Amalek and Morality

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

90 comments

  1. why are you assuming that amalek will some day be identifiable? once they are absorbed by other nations, they lost their identity. you cant start tracing people who are some fraction amalekite.

  2. Nar, I believe you miss the point. If mitzvot are eternal and immutable, then we must be able to envision carrying out said mitzvah. It actually doesn’t matter if it will ever happen or not. It still needs to be understand, and applicable in potential – and this case, reconciled from a moral standpoint. The mitzvah represents or expresses a Divine truth, and so we must contend with it regardless of the realities on the ground.

  3. R. Nati explains that some see the Torah as defining morality but the majority Jewish position is that morality is an independent concept.

    I wish this point would have been further elaborated upon. Can you cite the sources that constitute the majority here along with the minority opinions?

  4. I don’t understand the morality of the laws regarding Amalek — or those regarding the Seven Nations, or ir hanidachat, or ben sorer umorer, or executing sabbath violators. But none of them — none! — were ever, after biblical days when we had God speaking to us through prophets, ever applicable. It hanidachat? Never happened. Same for ben sorer umorer. Amalek and the Seven nations? Well, Sanchariv wiped those problems away. Capital punishment? The details of two eidim and, especially, hatra’ah, made that near impossible.

    Is the fact that these laws that raise serious moral issues are non-applicable in practice for thousands of years with some apparently never applicable merely a coincidence? I don’t think so. We’re not the first to realize these moral issues and however, or by whomever, it was done, these issues became, at most, merely theoretical.. That doesn’t mean that we can simply ignore the moral issues involved but it does make grappling with these issues, as least for me, much easier.

  5. Yes, please elaborate as to the details of this alleged majority opinion.

    What is our “moral compass”? At most it is three thousand years of Torah being imbued into our psyches. הפה שאסר הוא הפה שהתיר! I don’t see the moral dilemma at all.

  6. Joseph Kaplan – Forgive me, but what makes something moral or immoral, and why should the Torah give credence to “morality”?

  7. r’ gil – “I agree with R. Nati’s approach but don’t see how it has resolved all of the important questions.” – did r’ helfgot ever claim that it did? or did he questioned the prevalent view among the majority of jews that the commandment with regards to amalek is genocide? and then expanded to what and how it could be understood via the rambam?

    the other question is whether the rambam’s reading of the sources was influenced by a moral compass outside juadism – or implanted by hashem -and did he differ with those that preceded him?

    and what view does r’ feivel cohen have?

  8. Yaak, see Shubert Spero in Morality, Halakha, and the Jewish Tradition for an extensive discussion.

    This discussion is crippled if one doesn’t acknowledge that there is no objective morality. Morality whether defined by religion on Kant’s universal maxims, is always changing. Once we acknowledge this, Joseph’s comments have more meaning. Amalek is just one of many things we now find immoral. Per Rambam in the Guide (taken from Vayikra Raba) animal sacrifice was commanded only because the jewish people when coming out of Egypt were very primitive. Rav Kook takes this progressivism further and applies it to other seemingly immoral mitzvoht, continuing the tradition started by the taanaim of ‘reexplaing’ mitzvoht such as ‘eye for an eye’. As the world progresses further towards tikkun these mitzvoht will be negated. We must see the beauty of the divine hand in all of this. One scripture that was able to speak to every generation, according to its moral system and values.

  9. I do not believe that the Rambam’s argument against animal sacrifice has anything to do with it being immoral. As far as I recall he never mentions such a consideration. His objection is a purely theological one; i.e. God doesn’t derive anything from our animals.

    The Gemara says why they interpreted “an eye for an eye” to mean a monetary penalty – because one person’s eye is not always worth the same as another’s. A logical problem, not a moral one. It is the premise that morals are true independent of Torah which would lead one to dismiss what the Gemara says straight out and opt for a different peshat, and then somehow fit it back into the Gemara. I fail to see the validity of this premise.

    I agree that Joseph’s way provides more “meaning.” But I don’t see the connection between meaning and truth. Regardless of what may motivate people to be religious, it has to be acknowledged that Judaism only claims that the Torah is truth, not that it is a feel-good manual. But that might just be the Litvak in me talking.

  10. Thank you Anonymous. I’ll admit to not having read Shubert Spero on the subject.

    My thoughts at first glance:

    Explaining seemingly immoral Mitzvot but then giving reasons for them to fit them into the Torah’s morality is very different than saying that there is an authoritative “morality” outside of the Torah.

    It has a very strong stench of שתי רשויות, IMHO.

    As far as I am concerned, I have no moral objections to wiping out Amalek from the face of the earth – including women and children – since that is what G-d commanded.

    I’d still like to see the list of what was dubbed as the majority and minority opinions.

  11. Sorry Dov, I think you missed the boat. Chazal wanted people to think that that the true meaning of the text was ‘eye for an eye’ ina monetary sense (which is one of the multiple truths contained in the words). So they contrived explanations to reexplain the ‘real meaning’ of the word. The real motivation might be said to be a moral one.
    In regards to animal sacrifice, I didn’t mean that Rambam’s explanation was forced because of a moral issue, but I was just pointing out the progressive development of Judaism and how it was designed for a primitive people. In regards to the morality of animal slaughter Rav Kook thinks that it is immoral and will be abolished in time, but this is a side issue.

  12. Anonymous –

    Chazal wanted people to think that that the true meaning of the text was ‘eye for an eye’ ina monetary sense (which is one of the multiple truths contained in the words). So they contrived explanations to reexplain the ‘real meaning’ of the word.

    Where are you getting that from? A simple, uncomplicated reading of the Gemara does not lead one to that conclusion; at least not in my experience. It is your premise that does, and I disagree with your premise.

    the progressive development of Judaism and how it was designed for a primitive people.

    You are taking a huge leap by going from the Rambam who was explaining away certain things because of one thing and one thing only – logic – and using that as a springboard for reexplaining the Torah in light of the prevalent view of morality. It makes sense to fit the Torah into logic. The Rambam says there are only three things a person should believe in, and logic are at the top of his list (morals didn’t make it in apparently). But morality? First prove that there is something true about it besides it being a good feeling. Until then why subject the Torah to its standards?

