The First Word: Are Jews still commanded to blot out Amalek?

We are instructed to commit genocide, which is morally problematic in and of itself.

firstword (photo credit: Hungarian National Gallery)
(photo credit: Hungarian National Gallery)
On Purim, we are rightly appalled by Haman's attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Yet we seldom notice that we are twice commanded to do the 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 Haftara 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." In short, 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. Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history? Some rabbis say that Amalek, by attacking a defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, deviated from the norms of war. It was an unjust war that offered no conceivable gain, and therefore was motivated solely 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 clarity of the biblical commandment, a number of rabbinic sources express clear discomfort with the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek. Rabbi Mani says (Yoma 22b) that King Saul argued with God: If the Torah says that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring 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'acov Haim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) asked why we don't recite a blessing before Parashat Zachor 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?'" This type of discomfort led to allegorical interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek. The Zohar says Amalek is Samael or Satan, while in Barcelona (ca. 1300) there were commentators who said that Amalek means Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. In other words, we are commanded to blot out Satan or the 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'acov ben Asher in hisTur and Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulhan Aruch. Other important rabbis eliminated the obligation by explaining that, in our day, Amalek no longer exists. Nonetheless, there were many important rabbis, such as Maimonides and Rabbi Pinhas Halevi of Barcelona, who ruled that Amalek still exists, and that we are still commanded to remember their deed and to destroy them. Some rabbis even proceeded to identify Amalek with a specific people. In 1898, Rabbi Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld refused to go out to greet Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited Palestine, citing the Gaon of Vilna's view that the Germans are 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, Nasser and the Mufti. More recently, Rabbi Jack Riemer has written that the Muslim fundamentalists are Amalek. Sadly, some Jews have identified other Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941) said that Jews who defy Jewish law are of the seed of Amalek. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Haim, associated Jewish communists in Russia with Amalek, and some Jews in Israel today do so to their ideological opponents. 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 claimed the same of the Jews who fought against Jesus. Finally, in 1689, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather urged Christian soldiers fighting the Indians to defeat "Amalek who afflicts Israel [=the Puritans] in the desert." I SHARE the discomfort 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 mitzva from their codices, or who said that Amalek no longer exists. We have seen just how dangerous it is to identify your current enemy with Amalek. The identification changes over time and place, and is even used by Christians against us! Though it would seem that the Amalek story is entirely negative in nature, there are two positive, ethical lessons which we can learn from it. In Pesikta d'rav Kahana, Proverbs 11:1-2 is interpreted that if you use unjust weights and measures, a non-Jewish nation will wage war against your generation. 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. Professor Nehama Leibowitz noted that in all four biblical passages which use the expression, the litmus test for "undeterred by 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, perhaps the most important lesson is not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In 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 is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.