City of Brass

This is a guest post by Jonathan Edelstein. The topic is especially relevant today, because Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just made explicit his view that Iran represents a modern-day Amalek, so it is worth understanding just what the theologic implications of such a comparison are for the peace process.

Amalek, or so the story goes, was the grandson of Esau and the ancestor of the biblical Jews’ most implacable enemies. The tribe of Amalekites are mentioned in the Torah on several occasions, the most significant being their surprise attack on the Israelites soon after the departure from Egypt. It was this attack that resulted in the divine commandmentto exterminate the Amalekite tribe:

  1. Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt;
  2. how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not G-d.
  3. Therefore it shall be, when HaShem thy G-d hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which HaShem thy G-d giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

The duty to obliterate Amalek is regarded as a positive commandment, and Saul’s failure to comply with it cost him his kingship. Haman is likewise described as the heir of Agag king of Amalek, and the Book of Esther is the story of his attempt to exterminate the Jews of Persia – a story that ends with the Jews being given permission to defend themselves and decimating his tribe instead.

What is one to do today, though, with a positive commandment to commit genocide? The dilemma is made somewhat easier by the fact that there is no nation or ethnic group today that claims descent from Amalek, but to those Orthodox Jews for whom all 613 commandments have continuing relevance, it must retain some form of meaning. The modern-day significance given to it, however, varies widely from interpreter to interpreter.

There are three ways that the commandment to exterminate Amalek can be interpreted today. One is to regard it as a dormant duty, similar to the commandments relating to sacrifices in the Temple – one that cannot be performed today because there is no Amalekite tribe, but which will be incumbent upon Jews if Amalek returns to the world. In some variations on this theme, the identity of Amalek will be made known upon the coming of the Messiah:

… we won’t know who the people of Amalek are until Elijah the Prophet comes and tells us. And then, we will wipe out all remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven.

Another possibility, which is sometimes advocated by Kahanist extremists, is to equate Amalek with the enemies of the Jews, and to accord the legal status of Amalek to any group that aligns itself against the Jewish nation. Under this interpretation, the term “Amalek” has been used to describe the Nazis and the latter- day enemies of the State of Israel, particularly the Palestinian Arabs. To those who follow this doctrine, a religious duty exists to make war upon the Palestinians until they cease to exist as a people or cease to threaten the Jews. Some go so far as to describe the Baruch Goldstein massacre as a sort of perverse reenactment of the Purim story.

The third interpretation removes the concept of Amalek from the physical world entirely and recasts it as an idea. This could involve Amalek being equated with anti-Semitism, and the duty to exterminate it being reinterpreted as one to fight against anti-Jewish bigotry in all its forms. The battle against Amalek may also be viewed as a personal struggle against the evil within. To Rabbi Shraga Simmons, for instance, Amalek is the force of chaos and irreligion, and Jews may fight against it by embracing Torah:

In our own lives, we can gauge the extent of Amalek’s encroachment by measuring our own level of belief in God. To the extent that an individual doubts the existence of God, is the extent that Amalek’s philosophy of randomness has become a part of us. One of Amalek’s battle tactics is to create doubt about God’s presence, in an attempt to confuse and ultimately destroy the Jewish people. Appropriately, the numerical value of “Amalek” — 240, is the same value as the Hebrew word safek, meaning “doubt.”

Reform rabbi Sylvia Rothschild prefers an Enlightenment-based interpretation, equating Amalek more generally with injustice and inhumanity:

Our tradition paints a picture of Amalek as one who will hurt for the sheer pleasure of hurting, who will destroy aimlessly, who derives no benefit from the destruction or mutilation of the other but will do so anyway. The word describes the one who is the antithesis of ‘godly’ in that they see no humanity in the other, recognise no common bond between people, care not one whit for the feelings or emotions of the stranger. The Amalakite is estranged from relationship, alienated from a sense of shared ancestry, views others as commodities or objects. It is a state of being we can all slide into on occasion – we too can be Amalek […] as we celebrate the gory end of those who tried to murder us, as we relieve ourselves of some of the stress of a minority existence amongst people who resist our particular difference, lets spare a thought for the Amalek inside all of us, the characteristics of selfishness or conceit, of narrow mindedness or wilful ignorance of other’s pain. Our world contains violence and famine, slavery, hatred, huge discrepancy between rich and poor, warfare and oppression. If that isn’t the presence of Amalek, I don’t know what is.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs also equates the struggle against Amalek with the pursuit of justice, and applies it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in precisely the opposite way the Kahanists do: as “our internal Jewish fight against justifying the oppression of another people, and as our attempt to guarantee that this people may live in dignity.”

I don’t subscribe to any of these interpretations; I believe that some mitzvot come with expiration dates, and that the commandment to exterminate Amalek is one of them. The range of modern interpretations, however, has fascinating parallels with the varying meanings given to the term jihad by Muslims. To extreme Kahanists, the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek is the foundation for a concept of Jewish holy war, which necessarily presupposes the existence of a theocratic Jewish state to wage such a war. The interpretation ofjihad as holy war, to be waged by an Islamic state until the enemy is exterminated or submits, is in many ways almost identical.

At the same time, the reinterpretation of jihad as personal struggle, which is advocated by many liberal Muslims, has its counterpart in the equation of Amalek with injustice or doubt. Both Jews and Muslims are engaging in the process of adapting a commandment delivered in a more primitive and violent time to the moral values of the Enlightenment.Jihad and the battle against Amalek are often viewed as antitheses by each other’s advocates, but they may in fact be two words for the same concept.

ADDENDUM: This post has received some attention. Brian Ulrich discusses possible identities of the historical Amalek, al-Muhajabah points out that all religions have texts that can be used in the service of intolerance, Judah Ariel (first entry of January 17) speculates about the role of state ideology in strengthening violent or peaceful interpretations, and Mrs. Tilton notes that Christianity has a similarly bloody history notwithstanding its lack of analogous scripture. Temima beat me by two weeks in drawing parallels between Amalek andjihad, and provides more textual detail; I’ve been advised via e-mail that Emma Klein has also done so in the pages of the Guardian. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Jonathan Edelstein was the primary author of the (now on hiatus) Head Heeb blog, one of the pioneers of the blogsphere, whose essays on the Israel-Palestine conflict were always thought-provoking, fair-minded, and principled. He also was one of the few voiices in the blogsphere who devoted any attention to African politics and democracy. “Jihad and Amalek” was originally posted to Head Heeb on January 17th, 2004 and is reprinted here with Jonathan’s permission.

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