Genocide in the Torah

The existential threat of Amalek.

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In 2006 Conservative Rabbi Jack Reimer, Bill Clinton's rabbinic counsel during his presidency, created a stir when he associated Islamic fundamentalism with the biblical nation of Amalek.

"I am becoming convinced that Islamic Fundamentalism, or, as some people prefer to call it, 'Islamo-fascism,' is the most dangerous force that we have ever faced and that it is worthy of the name: Amalek. We must recognize who Amalek is in our generation, and we must prepare to fight it in every way we can. And may God help us in this task."war and peace quiz

Who is Amalek?

According to the book of Exodus, Amalek is the nation that attacked the weakest among the Israelites as they fled from Egypt. This transgression was not to go unpunished. The Torah has a harsh prescription for Amalek: annihilation.

"It shall be that when Hashem, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!" (Deuteronomy 25: 19; also see Exodus 17:14 and Numbers 24:20)

Blotting out the memory of Amalek was no mere psychological activity. The Israelites were expected to kill every Amalekite--man, woman, and child. But was this just a theoretical imperative or was it meant to be carried out?

The book of Samuel implies that it required actual fulfillment: "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox, and sheep, camel and ass,"(Samuel I, 15:3). King Saul struck down Amalek as he was commanded but he then took mercy upon King Agag and upon some of the Amalekite animals. God and the prophet Samuel harshly criticized Saul for not fulfilling God's word.

The point, of course, is that an invocation of Amalek is serious business. Rabbi Reimer wasn't issuing a literal call to arms, but by associating "Islamo-Fascists" with Amalek, Rabbi Reimer was referencing the Jewish tradition's genocidal instincts. Jewish authorities have struggled with this commandment for centuries, but the issue is perhaps even more urgent now.

For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have lacked political sovereignty. With the return to the land of Israel, however, this is no longer the case. Invoking Amalek during the centuries of military impotency was one thing. Today, when there is a Jewish state with an army--and armed citizenry--it is quite another. 

A Complicated History

knife amalekThe exegetical history of the commandment to destroy Amalek is complicated. The Talmud argues that the attacks and exiles of Sancherib, the king of Assyria and destroyer of Samaria, "mixed up the nations" over 2,500 years ago and thus all identity of the biblical nations has been lost (Berakhot 28a). This implies that all commands of exterminating nations were dismissed and that it is not appropriate to label any contemporary peoples as descendants of Amalek.

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Shmuly Yanklowitz

Shmuly Yanklowitz is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Ph.D. student in moral psychology at Columbia University, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and the Founder and Co-Director of Uri L'Tzedek.