Ask the Expert: Blotting out Amalek
How do we know who's an Amalekite?
Question: The Torah says I'm supposed to wipe out the nation of Amalek.
Are they still around? How do we know? What, exactly, do I have to do?
Answer: The Torah tells us to remember the nation of Amalek that attacked the Israelites after they left Egypt. Specifically, we are told to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Deut 25:19). Traditionally, this was understood--in a morally complicated way--to mean that Jews had an obligation to kill all Amalekites: men, women, and children.
But since no one walks around these days claiming Amalekite as their ethnicity, it's tough to know who we should be blotting out, or even what that blotting out would entail.
This is an ancient problem. Already by the time the Talmud was being written the rabbis taught that the nations of the world had intermingled to the extent that it was no longer possible to tell who was an Amalekite, and who was not (Berakhot 28a). Thus, the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek was effectively nullified.
Still, many commentators were left to struggle with an initial mitzvah that seemed inhumane and immoral. How could God command Israel to annihilate another nation entirely?
Thirteenth century Bible commentator Nahmanides explained that the harsh measures meted out to Amalek were justified because Amalek's attack against Israel was meant as an attack against God. Had the war been simply political, God would not have commanded Israel to blot out the enemy nation completely, but because Amalek was motivated by a desire to prove their superiority to God, they were deserving of such punitive measures.
Nahmanides sees the mitzvah of destroying Amalek as a challenge to Israel. He explained that the mitzvah could only be carried out from a sense of protecting God's honor, and following God's commandments, not out of a sense of revenge. And he stipulated that only a person of "prodigious merit" would be able to stand such a remarkable test (Nahmanides' Commentary on the Torah, Deut 25:17).
Other commentators have understood Amalek not as a nation or ethnicity, but rather as a mindset or ideology. In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote that the commandment to wipe out Amalek only applied when Amalek refused to make peace with Israel (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:4). This seems to imply that it is not the nationality which is a problem, but rather the war-mongering spirit of Amalekites.
So if we can't locate any more Amalekites, is there any way to continue to observe the commandments that are concerned with that nation?
Rabbi Alan Odess, a teacher at Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education, does think of Amalek as the specific nation that attacked the People of Israel, but he believes that, "There are characteristics, underlying values, that Amalek exemplified," such as attacking the weak and defenseless. Though there have been other societies with similar ideas of targeting the weak (Nazi Germany, for instance), Rabbi Odess doesn't consider these societies to technically be Amalekites, and so they're not subject to the commandment that requires us to blot out Amalek. Instead, Rabbi Odess suggests that the most practical application of the mitzvah to blot out Amalek is to "build positively, to add light and kindness to the world."
Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a former member of the Israeli cabinet, has said that the problem with Amalek was that they had an ideology of non-ideology, of complete randomness. This idea comes from Deut 25:18, where it says that Amalek "karkha baderekh"--happened upon the People of Israel. This implies that the attack was random. Whoever Amalek ran into, they attacked, regardless of political ambition. According to Rabbi Amital, Jews can blot out Amalek by living purposefully, with an objective, direction, and values.
Looks like we've been let off the hook in terms of getting rid of a nation, but we still have to do those pesky good deeds. Darn!