  13. Here’s the Rambam I mentioned:

    אין ראוי לנו להאמין אלא באחד משלשה דברים: הראשון – דבר שתהיה עליו ראיה ברורה מדעתו של אדם, כגון חכמת החשבון וגימטריאות והתקופות. והשני – דבר שישיגו האדם באחד מחמשת ההרגשות, כגון שידע בודאי שזה אדום וזה שחור וכיוצא בזה בראיית עינו, או שיטעום שזה מר וזה מתוק וכו’ וכו’. והשלישי – דבר שיקבל אותו האדם מן הנביאים ומן הצדיקים. וצריך לבעל דעה לחלק בדעתו ובמחשבתו כל הדברים שהוא מאמין בהם, ויאמר: זה האמנתי בו מפני הקבלה, וזה האמנתי בו מפני ההרגשה, וזה האמנתי בו מפני הדעה

    אגרת אל חכמי מונטפשליר על גזירת הכוכבים (יצחק שילת: אגרות הרמב”ם חלק ב. ירושלים: הוצאת מעליות, תשמ”ח: תעט)

  14. Dov, I am not sure anything I say will help you, as there are some conclusions you have admitted you will not make.

    As for morality being a inherit truth. I am not sure how you want to do this. For a logical route I would say to read Kant and the literature that has developed around it. For the jewish perspective read Spero’s book. Briefly I will just say חלילה לך מעשות כדבר הזה להמית צדיק וכו speaks loads. How did Avaraham know anything about right and wrong with out God telling him; and how could he question God’s morality?
    Hillel and Rabbi Akiva say the big rule of the Torah is not to do to another what you wouldn’t want done to yourself, which is Kant’s first maxim. This concept is universal and was stated by Confucius 300 years before Hillel. In other words they are defining Torah as morality.
    Man’s discretion between good and bad was around from day one. It preceded the Torah, and must be defined as some ingrained ability to discern between the two. You might call this yetzer harah and yetzer tov.
    I haven’t said much, but you should hit the books to really want to understand it.

  15. the Israeli army enters the town and demands that the people either reject their millennia-old pagan tradition or face complete annihilation.

    What’s so special about Amalekites? The same situation would apply to Canaanites, or indeed, Israelites from an ir nidachat.

  16. “A simple, uncomplicated reading of the Gemara does not lead one to that conclusion”
    True. The gemarah is compendium of saying that meant to expand on the mishna, the jewish law book. Rarely do we get a glimpse of the saying in context. So it is very hard to negate any such ulterior motives from most rabbinic dictums which were not meant to preserve context. This is true for not only the talmud bur for the entire rabbinc corpus. We have now recording of the discussion in the Beth Medrash to know exactly what happened. The possibility of negating ulterior motives becomes even more clear when one factors in the redactors, which like you many times didn’t understand the context of a dictum.
    Another factor in this is that much of this was done subconsciously, without even the reinventors being cognizant of what they were doing.
    There is much to say, again just read up and you will understand.

  17. “after biblical days when we had God speaking to us through prophets”

    And probably not then. Was it Yishayahu Leibowitz who pointed out that most likely never in history was there the type of society envisioned by halakha?

    “as he is affectionately called”

    We should stand athwart that train yelling “Stop!” The sixties ended over forty years ago.

  18. Thanks Rav Gil for a very interesting post. I also think Rav Nati has done a wonderful job, but hasn’t solved all the problems either (nor do I think he would claim to have done so).

    Regarding the “majority opinion” on the relationship between Torah and morality, I think the reference is also to the important books by Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman on “Dat u-Musar” (which try to show that the mainstream in Jewish and halakhic thought assumes a preexisting “natural law”).

    Regarding the question of שתי רשויות, I think it is important to bring up an additional angle, namely that of Tzelem Elohim. Yair Lorberbaum’s extraordinary book on the topic makes a great effort to show that the concept is not just an aggadic or “moral” one, but a very important halakhic one too, and that the way Tzelem Elohim was understood by many of the most important tannaim eventually had a huge impact on the shape and striking halakhic content of Mishnah Sanhedrin.

    Once it is a fundamental halakhic principle with real-life practical implications, and not just an abstract idea, Tzelem Elohim can go a long way to relieving the apparent dichotomy between natural law versus Torah law, because then all law is ultimately based on interpersonal relationships and covenants (whether man-man or man-God) that all share the same fundamental assumptions. In other words, natural law is not foreign to the Torah but is a fundamental part of it.

    Tzelem Elohim probably has fascinating implications for the Amalek topic too, though I haven’t really thought about it much yet.

  19. Yaak: I wish this point would have been further elaborated upon. Can you cite the sources that constitute the majority here along with the minority opinions?

    So much has been written on the subject, it’s hard to know where to begin. The primary source is R. Nissim Gaon’s introduction to the Talmud but many others say similarly. See R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s article “Is there an ethic outside of halakhah?” in his Leaves of Faith and R. Avraham Grodzinski’s series of essays titled Toras Ha-Seikhel in his Toras Avraham.

    Ruvie: did r’ helfgot ever claim that it did?

    No, nor did I say that he did. This wasn’t an attack on him or his essay.

  20. Leaves of Faith, vol. 2 ch. 2

  21. Absent in this discussion is the (theoretical) moral nature of a formal war against Amalek. Starting a war against a nation solely because of events that occurred thousands of years ago is a moral horror.

  22. “As far as I am concerned, I have no moral objections to wiping out Amalek from the face of the earth – including women and children – since that is what G-d commanded.”

    That’s easy to say when it is purely theoretical; quite different if there really is an Amalek and you have a baby in front of you and an uzi in your hand. Similar issues of this nature have arisen with the State of israel.. Certain halachot are easy when we don’t have our own state and when we are not the ones in charge. But when you are, you begin to see things in a different light. And I thin that is what the rabbis have always done, including with the halachot I mentioned in my first comment.

  23. 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.

