The Right to Life for the Nation of Amalek
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt. That he met you on the way and struck you, all the feeble behind you, and you were tired and weary and he did not fear God. And it shall be, when Hashem your God grants you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a heritage to inherit, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, do not forget!” – Devarim 25:17-19, Parashat Zakhor.[i]
“So said Hashem of Legions, I have remembered what Amalek did to Israel, that he encamped against them on the way, when they went up from Egypt. Now, go and smite Amalek and destroy all that is his and do not pity him. And put to death from man to woman, from infant to suckling, from ox to sheep, from camel to donkey.” – I Shemuel 15:2-3
“On the second Sabbath they bring out two Torah scrolls: From one he reads the weekly portion, and from the second he reads ‘remember what Amalek did to you..,’ and he reads from the Prophets ,’I’ve remembered what Amalek did….’ – Shulhan Arukh 685:2
The month of Adar marks the beginning of one of the most festive times of the Jewish year. As the Talmud states, “When Adar comes in, we increase in joy.”[ii] Today, we happily fulfill this mandate, spending the beginning weeks of Adar preparing for the holiday of Purim, dressing up in silly hats, socks, or ties, blaring extra music in schools and in the streets, running carnivals and preparing an abundance of candies and other foods to send to friends as mishloah manot.
But before the holiday, we also engage in another preparation for Purim, one that is heavier and more serious. The Shabbat before Purim we read Parashat Zakhor, thereby fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to remember the attack of the nation of Amalek on the nation of Israel on their way out of Egypt. This obligation is taken very seriously in Jewish law. In his Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Rambam lists two biblical commands regarding the people of Amalek. Mitsvah 188, to “destroy the seed of Amalek, as it says, ‘erase the memory of Amalek,’” is no longer practiced today, as we can no longer identify the Amalekites among us. However, the obligation to forever remember Amalek’s evil assault, which Rambam lists as commandment 189, remains in full force, and Orthodox Jews today are, in fact, very careful about and attentive to the details of this mitsvah. People make special effort to come to the synagogue to hear Zakhor, and extra readings are arranged for latecomers. Reading and hearing each word of the passage correctly is emphasized to such an extent that we read the last verse of the parashah twice with different vocalizations in order to ensure that we are reading the passage precisely. However, for many Jews today the content of the passage remains troublesome and can make fulfilling the mitsvah uncomfortable.
Throughout Jewish history, traditional thinkers have struggled with the moral implications of the command to wipe out the nation of Amalek. While at first glance it seems brazen to challenge the morality of a command from God, R. Aharon Lichtenstein observes that it is impossible to ignore the fact that the command to destroy Amalek simply fails the “reasonable person” test of morality: “Wiping out Amalek does not conform to what we would normally expect a person to do.”[iii] The question of how God could command us to destroy an entire nation, including individuals who did not themselves sin, is a thorny one that has bothered Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. Different commentators’ approaches to the problem can be divided into three separate categories.
“It Doesn’t Seem Moral to Me, but God Knows Better”
Early Jewish thinkers were not unaware of the moral difficulty involved in the command to destroy Amalek;in fact, the challenge is already raised in the Talmud. Commenting on the story in I Shemuel perek 15 where King Sha’ul is commanded to obliterate Amalek, the Talmudic sage R. Mani imagines King Sha’ul debating with God about the justice of what he is about to do. How is it fair to punish the Amalekites collectively, R. Mani’s Sha’ul asks, “if man sinned, how did the animals sin? If the adults sinned, how did the young ones sin?[iv]” Granted, Sha’ul implicitly agrees, the Amalekites who attacked the Jews may be worthy of death, but is it really possible that all the Amalekites deserve to die?
The rest of this aggadah continues with oblique criticism against Sha’ul and his own morality. “Do not be exceedingly righteous!” a heavenly voice answers Sha’ul’s challenge, quoting a verse from Kohelet.[v] The Midrash contrasts Sha’ul’s indignation and hesitance about obliterating Amalek with his later willingness to destroy the entire priestly city of Nov, as if to ask, “are you so righteous and just yourself that you can challenge the righteousness of God’s decrees?!” R. Mani here raises a serious theological question: If God lays down a command, is the command moral by necessity? However, this question is not answered directly. God does not explain why it is fitting for the Amalekite children to die, but instead chides Sha’ul and reminds him that God has a better understanding of the situation and of morality than he does. As the prophet Yeshayahu put it, “as the Heavens are raised above the earth, so My ways are raised above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts.”[vi] Sha’ul’s (or R. Mani’s) objection that the destruction of Amalek is immoral is not refuted; however, the reader is reminded that human morality is limited, and only God’s morality can be trusted.
R. Lichtenstein, in his lecture “Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality,”[vii] addresses the challenge similarly. According to R. Lichtenstein, the destruction of the entire nation of Amalek is, “morally, a frightful thing.”[viii] However, the seemingly immoral act is justified in “response to an unequivocal divine command.”[ix] R. Lichtenstein later makes it seem that God’s command not only justifies a seemingly immoral act, but even turns the act into a moral one: “Although generally such an act would be considered immoral, it assumes a different character when God, from His perception and perspective, commands it.”[x] Like R. Mani in the Talmud, R. Lichtenstein argues that the command to destroy Amalek does not seem moral to us. However, whatever our sense of what is moral, the principle of yir’at Shamayim reminds us that God, in His mysterious ways, simply understands the situation better than we do.[xi]
This approach of “it may not seem moral to me, but God knows better” truly appreciates and acknowledges the challenge posed by the command to destroy Amalek, and makes no attempt to hide from the great moral struggle the command engenders. This approach does not discount the discomfort we may feel at the seeming injustice of this command, but also does not place so much importance on resolving the challenge, instead relying on ascribing the gap between what we see as moral and what God is telling us to do to God’s unknowable mysteries.
However, some challenges still remain with this approach. Is it really possible that there is any justification, hidden from us, for taking the lives of children who did not sin? Is our moral sense so faulty that we cannot even be confident that killing children is wrong? What possible mysteries could God reveal to us that would make this command more understandable? Perhaps bothered by these questions, other commentators look at this challenge and approach it differently.
“The Command is Moral”
Other classic commentators and modern thinkers bothered by the issue justify the morality of the command to kill Amalek in human terms, without the need to invoke God’s mysteries as justification. Rambam, in the forty-first chapter of the third volume of Moreh Nevukhim, sets out to explain the reasons behind different classes of punishments prescribed in the Torah. In explaining the rationale behind the command to destroy Amalek, Rambam assumes that those individuals among the Amalekites who themselves attacked the Jewish people truly deserve to be destroyed in return. Additionally, collective punishment against the entire nation of Amalek is also necessary in order to teach people not to assist their fellows in treacherous acts in the future. Rambam implies here that although the Amalekite children and women did not attack the Jews themselves, they were in fact responsible for standing by or perhaps assisting the men in their plans. While this rationale, if one accepts its premise, explains how the entire Amalekite people living at the time of their attack bears some culpability for the assault, how compelling is it in explaining why the command extends to avenging Amalek’s descendants throughout the generations? When God commands the destruction of Amalek in Sha’ul and Shemuel’s time do we really expect that the Amalekites of the day should have prevented their ancestors from sinning centuries earlier?
Another approach to explain the legitimacy of wiping out Amalek is to contend that Amalek’s evil was so special and unchanging that utter destruction is the sole method of dealing with it. R. Aron Moss, a frequent contributor to Chabad.org, wrote an inspirational article discussing how the mitsvah to destroy Amalek can be fulfilled today by eradicating Amalek-like tendencies in ourselves.[xii] Explaining why the original command was meant to be carried out literally, he argues that the hatred of the people of Amalek for Israel was so intrinsic that as long as Amalekites were alive, the nation of Israel was at risk of attack. Accordingly, destroying Amalek becomes a matter of necessary self-defense. Viewing Amalek this way, drawing on the statement of R. Shimon Bar Yohai quoted in the Sifrei that “it is an established law that Esav hates Yaakov,”[xiii] leads to the conclusion that the hatred of Esav, and by extension the people of Amalek identified with Esav’s grandson, is immutable. This approach does a good job of explaining why the Torah is so emphatic that the duty to remember and destroy Amalek is eternal. Destroying Amalek turns into a matter of simple, constant self-defense. This threat will never go away on its own; the only way to deal with it is to entirely eradicate its source.
