Mar 22, 2024

Israeli soldiers pose for a selfie in southern Israel, on the border of the Gaza Strip, on February 19th, 2024.

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Facing Amalek

Reading the biblical injunction to genocide amid a genocide

In a televised press conference on October 28th, as Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Israel’s “one supreme goal: To destroy the murderous enemy.” Israeli soldiers, he boasted, “are longing to recompense the murderers . . . They are committed to eradicating this evil from the world.” Then he quoted Devarim 25:17: “Remember what Amalek did to you.” In a letter to soldiers published a few days later, Netanyahu repeated this quotation, explaining that “the current fight against the murderers of ‘Hamas’ is another chapter in the generations-long story of our national resilience.” The citation refers to the biblical account of the nation of Amalek’s unprovoked attack against the weary Israelites after they left Egypt, and concludes with an enjoinder from God “to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens”—often understood as a perpetual commandment to kill any descendents of the Amalekite people. Indeed, South Africa soon cited Netanyahu’s comments, along with other invocations of Amalek by Israeli politicians and military personnel, in its complaint to the International Court of Justice as proof of Israel’s genocidal intent toward Gaza. Netanyahu responded that “the comparison to Amalek has been used throughout the ages to designate those who seek to eradicate the Jewish people, most recently the Nazis,” pointing out that the Hague’s own memorial for Dutch Jews killed in the Holocaust quotes the verse.

However, Netanyahu’s objection elides the passage’s violent legacy, which is not an exclusively Jewish one. Europeans used it to justify murdering Native Americans, and Hutus used it to justify massacring Tutsis. It’s been deployed against Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews (sometimes by other Jews), and quoted by Afrikaaners, Germans, and other European colonial powers against those who resist colonization. Still, the passage’s most significant and potent repurposing has been by right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel: It likely influenced the actions of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians while they were praying in the West Bank city of Hebron on Purim morning in 1994, and was invoked by settlers last year as a rallying cry for the pogrom committed in the Palestinian town of Huwara.

This week, as we approach the holiday of Purim, we read the passage about Amalek following the reading of the slated parsha of Vayikra. The rabbis cast Haman, the villain of the Purim story, as an Amalekite, and the Shabbat preceding Purim is known as Shabbat Zakhor—roughly translated as the Shabbat of Remembrance—after God’s commandment to “remember” Amalek’s attack and to wipe out their memory. While a divine directive to obliterate an entire people is always troubling, it is particularly distressing to read this commandment to commit genocide in the midst of a genocide. As I sit in synagogue this year, it will be impossible not to wonder how those around me are understanding the verse, or to avoid imagining it being chanted by Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

The rabbinic tradition’s reckoning with the biblical text does provide some solace. In this canon, the understanding of Amalek is not fixed, but understood and interpreted variably. (The Israeli right consistently chooses to return to the Bible while eschewing the rabbinic tradition that has interpreted it, even though it’s hard to think of anything less Jewish than sola scriptura—the Chrisian idea that the Bible alone has sole authority.) Crucially, the rabbis chose to preserve the voices of those who expressed discomfort with a text that commands murder: The Talmud, for instance, imagines King Saul arguing with God over the injunction. And as early as the Mishnah, written some 2,000 years ago, the rabbis insisted that Amalek no longer exists as a distinct entity, thus obviating the commandment; later commentators note the ethical challenge this passage poses and warn against celebrating or sanctifying it. In some cases, the tradition reworks the basic moral logic of the text. An interesting strand of interpretation blames not Amalek but the Jews themselves for Amalek’s deeds. The Talmud, for example, states that the mother of Amalek, the progenitor of the nation that later bore his name, sought to convert to Judaism but was rejected, leading her to have a child with Esau’s son instead. Other texts similarly place responsibility on the Jews, whether for spiritual shortcomings—such as being lax in their observance of Torah and mitzvot or being ungrateful, disobedient, or not trusting of God—or for ethical shortcomings, like being unjust in their business dealings or not taking care of the vulnerable. There is also a long and rich history of reading Amalek symbolically, such as a strand of Hasidic thought in which Amalek represents the ongoing struggle of eradicating the evil inside of ourselves.

