I. Non-Lineal Amalek
The innovative explanation of the status of Amalek in Maimonidean thought that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught in his father’s name is surprising and controversial. While it is hotly disputed and potentially dangerous, I wish to suggest ancient support for the concept.
We have discussed multiple times R. Soloveitchik’s proposal to explain why the Rambam rules that the commandment to destroy the seven Canaanite nations no longer applies because Sancheriv dispersed the nations but fails to rule similarly regarding the commandment to destroy Amalek (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 5:4-5). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his father as explaining that, as regards the mitzvah to battle against it, Amalek is a status and not necessarily a nationality. Even after the dispersal and loss of national identity, someone who acts like Amalek — attempts to destroy the Jewish nation — acquires the status of Amalek and becomes a target of this commandment. R. Soloveitchik specifically applied this to the Nazis.
This explanation was sufficiently compelling to merit mention in the Frankel edition of the Rambam’s index of commentaries despite the editor’s general rule of omitting Lubavitch and Religious Zionist authors (link). While only R. Soloveitchik’s father is mentioned by name, the citation is from the son’s book. To my knowledge, this is R. Soloveitchik’s only inclusion in the entire edition.
As we explained, R. Nachum Rabinovitch disagrees with R. Soloveitchik’s interpretation. In a responsum, he concludes from his own careful reading of the Rambam’s words that the same exemption from the commandment regarding the seven Canaanite nations also applies to Amalek. However, perhaps R. Rabinovitch’s critique can be answered (link). He also notes that R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook opposed the teaching of R. Soloveitchik’s explanation, presumably due to concern that a student may conclude that Arabs have the status of Amalek and act accordingly. R. Eliezer Melamed appreciates R. Soloveitchik’s general message but asserts that practical halakhah does not follow that view (link).
Indeed, R. Soloveitchik’s approach suffers from a fundamental weakness. In halakhah, statuses of nationality are consistently transmitted by parentage. As R. Hershel Schachter explains in R. Soloveitchik’s name (Eretz Ha-Tzvi, ch. 17), Judaism is a nation and therefore membership travels through the mother while gentiles form tribes in which identity flows through the father. While we can conceive of a status based on action, what hint do we find in classical sources that the status of Amalek should be different than other tribes?
III. Haman the Amalekite?
I suggest that we can find such a hint in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yevamos 2:6). Esther (3:1, 9:24) describes Haman as being the son of Hamedasa the Aggagite. The Talmud Yerushalmi asks why the text calls him the son of Hamedasa when he was not, and answers that he was comparable to Hamedasa in his enmity toward the Jews. Penei Moshe (ad loc.) explains that while Haman was descended from Hamedasa, he was really many generations removed. However, other commentaries suggest that the Talmud Yerushalmi meant that Haman was not descended in any literal way from Hamedasa, and hence from Agag the Amalekite. Sheyarei Korban (13a sv. ve-khi), R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos Le-Rasag, p. 262) and R. Yerachmiel Zelcer (Ner Le-Me’ah on Purim, ch. 12) explain the Talmud Yerushalmi in that way.
Similarly, some modern commentators sever the lineage between Haman and Amalek. Da’as Mikra (Esther 3:1) quotes some recent commentators who suggest that Agag was the name of a Persian family and others who suggest that the Jews only called Haman an “Agagite” because of his evil ways. While it is often difficult and methodologically improper to reconcile modern biblical commentary with midrashic tradition, perhaps in this case, because of the Talmud Yerushalmi, we can do so without causing damage.
Yet, despite the Talmud Yerushalmi, Purim traditions ranging from the Torah reading to the obliteration of Haman’s name through booing clearly associate Haman with Amalek. The Talmud (Megillah 13a; Masekhes Soferim 13:6) explicitly states that Haman descended from Agag the Amalekite. While the Talmud Yerushalmi must disagree with this view, it would be difficult to separate Haman from the Amalek connection so common in rabbinic tradition.
Unless we assume that the Talmud Yerushalmi disputes the link between Haman and Amalek, we can infer from the text an indication that the status of Amalek is not dependent solely on descent. Even though Haman was not the son of Hamedasa, and therefore not a linealogical descendent of Amalek, he is still considered an Amalekite. As R. Soloveitchik explained as the Rambam’s view, someone like Haman who follows in Amalek’s footsteps acquires the nation’s despised status.