    The issue is greater then that. Your internal moral compass is that X feels wrong or, more expanively, your internal moral code. In this instance, it does not merely feel wrong (except to the virtuous yaak)or violate your specific moral code but violates every moral code (where killing of innocents is wrong) but for the interpretations of the Torah where this law would apply.

    As for me, I agree with Gil. While its true that R’ Helfgott’s version of applicability in his concluding interpretation is more narrow then that of his starting premise, I have no idea why it would be more moral to kill an innocent baby because you believe a divinely inspired prince ordered you all to war then if you believed, on your own, that you were ordered by G-d to do it.

    I also believe that this verse lays bare a real theological problem that was understated in this post. You merely laid out the systemic problem; but the real personal problem exceeds that of the system. Do you really KNOW your religion is true? Or do you just trust/hope? Most of us do not know. So how can it possibly be okay to follow this commandment, where you are irrevocably harming another for no alternate reason, other then completing a divine commandment you are not sure was actually given? To the degree that you do not know … to the degree that you are not sure … that is murder you are committing. Murder so you can get along in your community or sleep comfortably at night in a new age where your people your ascendant when you would no longer have the right to sleep comfortably at all.

  24. 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.

    The issue is greater then that. Your internal moral compass is that X feels wrong or, more expanively, your internal moral code. In this instance, it does not merely feel wrong (except to the virtuous yaak)or violate your specific moral code but violates every moral code (where killing of innocents is wrong) but for the interpretations of the Torah where this law would apply.

    As for me, I agree with Gil. While its true that R’ Helfgott’s version of applicability in his concluding interpretation is more narrow then that of his starting premise, I have no idea why it would be more moral to kill an innocent baby because you believe a divinely inspired prince ordered you all to war then if you believed, on your own, that you were ordered by G-d to do it.

    I also believe that this verse lays bare a real theological problem that was understated in this post. You merely laid out the systemic problem; but the real personal problem exceeds that of the system. Do you really KNOW your religion is true? Or do you just trust/hope? Most of us do not know. So how can it possibly be okay to follow this commandment, where you are irrevocably harming another for no alternate reason, other then completing a divine commandment you are not sure was actually given? To the degree that you do not know … to the degree that you are not sure … that is murder you are committing. Murder so you can get along in your community or sleep comfortably at night in a new age where your people your ascendant when you would no longer have the right to sleep comfortably at all.

  25. It is worthy of note that the Midrashim portray Shaul HaMelekh as grappling with moral qualms regarding the war against Amaleq, as mentioned by Rashi in Shmuel Alef on the words וירב בנחל. So this is not exactly an issue of conflict between Torah and “modern” sensibilities.

  26. Joseph’s mention of Ben Sorerer u’Moreh reminded me of a thought provoking passage in RDH’s most recent book on the broader issue of halacha and morality. See pp. 66-68 (starting with the last sentence on 66): http://tinyurl.com/7bruoc3

  27. If you don’t understand the morality of the laws regarding Amalek, or those regarding the Seven Nations, or ir hanidachat, or ben sorer umorer, or executing sabbath violators, then ask those who know more about these areas of Torah, or just plead ignorance. It’s a mistake to assume that morality is what one intuits, or to believe that one’s morality is better than the Torah’s.

  28. So Canuck, one should “plead ignorance” and thereby then kill babies and cripples. One should rely on an expert in those “areas of Torah” to trump all notions of morality? Had you just left it at the first sentence I might have thought that you meant that those experts in the verses would provide a more proper interpretation of the verses that would not contradict all moral bounds. But your subsequent sentence makes clear you are just making an appeal to authority.

  29. r’ gil – you said: “No, nor did I say that he did. This wasn’t an attack on him or his essay.”
    i didn’t say you attacked him.

    But you stated:
    “However, I believe he misses crucial points and therefore only partially accomplishes his goal.”
    ” It shrinks the moral problem but fails to eliminate it, and in the process raises other questions. ”

    in his article he stated his goal is to look at the sources and how we should approach a morally troubling text and ends with RAL’S approach. what other questions did he raised in the process that were not discussed?

  30. Ruvie: The issues discussed in this post.

  31. HAGTBG – You misunderstood my comments. We know the Torah commandment to destroy Amalekites (including babies) is troubling to us, and in practice Amalekites are extinct as a tribe. Similarly, for other Torah commandments. The point of the article is to understand how the act of killing innocent Amalekite babies was considered a moral act when it was applicable, and how the command (being Divine) must still be moral, even if it is only currently theoretical. I pointed out that if we don’t understand the morality of these commands, then the problem is with us and our perceptions and understandings. Then, I suggested we either accept our ignorance, or seek out Torah scholars who have studied these issues in depth, so they could show us the justice and wisdom inherent in every Divine command.

  32. My copy of R. Helfgott’s book just arrived this weekend, so I have not had an opportunity to read his essay in context. But, it seems to me the broader discussion of how we grapple with a modern view of morality to biblical texts — apropos Canuck’s comments — is a bigger issue of which Amalek is just one example. Another salient example is Joshua 6:21:

    “They exterminated everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass.”

    And the Hebrew is even more blunt:

    כא וַיַּחֲרִימוּ, אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר, מֵאִישׁ וְעַד-אִשָּׁה, מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן; וְעַד שׁוֹר וָשֶׂה וַחֲמוֹר, לְפִי-חָרֶב.

    Also, Canuck, the point of our tradition – it seems to me – is to argue about these troubling issues. “We are not the people of the book, we are the people of the interpretation of the book”. Everyone can and should participate in the discussion.

  33. 1. Not everything needs to be published on a blog.
    2. Amalek’s village isn’t different than 7-nation villages.

  34. We should also remember that while murder has always been considered immoral, the moral issues related to the targetting of groups for killing (especially during warfare) is modern. We didn’t even have the vocabulary until 1944; http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007043

    So, let’s not fall into the trap of presentism in our discussion of Amalek (or Jericho).

  35. Interestingly, the Rav learned in the Rambam that Amalek is not only a national obligation, but an individual obligation as well, which obviously complicates this approach.

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=36758&st=&pgnum=94&hilite=

    Does he mention the Rav’s dissenting view?

