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How Can We Deal With Amalek In A Sensitive And Thoughtful Way?

On the Shabbos before Purim, there is a special commandment to remember to forget the evil nation of Amalek. We do this right before Purim because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, who planned to annihilate the Jewish people, was a descendent off Amalek.

We fulfill our obligation of remembering to forget by hearing a passage read from the Torah about what Amalek did to us and how we must eradicate them from our memory. On their way out of Egypt, the ancient Amalekites launched a vicious sneak attack on the Children of Israel preying upon the weak and weary. Not only were they the first nation to attack us, the damage Amalek did put us in a vulnerable position from that point forward.

In midresh Tanchuma, our sages explain that Amalek’s attack was like a bathtub of scalding water where an idiot jumps in. While he suffers the consequences of the boiling water, he lowers the temperature for anyone else who comes along. At first the Jews seemed invincible after our exodus from the powerful nation of Egypt. But then when Amalek attacked us, while we were victorious against them, we no longer had the same status in the eyes of the other nations.

Besides remembering to forget Amalek, the Torah also commands us to destroy them. Because no one knows who they are any more, thankfully, this mitzvah does not apply to us and hasn’t for thousands of years. Additionally, not every rabbinic authority held that we had to kill all Amalekites, even when we knew who they were. Maimonides believed that an Amalekite could renounce his murderous ways by becoming a righteous gentile or convert to Judaism. Then we would no longer be obligated to kill him. (See Rabbi Ari Kahn for more ideas on the topic.) Other authorities, like Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, explain in his commentary on Deuteronomy 25 that we are obligated to destroy “the remembrance of Amalek” rather than actual Amalekites.

Every religious Jew I have ever spoken to has always acknowledged that they struggle with how to understand this mitzvah even though it is only theoretical at this point. But several years ago, I met someone who told me that when she was in school one of her rabbis told the class that if there was an Amalekite baby right here right now that he 100% knew was an Amalekite, he would just get in his car and run it over.

I was deeply shocked and highly disturbed upon hearing what this rabbi said. Even if this rabbi didn’t follow Maimonides or Rav Hirsch and believed that with 100% knowledge of the Amalekite status he’d be obligated to murder a baby, it is so troubling that he had no hesitation or qualms about committing such a gruesome act. And he said this to a room full of students, no less!

Yes, we are required to follow the commandments of the Torah, but the Torah commands us to be compassionate beings. What we find in this mitzvah is a tension between conflicting Jewish values.

The purpose of Jewish law is not to turn us into blind robots who follow orders without questions or ignore the tension that exists in the performance of certain commandments. Indeed, it is meant to develop us into refined human beings who live in order improve our personal character traits and ethics, always striving to become more like the Almighty. The commandments exist, in part, to push us to question them, to question God, to not take anything at face value. Our greatest leaders like Abraham and Moses openly and courageously questioned God when they thought His decrees were unjust. In fact “struggles with God” is the meaning of the world Yisrael (Israel).

While this rabbi surely thought that his declaration of commitment to Jewish law was a proud sign of his religiosity, I would argue that by not teaching his students the deep discomfort we should feel around something morally reprehensible and the fact that he had not looked for other intellectual approaches in dealing with such a challenging topic meant that he had missed the mark on giving over our traditions with the depth and nuance they demand. It is a miracle that the Jewish people have survived throughout the generations, and we must ensure that our beautiful teachings, with all of their complexities, survive as well.

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  • Judith Flohr says on February 18, 2021

    Avraham was going to sacrifice his son for Hashem. The word of the Torah is law, even if it makes us feel icky – that’s just my opinion, and I’m pretty sure that’s backed up in the Talmud. It’s greater than us. Shaul was punished for having rachamim when he shouldn’t have. I’m not saying the teacher was right to say what he did – he seems pretty extra, on a superficial level without knowing all the details – but the word of the Torah goes above our perceived sense of wrong and right. I don’t follow it because it makes me feel like a good person. I’m a good person because I follow it. It’s a hard law to understand and something that should be spoken about with delicacy, but I’m not ashamed. I have faith. I’m glad we don’t know who the amalekim are in current times, but that doesn’t make it any less of an obligation.
    On a side note, it’s easy to hear the story and judge the teacher in it immensely. But we don’t know the full context of the story. So I’m going to withhold my judgement.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on February 18, 2021

      Thanks for your comment, Judith. I understand that as Jews we are obligated to follow Jewish law. I also understand that Avraham was going to go through with the Akeida, though Rav Amital held that he purposely slowed down all the steps and davened along the way that God would let him off the hook. I also understand that Shaul was criticized for being too lenient. However, there is an out with Rambam’s opinion. And there is also the notion of conveying the truly deep discomfort and tension involved in this mitzvah. I wasn’t in the class, but the student who was told me the rabbi blurted it out as a positive thing, as a sign of his unwavering religiosity, when I believe that the duty of an educator is to convey the truly complex and challenging nature of such a mitzvah. I have personally seen other speakers and educators treating difficult topics without the nuance they deserve. It is imperative that we convey the deeply challenging nature of parts of the Torah lest we lose sight of the moral beings we are meant to strive to become.

