Monday, February 17, 2014

"Amalek: A Question of Race?" (Updated 2014)

Parshat Zachor
"Amalek: A Question of Race?"
Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parashat Zachor, the portion of the Torah that commands us to obliterate the memory of Amalek, is actually read twice each year: In the cycle of weekly Torah readings, Parashat Zachor is read in context, at the end of Parashat Ki Tetzeh. It is read once again on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim, in addition to the regularly-scheduled Torah portion for that week. The latter is arguably the most important Torah reading of the year, as it is arguably the only instance of a Torah reading that is considered a positive commandment for every Jewish adult. Therefore, understanding the substance of the commandment outlined in this short section of the Torah is of supreme importance.

The commandment appears quite simple: We are told that we must make this world "Amalek-free". Not only are those guilty of perpetrating wickedness to be killed, but also the women and children, non-combatants who are usually spared. It seems clear that the commandment is racially linked and motivated: All who possess Amalekite blood must perish.

For this reason, many Jews have difficulty with this commandment. The commandment to kill Amalek is perceived by many as a racist doctrine, as it decrees that all members of the tribe, no matter what their personal merit or morality, are to be put to death indiscriminately, by virtue of their tribal affiliation. As citizens of the modern world, the requirement to commit genocide, whether it be racially or otherwise motivated, seems entirely out of step with Jewish ethics. In fact, the Torah itself taught the world the concept of the value of human life, and the prohibition against murder. The Torah has been the benchmark for moral behavior, not only for the Jewish People but for all those influenced by what is now known as the Judeo-Christian ethic which is the foundation of Western social philosophy, for thousands of years. The moral argument against genocide, then, is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment "Thou shalt not murder" from the Mouth of God at Sinai. I have heard Rav Aharon Lichtenstein[1] quoted on this paradox: If this same document teaches that murder is abhorrent and genocide evil, yet requires each and every Jew to obliterate each and every descendent of Amalek, we are forced to conclude that the case of Amalek is the exception that proves the rule. The Torah had to specifically command us to wipe out all descendants of Amalek, who are identified as the personification of evil, because in all other circumstances the Torah prohibits the taking of life.

There may, however, be a resolution to this paradox that redefines the commandment to kill Amalek in terms that 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 does their new identity override their genealogy? Is the issue a purely racial question, or are other factors equally or even more important? In short, can an Amalekite lose the status of "Amalek", together with all the "rights and privileges" his ancestry carries with it?

More generally, we may ask, is it possible for anyone, of any ancestry other than Jewish, to change their status, their identity? Judaism recognizes the possibility that an individual born to a different faith may join the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. The simplest method is the conversion model, and the prototypical example is Ruth, who was born a Moavite, yet changed her national identity and became a Jewess. Is this avenue open to Amalekites as well? Is conversion an option for a man or woman born to the Amalekite nation? The Mechilta which discusses this question seems direct and unequivocal:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל - בשלח - מסכתא דעמלק פרשה ב
 ר' אליעזר אומר נשבע המקום בכסא הכבוד שלו שאם יבא אחד מכל אומות העולם להתגייר שיקבלוהו ולעמלק ולביתו לא יקבלוהו...
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"[2] (Mechilta, end of B'shalah.)[3]

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, in a number of different passages of the Gemara we are told that descendants of Haman, who is assumed to have been a prominent member of the tribe of Amalek, did in fact join the Jewish People.

תלמוד בבלי גיטין נז:ב
תָּנוּ רַבָּנָן, נַעֲמָן גֵּר תּוֹשָׁב הָיָה. נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן גֵּר צֶדֶק הָיָה. מִבְּנֵי בָּנָיו שֶׁל סִיסְרָא לָמְדוּ תּוֹרָה בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם, מִבְּנֵי בָּנָיו שֶׁל סַנְחֵרִיב לִמְּדוּ תּוֹרָה בָּרַבִּים, וּמַאן נִינְהוּ? שְׁמַעְיָה וְאַבְטַלְיוֹן. מִבְּנֵי בָּנָיו שֶׁל הָמָן לָמְדוּ תּוֹרָה בִּבְנֵי בְּרַק (ומנו רב שמואל בּר שילת).
A Tanna taught: Naaman was a resident alien; Nevuzaradan was a righteous proselyte; descendants of Sisera learned Torah in Jerusalem, descendants of Sancherev gave public expositions of the Torah. Who were their grandchildren? Shamya and Avtalion. Descendants of Haman learned Torah in B'nai Brak. (Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b[4])