  36. 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?

    You just gave away the plot of Gideon Rothstein’s next book.

  37. Once Amalek is unidentifiable, they’re gone and they’re not coming back. Their descendents assimilated with other groups. We can see anti-Semites like Hamas today and say perhaps they’re the descendents, but we really don’t know. And I see no reason to think we ever will. If someone is a descendent but raised in a different culture, they’re not Amelikites. Once Amelek disappeared as a real people/culture/village, the commandment remains but it becomes symbolic. So Amelek symbolizes something we should always hate and fight against (as with chametz.)

    For example, in the Gutnick edition of the Chumash the Lubavitcher Rebbe interprets Amelek as referring to any forces that seek to dampen our enthusiasm in believing in Hashem and performing mitzvot. Similarly, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said that people should interpret all the stuff in Tehillim about battles and such as being references to our battles with our evil inclination. Tehillim 137 (smash babies against the rock) is probably the most disturbing one (which I would be interested in seeing all the interpretations of, perhaps on this blog!) but this can be interpreted symbolically as well.

    The fact that one of our many hundreds of holy books suggests that it is a commandment to kill babies is disturbing, but it is not that surprising, and it shouldn’t necessarily pose great difficulties. No one is obligated to believe every sentence said by every Jewish sage throughtout the ages. For those with universalistic sensibilities we have many wonderful statements, such as those chronicled by R’ Dovid Sears in Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition. One of my favorites is from Ramak, Tomer Devorah, who says we care for and pray for all living creatures and should not hurt any living thing unless it is necessary.

  38. IH> the point of our tradition – it seems to me – is to argue about these troubling issues. “We are not the people of the book, we are the people of the interpretation of the book”. Everyone can and should participate in the discussion.

    Agree. Everybody should feel welcome in the discussion.

    IH>the moral issues related to the targeting of groups for killing (especially during warfare) is modern.

    Are you suggesting that only in modern times is genocide considered immoral? Please explain.

    IH>So, let’s not fall into the trap of presentism in our discussion of Amalek (or Jericho)

    I agree we shouldn’t judge biblical events by modern sensibilities. But, morality or truth is not time dependent; so what was moral then (as explicitly described in Torah) is moral now, and what was wrong then is wrong now. However, conditions change, so practices adjust. Any objection?

  39. y – Thanks for the references about Amalek now being symbolic. However, you wrote that “killing babies” is just a suggestion in one of hundreds of our holy books. Which book are you referring to? Isn’t it in Chumash? And, while I agree Judaism really is a religion of peace; but are you characterizing Judaism as being compatible with Pacifism (that war or violence is never acceptable)?

  40. “If you don’t understand the morality of the laws regarding Amalek, or those regarding the Seven Nations, or ir hanidachat, or ben sorer umorer, or executing sabbath violators, then ask those who know more about these areas of Torah, or just plead ignorance.”

    Unfortunately, the question has been asked, many times, of those who know more, and their answers, while genuinely given, have not been deemed satisfactory by many. Reminds me of Jerry Blidstein’s story of the Rav’s comment when confronted with whether mishum eivah concerning being mechalel Shabbat for a non-Jew satisfied him from a moral perspective. (And you can add that halacha to the list of those that have been effectively/practically written out of our canon.)

  41. 1. The Rambam quite clearly states that the mitzvah is to destory the seed of Amalek (although the simple meaning indeed is that such is a collective mitzvah on the Jewish people):

    שלוש מצוות נצטוו ישראל בשעת כניסתן לארץ–למנות להם מלך שנאמר “שום תשים עליך מלך” (דברים יז,טו), ולהכרית זרעו של עמלק שנאמר “תמחה את זכר עמלק” (דברים כה,יט), ולבנות להם בית הבחירה שנאמר “לשכנו תדרשו, ובאת שמה” (דברים יב,ה).

    (Melakhim 1:1)

    וכן מצות עשה לאבד זרע עמלק, שנאמר “תמחה את זכר עמלק” (דברים כה,יט); ומצות עשה לזכור תמיד מעשיו הרעים ואריבתו, כדי לעורר איבתו–שנאמר “זכור, את אשר עשה לך עמלק” (דברים כה,יז). מפי השמועה למדו, “זכור” בפה; “לא, תשכח” (דברים כה,יט) בלב, שאסור לשכוח איבתו ושנאתו.

    (Melakhim 5:5)

    The mere fact that this is a collective mitzvah hardly alleviates any “moral” issues anyone has with it.

    (I am dubious about the pshat that this is only a collective mitzvah. In the prior halakha discussing the 7 nations, the Rambam states: וכל שבא לידו אחד מהן, ולא הרגו–הרי זה עובר בלא תעשה. He then says וכן מצות עשה לאבד זרע עמלק. Simply reading is that the halakhos of the two are the same.)

    2. 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)

    Really? Rashi on the possuk (Dev. 25:19) states, quoting a midrash:

    תמחה את זכר עמלק: מאיש ועד אשה מעולל ועד יונק משור ועד שה (שמואל א’ טו ג). שלא יהא שם עמלק נזכר אפילו על הבהמה, לומר בהמה זו משל עמלק היתה:

    Sure sounds like total annihillation — even the property! (Which is what timcheh means — wipe them out.

  42. As for the moral issue, consider the following two questions:

    1. Suppose someone invented a time machine. It can take you back to late 19th century Austria. You can go back and strangle little baby Adolph Hitler in his crib.

    Would that be moral or immoral?

    2. Suppose instead a bona fide navi (which we do not have today) told you that a certain child who today is a baby is going to grow up to commit or initiate mass murder and other evil on a level to rival Hitler — he is going to be the Hitler of the 21st century. You now have the chance to strangle him in his crib.

    Would that be moral or immoral?

  43. Anonymous –

    Methinks that I have not been clear.

    I am not really denying that morality “exists.” I am denying that there is any objective “meaning” to morality – or anything else for that matter; absent God. Just as I can be utterly in love with someone and be completely sure of it, but that does not make my love “correct,” or objectively meaningful, so it is with morality. I have not seen any literature prove otherwise.