While I’m grateful to have the richness of the rabbinic tradition to complicate the biblical text, I also mistrust my own impulse to seek relief in it. Given the calamity of the present moment, it feels insufficient to embrace a tradition that “fixes” the problem. Part of me actually feels more partial to confronting this disturbing biblical text directly—the pain of reading it matches more faithfully the pain of this moment than the satisfaction of an erudite explanation that explains it away. “Only that which hurts incessantly is remembered,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals. This is another way of understanding Zakhor: We remember Amalek because it hurts on every level—Amalek’s attack against the Jews, the bloodthirst against the Amalekites that followed, and the legacy of living on with this commandment.

And still, at its best, interpretation is not simply a way of explaining away difficulties; it is a project of world-building—of letting texts be changed by the world and the world by texts. Taken as a whole, the rabbinic tradition offers a model for inventive reading that breaks down the rigidity of a decisive command. Examining past rabbinic treatments of earlier texts helps to make clear our own positionality as active participants in the chain of tradition. Returning to that lineage provides a path toward an alternative understanding of the command to destroy Amalek. Several rabbinic commentators, attempting to explain why Amalek’s actions were so reprehensible, argue that Amalek ambushed the Israelites for no reason and without warning, attacking the weakest and most vulnerable. The commentator Nechama Leibowitz picks up on this linkage of the gravity of Amalek’s sin to their disregard for the vulnerable. She observes that the Torah describes Amalek as “lo yarei Elohim” (lacking fear of God) and notes that other biblical uses of the phrase “fear of God”—when Abraham expresses his fear that a foreign kingdom would kill him, when Joseph agrees to release his brothers after accusing them of spying, and when the midwives refuse to murder the Israelite male infants in Egypt—refer not to belief in God or fear of God’s wrath but to the subjects’ attitude toward the vulnerable. “The criterion for ‘fear of God’ in a person’s heart is in relation to the weak and the stranger,” she writes. The sin of Amalek, then, is one that remains pervasive today—the use of force against those with less power. That is a force worth eradicating, “a war against Amalek in every generation.” This helps explain Rashi’s comment that “God’s name and God’s throne are not complete until Amalek’s name is fully wiped out.” This work of making God’s name whole is not in God’s domain to enable: What is required is actually a human change, a reordering of our society and how we treat one another.

In this regard, Amalek is, among much else, a prescient warning that what we displace onto the Other often blossoms in ourselves. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Jewish legal decisors of the 20th century, wrote in his commentary on Amalek, “It is possible for any creature of flesh and blood to become evil . . . and so a person must be concerned and be careful to not commit serious sins . . . because given that one person [Amalek] can become so corrupted, everyone must therefore be afraid of becoming corrupted.”

The Megillah, which we read on Purim, is often misinterpreted as a tale extolling Jewish power, with the reversal of a genocidal decree leaving the Jews safe from harm and free to kill their enemies. If this is a story of victory, however, it is a hollow one. Despite the Jews’ military triumph, the Talmud reminds us that at the end of the story, they remain “slaves of Ahachverosh.” Their retaliatory violence does not lead to true liberation, but to a momentary respite; they are safe only so long as the king does not turn on them again. This bleakness is mirrored on a spiritual level. In contrast to so many stories in the Torah, where God is in direct relation with the Jewish people, the Book of Esther is striking because God not only fails to intervene but is not present at all. In fact, the Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible where God’s name does not appear. It is a story where God is hidden, concealed—the Hebrew word for which sounds similar to Esther’s name. Picking up on this similarity, the rabbis link Esther’s name to a divine curse against the Jewish people in Devarim, referencing a future calamity: “I will surely hide My face,” God threatens; the Hebrew word for “hide” is here uttered twice in different forms (“hester astir”) to denote intensification. The Hasidic tradition reads the doubling of “hester astir” as indicating an even deeper form of hiddenness: Not only is God concealed, but the fact of that concealment is itself concealed. That is the dark world of the Megillah—a world not only without God but where we cannot identify God’s will. It is easy, in such a world, to confuse the “villain” Haman for the “hero” Mordechai, murder for safety, human power for divine intention.

Our tradition asks us to be conscious of the ways that we might slip into such confusion, and to confront head-on the catastrophe that results. “Anyone who does not experience the hiddenness of God’s face is not a Jew,” the Talmud states. As Israeli leaders continue to invoke Amalek while killing and injuring tens of thousands of people in Gaza, and starving millions, we are reminded that the confrontation with Amalek requires not the triumphalist logic of clarity but the existential humility of knowing how far we are from God.

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.