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Monday, March 1, 2010

"Amalek: a Question of Race?"


Parshat Zachor

"Amalek: a Question of Race?"

Rabbi Ari Kahn


This week we read the portion of the Torah that recounts the commandment to obliterate Amalek. Because this is arguably the most important Torah reading of the year, understanding the substance of the command is of supreme importance. The commandment appears quite simple: We are told that we must make this world "Amalek free". There are those who perceive in this precept a racist doctrine; after all, not only are those guilty of perpetrating wickedness to be killed, but also their children. Clearly, the charge is racially linked and motivated. All who possess Amalekian blood must perish.

The moral argument against genocide is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment "Thou shalt not murder" from the Mouth of G-d at Sinai. Therefore, many Jews sense a difficulty with the commandment to destroy Amalek. I have heard Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quoted on this paradox: the Torah is the benchmark for moral behavior. The Torah taught the world the concept of value of human life, and the prohibition of murder. If this same document teaches that murder is abhorrent and genocide evil, yet the killing of Amalek is allowed, the situation would be one in which the exception proves the rule. The Torah had to command us to wipe out Amalek, who are identified with the epitome of evil, because in other circumstances the  Torah prohibits the taking of life.

There may, however, be a more direct approach to this paradox. Killing Amalek may ultimately have little to do with race. The litmus test would be the case of a person who  changes their "racial status" but not their genetic makeup: What is the proper treatment of an Amalekite who converts to Judaism?  Are they, because of their birth, still slated for annihilation, or is their new identity the deciding factor? Is the issue a purely racial question, of are other factors equally or even more important?

Can an Amalekite lose the status of "Amalek", together with all "rights and privileges"? More generally, how can someone change their status, their identity? The simplest model would be via conversion. Judaism recognizes the possibility that an individual born to a different faith may join the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. The prototypical example is Ruth, who was born a Moavite, yet changed her national identity and became a Jew. Is conversion an option for an Amalekite? The Mechilta which discusses this question seems direct and unequivocal:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: G-d swore by His throne of glory, "If converts come from any nation they will be accepted, but from the progeny of Amalek and his household they will not be accepted" (Mechilta, end of B'shalach.)[1]

The option of conversion is open for all nations and peoples, with the exception of Amalek, who can never join the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Gemara in a number of places relates that descendants of Haman, who was a prominent member of the Amalek family, did in fact join the Jewish people.

A Tanna taught: Naaman was a resident alien; Nebuzaradan was a righteous proselyte; descendants of Haman learned Torah in B'nai Brak; descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem; descendants of Sanncherib gave public expositions of the Torah. (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b)

If a descendant of Amalak can not convert, how can the Gemara declare that they learned Torah, in a way which indicates their having joined the Jewish people?

A careful reading of the Rambam, in his legal magnum opus the Mishna Torah, indicates that the Rambam's opinion was that a person from Amalek may, in fact, convert to Judaism. Apparently, the Rambam preferred the tradition recorded in the Bavli to the explicit dictum in the Mechilta. The Rambam writes:

All non Jews when they convert and accept all the commandments…are like Jews for all matters,… except the four nations exclusively[bilvad] (who can not convert) and they are Amon, Moav, Egypt, and Edom. These nations, when they convert, are Jews for all matters with the exception of joining the community (in marriage) (Mishna Torah Issuri Biah 12:17).

The inference seems quite clear: the option of conversion is open to the erstwhile Amalekite. Furthermore, the Rambam mentions a second possibility for an Amalekite to lose the status of Amalek without entering the fold of Judaism:

The Rambam (Laws of Kings 6:4) describes the etiquette of war, and says that prior to battle the opposing side should be offered the possibility to accept the commandments and subjugation. This offer is also extended to Amalek. Apparently, when Amalek accepts the seven Noachide laws, they lose the status of Amalek and must no longer be obliterated. In other words, there are three possibilities for an individual born of Amalekian blood: maintaining his initial status of Amalekite and thus being slated for obliteration; accepting the seven Noachide laws, at which point his status becomes that of a righteous gentile; and full-fledged conversion.

It is important to consider the other side of this coin: Can a person become an "Amalakite"? According to Rav Chaim Solovietchik's understanding of the Rambam,[2] the answer is affirmative: When describing the obligation to eradicate the seven nations who occupied the Land of Israel at the time of Joshua's conquest, the Rambam writes that they have already assimilated among the nations, and therefore this commandment can not be fulfilled. The source for this teaching is a tradition cited in the Talmud:

Said Rabban Gamaliel to him: "Is it not already laid down, 'An Ammonite or a Moavite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord'? R. Joshua replied to him: Do Ammon and Moav still reside in their original homes? Sancherev King of Assyria long ago went up and mixed up all the nations, as it says, 'I have removed the bounds of the peoples and have robbed their treasures and have brought down as one mighty their inhabitants'; and whatever strays [from a group] is assumed to belong to the larger section of the group (Brachot 28a)

On the other hand in the very next law, the Rambam writes of the obligation to destroy Amalek. Here the Rambam leaves out this important caveat. For some reason the Rambam believes that the identities of the seven nations have disappeared due to the policy of massive population transfers employed by Sancherev, yet Amalek lives as a distinct, identifiable entity! Rav Chaim explained that Amalek is therefore a conceptual category and not merely an historical reality: One who behaves as an Amalekite can achieve the status of Amalek. Rav Chaim's grandson, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, applied this teaching to the Nazis who adopted an Amalakian worldview, unfortunately with more success than the historical Amalekites.