    Since this is the case, and accepting the premise that the Torah is God’s instructions to humanity, I fail to see the validity in an accusation that the Torah sets immoral standards. I am not saying the Torah defines morality, I am saying – so what? Who cares that it is immoral? Who says that one ought to be moral? Who says there is true meaning in morality? Feelings? Will? And who says I ought to listen to those? These are not objective. They don’t speak of truth, and truth surpasses them. Clearly we believe truth surpasses them, because in our minds we will always dismiss “feelings” and “will” when they are contradicted by logic. It is only when there is no greater truth that we subject ourselves to these. Therefore accepting the premise of the truth of the Torah, I fail to see how it might be fitting to question it on the basis of what is or isn’t moral.

    With regard to statements such as חלילה לך et al, I certainly understand the appeal to interpret them as God being subjected to human values. It makes us feel big. But that’s about it. It doesn’t make sense in my humble opinion. God knows what is truly right and wrong; he decided.

    I don’t think that is the simple interpretation there anyway. I would interpret Avraham’s argument as saying that if God does not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked, then we may as well throw God out the window, so to speak, because what’s the use.

    The story with Hillel doesn’t show anything either. Of course, once the Torah says to be good to others, much of Torah branches out from there. That doesn’t imply that there is true value in being moral absent God and the Torah.

    As such, I stand by my original comment. הפה שאסר הוא הפה שהתיר.

  44. And, Canuk, let me add that while there is certainly a tremendous amount that I don’t know, I’m also not completely ignorant. And in thinking about these issues for a while, it hit me that these laws that many find morally problematic have, over time and through various devices, been made purely theoretical. I think that’s significant. I understand that others don’t. So I don’t think that the struggles that many have is simply a result of a failure to ask or ignorance.

  45. Joseph Kaplan > Unfortunately, the question has been asked, many times, of those who know more, and their answers, while genuinely given, have not been deemed satisfactory by many.

    Would you mind provide an example or two of answers that weren’t deemed satisfactory (concerning Amalek or say other potentially troubling commandments)? Is it okay to accept that sometimes there are no answers, except to have faith, and assume the Messiah will resolve these difficult questions to everyone’s satisfaction?

  46. Thanks, Gil, for the Leaves of Faith reference, which can be found here.

    However, I find a major distinction between what was presented by Rav Lichtenstein and this discussion. Rav Lichtenstein himself says on p. 38:

    Any ethic so independent of Halakhah as to obviate or override it clearly lies beyond our pale.

    I find it curious that there are those who are so willing to obviate a commandment from G-d and call it “immoral” and to replace it with the Declaration of Independence’s so-called self-evident truth that “all men are created equal”, when, in fact this is not exactly a self-evident truth according to the Torah.

  47. Joseph Kaplan – Your Torah knowledge is superior to mine. But, I’m less bothered by the problematic aspects of these acknowledged mainly theoretical commandments. Perhaps too much knowledge is a trap that makes one over intellectualize. Or, it’s really not a knowledge problem, but a philosophical issue. At the end of the day, for better or worse, the Jews are a merciful people. Perhaps Judaism requires some martial aspects to it (as opposed to wimpy feel good religion), for our spiritual health, and for our full national restoration.

  48. Canuck, you’re welcome. I was referring to Sefer HaChinuch (as mentioned in R’ Gil’s post.) I didn’t mean to imply Judaism would support absolute pacifism. The idea that one should not harm a living thing unless necessary — found in Ramak and other sources — would permit warfare when necessary. It might not permit meat-eating (now that we know it’s unnecessary for health), but that’s another story! (On that note, there is now a vegan Jewish organization, the Shamayim v’Aretz Institute, headed by an Orthodox rabbi who trained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. The musician Matisyahu and actor/author Mayim Bialik are involved in its leadership.)

  49. Tal Benschar – (1) Backwards time travel is impossible. But, if it could be done, wouldn’t the future be completely unknown because of free will and randomness, so the new future timeline would be different? Strangely, a baby who in one timeline is a mass murdered, in another, he might become a righteous person!
    00
    (2) Has a prophet ever directed anyone to kill a particular baby based on a possibly future crime? I don’t think it would ever happen. I don’t understand how your two examples shed light on the issue of Amalek. Also, remember that Ishmael in the desert after leaving Abraham’s house was deemed innocent at the moment, despite negative prophesies. Also, aren’t negative prophesies always conditional?

  50. >Suppose instead a bona fide navi (which we do not have today) told you that a certain child who today is a baby is going to grow up to commit or initiate mass murder and other evil on a level to rival Hitler — he is going to be the Hitler of the 21st century. You now have the chance to strangle him in his crib.

    Would that be moral or immoral?

    “כי שמע אלוקים אל קול הנער באשר הוא שם” (בראשית כא, יז) – על פי מעשים שהוא עושה עכשיו הוא נדון ולא לפי מה שהוא עתיד לעשות לפי שהיו מלאכי השרת מקטרגים ואומרים רבש”ע מי שעתיד זרעו להמית בניך בצמא אתה מעלה לו באר והוא משיבם עכשיו מה הוא צדיק או רשע אמרו לו צדיק. אמר להם לפי מעשיו של עכשיו אני דן אותו וזהו באשר הוא שם (עיין ר”ה דף ט”ז, ורש”י על החומש שם).

  51. y – It’s sometimes hard to know when going war is necessary. Look at the angst at whether or not Israel or the US should preemptively attack Iranian nuclear weapons factories? Veganism isn’t necessarily healthier than a diet which includes meat. But, do religious Jewish vegans consider meat eaters less ethical? How do they view the commandments to offer animal sacrifices? Do they believe that only grain offerings will be sacrificed in the restored Temple?

  52. chardal –

    I don’t know how good of a proof that is, being that there is was not Yishmael personally, but his descendants who were destined to do those things. Also, one could counter that a ben sorer umoreh is put to death because of his impending bleak future. Though that would not be much of a proof to the Hitler case either, since at least the ben sorer umoreh has already done something wrong that we can tag his death sentence to, and he isn’t an innocent baby. The real brain-fryer is simply the question of whether when you go back in time, this baby actually has freewill or not.

