All humanity recoils at the horror of the Holocaust, the calculated Nazi policy to wipe out every Jewish man, woman and child. But how do you respond to someone who says: "Isn’t it hypocritical to decry what the Nazis did, when Jewish tradition also calls for holocausts, like the biblical commandment to wipe out the nation of Amalek? How could God – who is supposed to be kind, giving and good – tell His people to murder an entire people for something their parents did a long time ago? How is this any better than the Nazis or the jihadists of today?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
People can greatly misconstrue when quoting things out of context. Practical application of Jewish law cannot be learned from the literal text of the Bible. There is an accompanying oral law (the Talmud), and only in this context can understand this mitzvah.
Imagine a refugee family leaving their belongings behind and trudging down the road in search of another place to live. The children, who are tired and weak from all the traveling, would be considered especially vulnerable. Imagine now that terrorists brazenly attack the children. That is Amalek.
Amalek came and ferociously attacked the weak Jews fleeing Egypt, as it is written, "Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt, that he encountered you on the way, and he struck those lagging at the rear, when you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear God." (Deuteronomy 25:18)
Although the Torah uses a "clean language" to describe what Amalek did to the Jewish people, the Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Sifrei, Tanchuma 10; Rashi – Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.
In spite of this, we were and are obligated to call for peace with any nation, including Amalek, before attacking them. Once the Amalekites refused to agree to a peace treaty, and wanted to obliterate all of the Jewish men, woman and children, there was no choice but to declare war on the entire Amalek nation. (Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4)
But Amalek wasn't simply a nation of murderous criminals. They were fighting against God Himself, as the verse say, they “did not fear God" (Deuteronomy 25:18). When the Jews were in Egypt, everyone had heard of the great miracles that occurred such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. The Jewish people were a reflection of the Divine Will and Purpose. An attack on the Jews was by default and attack on God. This was manifested by the fact that Amalek threw the castrated organs toward Heaven, in defiance of God, as if to say, “We despise the holy covenant of Brit Milah.”
The Talmud explains the language of the verse: "[Amalek] happened (karcha) upon you..." (Deut. 25:18). The Hebrew word karcha is related to the word kar, meaning "cold." That is to say: Amalek cooled the Jews off. When the Jews came out of Egypt, all the nations were afraid to challenge the God of the Jews. But Amalek came, did battle, and – even though they were defeated militarily – they nevertheless paved the way for others.
By way of analogy, it is as if the Jewish people were a boiling hot bath that nobody was able to enter. Then along came a stranger and jumped in. Even though he suffered bad burns, he cooled it off ("kar") for others to follow. It is this self-sacrifice to harm the Jews that typifies Amalek’s approach throughout history.
To understand Amalek, it is helpful to go back to the time of Jacob our forefather. Jacob had a twin brother Esav, who was a lifelong rival – so much so that Esav sought to kill Jacob. (see Genesis 27:41)
The Midrash says that when Esav was getting old, he called his grandson Amalek and said: "I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I am entrusting you and your descendents with the important mission of annihilating Jacob's descendents – the Jewish people. Carry out this deed for me. Be relentless and do not show mercy."
This conflict is much deeper than just a "sibling rivalry." Philosophically, Amalek and the Jewish people stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Talmud offers another explanation of the phrase Amalek “happened (karcha) upon you" (Deut. 25:18). Karcha can also mean coincidence or happenstance. Amalek's entire philosophy is that there is no design or providence in the world. Everything is haphazard, dictated by chance, luck and fate. That's why the verse continues: "And [Amalek] did not fear God."
On the other hand, Jacob and his descendents the Jews represent conscience and morality. The world has purpose and meaning and every individual is created in the image of God. From this foundation, the Jews introduced to the world concepts like monotheism, equality for all people, and universal education. This is the essence of what the prophet describes as being a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6).
While Jacob believes that God runs the world and there is an absolute standard of morality, Esav/Amalek believes that life is random – and morality is therefore subjective. This hatred for the message of morality actually forms the basis of all anti-Semitism. Just as the Jews stand for the principle of caring for the vulnerable and weak, Amalek is the opposite – “attacking the weakest people trailing behind" (Deut. 25:18).