If a descendant of Amalek cannot convert, how can the Gemara declare that they learned Torah, in a way that seems to presume that they had joined the Jewish People?[5]

A careful reading of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam’s legal magnum opus, indicates that Rambam's opinion was that an Amalekite may, in fact, convert to Judaism. Apparently, Rambam preferred the tradition recorded in the Bavli to the dictum found in the Mechilta:

רמב"ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יב הלכה יז
כל העכו"ם כולם כשיתגיירו ויקבלו עליהן כל המצות שבתורה והעבדים כשישתחררו הרי הן כישראל לכל  דבר , חוץ מד' עממין בלבד והם עמון ומואב ומצרים ואדום שהאומות  האלו כשיתגייר אחד מהן הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבר אלא לענין ביאה בקהל.
All non-Jews when they convert and accept all the commandments…are like Jews for all matters… except the four nations exclusively [bilvad] (who cannot 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) (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 12:17).

The inference seems quite clear: the option of conversion is, in fact, open to the erstwhile Amalekite, albeit with one significant limitation. In a different context, Rambam raises a second possibility for an Amalekite to lose the status of Amalek without entering the fold of Judaism:

רמב"ם הלכות מלכים פרק ו הלכה ד
ואם לא השלימו או שהשלימו ולא קבלו שבע מצות, עושין עמהם מלחמה והורגין כל הזכרים הגדולים, ובוזזין  כל ממונם וטפם, ואין הורגין אשה ולא קטן שנאמר דברים כ:יד] והנשים והטף זה טף של זכרים, במה דברים אמורים? במלחמת הרשות שהוא עם שאר האומות, אבל שבעה עממין ועמלק שלא השלימו אין מניחין מהם נשמה שנאמר כן תעשה לכל וגו' רק מערי העמים לא תחיה כל נשמה, וכן הוא אומר בעמלק [דברים כה:יט] תמחה את זכר עמלק, ומנין שאינו מדבר אלא באלו שלא השלימו שנאמר [יהושע יא:יט-כ] לא היתה עיר אשר השלימה אל בני ישראל בלתי החוי יושבי גבעון את הכל לקחו במלחמה כי מאת ה' היתה לחזק את לבם לקראת המלחמה את ישראל למען החרימם, מכלל ששלחו להם לשלום ולא קבלו. 
If they do not agree to a peaceful settlement, or if they agree to a peaceful settlement but refuse to accept the seven [Noachide] mitzvot, war should be waged against them. All males above the age of majority should be killed. Their money and their children should be taken as spoil, but neither women nor children should be killed, as it is stated [Deuteronomy 20:14]: 'But the women and the children... take as spoil." 'The children' refers to males below the age of majority. This applies to an optional war (milkhemet reshut) fought with other nations. However, if either the seven nations or Amalek refuse to accept a peaceful settlement, not one soul of them may be left alive, as it is stated [ibid. 20:15-16]: 'Do this to all the cities that ... are not the cities of these nations. However, from the cities of these nations,... do not leave a soul alive.' Similarly, in regard to Amalek, we are commanded [Deuteronomy 25:19]: 'Obliterate the memory of Amalek.' How do we know that these commandments refer only to those who did not accept a peaceful settlement? It is written [Joshua 11:19-20]: 'There was no city which accepted a peaceful settlement with the Children of Israel except the Chivites who lived in Givon. All the rest were conquered in battle. This was inspired by God, Who strengthened their hearts to engage in battle against Israel so that they would be destroyed.' From these statements, we can infer that a peaceful settlement was offered, but they did not accept it. (Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:4)

Rambam outlines a Jewish etiquette of war: Before the military option is exercised, the diplomatic option must be explored. The opposing side should be offered a non-violent resolution that would make co-existence possible, which includes acceptance of a basic code of moral behavior based on the seven Noachide Laws, and political status of a protected minority. This offer is extended to any and all other nations, including Amalek. This teaches us that when Amalek accepts the seven Noachide laws, they lose the status of Amalek and Jewish Law no longer requires their annihilation.[6] In other words, there are three possibilities for an individual born of Amalekian blood: a) maintaining his initial status of Amalekite and thus being slated for obliteration; b) accepting the seven Noachide laws and political subjugation, at which point his status becomes that of a righteous gentile; and c) full-fledged conversion.