  53. What does:

    Deut: 25:19
    Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”

    mean?

    If God gave you rest from all your enemies, than what Amalekite is there that still exists for you to fight?

    Of course, earlier, when Amalek first attacks and God tells Moses to write it as a memorial in the book, God says HE will blot out their memory.

  54. HH –

    I think the answer is that “your enemies around you” refers to the seven nations (the comma after those words is a bit misleading). When you are settled in your land, then go and wage war with Amalek.

    Your second point is quite intriguing. It doesn’t have to be read the way you read it though. It says: כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם. I am thinking that perhaps God is telling Moses to record it “because I wish to blot out the memory of Amalek” – in other words, he is actually telling him to record the events lest anyone forget and become lax in the divine imperative to blot out Amalek. Maybe one could even take it a step further – that Moses was specifically fulfilling this command by writing the verse in Deuteronomy.

  55. Canuck, good questions. I don’t have any answers regarding the Iranian issue, but I think if intelligence reports suggest there is a real chance Iran would use a nuclear bomb against Israel, then, according to one possible perspective, destroying the program is necessary. About Orthodox vegans, well I think they would say that veganism is a worthy ethical choice without necessarily condemning those who eat animal products. I think of veganism as a chumra — something adherents might promote as desireable without seeking to impose it on everyone, because it’s not required and is ultimately a personal choice. The website of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (an organization headed by an Orthodox Jew, Richard Schwartz), has a lot of good questions-and-answers on various halachic and practical issues related to vegetarianism. The website of Shamayim v’Aretz Institute has some videos by the founding rabbi who discusses some of these issues (though I haven’t watched them yet). They also have some interesting links, including to an article showing that the Rav had a very positive view of vegetarianism. I wouldn’t be surprised if some vegans hold by Rav Kook’s minority view that only the vegetable sacrifices will be restored, but I don’t know what their views are.

  56. Many Jewish vegans should be. Pesachim 49b:

    תניא ר’ אומר עם הארץ אסור לאכול בשר שנאמר (ויקרא יא, מו) זאת תורת הבהמה והעוף כל העוסק בתורה מותר לאכול בשר בהמה ועוף וכל שאינו עוסק בתורה אסור לאכול בשר בהמה ועוף

  57. That was said in jest.

  58. Now here’s a really disturbing passage. Rambam, in Mishnei Torah, says the following:

    “The term apikorsim refers to Jews who deny the Torah and the concept of prophecy. If there is the possibility, one should kill them with a sword in public view. If that is not possible, one should develop a plan so that one can cause their deaths.

    What is implied? If one sees such a person descend to a cistern, and there is a ladder in the cistern, one should take the ladder, and excuse oneself, saying: “I must hurry to take my son down from the roof. I shall return the ladder to you soon.” Similarly, one should devise other analogous plans to cause the death of such people.”

    http://www.chabad.org/dailystudy/rambam.asp?tDate=7/6/2011&rambamChapters=1

    This makes Rambam sound like a terrorist, Heaven forbid, advocating the secret extrajudicial assassination of all heretics! I understand that the Chazon Ish says that’s no longer applicable, but my question is, was it ever applicable? Where did Rambam get that ruling? Was that really the conclusion of Chazal? What about all the restrictions on the death penalty?

  59. ” Your Torah knowledge is superior to mine. But, I’m less bothered by the problematic aspects of these acknowledged mainly theoretical commandments.”

    I think we actually agree (regarding your second sentence, that is). As long as the halacha tells me I must be mechalel Shabbat to save my non-Jewish neighbor or that I don’t have to kill the Amelike baby, I can easily live with the reasoning that it is mishum eivah or because of Sancheriv. But maybe that’s because I leave philosophical issues to other members of my family.

  60. Another related issue that demands attention is the position of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh. […] I shudder at the notion of rejecting the view of a respected sage as immoral based on our own limited and biased opinions.

    I am not sure whether the cause here is “presentism”, or perhaps simply “false dichotomy”; but, in either case, this paragraph of Gil’s analysis is problematic. There is no reason of which I am aware to consider it is disrespectful or otherwise inappropriate to understand that a view expressed in the 14th century Sefer Ha-Chinukh may not be congruent with our 21st century understanding of morality.

  61. Y –

    First, this halacha of the Rambam also occurs in Hilchos Mamrim Ch. III, where he makes a very important exception to the rule. See the third halacha:

    א) מי שאינו מודה בתורה שבעל פה אינו זקן ממרא האמור בתורה אלא הרי זה בכלל האפיקורוסין [ומיתתו בכל אדם]

    ב) מאחר שנתפרסם שהוא כופר בתורה שבעל פה [מורידין אותו] ולא מעלין והרי הוא כשאר כל האפיקורוסין והאומרין אין תורה מן השמים והמוסרין והמומרין שכל אלו אינם בכלל ישראל ואין צריך לא לעדים ולא התראה ולא דיינים [אלא כל ההורג אחד מהן עשה מצוה גדולה והסיר המכשול]

    ג) במה דברים אמורים באיש שכפר בתורה שבעל פה במחשבתו ובדברים שנראו לו והלך אחר דעתו הקלה ואחר שרירות לבו וכופר בתורה שבעל פה תחילה כצדוק ובייתוס וכן כל התועים אחריו אבל בני התועים האלה ובני בניהם שהדיחו אותם אבותם ונולדו בין הקראים וגדלו אותם על דעתם הרי הוא כתינוק שנשבה ביניהם וגדלוהו ואינו זריז לאחוז בדרכי המצות שהרי הוא כאנוס ואע”פ ששמע אח”כ [שהוא יהודי וראה היהודים ודתם הרי הוא כאנוס שהרי גדלוהו על טעותם] כך אלו שאמרנו האוחזים בדרכי אבותם הקראים שטעו לפיכך ראוי להחזירן בתשובה ולמשכם בדברי שלום עד שיחזרו לאיתן התורה

    With regard to the question of the source; as the commentators note it is a straight up baraisa in Avodah Zarah 26b:

    המינין והמסורות והמומרים היו מורידין ולא מעלין

    As for the question of what happened to due process, my conjecture is that, especially since we are dealing with first-generation, ideological heretics, the halacha is viewing them as rodfim. See Sanhedrin 73a.

