‘The Battle of Anghiari.’.
(photo credit: PETER PAUL RUBENS AFTER LEONARDO DA VINCI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
If, after the Holocaust, Jews adopted a mandate to never forget, then perhaps no biblical commandment discomfits modern Jews more than the decree to exterminate the nation of Amalek.
This obligation not only demands to “never forget” Amalek’s crime – a ruthless attack on the weary Israelites following the Exodus – but also requires that the Israelites “expunge Amalek’s remembrance from under heaven.”
The Bible takes this imperative quite seriously, as evidenced by King Saul losing his throne for warring with Amalek yet sparing their king and animals. The Talmud asserts that Saul had ethical misgivings in fulfilling the commandment: “Did their children and animals also sin?” he wondered. Yet the Sages dismissed his claim because of his own shortcoming, noting that Saul would later not hesitate to kill the women, children and animals of Nob because the city had aided his rival, David.
Nonetheless, the qualms articulated in the Talmud prove that moderns are not the first to have misgivings over the biblical imperative.
In fact, Louis Feldman has shown that similar qualms are displayed in the first-century writings of Philo and Josephus.
Feldman accentuates the challenge by noting that while there are several parallel quests in other ancient cultures to exterminate enemies of a given time, not one of them demands the destruction of a people and their descendants for eternity. This eternal vengeance seemingly goes against the notion of biblical justice. As the halachist Rabbi Avraham Bornstein asked, “The seed of Amalek is punished for the sins of their fathers. But the Torah itself writes, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be killed for their fathers.’” Many commentators throughout the centuries have sought to provide apologetic yet genuinely held explanations for this commandment. As Prof. Avi Sagi has documented, Jewish exegetes never relied on divine fiat as a moral validation for this command. They believed this commandment could stand on moral grounds and therefore tried to explain God’s decree.
Many commentators, such as Abravanel, sought to justify Amalek’s destruction because of its historical wickedness in utterly violating just war standards. They pointed to Amalek’s vicious attack on the weak Israelites who, after the Exodus, posed no threat to it. Accordingly, the harshness of its punishment would serve as a moral protest and deterrent to such evil deeds.
Others, like Nahmanides, asserted that Amalek poses a constant challenge to God’s dominion over this world, following in the footsteps of its ancestor Esau.
A different strand of interpreters, including rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Tzadok of Lublin, understood the passages more symbolically. They perceived the Amalekite-Israelite battle as a figurative representation of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Yet as Rabbi Ya’acov Medan has noted, these interpretations justify the eternal commandment by neutralizing the moral qualms of the bloodshed it would entail.
Some contemporary writers, however, have noted that the threat of actual warfare has long been defused in the halachic tradition. For starters, some commentators believe that the commandment is applicable only in the messianic era. More significantly, many point to the tradition that Sennacherib mixed various peoples and thereby eternally prevented any ability to identify an ethnic Amalekite.
Some ultra-nationalists have countered that in a tribute to Jewish sovereignty delivered 11 years after the Holocaust, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik applied the Amalek decree to any nation, such as Nazi Germany, which sets out to eliminate the Jewish people. Yet in an overlooked interview with Stanley Boylan, Soloveitchik clarified that this was inapplicable to innocent offspring or spouses. This approach draws from the writings of Maimonides, who suggested that the commandment to kill Amalek was contingent on their refusal to repent. Maimonides drew from certain midrashim that indicated that an ethnic Amalekite could even convert. Indeed, the Talmud asserts that descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak! The moral apologetics and halachic argumentation go a long way in neutralizing the fundamentalism that might grow from this commandment. Nonetheless, it still presents ethical challenges to even the greatest of sages. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein once recalled how in a stage of adolescent doubt regarding these types of moral challenges, he gained strength from reading that the great talmudist Reb Chaim Soloveitchik would regularly arise early to see if a woman had abandoned her unwanted child on his doorstep. Lichtenstein concluded that if Reb Chaim, with his deep moral care for a baby, managed to “live deeply with the totality of Halacha,” including that of killing Amalekite children, then so could he. Not through less ethical sensitivity, but through an even greater faith in a beneficent God.
Ultimately, the historical attempt to neutralize the ways in which fundamentalists might frightfully misinterpret these laws should guide us to greater moral clarity with regard to contemporary warfare. Jews cannot be responsible, even indirectly, for the intentional slaughter of innocent nonbelligerents, as Lichtenstein himself argued in a powerful condemnation of the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Even as we continue to fulfill the commandment to “remember Amalek,” we must never forget that in times of war, moral equivocation is religiously intolerable. ■ The author directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential doctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody