The Problem of Amalek Revisited
I can trace the origin of my serious religious investigations to the question of Amalek. Since then, I’ve thought about many other areas of Jewish religion and personal spirituality. These exercises in soul-searching have led to many profound conversations and personal insights, and they ultimately derive from a single question: Why should I want to be Jewish? It’s a question I’m still exploring, and I don’t think I’ll ever reach a single, static conclusion. It’s possible, though, that the exploration, the give-and-take and the back-and-forth is the answer itself — a Jew is a being, self-conscious and historically-aware, who wrestles with difficult questions and doesn’t accept simple and easy answers.
My struggle with the question of Amalek, however, is one that hasn’t led to any satisfactory conclusions. If morality is to be understood as the responsibility to pursue the welfare of other sentient beings, then there could be no more basic ethical statement than “do not harm innocent people.” And yet, the Torah instructs us in no uncertain terms to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Devarim 25:19). Of course it’s not a wanton slaughter; we are told that Amalek “attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you...” (ibid. 25:18). Nevertheless, the idea of purging the descendants of a nation that once attacked our ancestors, as Saul carried out to near completion in I Shmuel 15, seems not merely distasteful, but morally repugnant.
Let’s not mince words or discuss this abstractly. It’s the 11th century BCE and you pull on your armor after sharpening your spear (cf. I Shmuel 17:5-7). Along with thousands of fellow soldiers, you march towards Chavilah and enter the city (cf. I Shmuel 15:7). Panic immediately ensues — battle cries and screams sound all around you as the city streets get coated in layer upon layer of blood. Upon walking through the threshold of a house you hear a man yell for his wife to run upstairs and protect their child. As he turns to face you, a stray arrow from an open window pierces through his right eye and he drops like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Walking upstairs, you find a woman curled up on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and clutching a baby against her bosom. “Please,” she begs you, “kill me if you must, just don’t hurt my child.”
In that moment, what would you do? If commitment to and fulfilment of the mitzvos in the Torah is an integral part of Jewish identity, then in that moment you have a split second to answer the question “do I want to be Jewish?” and a lifetime to live with the moral, spiritual and psychological repercussions of that decision.
I genuinely don’t know what my answer would be. My ethical sensibilities are shocked that I could even hesitate to answer that I would save the woman and her child, and my religious commitments are profoundly confused. If I were a prophet and given direct communication from God to kill that woman and her child, the best I can currently come up with is that, like the woman in front of me, I would curl up on the floor and start crying, begging God to kill me instead of making me go through with that action.
Thankfully, this is no longer a realistic question. Given the many geographical shifts among cultures and peoples through the intervening millennia, Amalek no longer exists as an independent national or cultural entity, and the mitzvah to destroy them exists only in the realm of national memory. Nevertheless, the thought experiment and the lessons we take from it are important.
Some have suggested that the lesson we ought to learn is that Amalek represents evil, and we have an obligation to eradicate evil. This is certainly an admirable goal and lesson, although one might question what it could do to the human psyche to imagine a sobbing woman’s infant child as necessarily and intrinsically evil.
Others, understandably insular and nationalistic, have suggested that we view Amalek as a cautionary tale of the ever-present realities of anti-Semitism. History has borne this out; the number of countries where Jews have lived in significant numbers and didn’t encounter moderate to extreme levels of xenophobia and bigotry could be counted on a single hand. Even there, however, the idea of murdering the worst anti-Semite’s innocent child is completely unacceptable.
There are other approaches that cannot even be offered the veneer of admirability or historical legitimacy. These approaches argue that the Amalekite descendants deserve to be eradicated, either out of vengeance for what their ancestors did to the B’nei Yisrael (cf. Shemos 17:8-13) or because of a nihilistic, amoral appeal to Divine Command Theory. Devarim 24:16 tells us that “parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death,” and the moment we throw up our arms and say “it’s only moral if God said so'' is the moment we deny our God-given ability to reason ethically.
I’d like to suggest a new approach, one that represents my current thinking on this very difficult problem. The fact that we intuitively feel this tension is a good thing. The Torah was not given to robots, but to feeling, loving, empathizing human beings. The fact that I feel a tension in this area, the fact that I feel a deep and visceral pity for the innocents on the receiving end of the genocidal sword, means that I have a responsibility to seek out those people in my world, people we are NOT obligated to eradicate, who are facing that kind of persecution and speak up and help them in any way I can.
According to Genocide Watch, there are over a dozen genocide emergencies happening around the world as I write this article. To give the briefest of overviews; Kurds, Christians, Druze, Shi’a Muslims, Alawites and Yazidis are being targeted in Syria. There have been arbitrary killings, rape, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen. And Boko Haram has vowed to destroy every Christian school in Nigeria.
One of the more publicized genocide emergencies is currently happening in China, where the Chinese government has systematically restricted the religious, cultural and social practices of Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. In March of 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report which identified 83 international and Chinese companies that allegedly benefit from the use of forced Uighur labor. Their list included Amazon, Apple, Calvin Klein, Gap, Google, H&M, L.L. Bean, Lacoste, Microsoft, Nike, Nintendo, Ralph Lauren, Sony, Victoria’s Secret and Zara. This is a spiritual and ethical disaster.
What should we do about it? First, we must educate ourselves; we can’t do anything if we don’t know what’s going on. Read articles and listen to eyewitness testimonies. Follow Uighur activism pages on social media. Join the YU Stands with Uighurs WhatsApp group and attend their events.
Second, we must talk about it; we should never underestimate the power of even a single voice, let alone a collective one. Post about these issues on social media. Discuss it at the Shabbos table. Ask your friends if they know about what’s going on and bring it up in class.
Third, we must lobby our politicians, boycott complicit companies and make these issues felt by the force of our votes and our wallets. Contact your favorite companies and ask why they’re supporting an active genocide. Call your representatives and ask what they’ve been doing about it. Support companies that are engaging in ethical practices and lobby for politicians who put anti-genocide activism on the agenda. If we do these things then we might make a difference or we might not, but we certainly won’t have to look our grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we heard about this genocide but did nothing about it.
I don’t think for a second that this article solves the problem of the question of Amalek. After having meditated on the subject and written this article, I still don’t know what I would have done in the 11th century BCE. Thankfully, though, I’m not called upon to answer for what I would have done then. I’m called upon to answer for what I’ll do in the world of my own day.
I don’t know if my response will be sufficient, and I don’t know if it will make any difference. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I try.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo caption: John Everett Millais’ “Victory O Lord,” depicting Moshe, Aharon and Chur at the battle against Amalek.