However, this approach has its difficulties as well. Most individuals who are bothered today during Parashat Zakhor by the morality of the command to destroy Amalek would probably be just as bothered by this explanation. Part of the original reason the command to remember to destroy the entire people of Amalek is so difficult for us today is precisely because we value looking at people as individuals, and view stereotyping entire groups as a great ill and fallacy. The same people most conflicted about their obligation to remember Amalek’s crime probably also agree with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s declaration that “all collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them … No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior.[xiv]” Labeling an entire group as intrinsically and unchangeably evil is not convincing to many people today, and, in fact, was rejected in Talmudic times by R. Mani and his claim (through the mouth of King Sha’ul) that at least the Amalekite minors and animals must be innocent of sin.
A Way Out
Another way to deal with the morality of the command to kill Amalek is to reconsider the meaning of the command itself. While the plain meaning of the text in Devarim, “You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens,”[xv] and the fleshed out command in Shemuel, “Now, go and smite Amalek and destroy all that is his and do not pity him. And put to death from man to woman, from infant to suckling, from ox to sheep, from camel to donkey,”[xvi] seem to provide no way for the Amalekites to escape death, Rambam claims this is not so in Mishneh Torah. In the sixth chapter of Hilkhot Melakhim, Rambam claims that if the Amalekites (or members of any of the Seven Nations of Cana’an) were to surrender, and accept the seven Noahide laws as well as servitude to and taxation by Israel, they would be kept alive.[xvii] This approach greatly reduces the moral challenge of Amalek. The Amalekites are not rejected by God and doomed to destruction. Like any other sinners, if they do teshuvah and change their ways they are accepted.
While this approach does reduce the degree of the moral challenge of the command to destroy Amalek, it does not resolve the problem entirely. Even if one accepts Rambam’s controversial reading of the commandment and agrees that the Amalekites can escape death through surrender, if the Amalekite adults do not surrender, is it right to kill the Amalekite children? Though the command to physically eradicate Amalek is no longer carried out today, we continue to remember the evil assault and commandment to exact vengeance upon Amalek yearly with the annual reading of Parashat Zakhor. Some individuals also daily recite after Shaharit the biblical passage containing this command. In these ways, the command to destroy Amalek lives on, as does our discomfort with it. As we have seen, different commentators and thinkers have dealt with this challenge in different ways over the centuries, with each approach containing its own strengths and weaknesses. For different people, some, all, or none of the previous approaches may prove satisfying. Mi ke-amekha Yisra’el, who is like Your people Israel, who over the centuries have not stopped investigating and thinking about this challenge?
Atara Siegel is a junior at SCW majoring in Psychology, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] All translations are my own.
[ii] Ta’anit 29a.
[iii] See R. Reuven Ziegler based on addresses of R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: www.vbm-torah.org.
[iv] Yoma 22b.
[v] Kohelet 7:16.
[vi] Yeshayahu 55:9.
[vii] See Ziegler.
[xi] See Ziegler. R. Lichtenstein has another interesting approach to the challenge of Amalek in this lecture. He explains that his own doubts about Amalek and other morally challenging mitsvot were resolved by learning more about the great level of gemilut hasadim achieved by R. Hayyim Soloveitchik. If R. Hayyim, who had such a high moral sensitivity, was able to live with the command to destroy Amalek, he, R. Lichtenstein, should be able to live with it too. As the heavenly voice in the Midrash reminded King Sha’ul, “are you so confident in your own morality that you question God’s?!” While one might argue that perhaps R. Hayyim too struggled with this command, this story is a humbling reminder of the limitations of our own perceptions of morality and our responsibility to work on improving our own sense of kindness and morality.
[xii] Aron Moss, “Wipe Out Amalek, Today?,” Chabad.org, available at www.chabad.org.
[xiii] Sifrei, Bamidbar 9:10 s.v. o be-derekh.
[xiv] Elie Wiesel, “Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?,” Parade Magazine (24 May, 1992), available at: www.thehyptertexts.com.
[xv] Devarim 25:19.
[xvi] I Shemuel 15:3
[xvii] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:4