R. Feivel Cohen, a prominent American halakhist, once told me that he considers the commandment to destroy Amalek one of the most difficult Torah obligations because, in my words, it contradicts our internal moral compasses. However, he continued, we must follow the Torah regardless of our inner reservations. R. Nathaniel (Nati) Helfgot explores that moral contradiction in his “Amalek: Ethics, Values, and Halakhic Development,” recently published in his Mikra & Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation, and offers important answers to difficult questions. However, I believe he misses crucial points and therefore only partially accomplishes his goal.
I. The Moral Problem
R. Nati (as he is affectionately called) cites the Sefer Ha-Chinukh‘s startling formulation that every Jew is obligated to kill any individual Amalekite who crosses his path (no. 604). This obligation includes killing Amalekites of all ages, including babies, due solely to their genealogical descent from the nation that attacked the Jews in the Sinai desert thousands of years ago. While we cannot fulfill this commandment for the technical reason that we can no longer identify Amalekites, the obligation still presents theoretical moral difficulties. We can kick the moral can down the road to the Messianic Era but we cannot avoid that this is an eternal divine war (Deut. 25:19) against Amalekite men, women, children, elderly and crippled.
R. Nati explains that some see the Torah as defining morality but the majority Jewish position is that morality is an independent concept. While God is just and His commands are as well, an independent moral sense is also just. Therefore, the Torah and independent morality must coincide. When they do not, such as with the obligation to kill Amalekite babies, we are rightly perplexed. How can the just God command such an improper act? R. Nati correctly points out that the fact that this obligation is inapplicable today only avoids the dilemma and does not resolve it.
II. National Obligation
R. Nati proceeds to examine the relevant biblical passages on their own. He shows that neither Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua nor Judges require total annihilation of the Amalekite nation. Only the book of Samuel raises such an obligation (1 Sam. 15:2-3). However, he quotes R. Yaakov Medan as arguing that this only describes the method of uncompromising warfare the Torah requires and not a command to kill civilians in non-military exercises. Apparently, according to the simple reading of the biblical text, there is no obligation to kill Amalekite babies other than as wartime collateral damage.
R. Nati implies that the Sefer Ha-Chinukh‘s view contradicts the simple reading of the biblical text. While this alone cannot defeat a halakhic position, it adds support to the Rambam’s competing position that waging war with Amalek is solely a national obligation. Additionally, according to the Rambam, not only must we first reach out to Amalekites in an attempt to make peace (requiring that the Amalekites accept the seven Noahide commandments), we accept any Amalekite who wishes to convert to Judaism.
Within this reading of the Bible and halakhah, the obligation to kill Amalekites is far from absolute. It does not apply to any individual Jew and allows for Amalekites to avoid death. R. Nati quotes the Avnei Nezer (OC 2:509) and Chazon Ish (quoted in Tzitz Eliezer (13:71) as advocating this Maimonidean approach.
Personally, I see the most likely fulfillment of this obligation to destroy Amalek as being attempted by the messianic king after instruction by a prophet, at which time the Amalekites will willingly submit to the seven Noahide commandments in anticipation of the universal peace about to dawn on the world. No killing Amalekite babies or any innocent civilians. No moral qualms. But what if that isn’t how events unfold?
III. Amalekite Handicap
The Rambam’s approach certainly mitigates many moral reservations about the commandment to destroy Amalek. However, it does not entirely resolve the potential problem. Imagine an Amalekite village bordering Israel, a small oasis that has preserved its ancient heritage for thousands of years, against all odds. In the course of war, the Israeli army’s line reaches past the town. Under the guidance of IDF Rabbinate, in a case which is currently unthinkable except in this hypothetical thought experiment, the Israeli army enters the town and demands that the people either reject their millennia-old pagan tradition or face complete annihilation. Is this morally palatable?
Put in other words, innocent Amalekites are born with targets on their backs. While they can remove those targets by submitting to a Jewish worldview, if they fail to do so then, if caught in war, they are all — men, women and children — subject to extermination. R. Nati’s adoption of the Maimonidean approach goes a long way in removing the moral difficulty. Amalekite babies are only condemned during war and only if their parents refuse to convert or submit to Jewish rules. However, they are still halakhically handicapped in a way that could cost them their lives. Do our moral compasses allow for the killing of innocent civilians during a time of war simply because they refuse to adopt our religious worldview?
IV. Moral Quandaries
Yet I, and many other people, find R. Nati’s approach emotionally sufficient. Assuming we have thought this issue through, the reason for our satisfaction with this answer can be either because we do not consider the killing of civilians in such a situation immoral or because we can deal with a little immorality in our religion, just not too much and not too blatantly. I suspect the latter is generally correct. But this raises the question why we do not object to immorality in this isolated case.
Is it because we consider it so obscure as to be unimportant or because we recognize that our own moral compasses are not as finely tuned as we often care to admit? By the latter, I mean that we know right from wrong but sometimes the distinction gets blurry at the boundaries and, while we find this case distasteful, we recognize that it is close enough to the border that we’re willing to allow that perhaps our moral vision is not 20/20. But if we recognize our imperfect moral judgment, perhaps we should refrain from ever judging the Torah’s commands, not because they are free from moral evaluation but because we lack perfect scales to measure absolute morality. Or maybe we have faith that, given the enormous moral sensitivity of the halakhic system, this command will certainly be carried out in a compassionate way that our textual hermeneutics cannot currently uncover.
Another related issue that demands attention is the position of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh. While we are more or less safe with the Rambam’s view, are we willing to declare the Chinukh immoral? Perhaps the Chinukh is free from criticism because he is long deceased but will we declare that anyone today who finds his position compelling is adopting an immoral position? Put differently, is there room in our religion for an immoral minority position? I shudder at the notion of rejecting the view of a respected sage as immoral based on our own limited and biased opinions. Additionally, for those who would denounce the view, is emphasizing the Rambam’s approach sufficient to redeem Judaism or is it merely a distraction technique when the Chinukh‘s view exists, at least on the books? Constructing a wholly moral approach, however you define that, within Judaism is different from demonstrating that Judaism is moral.
R. Nati rightly declares the Rambam in the majority, but what if he were not? Would we be justified, or obligated, to adopt this minority position because of our moral reservations? We suggested above that the strength of the moral claim is decisive. What about people who agree with the moral difficulty but do not consider it sufficiently strong to merit adopting a minority position? They can live with what they see as an obscure and limited immoral rule.
I agree with R. Nati’s approach but don’t see how it has resolved all of the important questions. It shrinks the moral problem but fails to eliminate it, and in the process raises other questions. R. Norman Lamm is certainly correct when writes in his Faith & Doubt (3rd ed., p. 352): “Most assuredly, our discussion of the Halakha on Amalek and the Seven Nations has not solved all the moral problems to our satisfaction as believing Jews.” Along with R. Norman Lamm and R. Feivel Cohen, I believe we have to acknowledge our moral qualms but still submit to the divine mandate, adopting any of the intellectual strategies suggested above.