Letter of Dr. Elhanan Elkes (1879–1944), Chair of the Jewish Council in the Kaunas (Kovno) Ghetto, Lithuania, to his children [Joel, 1913-2015, & Sara, 1924–2015], 19 October 1943. (Littman 1998
A variant of this ritual is also found in the comment by Diana Lipton:
A sofer (Torah scribe) begins each working day by fulfilling the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek. He writes the Hebrew letters ayin mem lamed kuf (Amalek) on a scrap of parchment and quickly excises them with several strong lines. Only the inclination of the scribe’s heart as he performs this ritual will determine whether it signifies for him a violent rejection of ‘the other’ or an ethical rejection of social injustice.
Feiglin, a member of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) from the Likud Partry, a right-wing consolidation, continues to be something of an agent provocateur. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) for March 4, 2013, he and some of his followers continued, and continue to, attempt entry into the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount (site of the ancient Judaism’s Holy Temple), the holy site where Muslims believe Mohammed (570–632) ascended into Heaven. In October, December, 2012, and January, 2013, he attempted to lead a minyan (prayer quorum) before being arrested by Israeli police and continues such provocations today.
Horowitz, however, does disagree with Goldberg in two important respects: Firstly, that, for him, the ancient Amalekites “are neither Canaanites nor mysterious”, and, secondly and more significantly, the claim that the rabbis did not “endorse genocide” is …patently false. Not only did the “rabbis who shaped Judaism,” that is, the Talmudic sages, never made such an assertion, but even Maimonides [1135–1204], in his great twelfth-century code, clearly suggested—as many commentators noted—that unlike the “seven nations” of ancient Canaan, who were also doomed to extermination by biblical command, the Amalekites were still alive and kicking (Elliot 2006
Martin Jaffee agrees with Horowitz and writes:
…how generations of sages, working over the span of nearly two millennia throughout the lands of Jewish dispersion, ploughed and replanted the field of Jewish scriptural interpretation so as to ensure that a benign ritual of “remembrance” would substitute for genocidal violence as the method of enacting the biblical commandment regarding Amalek…the crucial turn in rabbinic tradition regarding Amalek is the absolute denial of the possibility of identifying with certainty any existing nation as the “seed of Amalek.”
By this neologism I mean that specific proper names are de-historicized, emptied of their original content, and re-appropriated in ways which on the one hand effectively disenfranchise their original owners and on the other implicates contemporary groups in a negative discourse which they have no means of countering.
Norman Lamm suggests that, according to Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), in Hilchot Melakhim
[Laws of Kings] 5:5, “The traditional interpretation of this injunction is ‘Remember—by word of mouth; do not forget—out of mind, that it is forbidden to forget his hatred and enmity” See (Norman 2007
Joshua Cohen notes:
By reading these texts aloud in the synagogue, are Jews then showing their approval of the slaughter of their traditional enemies in accordance with the holy ban? Does reading the cherem [extermination] imply consent...Perhaps Jews are required to read the cherem [extermination] every year in the synagogue so that they will be forced to confront the enduring presence of bigotry in their sacred teachings.
Rabbi David Brofsky of Midreshet Lindenbaum, Jerusalem, notes importantly in his Torah commentary on “The Laws of Remembering Amalek” that “the mitzvah (commanded act) to remember Amalek is not necessarily linked to the mitzvah to wage war against Amalek.” (www.vbm-torah.org
As Moshe Anisfeld notes “Both Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, 140–1105] and Rashbam [Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085–1158] interpret this verse [Exodus 17:14] interpret this verse as an instruction for Joshua to blot out the name of Amalek”. Going further into Rashi’s comments and his use of various midrashic texts, he also notes that, in addition to the Amalekites attacking the rear of Israel’s defenseless rear of old people, women, and children, were (1) “defiling the Israelites with homosexual rape”, and (2) “mutilating the sexual organs of Israelite males” (Moshe 2014, pp. 147–48, 150–51
Professor Emeritus Zev Garber of Los Angeles Valley College notes, however:
In rabbinical literature, Amalek is shown as a paradigm of absolute wickedness and evil, destroyer and rejector of all that God and humans have wrought. Thus, the halakhic Jew [one who follows the Jewish legal tradition], if confronted with a bona fide descendant of Amalek, would be duty bound to kill him or her immediately without needing to obtain a mandate from any rabbinical court.