True to his mission, Amalek has historically tried to destroy the Jews. The first traces of Amalek are found when they fought against the Jewish people as they left Egypt circa 1300 BCE, attacking the Jews out of pure hatred – Amalek lived in a distant land and was under no imminent threat (Exodus 17:8-15). Amalek resurfaced later in history, in a battle against King Saul (1-Samuel ch. 15). Again, Amalek arose headed by the wicked Haman who commanded an attempted genocide against the entire Jewish people, as recorded in the Book of Esther.
So what happened to Amalek after that?
Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, circa 500 BCE, mixed up all the nations (Talmud – Brachot 28a). When he conquered a country, he would take a large segment of the population and send them to other countries. This caused confusion among the population so they would never be able to muster enough strength to cause a rebellion. In this way, Sennacherib was able to retain control. Many of these peoples intermarried with each other and their old nationalities became mixed together. Amalek also was mixed in at this time. This means the identification of a particular individual or group, as Amalek by the means of genealogy is absolutely impossible.
Does Amalek exist today?
The story is told about the great Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the revered spiritual leader who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem at the turn of the century. When the German Kaiser Wilhelm visited Jerusalem in 1898, Rabbi Sonnenfeld refused to greet him. He explained that the Kaiser exhibited the classic signs of Amalek (a tradition passed down from the Vilna Gaon).
Shockingly, the Talmud (Megillah 6b) identifies a nation called "Germamia" as the descendents of Amalek. Just as in biblical days, when Amalek showed tremendous self-sacrifice to harm the Jews, so did the Nazis. With the invasion of Hungary in 1944, top German military officers determined that railway lines must be prioritized to transport vital troops and equipment to the battlefront. The Wehrmacht urged Hitler to provide this infusion of desperately-needed supplies. Ignoring their warnings, Hitler instead gave orders to allocate the precious rail-lines to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews en masse to the extermination camps. Historians acknowledge this decision as a key factor in further debilitating the German war effort. Hitler, it seems, regarded the killing of Jews even more important than winning World War II.
Today, we are not equipped to identify any specific individual or nation as Amalek. Therefore, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes, the mitzvah is to remember what Amalek did, and to eradicate the trait they displayed of acting cruel and presumptuously against God in the face of all reason.
In 2009, when Israel went into Gaza and killed a lot of people, I was discussing religion with one of my friends, and he said that in the Torah, God told us to go out and murder people that we don't like. The verse he quoted was in Deuteronomy about the Jews driving out the Canaanite nations from the Land of Israel.
Does the Torah really say that, and if so, why does everything need to be so violent?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Canaanite nations were hardcore idol worshippers and as such, were an unacceptable influence on the holy Jewish nation building its home in the Land of Israel. Today, it is hard for us to imagine what could be so evil about a society, since we imagine idolaters as normal families who just happen to worship the sun or a statue. In reality, idol worship was much worse.
Rabbi Akiva (2nd century CE, Israel) reported that he saw a son bind up his father and feed him to ravaging dogs in service of one his idols. Part of their cult worship was to sacrifice children to the gods (Deut. 12:31), and modern archaeologists have found mounds of children's bones by their altars. These nations were also involved in various sexual immoralities like incest, bestiality and temple orgies (Leviticus 18:27).
Today, most Westerners grow up in quiet neighborhoods, and never experience war, persecution and racism. So they don't easily relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Questioning someone's sense of justice and morality is really not fair if you haven't dealt with the harsh reality of their experience.
Judaism taught the world the utopian ideal of world peace, yet sometimes war is necessary. We taught the value of life, yet we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is part of justice. If you choose to leave evil alone, it will eventually attack you (Rashi, Deut. 20:12).
It is ironic that the Jewish people and Israel, who introduced to the world the concept of the sanctity of life, are now criticized as being "cruel" by today's Western civilizations which are built on that Jewish moral foundation! People today can only criticize the State of Israel because those very Jews taught the world that murder, conquest and abuse are wrong.
People mistakenly think that the Torah directive was to wipe out the Canaanites cruelly and indiscriminately. In truth, the Torah prefers that the Canaanites would avoid punishment; they were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they'd change and adopt the basic pillars of human civilization which distinguish a community of humans from a jungle of wild animals.
Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy, as the Torah states, "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." (Deut. 20:10)
Before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." If they refused, a second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." If they again refused, a final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to fight." Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations, the Girgashites, heeded the call and settled peacefully.