  62. Put another way, if the ba’al Sefer ha’Chinuch (whomever it turns out to have been) was with us today, are we confident he would write the same thing?

  63. Are some of you suggesting that morality is different now, and presumably superior to morality of the past? Doesn’t that reverse the traditional understanding that generations closer to Sinai had clearer knowledge of the Torah and therefore clearer moral understandings than later generations? If that’s true, then morality and truth is relative. Isn’t that anathema to Jewish theology?

  64. A: 1. Not everything needs to be published on a blog.

    Agreed. But people’s judgment will vary.

    2. Amalek’s village isn’t different than 7-nation villages.

    Also agreed. Amalek is just a special case.

    IH: Regarding your point about “presentism”, what do you say about this (from the post, but which you keep omitting): 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?

    y Once Amalek is unidentifiable, they’re gone and they’re not coming back. Their descendents assimilated with other groups.

    I think you’re saying that the mitzvah might be immoral but we don’t have to implement it so that’s OK. I’m not sure everyone would be satisfied with that answer.

    So Amelek symbolizes something we should always hate and fight against

    R. Elijah Schochet wrote a book, Amalek: The Enemy Within, in which he shows how Chasidic scholars reinterpreted the concept of Amalek into an internal enemy we must battle but Misnagdim generally continued in the classical explanation.

    Tal: Really? Rashi on the possuk (Dev. 25:19) states, quoting a midrash

    Rashi was written long after Tanakh was closed.

    yaak: I find it curious that there are those who are so willing to obviate a commandment from G-d and call it “immoral”

    I don’t think anyone here is willing to do that. We are just attempting to understand it.

  65. R. Norman Lamm’s essay includes an argument that our sense of morality can change over time, basing a lot on R. Nachum Rabinovitch’s essay (discussed here: link).

  66. Please ignore my latest question; it’s a sensitive issue, and possibly a can of worms.

  67. Gil — I don’t think that changes my point; but, perhaps I misunderstood yours given the wrapping:

    1.  Another related issue that demands attention is the position of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh. 

    2.  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? 

    3.  I shudder at the notion of rejecting the view of a respected sage as immoral based on our own limited and biased opinions. 

    This, to me, this frame implies a false either/or as well as reading our 21st century view of morality back to 13th century Spain. Did you mean something different?

  68. I meant someone today holding the Sefer HaChinukh’s view and not him, because he is “safe” by being long deceased.

  69. Dov F.: Thanks for the references. Do you know if this is this one of things only found in the Rambam? Or did later codes like the Tur and Shulchan Aruch also say one should try to secretly kill heretics?

  70. Y –

    You’re welcome. The Shulchan Aruch in YD (158:2) brings it down in the past tense, i.e. in the times of the Beis Hamikdash this is what they would do. But see here:
    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9733&st=&pgnum=478

  71. I meant someone today holding the Sefer HaChinukh’s view and not him, because he is “safe” by being long deceased.

    Gil — What about someone today who acts as per Shulchan Aruch OC 73 which also is no longer compatible with what we consider moral today?  If Torat ha’Melech were not so flawed (as per your analysis) it might serve as an even better counter-example.

    I think we need to admit to ourselves that our modern view of morality means that we can no longer accept certain views that were once accepted; but, this does not mean that we think they were not acceptable at the time in which they were stated — I.e. we don’t project our standards back in time.

  72. Jeremiah Unterman

    The problem has dimensions that seem not to have been considered in the discussions above. On the one hand, this is a classic case of theodicy – how do we justify God when the text appears to depict Him as holding an immoral position? Several values and suppositions enter into consideration: God is good, all humans are created in the image of God, God is not required to follow the laws He lays down for humans and/or Jews, etc.
    In a sense, the perfection of the Torah/Bible (that is, the Tanakh as an absolutely faithful recording of God’s words, historical truth, etc.) is being placed above the perfection of God. If God is perfectly good, our moral sense tells us that killing Amalek babies cannot have been a decree that came from Him. However, since the Tanakh contains such a decree, then (a) either the Tanakh is perfect and God is ethically imperfect, or (b) the Tanakh is imperfect and God is ethically perfect. It is interesting that most of those commenting here seem to favor the Tanakh being perfect, and are left to try to weasel God out of the moral imperfection. Apparently, (b) is too much a faith-shaker for those here to contemplate seriously, even if it would certainly erase the challenge to God’s goodness. The irony is that the Tradition is full of evidence of consideration of internal contradictions in the Tanakh, mistakes made in copying the Tanakh, questions about the original text of the Torah, etc. So, it seems that from the perspective of religious psychology, Orthodox Jews would rather consider that God can be somewhat immoral, than that the Tanakh could be somewhat mistaken.

  73. This whole chain of thought raises another question, based in part on shitas HaChinuch – are we MORE moral than Yidden were in the past? Who is too say that we are. Or, are those who find the mitvoh of mechias Amalek distasteful believe that such distaste is a siman of the fact that we are moral than our precedessors.

  74. I think we need to step back & ask,”who is this Amalek?”
    Is he flesh & blood? Is he merely a nation or a descendent of Esau, a brother, the one we grapple with in the darkness?
    We then need to recognize the commandment’s relationship to the end of days.

  75. Amazing how people can project their cultural tenets of today onto something written in a tribal/clan world of thousands of years ago and leaving out of context the ongoing progress to a world controlled by the lawyer class in defiance of the reality of the differences still distinguishable among various cultures.

  76. IH: I think we need to admit to ourselves that our modern view of morality means that we can no longer accept certain views that were once accepted; but, this does not mean that we think they were not acceptable at the time in which they were stated — I.e. we don’t project our standards back in time.

    As with the Slifkin Affair, I am a pluralist. I believe in keeping the hashkafic canons as open as possible. I am surprised that you are not a pluralist.

