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Amalek and the Problem of Human Cruelty

Amalek is a Rorschach test, inspiring extremists on both ends of the spectrum.
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January 14, 2022
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On August 29 of 2021, an American drone strike in Afghanistan killed ten civilians, including seven children. This made headlines around the world; an investigation by the Pentagon found that this was a tragic mistake. (Undoubtedly, a similar event involving the IDF would have received far more media attention.) Even in the heat of battle, we expect our soldiers to follow careful ethical guidelines. The calculus of war is to achieve maximum strategic benefit by killing the enemy. Yet even that must be regulated; not everything is considered to be fair game in war. Wars must be just, and cannot be launched without due cause, and military operations must be conducted in a way that minimizes civilian loss of life as much as possible.

Michael Walzer, in his book “Just and Unjust Wars,” notes that there were “realists” who disagreed. Some realists saw life as a constant battle of the strong against the weak, with violence being part of man’s natural state. Others argue that “war is hell,” and must be fought by the most effective means possible, even if that requires the targeting of civilians. But despite these dissenters, just war theory is now part of international law and contemporary ethics.

So how can one explain the commandment to destroy Amalek? It appears immoral for two reasons. First, it requires the eradication of the entire nation of Amalek, including women and children. Second, it is a designation that continues from generation to generation, years after those involved in the attack against the Israelites in the desert have passed on. George P. Fletcher of Columbia Law School argues that this law is no different than the blood curse ascribed to the Jews for the death of Jesus, and that “holding the Jews liable as a corporate body is no different from the way Jews hold Amalek guilty across the generations.” The commandment to destroy Amalek is extremely disturbing.

For this reason, Amalek is a Rorschach test, inspiring extremists on both ends of the spectrum. Radical Jews who conduct acts of terror against Palestinian civilians, do so because they believe in collective punishment. They rationalize their behavior with one word: Amalek. On the other end of the spectrum, those who want to slander Jewish character and denigrate the Bible, refer often to the commandment to destroy Amalek. Radical opponents of Israel claim that it is a genocidal country, inspired by the commandment to destroy Amalek.

For mainstream interpreters, Amalek is seen as an anomaly, and a commandment that requires reinterpretation. Maimonides explains that descendants of Amalek who live a moral lifestyle would not be included in this commandment. His son Abraham, in his commentary to the Torah, says that Amalek no longer exists and the commandment is no longer operative. In terms of collective punishment, Rav Kook argues in a letter that one must see the biblical era through a different lens, because “when all of Israel’s neighbors were wolves of the night, it would be impossible for Israel alone not to go to war, because then the neighbors would gather together and, God forbid, destroy the remnant of Israel. On the contrary, it was extremely necessary to instill fear into their lawless neighbors, even by cruel methods.” Rav Kook explains that the cruelty of these commandments was a necessity of that period of time; but these commandments would have been applied very differently by the Sanhedrins of later generations.

For mainstream interpreters, Amalek is seen as an anomaly, and a commandment that requires reinterpretation.

Many modern interpreters offer similar understandings of commandment to destroy Amalek.  Some focus on Amalek’s actions, and see it as a metaphor, a lesson about opposing human cruelty. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch interprets the phrase “the memory of Amalek,” as referring to a specific type of remembrance; when a society honors infamous strongmen who build their reputation through acts of violence, they are perpetuating the “memory of Amalek.” The world must stop glorifying savagery as heroic, and when that happens Amalek will disappear.

In a sermon written during the years of World War I, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel offers an ethical reinterpretation. He focuses on the verse: “Inscribe this in a book as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” Rav Amiel explains that a “book,” a product of intellect and thought, represents rationality and morality. There are two contrasting ways of life: living by the book and living by the sword. The only way to uproot militarism, he explains, is through learning and teaching the ways of goodness. One cannot fight violence with a violence; one must uproot it by transforming the general culture. By “inscribing in a book,” one moves society in the direction of non-violence. In this reading, Amalek is now purely theoretical; and Rav Amiel’s interpretation, and others of this kind, allow contemporary readers to harmonize the Biblical text with their moral intuitions regarding just war.

These reinterpretations might seem improbable, the apologetics of the embarrassed. But there is a substantive amount of biblical evidence pointing to the importance of treating enemies with respect. The Torah commands Israel to offer a peace treaty before pursuing a war. A besieging army may not destroy the neighboring trees, and must allow refugees to escape the city. King David is admonished for shedding too much blood in combat. When Ben-Hadad, the King of Damascus, is hiding from the King of Israel, his ministers say to him that he should not worry about surrendering, because “we have heard that the kings of the House of Israel are kind kings.” Contemporary re-readings of Amalek have roots that go back to the Tanakh; this commandment must be seen in context. One passage in the Jewish tradition must not serve as the rationalization of cruelty.

These reinterpretations might seem improbable, the apologetics of the embarrassed. But there is a substantive amount of biblical evidence pointing to the importance of treating enemies with respect.

Even with these new interpretations, the law about destroying Amalek is jarring. And perhaps that’s the point. Its purpose is to serve as a reminder not to be naive. The foundation of any good society is reciprocity. The assumption is that if I’m good to others, others will be good in return. There are those who believe that treating totalitarian states with generosity can help transform them. But this is a lack of imagination, one to which good people in particular are prone. When Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Munich agreement with Hitler, he assumed negotiations would work; a realistic assumption in almost any other instance, because negotiations are how reasonable people arrive at a compromise. But this commandment is a reminder that one cannot negotiate with an Amalek. The appeasement policy of Chamberlain came about due to desperation to avoid another war. But it was also due to the fact that many in Chamberlain’s circle were charmed by the Nazis. When Chamberlain’s foreign minister, Lord Halifax, went to visit Germany in 1937, he was particularly taken with Herman Goering, who he wrote seemed “Altogether a very picturesque and arresting figure, completed by green hat and large chamois tuft!” And “like a great schoolboy, full of life and pride in all he was doing, showing off his forest and animals.” Lord Halifax could not imagine that Goering could truly be evil. Even after the war, Lord Halifax wrote an affidavit for the Nuremberg Trials, stating that Goering would have kept Germany out of war had he been able to.

Kristallnacht occurred just forty days after the Munich agreement.

But some people understood that a government built on hatred would be dangerous for the entire world. Winston Churchill sharply opposed the Munich agreement, and had been an implacable foe of the Nazis from the beginning. Why was he so certain that Hitler could not be trusted?

In his recent biography of Churchill, entitled “Walking With Destiny,” Andrew Roberts wrote regarding Churchill: “His respect for the Jewish people … helped Churchill in the 1930s, giving him the ability—denied to many anti-Semites across the political spectrum—to spot very clearly and early what kind of man Adolf Hitler was.” Churchill saw Hitler’s antisemitism for what it was: a perverted belief that murdering Jews would redeem the world. No appeasement can quiet that type of hatred.

Human cruelty presents a particular problem to those who live lives of goodness; they cannot imagine the mindset of absolute hatred. But the love of goodness should not lead to the inability to recognize evil; the pursuit of peace should not lead to gullible mistakes. One must always remember to be moral without being naive.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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