In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jewish people were still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape. (see Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4-5, with Kesef Mishna)
It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature. At various stages throughout the 40-year trek in the desert, Moses was forced to reprimand the Jews for having the fear of war. He inspired them with various pep talks, and assurances of victory. Years later, King Saul lost his kingdom by showing misplaced mercy and allowing the Amalekite king to live. (see Exodus 14:3 with Ibn Ezra; Numbers 21:34 with Nachmanides; Deut. 31:6; 1-Samuel ch. 15)
In modern times, Israel has often shown tremendous restraint in dealing with its enemies, and regret at any loss of life. Israel absorbed 10,000 missiles before attacking Gaza. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, "It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers."
So let's put things into perspective before criticizing.
I am a woman who was a Reform Jew my entire life and have begun Jewish learning over the past few years. Now that I am learning, I am feeling bad about some things I’m not observing. For example, I now know that the Torah forbids eating shrimp, although I’m not ready to give it up. This worries me, since if I would have just stayed at Temple and not gotten involved in Jewish learning, I would have no worries because I wouldn’t know anything and therefore not feel bad about anything I’m doing wrong.
If I’m not intending, at the moment, to become more observant, is it better that I don’t study so I won’t be more liable for what I know and don’t do? Or is it better to study anyway?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
As we shall see, your question was addressed by the Almighty Himself!
Jeremiah the prophet says in the name of God: “And it shall be that when you tell all these things to this people, they will say to you, ‘Why has God spoken all this great evil against us?... [It is because] they have forsaken Me, and My Torah they did not observe.’’ (Jeremiah 16:10-11).
The Sages note a seeming redundancy at the end of this verse; obviously if we forsook God we did not observe His Torah!
The Talmud answers that the Almighty means to say, “I only wish that Myself they have forsaken (by not observing the mitzvot), but that they continued to study My Torah – because the illumination within [the Torah] would eventually bring them back to Me.” The Talmud states further, based upon another verse, that the Almighty told the Jews: “I am willing to pardon you for the transgression of major sins, but forsaking Torah study I cannot forgive,” as the study of Torah is God’s final hope for the Jews’ connection to Him. (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 1:7)
As we see, the Almighty Himself has proclaimed that no matter how far a Jew is from observance, His desire is that each and every Jew should be involved in the study of Torah. Torah study, more than the observance of any mitzvah, is the key to Jewish continuity. The communist Russians understood this well when they banned the study of Torah. A rabbi once visited communist Russia as a “tourist” and was stopped by the authorities to be checked at the airport. They unloaded his suitcases, taking out numerous pairs of tefillin, mezuzot, tallis and the like, in addition to many volumes of Torah texts. The officials smirked at him, saying “Tourist, huh?!” They then returned to him all the religious paraphernalia, but held back the volumes of Jewish studies. They said, “We keep these, these are the enemies of the people!”
These Russians recognized and comprehended that without Torah study, the mitzvah objects this rabbi was bringing would be short-lived and would not win the people over from their communist ideology. Torah study, however, has the power to give people the inner strength to stand up to false ideologies, creating “enemies of the people.”
The Russians learned this lesson from the Greeks and Romans of old who first enacted decrees forbidding the Jews from Torah study, punishable by death. The miracle of Chanukah was the celebration of the Jews steadfast commitment to Torah study, the “light within” as represented by the Menorah, which overcame the darkness of those decrees.
Judaism, furthermore, does not believe that “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.” When we have the opportunity to learn and know, we are responsible for what we could and should have known, even though we choose not to know. To choose to not study lest one finds out something she is not currently willing to observe is not a reason to refrain from study. On the contrary, besides not knowing that item, one becomes liable for not studying!
Moreover, you should not think you are worse off for knowing about shrimp and not refraining (although I’m not condoning shrimp). By virtue of the Torah study, you are no longer the same person you were before; you have taken a tremendous step ahead in your Jewish identity and connection with God. In the new space you inhabit, at least shrimp is an issue, which is a remarkably elevated station to occupy than where it was not even a topic of concern.
You should be proud of what you have achieved; and always look out for the next small, meaningful step you can handle. This is because all Jews, regardless of age, background or affiliation, need to be climbing and growing throughout our lives to become better, greater Jews and people.