    Jeremiah Unterman: In a sense, the perfection of the Torah/Bible (that is, the Tanakh as an absolutely faithful recording of God’s words, historical truth, etc.) is being placed above the perfection of God.

    Wow, talk about a false dichotomy. Here’s another one: A woman dies of cancer. Either God is perfect or the woman was a prostitute. I choose God and therefore the woman deserves to burn in hell. Really??? God is perfect and the Torah is perfect. That is why we are struggling. Evidence of so-called mistakes in Tanakh are just misinterpretations that we reviewed and dismissed long ago.

  77. As with the Slifkin Affair, I am a pluralist. I believe in keeping the hashkafic canons as open as possible. I am surprised that you are not a pluralist.

    I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would today accept a man sleeping in the nude, in the same bed, with his naked per-pubescent daughters as morally acceptable; although, certainly there is textual support this is halachically permissible and it is reasonable to deduce was considered morally acceptable in the 16th century.

    On the opposite side, I accept that homosexual relations are halachically impermissible, but I do not accept they are immoral by today’s standards.

  78. “Amazing how people can project their cultural tenets of today onto something written in a tribal/clan world of thousands of years ago and leaving out of context the ongoing progress to a world controlled by the lawyer class in defiance of the reality of the differences still distinguishable among various cultures”

    Sorry, no speakah de Inglais, ci?

  79. Rashi was written long after Tanakh was closed

    Thanks for the newsflash.

    BTW, when did we start interpreting Tanakh (esp. wrt the details of halakha) without reference to Torah she be al Peh?

  80. Tal: R. Medan’s point was that there is nothing internal to those parts of Chumash that imply what is explicit in Shmuel. In retrospect, we can interpret Chumash based on Shmuel. I don’t find that result particularly interesting.

    Rishonim like Rashbam sometimes interpret Chumash without reference to Torah She-Be-Al Peh, but that’s not particularly relevant to our discussion because we have Torah She-Bi-Khsav on this.

  81. jonathan genkin

    I think it would make sense to step back and ask, “Who is Amalek?”.
    Is he necessarily only a nation, a flesh and blood being?
    He is the grandson of Esau, the one we grapple with in the darkness of night in Rephardim while questioning Hashem’s presence.
    His remembrance is synonymous with the end of days.

  82. With respect to the issues raised as to the view of the Sefer HaChinuch, perhaps the following will provide an approach. If we understand Amalek not as a speficic tribe or political entity, but to paraphrase RYBS’s words, as any existential threat to the Jewish People, then one can posit that we should not lose sleep over such conflicts as WW2, and the cradle to grave organized society that supported the Nazi regime.

  83. The Rav’s view was NOT that of the Sefer HaChinuch!

  84. Joseph Kaplan-That was not my intention, but rather another way of saying that the Chinuch’s view is that one Rishon, but hardly definitive in view of Rishonim and Acharonim with other views, including RYBS’s reading of the Rambam and other relevant sources that Amalek is not to be understood either Kpshuto or as not being existent, but rather referring to any existential enemy of the Jewish People, with Nazi Germany being a prime example of such a society, as opposed to merely considering the political, educational and cultural leadership thereof.

  85. Joseph Kaplan wrote ( and has written in this vein previously):

    “I don’t understand the morality of the laws regarding Amalek — or those regarding the Seven Nations, or ir hanidachat, or ben sorer umorer, or executing sabbath violators. But none of them — none! — were ever, after biblical days when we had God speaking to us through prophets, ever applicable. It hanidachat? Never happened. Same for ben sorer umorer. Amalek and the Seven nations? Well, Sanchariv wiped those problems away. Capital punishment? The details of two eidim and, especially, hatra’ah, made that near impossible.”

    Look at it this way. The same TSBP, and the tools of TSBP transmitted by Moshe Rabbeinu allowed for the interpretation of the above Halachos which are “on the books” and which we don’t follow and never have followed and many other Mitzvos Min HaTorah that we still follow in a very decidedly different manner than the Pshuto Shel Mikra. IMO, when one has cognizance of the fact that we live by the Mesorah of TSBP, with respect to Halacha,as opposed to “the strict letter of the Bible”, such issues should take on far less moral urgency.

  86. Am I the only person surprised at the lack of comment on a cvontemporary Jewish community that has been well documented for its being under siege to anti Semitic and anti Israel sentiment and opinion, and which today sustained a grievous loss? Can anyone say that what happened in the annexed link (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/19/jewish-school-shooting_n_1361433.html) was not a contemporary manifestation of the fact that Amaleklike sentiments are alive and well, especially in a country that actively aided and abetted in the Holocaust?

  87. The following excerpt from the linked NY Times article is illustrative of the nature of this vicious attack:

    “The local prosecutor, Michel Valet, said that a religious instructor, his two children and another child, the daughter of the school’s director, were killed in Monday’s attack and that a 17-year-old boy was seriously wounded. The killer “shot at everything he could see, children and adults, and some children were chased into the school,” Mr. Valet said.

    The suspect pursued his last victim, an 8-year-old girl, into the concrete courtyard, seizing and stopping her by her hair, said Nicole Yardeni, who leads the regional branch of the Crif, France’s most prominent Jewish association, and who viewed video surveillance footage of the killing.

    His gun appeared to jam at that point, Ms. Yardeni said. Still holding the girl, the killer then changed weapons, from what police have identified as a 9 millimeter pistol to the .45-caliber. He shot her in the head and left, never removing his motorcycle helmet.”

  88. In ‘By His Light’ – a compilation of speeches of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – Rav Lichtenstein quotes the Rov as saying that one of the reasons Shaul was criticized by Shmuel on account of not finishing the job was because he indicated through sparing Agag that there was a moral question involved.
    In other words, Shaul was commanded to wipe out Amalek. These weren’t mercy killings. This was divine will.
    As soon as he had mercy on Agag, said the Rov, Shaul was now held to task for killing everyone else. Mercy was not meant to be part of the equation at all. But as soon as Shaul introduced it, not having finished the job, the question of mercy was thrown back at him – what gave you the right to kill everyone?

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