      Reply
      • Yosef Graber says on February 21, 2021

        I would like to comment on the topic of the Akeidah – the “binding of Isaac”. PLease consider a very important point that so often gets overlooked, but when you think into it, it finally makes sense.
        We need to look at the historical context. Throughout the ancient world, human sacrifice was more than common. It was rampant. Wherever there was civilization, there was idolatry, which not only condoned human sacrifice, but encouraged it. The historical evidence for this is overwhelming. When Avraham was told to sacrifice his son, the message seemed to be saying, “You can do this just like all the other peoples.” Yitzchak was not oblivious to what was going on, as the verse indicates. Yet, when it came to the moment of truth, the angel said not to do it, not even a small scratch. What was going on? A very bad tasteless joke? “Go kill your son, …no no, don’t do it, I was just kidding”
        There’s a message to him, and susequently to the world: “This is NOT what I want you do. Don’t be like all the nations of the world that engage in this practice.. And teach this to the world that every human life is valuable. But I had to bring you here in order to know this.
        This approach gives us a much deeper insight into the purpose of Avraham’s “trial”.
        Yes, HaShem had to get Avraham to the point where he was about to execute His command in order to give this lesson over. Avraham’s trial – his challenge – was not only about being willing to give up his son, but about the experience of going there, and finally getting the “wake-up call” to declare “Don’t do ANYTHING to him.”
        Some commentators say that this was the beginning of abolishing human sacrifices in general.

        Reply
  • Zvi Blech says on February 19, 2021

    JIC,
    To me your response is just as guilty of over simplification as the above mentioned teacher.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on February 19, 2021

      Thanks for your comment, Zvi. How is it an oversimplification to say that in matters of education and in our personal understanding of mitzvos, we should try to find ways for our sense of right and wrong to align with commandments and if there is no way to do that, to at least struggle with the mitzvah in which we are obligated?

      Reply
  • Nechama says on February 19, 2021

    I definitely struggled with this and still do , but this Rabbi was also wrong because biblically when Jews kill we do it in the most humane way . Running a baby over is not a painless instant death , which is how we’d have to do it if we were commanded to kill Amalek and actually knew who they were.

    Reply
  • Marc R. Hess says on February 19, 2021

    Many have pointed out that the Torah hints at Abraham’s discomfort with the order to schect Isaac (https://www.jstor.org/stable/41062716?seq=1), for example, by covering in very great detail all the steps he takes before getting to it (saddles his ass, splits the wood, takes up a firestone, etc.). This suggests that Abraham expects the God that he has come to know as a God of many things, including Love, will tell him to drop the knife. According to the great Herman Wouk, OBM, this was the main point of Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”. There were many gods in the ancient world who were said to order their adherents to sacrifice their children. Abraham trusted that the true God would not order this.

    Reply
    • Jill says on February 23, 2021

      Hi, I have never heard anyone in any Orthodox community speak like this Rabbi did, and I have lived in and been part of several Orthodox communities. Therefore I think it’s spreading malicious speech about religious Jews something you have dedicated your life and this site to preventing. Would you consider removing this post?

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on February 23, 2021

        Thanks for your comment, Jill. I indicated that everyone I’ve ever spoken to was uncomfortable with this mitzvah, but much to my shock, several people are defending this approach. We can only defend Orthodox Jews when we are defensible. An approach that removes thinking or feeling is exactly what has led to the few people commenting on the article that nothing is wrong – is what we want to face. Our goal here isn’t only to look good but to be good and I believe this is an important lesson that needs to be brought out.

        Reply
  • Hersh says on February 23, 2021

    Your mistaken perspective is most revealed when you said “Because no one knows who they are any more, thankfully, this mitzvah does not apply to us”. How you can be thankful not to do a mitzvah is well beyond the pale of a sincere Jew. Our whole life is a war with our yetzer hara, and certainly any of us if given the choice would happily swallow a pill that would “turn us into blind robots who follow [G-d’s] orders without questions” and save us from our yetzer hara.
    Of course G-d Himself has other plans, and we accept with love the yissurim of the yetzer hara that He sent our way. But can you really defend someone who instigates that struggle by selling a ” deep discomfort we should feel” in doing what is right?

