This week’s Torah portion is Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19.
To whip up opposition against the nuclear deal between the United States and its international allies, and Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu compared Iran to Amalek, saying Iranians are “the new Amalek making an appearance on the stage of history.”
Netanyahu was referring to the commandment which appears in the parsha’s final verses, and is recited again on Shabbat Zachor, just before Purim: “Remember [Zachor] what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deut. 25:19)
We learn from the Haftarah of Shabbat Zachor that the verse “to blot out the memory of Amalek” was understood in a literal sense. Samuel, the prophet, ordered King Saul in God’s name: “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”
This seems like a Biblical instruction to kill men, women and children, and that is why invoking Amalek in a political context is dangerous and wrong.
But, you may ask, how is this mitzvah justified in the first place, even towards the original Amalekite nation? To kill all their men, women and children — isn’t that called genocide?
Let me be blunt. The immorality of this mitzvah must cause us to disassociate ourselves from it.
Perhaps it’s why chasidic commentators said that Amalek means yetzer hara or the evil inclination, and we are commanded to blot out our yetzer hara, not a people called Amalek.
There were, however, many rabbis who thought that Amalek still exists and that we are commanded to destroy them and their descendants. This was, for example, Maimonides’ opinion.
So in 2015, how should we interpret the mitzvah to blot out Amalek?
Our Biblical texts and Jewish law must be reinterpreted constantly to ensure they pass the morality test:
Does a religious commandment conform to our basic moral values today? If it doesn’t, we need to disavow the plain meaning and search for a new meaning.
The late professor Nechama Leibowitz offers an inspiring interpretation of this mitzvah, referring us to the Torah’s statement that Amalek was “undeterred by fear of God.”
The description of “God-fearing” or “not God-fearing” appears in only four stories in the Torah:
Genesis 20:11, in which Abraham says to Avimelech that there was no fear of God in that place.
Genesis 42:18, in which Joseph says to his brothers after accusing them of spying: “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man.”
Exodus 1:17, in which midwives refuse carry out Pharaoh’s order to murder the Hebrew male infants because they feared God.
Finally, in our story of Amalek, in which Amalek attacked the defenseless and weary without any pretext.
In all of these stories, the litmus test for “fear of God” is the attitude regarding the weak and the stranger. Put differently, a God-fearing person can only be one who treats the stranger and the weak with compassion.
If we still read this portion from the Torah, it’s only because we can reinterpret Amalek as the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and the defenseless in every generation. Amalek teaches us how not to behave.
It is a complex task. While we should never allow another generation to know the same suffering the ancient Israelites knew when Amalek attacked them, we should stay mindful of avoiding inflicting unnecessary harm on others and remain vigilant to avoid becoming oppressors.
That is the hallmark of a God-fearing society.
Shamai Leibowitz is the operations and ritual director at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.