As Gerald Cromer (2001)
, puts it: “Unable to defeat their enemies, they had to make do with demonizing them.” “Amalek as Other; Other as Amalek: Interpreting a Violent Biblical Narrative,” Qualitative Sociology
Lewis Feldman, however, draws our attention to a little cited passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 96 b, which reads:
Our Rabbis taught: Naaman was a resident alien [one who renounces idolatry for the sake of certain rights of citizenship in Palestine]. Nebuzaradan was a righteous proselyte [who one accepts the laws of Judaism with no ulterior motive], the descendants of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem; the descendants of Sennacherib taught Torah to the multitude. Who were they?—Shemaiah and Abtalion [the teachers of Hillel]. The descendants of Haman studied Torah in B’nai B’rak. The Holy One, blessed be He, purported to lead the descendants of that wicked man [Nebuchadnezzar] too under the wings of the Shechinah [to make them proselytes], but the ministering angels protested before Him, “Sovereign of the universe, Shalt Thou bring him under the wings of the Shechinah who laid Thy House [Temple] in ruins, and burnt Thy Temple?” That is meant by the verse, “We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed” [Jeremiah 21:9]. Ulla said, “This refers to Nebuchadnezzar [that God desired that his descendants to become proselytes]”.
And thus indicating that Haman’s descendants, unnamed, did become converts to Judaism. Other places in the Babylonian Talmud where Amalek is referenced are Sanhedrin 20b, Baba Batra 21a–21b, Megillah 7a, Yoma 22b, and Sandhedrin 105b–106b.
(Feldman 2004, pp. 1–2
). Rabbi Gil Student in his blog posting “Hihurim—Musings” entitled “Amalek and Morality” (March 11, 2012) notes that “while we can no longer identify Amalekties, the obligation [to kill any Amalekite who crosses one’s path, citing earlier Jewish textual formulations and interpretations] still presents theoretical moral difficulties.” To this list perhaps, the words of Numbers 33:52–53 must also be added: “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their vast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess, as too easy an example of those who would, contemporarily, justify and legitimate violence against all
non-Jews in the Land of Israel.”
As Elliott Horowitz writes in Reckless Rites
The Jews of Christian Europe knew, of course, that they would never hope to vanquish the Amalekites of their day on the battlefield, but some found ways to carry the holy war against them to a more convenient site, where they would enjoy “the home-court advantage”—the synagogue. Beginning with the Jews of Franco-Germany around the time of Rashi [Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105], the solemn Kaddish prayer, one of the central texts of the synagogue service, was conscripted into battle against the ancient archenemy of the Jews.
[via an interpretive commentary] (128)
With some trepidation, however, Joel Kaminsky suggests that “unlike the anti-Canaanite polemic directed solely against Israel’s neighbors in the land, the condemnation of Amalek acquires within biblical tradition an aura that may vaguely recall certain features of genetically based Nazi racism, even though Israel’s policy toward Amalek falls short of Nazi policies and has an altogether different character.” Yet I Loved Jacob, 115.
Eugene Korn, commenting on two of the major Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century, writes:
R. Moses Soloveitchik (1876–1941) asserted that the Amalekite nation never assimilated beyond recognition…Speaking during the Nazi era, R. Soloveitchik insisted that Amalek is a prototype for any person attempting to exterminate the Jewish people and that the commandment to physically destroy such persons is still binding. His son, R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–1993), applied it to Arabs trying to destroy Israel in the 1950’s.
A similar reference is also found in (Shalom 2007
; Saul 2001
). Norman Lamm (2007)
, however, devotes several pages to contesting the Soloveitchiks’, both father’s and son’s, reading of contemporary Amalekut
[“Amalek-ness”] based on the Holocaust experiences of the Second World War. (Norman 2007
), and concludes, “Hence, with most respectful apologies to the revered Rabbis Soloveitchik, father and son, I find it difficult to accept their thesis.”