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on February 23, 2021

      Thanks for your comment, Hersh. But I vehemently disagree with your approach. The challenge with the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek is that we also have a mitzvah to be compassionate and merciful. If a person can so easily commit an unmerciful act, has he truly internalized the values of compassion? I would say no. Secondly, I would not gladly take a pill to become a blind robot – that would turn me into either an animal or an angel – two beings with no free will. My job as a human being is to feel, to think, to weigh, to struggle. I believe that Hashem purposely gave us a certain number of commandments that contradict other commandments in order to put us into this position of thinking and feeling and struggling.

      Reply
      • Hersh says on February 23, 2021

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. There is no inherent contradiction between any two mitzvahs, there is only a lack of understanding them. If a person has full clarity of the Torah (as many strive for) there is no inherent challenge or struggle. The only thing we struggle with is the confusion of the yetzer hara, which is the force that causes misunderstanding. That challenge is a means not a goal, and when you have the ability to rise above the confusion and understand that the 100% compassionate thing to do is to kill an Amalekite baby (if that is indeed the law) as the above-mentioned Rabbi stated, it is rather appalling to say that it is more honest to cling to misplaced compassion instead of absorbing real Truth.

        Again, when you stated “My job as a human being is to feel, to think, to weigh, to struggle” that is only a means to aligning your mind and body to the divine. Your instinct to label the mitzvah of destroying Amalek as “unmerciful” when the Torah (by definition, darchecha darchei noam) informs you that it is in fact merciful is where the real struggle for us should be. So please, let yourself and other actually succeed at that war and don’t stay in the dark fighting the angel long after you could have won.

        Reply
        • Allison Josephs says on February 23, 2021

          Thank you for your thoughtful response. My rabbanim are of the opinion that sometimes different mitzvos actually do cause us to have an internal conflict, as there are two contradictory values we must consider. Take kashrus: my friend keeps 100% fully kosher, but does not keep the standard that I keep. Do I offend her and tell her I won’t eat in her kitchen – which would be an issur dorisa – in order to keep my regular kashrus? Or should I be less strict on my normal level so as to preserve her feelings? There are numerous situations like this that arise.

          I believe that thinking and feeling IS aligning myself to the Divine. I believe that Hashem set up challenges like Amalek to push His children to delve into complex thoughts, conversations, and personal struggles. To simply be a blind robot that neither thinks nor feels would be a waste of a human experience and soul. I don’t believe we are going to come to an agreement on this one, because this is a teaching I have learned from my rebbeim that speaks to me very deeply and I believe that it is important to put it out there as an approach that readers who similarly struggle can look to and see that there is a place for them in the frum experience.

          Reply
  • Meria says on February 23, 2021

    If only Amalek had the same thought process and considering for us as in this article….

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on February 23, 2021

      For sure, but we should feel proud to have thinking and feeling and compassion as part of our Jewish DNA.

      Reply
  • moshe shoshan says on February 24, 2021

    Thank you for this important piece. as reflected in the comments, unfortunately the morally nuanced position that you give voice to, is increasingly marginal in the Orthodox community and indeed in the world at large.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on February 24, 2021

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t know how prevalent the issue is. But there seems to be a trend in some places to simplify that which must not be simplified. So we need to discuss it and make sure our tradition is given the nuance it deserves.

      Reply
      • moshe shoshan says on March 8, 2021

        indeed.

        Reply
  • Stefan says on February 24, 2021

    Is there a possible conflict between Pikuach Nefesh and the commandment you discuss?

    I am not a scholar of Talmud! But IF there is a conflict, one could make an earnest decision to not harm the baby (that would be my approach for sure). Then life continues and there is room to discuss, wrestle, be judged.

    Reply
  • Basya says on February 26, 2021

    Thank you for this thoughtful and nuanced perspective, with which I heartily agree. As I was taught, we must always consider the opinions of our sages in the tradition, not just in the Talmud but as it has come down to us over the centuries. The Torah is our basis and starting point, but we rely on our rabbis to provide us with guidance for the times and places in which we live now. Prior to the Haskalah movement, when tradition was under seige from within, rebbeim were more able to provide flexibility in interpretation than many feel is appropriate today.

    Additionally, there’s the ancient rabbinic dictum “dina d’malkhuta dina,” “the law of the land is the law.” This important guidance prevents anyone from murdering babies, G-d forbid, which is certainly illegal everywhere. This rule for how we conduct ourselves in the golus is meant to protect us from doing things that will bring anger down on us from the majority population. We don’t behave like them in important ways, but we don’t transgress civil laws unless it’s a matter of being forced to murder, commit adultery, or participate in idolatry. While that teacher’s zeal is commendable, his teaching on that point is a shonda.

    Thank you, JITC, for providing an important opportunity for discussion.

    Reply

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