Genocide in the Torah

The existential threat of Amalek.

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However, the Sefer HaHinnuch, a 13th century Spanish work, claims that the commandment still exists, demanding that every individual Jew kill every individual Amalekite man, woman, and child (mitzvah 604). Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that the command applies not to every individual, but to the Jewish nation as a whole (Hilkhot Melakhim 6).

Yet Maimonides also stated that the Jewish nation could accept converts from any nation in the world, including Amalek (Hilkhot Issurei Bia 12:17).

Most significantly, Maimonides contends that the Jewish nation can never launch a war with any nation (uniquely including Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations together) without first offering "a call to peace,"(keri'a l'shalom). If in this call to peace, the seven Noahide laws are accepted and peace is made, then no war is required (Hilkhot Melachim 6:1).

In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains further that the command to wipe out Amalek isn't based on hatred, but on removing Amalek-like behavior from the world (3:41). For Maimonides, then, the commandment is not necessarily fulfilled through killing; it can be fulfilled through moral influence and education.

Deuteronomy 20 distinguishes between the obligatory war of conquest against the seven nations of Canaan and other wars. However, according to Maimonides and Nahmanides, the obligation to offer a call for peace is applied to both. Nahmanides, in quoting a midrash, also claims that there is an obligation of a Jewish army, laying siege upon a town, to provide an open direction to escape for those of the enemy who do not wish to fight  (Sefer Hamitzvot 5).

Some legal authorities were more eager to remove the command entirely from being applicable in our era. For example, in the 19th century, Rabbi Abraham Sachatchover  argued: "If they repent from their ways and accept the Noahide commandments, and they no longer continue in the path of their forefathers, they are no longer held responsible for the sins of their forefathers." (Avnei Neizer Orat Hayiim 2:508)

The Sachatchover Rebbe, like Maimonides, suggests that Amalek is a way of being, not a genetic trait. Shouldn't it be justified, then, for us to label contemporary enemies of the Jewish people Amalek? It appears, however, according to these interpretations, that the intention of the enemy must be first and foremost to destroy the Jewish people.

In addition to the rational legalists, the mystical thinkers in the Jewish tradition have also provided useful reinterpretations. Professor Avi Sagi demonstrated the claim of many Hasidic sources that the battle against Amalek was only intended to be a spiritual war.

Invoking Amalek

Even if most people would not invoke the commandment to destroy Amalek today, there are certainly those, like Rabbi Riemer, who have ventured to do so. And there has been no dearth of similar, violent invocations in reference to the Palestinians, as well. For example, Benzi Lieberman, the chairman of the Council of Settlements said in no uncertain terms: "The Palestinians are Amalek! We will destroy them. We won't kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism."

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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.