The classic text is that of Isaiah 10:5 where God says that the nation-state of Assyria is the “rod of my anger,” that is, using Assyria to punish Israel. The “law of unintended consequences,” by implication and not fully thought through by these thinkers, would, thus, appear to be that the Nazis, all up and down the chain of command, would, in the process of their destructive acts, become agents of the Divine against the people of Israel. See (Porat 1992
Almost as disturbing to be sure was the column by Professor of Journalism at Columbia University Samuel Freedman entitled “In The Diaspora: The Amalek Syndrome” in The Jerusalem Post
(February 8, 2007), wherein he challenged Professor Alvin Rosenfeld’s publication “Progressive” Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism
(New York: American Jewish Committee, 2006, 30 pgs.) as “an effort not to eradicate our external enemies but to invalidate, delegitimize and disenfranchise the supposed traitors within.” The seriousness of the internal Jewish debates regarding the State of Israel and its policies is thus reflected in these two pieces as well as Bernard Harrison’s subsequent publication Israel, Anti-Semitism, and Free Speech
(New York: American Jewish Committee, 2007, 47 pgs.), as well as his prior text The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion
(Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). Somewhat similar yet different is the fact that, for some right-wing Orthodox Jews, secular Israeli culture as well has been labeled as Amalek, according to Gerald Cromer:
Haredim [extremely pious one], for instance, who are engaged in a constant battle against Israeli secular society, invariably attribute the lack of religious observance to purposive action on the part of the secular political and cultural establishment to uproot Jewish tradition. Two of the major culprits, Israeli television and the Labor Party, are regularly referred to as Amalek.
|20|Gerald Comer (2001)
writes: “many on the left of the political spectrum reject the comparison between Israel’s Arab enemies and Amalek. They contend that the analogy exaggerates the dangerousness and/or depravity of current foes. In doing so, it leads to a deepening of Jewish-Arab hatred, and, in turn, to an exacerbation of the conflict between them.” (Cromer 2001, p. 199
In a rather telling article entitled “Ploughshares into Swords: Contemporary Religious Zionists and Moral Constraints,” Rabbi Yitzchak Blau writes:
In instances of Jewish violence against Arabs, it is frequently religious voices that are the most vocal for absolving the perpetrators of guilt. In military actions that place non-Jewish civilians in danger, it is often religious voices that feel no reservation about calling for such action.”
One rather unsettling example would be that engraved on the tombstone of the American-Israeli medical doctor Baruch Goldstein (1956–1994) who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded 125 others at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on February 25, 1974:
Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion, and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754 (1994).
At the time, February, 1980, Rabbi Hess was a campus rabbi and wrote in the student newspaper an article entitled “The Genocide Commandment in the Torah,” where he stated:
The day is not far when we shall be called to this holy war, to this commandment of the annihilation of Amalek … Against this holy war God declares a counter jihad … in order to emphasize that this is the background for the annihilation and that it is over his land that the war is being waged and that it is not a conflict between two peoples … God is not content that we annihilate Amalek—‘blot out the memory of Amalek’—he also enlists personally in his war … because, as has been said, he has a personal interest in this matter, that is the principal aim.
Subsequently Rabbi Hess resigned his post, and the article was pulled from the newspaper and its online access. See (Masalha 2000, pp. 130–32
). for his reading of l’affair Hess.
Martin Jaffee notes the difficulty of now obtaining a copy of Hess’s article:
My efforts to turn up a copy of this article have failed. The Bar Ilan library does not have a copy of this issue of Bat Kol, and my requests for copies from Israeli colleagues yield nothing. I do know that Rabbi Hess chose not to have the essay reprinted in his “collected essays” prior to his death in the late 1980s.
