Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Balancing the Necessity and Abhorrence of Violence: Of Terrorists and Amalek by Gidon Rothstein

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts, Philosophy

Balancing the Necessity and Abhorrence of Violence: Of Terrorists and Amalek 

Tu B’Shvat goes by, a holiday that continues to grow in popularity, especially as the environmental movement takes further hold (we hope), as we become more aware of our relationship with the earth.  With its passing, not to be seen again until next year, we begin to look forward to Purim, another holiday that is justly popular, since it calls for raucous celebration, a good time to be had by all.

Just before Purim, we face one of the underbellies of Judaism, a set of ideas so challenging to our Westernized sensibilities that many of us choose to ignore it, slough it aside, sweep it under our ideological rug.  I speak, of course, of the obligation to wipe out Amalek, an obligation that, in the Torah’s presentation, would require us to kill not only combatants but noncombatants, women, and children, seemingly for their genetic flaw of being members of Amalek.

This discomfort leads to an odd situation in which many Jews strive mightily to fulfill the obligation to remember Amalek—which is why many synagogues have multiple extra readings of Parashat Zachor, of the section of the Torah that refers to the commandment to wipe out Amalek, so that absolutely everyone who wants to can hear the reading—even as they, in conversation, make clear their discomfort with the basic ideas underlying that reading.

I don’t need to confront the deepest difficulties of this mitzvah to note that we fail to recognize elements of it that would allow us to feel instantly more comfortable with it.  I start from an interesting note in a recent New York Times Magazine article.   As the Times reported it, several of President Obama’s top advisers assert that the President considers his speech in Cairo, where he began the process of rebuilding ties to the Arab world, as a crucial part of his counterterrorism strategy.  For the President, in other words, fostering an atmosphere in which terrorism is less attractive is part of winning the battle against it.

Others have greater expertise and interest in evaluating the accuracy of that view in contemporary realities, but the idea offers us another way to look at the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek.  First, I should note how theoretical this conversation would seem to be: we do not currently know of Amalek as a nation and, furthermore, are probably only obligated to wipe out Amalek once we have a return of a king to the Jewish people.

Amalek: An Obligation to Kill?

Before I offer strategies that might make the mitzvah less morally problematic, I want to note that it is an obligation, so that a Jew cannot really say, “Well, I would never do that.”  As with every other obligation, it is the responsibility of all those so commanded to strive to prepare themselves to fulfill it should the opportunity arise.  Just as we strive to study Torah better, to refrain from slandering others, and to be honest in our business practices, observant Jews have no choice but to say, “If I were in the situation, I hope I would have the courage to fulfill God’s command.”

And yet, that does not mean that we should embrace the difficulty, or moral challenge, of a mitzvah where there is no need.  What is too-little mentioned regarding this mitzvah is that it is not an obligation to kill all those born to Amalek, it is an obligation to eradicate those who insist on maintaining their identification as Amalek.

For all rishonim, this does not include members of Amalek who convert to Judaism. That this is so puts us on the path to realizing that the obligation looks to Amalek as a national unit, as a representative of a certain set of ideas; those who abandoned that identification and became Jewish would bear no liability for the accident of their birth.

Rambam takes this idea a step further.  Based on how Yehoshua treated the Givonites, he suggests that even if members of Amalek were willing to commit to observing the Noahide laws and to accept a subservient role to the Jewish people, that, too, would suffice.

Rambam does not explain his reasoning, but it seems to me to go thus: The Torah blames Amalek (Devarim 25;18) for אשר קרך בדרך, which literally means that he met you on the road. Among the interpretations he cites, Rashi there, however, cites an idea found in Pesikta Rabbati, that reads קרך as “cooled you off.”  In this reading, Amalek showed the nations of the world that the Jews were not as fearsome as the Exodus and Splitting of the Sea had made them, since they could be engaged in battle and even temporarily defeated.

Assuming Rambam knew of that interpretation, it seems to me that he might be suggesting that Amalek’s lasting guilt derives from how they derailed the Divine plan for history. Before Amalek came along, the Jews were rolling along, on the road to take over the Land of Israel unopposed, to go in a line, however winding, from the Exodus to the building of the Temple, establishing God’s rule of the world.  With the attack by Amalek, much of that veneer was blown off of the Jewish people, and the task of establishing God’s Rule became more complicated.  It would be for that reason that God declares war on Amalek for all generations.

If so, Rambam would argue, as long as members of Amalek were willing to rectify that sin, by not only accepting the laws all  non-Jews are required to accept but by declaring their subservience to God’s people, there would be no need to commit violence.

And it is here that President Obama’s idea becomes interesting.  As a believing Jew, I recognize my obligation to wipe out Amalek, should we ever find them again.  But I would greatly prefer not to have to, as should be true of all Jews.  Just for example, in one of the most well-known Mishnayot in all of Shas, courts are expected to apply the death penalty only very rarely, no more than once every seven or seventy years.[1]  So, too, in another justly famous Midrash, one reason offered for saying on a partial Hallel after the first days of Pesach is that our joy cannot be complete given the suffering of the Egyptians in the course of the process.

Balancing that, although less trumpeted, is the recognition that harsh reactions, including killing, are sometimes necessary.  The Levites earn their special status by being ready to join Moshe Rabbenu in killing those who worshiped the Golden Calf (an episode I delve into in my recent Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel); Saul loses the kingship for being insufficiently ready to kill those who need killing.  And yet, even there, after that episode of killing, it becomes the Levites eternal mission to teach the Jewish people, in the hopes that we can preempt the need for any such further punishments.

The Pre-Battle to Avoid Having to Kill

Our preference for peace in spite of the occasional necessity of violence argues in favor of exactly the kind of approach the President took in Cairo.  Suppose, for example, we were to once again be able to identify Amalek and also had, or were on the verge of having, a national government that could qualify as obligated to lead the Jewish people in a war on Amalek.  Which would we prefer, to fight and kill all of them, including women and children, and destroy all their property, or find a way to convince them to convert (for Rabad) or accept the Noahide laws and make peace with us (for Rambam)?

The answer is clearly the second, but that is not an option that will occur on its own.  Whoever Amalek is, then, we need to prepare ourselves for two kinds of battle, the physical battle should it prove necessary, but before that, the battle to win over hearts and minds, as the phrase goes, so that members of Amalek would be ready and willing to take the actions that help us avoid having to go to war with them.

This is true if Amalek is a genetic characteristic, but even more so if it is an ideological one. Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt”l, often spoke of his family tradition that Amalek included all those who have ideologies that seek the destruction of Torah and the Jewish people.  In his time, that meant Nazism and Communism (at least of the Soviet variety).  I suspect were he alive today, he would include radical Islamic fundamentalism, but we cannot know.  Nor, I should emphasize, can we know how literally he meant this; there are rumors that he limited it only to soldiers and other combatants, which would mean he did not see all such nations as members of Amalek.

Even going only as far as that gives us further reason to recognize why the ideological battle becomes so significant. Granting that we would have to kill many people whom we would prefer not to, would we not therefore invest our energies in trying to insure that those ideologies not spread?

The truth of Judaism, it seems to me, is as President Obama’s Cairo speech suggests for terrorism: there are evils we as Jews need to eradicate and will do our best to eradicate when we have the opportunity, if necessary by force and violence.  And yet it is our great preference to do so by rendering such violence superfluous, by winning the ideological battle so preemptively that we are never again forced to kill anyone, Jew or non-Jew, but can all live together in a peace that moves us ever closer to the truths of the universe.


[1] mMakkot 1;10.

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