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 in Deuteronomy 25, which we read on Shabbat Zachor.
In the Haftarah of Shabbat Zachor, 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, 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 nations. What was so awful about Amalek’s attack? 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.
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: The Torah says (Deut. 21:1-9) that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring an eglah arufah 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?”
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 (evil inclination).
Indeed, this commandment is omitted entirely by two of the most important codes of Jewish law – the Tur (Spain, ca. 1340) and the Shulhan Aruch (Safed, 1556). Other prominent rabbis, such as Rabbi Abraham, the son of Maimonides; Yosef Babad; Avraham Bornstein; and Hayyim Hirschenson, eliminated the obligation to destroy Amalek by explaining that Amalek no longer exists.
Nonetheless, there were many important rabbis such as Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot and Mishneh Torah and Rabbi Pinhas Halevi of Barcelona in his Sefer Hahinuch (13th century) who ruled that Amalek still exists and that we are still commanded to remember their deed and to destroy them.
Indeed, many rabbis identified Amalek with a 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.
Rabbi 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, former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Mufti. More recently, various Jewish leaders have claimed that Arafat, Arabs, Palestinians and Muslim fundamentalists are Amalek.
Sadly enough, some Jews have identified other Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941) said that Jews who “cast off the burden of the Torah” are of the seed of Amalek. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen (1838-1933), said that the Jewish communists in Russia are of the seed of Amalek, while Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (1920-2013) said that Yossi Sarid, the former leader of Meretz “must be erased like 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, in a sermon to Christian soldiers fighting against the Indians, 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 that we can derive from the Amalek passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
In Pesikta d’rav Kahana, Rabbi Banai explains 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 that 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 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.”
The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.
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