Subsequently and contemporarily, among the latest “flaps” is the question of how both Israelis and Palestinians portray each other and their stories in their own school textbooks. See, for example, “’Victims of Our Own Narratives?’ Portrayal of the ‘Other’ in Israeli and Palestinian School Books” (February 4, 2013). Initiated by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which critiques both communities for their portrayals, and which has come under fire by both Israeli governmental agencies and American defense organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League. See, also, (Adwan 2001
; Adwan and Dan 2004
), and expanded in (2006), “Educating toward a Culture of Peace” (Information Age Publishing), Chapter 19: 309–24; (Daniel et al. 2009
; Nurit 2012
; Podeh 2002
). Further, on the complicated question of dual narratives and the differences in Israeli and Palestinian readings of their intertwined past, see (Adwan et al. 2012
; Gabbay and Kazak 2012
; Rotberg 2006
; Rowland and Frank 2002
; Sa’di and Lila 2007
). However, the accuracy of his earlier assessment, one must seriously question his misreading of these rabbinic leaders as “leading.” In truth, they are leaders only to their relatively small constituencies and in no way speak for other Orthodox Jews, other Orthodox rabbis, and, to be sure, other Jews either in Israel or world-wide. In fact, the opposite is the case: they are, indeed, viewed as extremists, and, thus, by and large, rejected along with their interpretive understandings of the Jewish past and present as well their readings of primary classical Jewish texts—Hebrew Bible and Babylonian Talmud—as well.
Consistent with this position is the comment by Malachi H. Hacohen:
Most Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the Holocaust came for assimilation’s sins, and vindicated Moses Sofer’s [Moses Schreiber, 1762–1839] warning that mimicry of the gentiles would provoke their (and God’s) wrath and end up disastrously. With the exception of the radically anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidism, they have desisted from calling the Zionists (and assimilated Jews) Amaleq, as they had done before the Holocaust, and Amaleq is now reserved for the Nazis. In his Megilat Polin (1966), Gur leader Yehudah Leib Levin, founder of the Ultra-Orthodox Daily Ha-Modia, suggested that remembering the antisemitic Nazi design to obliterate the entire Jewish people, and commemorating the saints who perished in the Holocaust, was fulfillment of the Torah’s command to remember Amaleq.
Henry F. Knight, Keene College, NH, problematizes the difficulties theologically in terms of the issue of hospitality:
Amalek is the other who opposes Israel (and any of us who identify with Israel) so viciously, so completely, so utterly that he/she opposes not just Israel (or those who identify with Israel) but God and God’s intentions for life and all creation. Amalek is that other whom my hospitality will never be able to make welcome in the world because Amalek’s identity and place in the world requires that certain others be eliminated. Amalek is that other whom hospitality cannot welcome because Amalek’s identity denies the validity of hospitality even when it welcomes Amalek.
It is important to state here that those who justify their potentially violent reactions/responses to the Palestinians and do so by the citing of numerous biblical, Talmudic, and midrashic sources—interpreted through their own narrow lenses—are, overall, smaller than the clear majority of Jewish, especially in Israeli itself, who strongly disagree with them. However, their continuous repetitions, making use of various media possibilities (books, articles, lectures, Internet, and social media), accords and affords them disproportionate legitimacy in the eyes of those inclined to agree with them. While, objectively, their overall impact is difficult to engage, and the examples cited tend to be anecdotal, as well as their reportage, further fuels this ongoing dangerous proclivity and potential.
See, for example, (Cohen-Almagor 2012
), especially his comment that “we should not ignore repeated calls for murder that have the effect of legitimizing violence” (47).
As Nur Masalha would have it:
There is good reason to suggest that the greater the role of the Jewish halacha [legal tradition] in the political life of Israel becomes, the more vigorously will these messianics demand that the Palestinian Arabs be dealt with according to halachic regulations, including the imposition of the status of ‘resident alien’ on them; the insistence on diminishing numbers by making life even more difficult; the revival of the command to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek’ and the insistence that the Arabs are the ‘Amalekites of today’ to be dealt with by annihilations, and the assertion that the killing of a non-Jew is not a murder.