By Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn
In synagogues this month, we read the glorious Jewish march from Egyptian slavery to freedom. When the Jewish people emerge triumphantly out of the Red Sea, they are finally emancipated from 210 years of cruel servitude to despotic Pharaohs. The political philosopher Michael Walzer has shown that the Exodus narrative is the inspiration for nearly every modern Western liberation movement—from the heroic struggle of blacks in America to the atheist communist revolution in Russia.
Following the Exodus, the Jewish people progress from the “negative liberty” of breaking the yoke of Egyptian domination to the more spiritual “positive liberty” of accepting as their destiny the ideal of becoming a holy people. However, in Exodus 17:8-16, an idea that stands in contrast to the noble freedom story, one that disturbs our moral sensibilities. God proclaims, “I will utterly annihilate Amalek from under heaven.” We meet Amalek again later in Scripture, where God commands the Jewish people to kill the entire tribe of Amalek: “When the Lord your God grants you safety from your enemies around you…completely destroy the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19). And the imperative to annihilate Amalek refers not only to the tribe’s male combatants, but also to innocent Amalekite women and children: “Attack Amalek and destroy all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and assess alike!” (I Samuel 15:3).
This biblical imperative became codified Jewish law, as did the commandment to exterminate all members of the seven Canaanite nations. “You shall not let a soul remain alive” (Deut. 20:16). Not relegated to ancient history, these commandments apply in principle forever—even today.
The call to kill all members of the Amalekite and Canaanite nations violates just war norms, which dictate that innocent civilians cannot be legitimate targets in a moral war. And as a people, we know tragic horror of genocide that seeks to exterminate all people of a group or the same genetic background.
Could the Jewish people ever become “a holy people” when obeying the commandments to commit genocide against the Amalekites and Canaanites?
This troubles us moderns, but it also vexed the Talmudic and medieval rabbinic authorities. None of them could live with the Torah commanding Jews to act immorally, and they showed remarkable creativity in shaping the correct way for us to understand these imperatives. These rabbis believed that the entire Torah text was divine, but they did not hesitate to engage in bold interpretation. Because they had keen moral sensitivities, the rabbis of the Talmud solved the problem of Jews killing innocent Amalekites or Canaanites by declaring that the ancient Assyrian ruler Sennacherib “co-mingled the nations that he vanquished” (Yadayim 4:4/B.T. Berakhot 28a). If so, it is impossible to identify anyone positively as a Canaanite or Amalekite. This effectively rendered the problematic commandments inoperative, telling Jews not to act according to their plain meaning.
The medievalist Maimonides went still further. Even though the Talmud had already solved the practical moral problem, he was disturbed by the very idea that God could ever command Jews to kill innocents. He thus ruled as a matter of Jewish law that even if you know definitely that a person is a descendant of the Canaanites or Amalekites, you must not kill him when he is peaceful and poses no threat to the Jewish people. Well before the just war doctrine was developed, Maimonides laid down the correct moral guidelines for fighting others in war.
Hasidic tradition dealt with the Amalek problem in yet another way. Many hasidim understand Amalek as the psychological enemy within each of us. The commandment to destroy Amalek teaches us to fight off our own evil impulses as we struggle to live ethical and holy lives.
The commandment to exterminate Amalek has a history of violence and abuse: During the Crusades Pope Urban II considered the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem to be Amalek in order to justify their slaughter. Some medieval Jews considered Christians to be Amalek, some religious anti-Zionists called Zionist Jews Amalek, while some modern Jewish extremists labeled as Amalek the Palestinians, Jewish leftists and Israelis who advocate ceding land to Palestinians.
Undoubtedly the violent potential of these commandments is what led Talmudic authorities, medieval authorities and contemporary rabbis to protect the moral integrity of Jews by prohibiting them from killing innocent Amalekites and Canaanites—or any innocent person whatever his genealogy.
Our rabbis strove to understand the Torah as morally pure. As a free and holy people, God requires nothing less of us
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Week (1/14/ 2014). Rabbi Dr. Eugene is North American Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.