What we have, then, is a more complex formula than was originally assumed: Someone born an Amalekite can, through his actions, lose his Amalekian status, and someone born to any other nation -perhaps even Jewish- can achieve the status of Amalek. The original "racist" complexion of the law seems to have dissipated upon analysis. The only Amalekite who is to be killed is the individual who adheres to the teachings of his ancestors (even the presumption that an Amalekite remains true to the Amalekite belief system suffices to warrant execution). Upon acceptance of at least the Noachide laws, this status changes.

The tradition that former Amalekites studied Torah in B'nai Brak has a fascinating post- script. Who is referred to in this passage? The Ein Ya'akov cites a tradition that the person referred to was Rav Shumel bar Shilat. Other sources identify the descendant with B'nai Brak's most famous citizen, none other than Rabbi Akiva! We know that Rabbi Akiva lived in B'nai Brak from a celebrated passage in the Haggada of Pesach. The Talmud also tells us that B'nei Brak was the home of Rabbi Akiva:

Our Rabbis taught: 'Justice, justice shalt you pursue.’ This means, Follow the scholars to their academies. e.g.. R. Eliezer to Lydda, R. Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hail, R. Yehoshua to Peki'in, Rabban Gamaliel [II] to Yavneh, R. Akiva to B'nai Brak (Sanhedrin 32b)

We also know that Rabbi Akiva was either himself a convert or a child of converts:

We can hardly appoint R. Akiva because perhaps Rabban Gamaliel will bring a curse on him because he has no ancestral merit. (Brachot 27b. See comments of Rav Nissim Gaon.)[3]

Based on the combination of these sources, there are those[4] that understand that the descendant of Haman who learned and taught Torah in B'nai Brak was, in fact, Rabbi Akiva.

There is a certain poetic justice in members of Amalek casting their lot with the Jewish People, converting and following the word of G-d. The Talmud describes the origin of the tribe of Amalek in a conversion that didn't happen:

Our Rabbis taught: "But the soul that does nothing presumptuously": this refers to Menasheh the Son of Hizkiyahu, who examined [Biblical] narratives to prove them worthless. Thus, he jeered, had Moses nothing to write but, 'And Lotan's sister was Timna, And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, …' Apropos, what is the purpose of [writing], 'And Lotan's sister was Timna'? Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, 'alluf [duke] Lotan, alluf [duke] Timna'; and by ‘alluf’ an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esav, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

Timna was an aristocratic woman who wished to join the Jewish People. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov rejected her. She chose what seemed to her the next best thing, and joined Esav, reasoning that Esav was from the same family. Timna's union with Esav is thus reminiscent of the midrashic accounts of Hagar's relationship with Avraham: She, too, was a descendent of royalty. Evidently, the "Beit Din" of our forefathers felt that Timna should not be accepted into the fold; perhaps they sensed that Amalek would emerge from her. The Talmud, though, concludes that had they accepted her, Amalek would never have emerged.

Our observations began with the stipulation that the Torah portion regarding Amalek is one of the most important of the yearly cycle, and that we are enjoined from generation to generation to wipe out the nefarious memory of our arch-enemy. At this point, we have come to appreciate another option the Torah offers for "wiping out the memory of Amalek": Teach them Torah and correct the mistake and injustice perpetrated against  Timna long ago.

Jews have forged a covenant with the Almighty to rid the world of evil. Amalek symbolizes and represents the manifestation of evil. These insidious forces at times take form in people, and horrific actions are perpetrated. At times these forces possess the hearts of good men. At times we need to go on “search and destroy missions” to rid the world of evil. At times we need to look into our own hearts. There is however another path to rid the world Evil; it can be eradicated by replacing it with good. In the words of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook:

“Pure Tzaddikim don't complain about evil, rather they increase righteousness, they don't complain about heresy rather they increase belief, they don't complain about ignorance rather they increase wisdom” Orpilie Tohar page 39




[1] Also see Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tezta 11, P'sikta D'rav Kahana 3
[2]  See Divrei Hashkafa (Jerusalem: Elinor Publications, 1992) p. 217, Fate and Destiny (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publications, 1990) p. 65, 92-95
[3] See Yerushalmi Brachot 32b.
[4] See Rav Mordechai Cohen , Ishim U’Tekufot (Israel: Yad Rama. 1977) p. 84-91

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