sacrifice? That’s nothing to do with us. Deliberately killing children, offering them to the gods - it’s barbaric. Yes, it might have been done far off in the past, in so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, but what’s the point of still repeating it now, in our sacred scriptures? Maybe it has historical value to be reminded how far we have come as a culture, but - like sacrificing goats and bullocks as a way of connecting with holiness - surely it’s part of a whole way of thinking that has disappeared? Surely we don’t need to be reminded when we come to the synagogue that we shouldn’t sacrifice our children to an idol, or an ideology.
Here are three examples of child sacrifice that are still being practiced. (And I could offer a dozen more). They are taken from one newspaper on a single day from the first week in April this year.
First example – far away, but brought into our homes through the newspapers and television and carried around in our pockets on our screens: rows of lifeless children, some still foaming at the mouth, in a hospital, targeted, bombed, in Syria last month. They’d been taken there directly from the chemical strike in Idlib province. That second wave of bombing, of the hospital to which the victims had been taken, was a deliberate act of child-sacrifice after the first toxic strike. Back in September in besieged Aleppo the two largest hospitals were deliberately targeted : 96 children died - sacrificed. “You cannot imagine what we see every day: children who are coming to us as body parts. We collect the body parts and wrap them in shrouds and bury them,” said one of the nurses at one of the affected hospitals, who was there during the bombings.
Two and a half thousand years ago the compilers of the Torah saw the crime and judged the crime worthy of the severest punishment. “Do not sacrifice your own offspring”. This text isn’t past – it’s not from a bygone age. It’s a text speaking to today. And who knows for how long into our collective futures?
Second example, different kind. Not literal child-sacrifice but symbolic sacrifice of our offspring. Nearer to home. On our doorsteps. A joint investigation by Greenpeace and the Guardian newspaper last month revealed that hundreds of thousands of children at schools and nurseries across England and Wales are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution from diesel vehicles. Not just in London but in towns and cities across the UK. Prolonged exposure to the nitrogen dioxide in traffic fumes reduces lung growth in children and youngsters, produces long-term ill-health and can cause premature death.
What does this mean? It suggests that the cars we drive kill our children. This isn’t about accidents, it’s about air pollution. Who is responsible for this? Are we responsible for this? We don’t want to think that the cars we drive, the cars we choose to buy, are resulting in child-sacrifice. Yet this seemingly archaic text, the Torah, prompts these uncomfortable, inconvenient, in-your-face questions.
Final example. Another difficult one, overtly political this time. The Torah isn’t interested in party politics but it is interested in justice, and injustice, and questions of morality about how a society functions. So, third example of child-sacrifice, symbolic sacrifice: the benefits cuts that came into force last month in the UK will push a quarter of a million more children into poverty. Remove tax credit and a child doesn’t get breakfast. All the children’s charities in the UK will tell you the same thing: the basics of keeping our children safe, healthy and developing are increasingly under threat.
London already has the highest child poverty rate in the country. It’s not only that the freeze in benefits rates and cuts to child tax credits has these consequences but when central government cuts the money local councils can put into child social care there are significant knock-on effects in relation to child mental health problems, nutrition and child exploitation. “Do not sacrifice your children to Molech” – to a god, an idol, an ideology. It’s painful to know that children are the hidden sacrifice of a system we’ve voted for: austerity.
But the sad reality is that if you worship at the shrine of nationalism; or unfettered economic neoliberalism; or austerity, then the victims begin to pile up.
It is the task of religion - certainly of Judaism - to speak truth to power. As the prophets of Israel knew, such truths are often unwelcome. These ancient texts still have the power to disturb us, to disrupt our complacency, to challenge us to question ourselves about the choices we make.
Why else do we read them, year in year out, why else do we pass on their wisdom to the next generation? Jews are – in spite of everything we have suffered and experienced – almost perversely attached to remaining eternal optimists. We believe that things can change, things can improve: we stubbornly insist that if we listen in to the divine spirit which infuses these texts of our tradition, listen in and act upon the values they espouse, we can create the kind of society, the kind of world, we would like to live in. And pass on to our children. This is the promise encoded in our scriptures. It’s hard to believe sometimes, and I suppose it’s easy to ignore. But over the generations we have learnt that we ignore it at our peril.
We still insist that – whatever our own doubts, and whatever opposition we find both inside and outside the Jewish community – that Jewish life depends on, is rooted in, a continual wrestling with the texts of our tradition, however bizarre they might seem, and a continual attempt to live out, be true to, the inner spiritual and moral values they espouse.
[an abbreviated version of a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 6th, 2017]