Purim and Shabbat Zachor, when we read about the attack of the Amalekites, are fast approaching. Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, poses a question in light of the resurgence of the Otzma Yehudit party ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections: are we still commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek? In our modern society, should the message be interpreted differently?
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This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.
On Purim, we are rightly appalled by the fact that Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people. Yet we seldom notice that we were commanded to do the very same thing to Haman’s people, to Amalek, in Exodus 17, which we read on Purim morning, and Deutoronomy 25, which we read on Shabbat Zakhor.
In the Haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor, the Prophet Samuel orders King Saul to “attack Amalek. spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3). In other words, we are instructed to commit genocide. This is morally problematic in and of itself; it is doubly problematic after the Holocaust.
During the biblical period, we were attacked by many peoples. What was so awful about Amalek’s attack? Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history?
Some rabbis say that Amalek deviated from the norms of war. They attacked a defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, just for the sake of attacking them. They had nothing to gain from the attack since the Israelites had just left Egypt; it would lead neither to improving their reputation as warriors nor to significant spoils. It was an unjust war motivated by hatred.
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer (Hungary, 19th century) emphasized the words “undeterred by fear of God” (Deut. 25:18). If Amalek attacked the Israelites immediately after God redeemed them from Egypt with signs and wonders, it shows that they had no fear of God. That is why Exodus says that God will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16). It is, so to speak, a war between God and Amalek.
Despite the biblical commandment to blot out the memory of Amalek, a number of rabbinic sources express clear discomfort with this commandment.
Rabbi Mani says (Yoma 22b) that King Saul argued with God: If the Torah said (Deut. 21:1-9) that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring an eglah arufah, a sacrifice, as a form of atonement for that one death, “how much the more so all of these souls! And if an [Amalekite] sinned, did his animal sin? If adults sinned, did children sin?”
Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) asked why we don’t recite a blessing before we read Parashat Zakhor on the Shabbat before Purim. “Because we do not bless regarding destruction, even the destruction of non-Jews, as we see that God said [to the angels after the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds]: ‘my handiwork are drowning in the sea and you are singing?!’ (Megillah 10b)”.
This type of discomfort led to allegorical interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek. The Zohar says that Amalek is Samael or Satan, while in Barcelona (ca. 1300) there were commentators who said that Amalek means Yetzer Hara or the evil inclination. In other words, we are commanded to blot out Satan or Yetzer Hara, not a physical people called Amalek.
Indeed, the commandment to blot out Amalek is omitted entirely by two of the most important codifiers of Jewish law — Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher in his Tur (Spain, ca. 1340) and Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh (Safed, 1556). Other important rabbis eliminated the obligation to destroy Amalek by explaining that, in our day, Amalek no longer exists.
Nonetheless, there were many important rabbis who ruled that Amalek still exists and that we are still commanded to remember their deed and to destroy them. This was the opinion of Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot and Mishneh Torah and of Rabbi Pinhass Halevi of Barcelona in his Sefer Hahinukh (13th century).
Indeed, many rabbis proceeded to identify Amalek with specific people such as the Christians and the Armenians.
In 1898, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld (1849-1932) refused to go out to greet Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited Palestine, saying that he has a tradition from the Gaon of Vilna that the Germans are the descendants of Amalek. Not surprisingly, many prominent Jews such as Simon Dubnow, Arthur Szyk and Raul Hilberg identified the Nazis with Amalek beginning in the 1930s.
Rabbis Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and others say that anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek e.g. the Nazis, the Soviets, Nasser and the Mufti. More recently, Rabbi Jack Riemer has written that the Muslim fundamentalists are Amalek.
Sadly enough, some Jews have identified other Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941) said that Jews who oppose Jewish law in a spirit of defiance are of the seed of Amalek. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Hayyim (1838-1933), said that the Jewish communists in Russia are of the seed of Amalek, while some Jews in Israel today have said that “all the leftists, from Meretz” are Amalek.
Finally, various Christians have referred to themselves as “Israel” and to their enemies as “Amalek”! The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes called the Muslims who conquered Eretz Yisrael “Amalek”. In 1095, Pope Urban II told the Crusaders that he was Moses, they were the Israelites and the Muslims were Amalek. Martin Luther (d. 1546) claimed that the Jews who fought against Jesus were Amalek. Finally, in 1689, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather preached a sermon to Christian soldiers who were fighting against the Indians. He urged his flock to fight against “Amalek who afflict Israel [=the Puritans] in the desert”.
Personally, I identify with the discomfort expressed above regarding the commandment to destroy an entire people, despite the gravity of their original deed. I agree with the many rabbis throughout history who eliminated this mitzvah from their codices or who said that there are no longer any Amalekites in the world. We have seen above just how dangerous it is to identify your current enemy with Amalek. The identification changes from country to country and from place to place and it is even used by Christians against us!
Though it would seem that the Amalek story is entirely negative in nature, I would like to conclude with two positive, ethical lessons which we can learn from the Amalek passages in Exodus and Deutoronomy.
In Pesikta d’rav Kahana, Rabbi Banai explained Proverbs 11:1-2 to mean that if you use unjust weights and measures, a non-Jewish nation will wage war against your generation. Rabbi Levi derived the same lesson from Deuteronomy 25:13-17. According to this midrash, Amalek’s attack was a punishment for unethical behavior. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance. In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.
Finally, we shall cite Prof. Nehama Leibowitz. What was the dreadful sin of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who fought with Israel? Because only of him is it written: “undeterred by fear of God“. In all four biblical passages which use this expression, the litmus test for “fear of God” is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation.
In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story — not hatred of Amalek but an aversion to their actions. In the State of Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers — new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect “the stragglers” so that we may say of the State of Israel: “surely there is fear of God in this place”.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.