Let us consider the other side of this coin, which is certainly no less important a question: Can a person born to any other nation or nationality become an "Amalekite"? Rav Chaim Soloveitchik formulated his answer to this question by carefully examining the various passages in which Rambam discusses the laws regarding Amalek. Rav Chaim’s careful reading and comparison of these passages, as well as his sensitivity to how Rambam phrased the prohibition and what he did not say regarding Amalek, led him to answer in the affirmative: Anyone can “achieve” the status of Amalek.

To understand Rav Chaim’s opinion, we require some additional background information, supplied by the Talmud: Ever since Sanheriv of Assyria enacted a policy of mass population transfers in order to subjugate the areas he conquered, it has become impossible to identify the descendants of the nations that inhabited the Land of Canaan.[7]  For this reason, the obligation to eradicate the seven nations who occupied the Land of Israel at the time of Joshua's conquest can no longer be fulfilled. Rambam refers to this Talmudic decision regarding the descendants of the seven Canaanite nations, but in the very next law, regarding the obligation to destroy Amalek, Rambam does not categorize this mitzvah as obsolete for the same reasons.  

Let us examine the Talmudic text upon which Rambam’s analysis is based:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כח עמוד א
דתנן: בו ביום בא  יהודה גר עמוני לפניהם בבית המדרש, אמר להם: מה אני לבא בקהל? אמר לו רבן גמליאל: אסור אתה לבא  בקהל; אמר לו רבי יהושע:  מותר   אתה לבא בקהל. אמר לו רבן גמליאל: והלא כבר נאמר (דברים כג):  'לא יבא  עמוני ומואבי בקהל ה'! אמר לו רבי יהושע: וכי עמון ומואב במקומן הן יושבין? כבר עלה סנחריב מלך אשור ובלבל את כל האומות, שנאמר (ישעיהו י): 'ואסיר גבלות עמים ועתודותיהם שושתי ואוריד כאביר יושבים' וכל דפריש מרובא פריש. אמר לו רבן גמליאל: והלא כבר נאמר (ירמיהו מט): 'ואחרי כן אשיב את שבות בני עמון נאם ה' - וכבר שבו. אמר לו רבי יהושע: והלא כבר נאמר (עמוס ט): 'ושבתי את שבות עמי ישראל'  ועדיין לא שבו. מיד התירוהו לבא בקהל.
It was taught in the Mishnah: On that very day, Yehuda, an Ammonite convert, came before them in the Beit Midrash, and said: May I enter the community (through marriage)? Rabban Gamliel said to him, “You are not permitted to enter the community.” Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “You are permitted to enter the community.” Said Rabban Gamaliel to him: "Has it not already been decreed [Devarim 23], 'An Ammonite or a Moavite shall not enter into the assembly of God?’ R. Yehoshua replied: Do Ammon and Moav still reside in their original lands? Long ago, Sancherev King of Assyria ascended to power and mixed up all the nations, as it says [Yeshayahu 10], 'I have removed the bounds of the peoples and have robbed their treasures and have brought down as one mighty their inhabitants'; and any individual [from a group] is assumed to belong to the larger non-specific majority. Rabban Gamliel said to him: ‘Is it not written [Yirmiyahu 49] ‘And then I will retrun the captives of Amon, said God.’ – and they have returned [to their original land]!’ Rabbi Yehoshua responded, ‘Is it not written [Amos 9] ‘And I will return the captives of my People Israel’ – and they have not yet returned [to their land]!’ The convert was immediately permitted to enter the community. (Talmud Bavli Brachot 28a)
Rambam’s formulation follows this Talmudic passage quite closely:

רמב"ם הלכות מלכים פרק ה
הלכה ד:  מצות עשה להחרים שבעה עממין שנאמר החרם תחרימם, וכל שבא לידו אחד מהן ולא הרגו עובר בלא תעשה  שנאמר לא תחיה כל נשמה, וכבר אבד זכרם
הלכה ה:  וכן מצות עשה לאבד זכר  עמלק , שנאמר תמחה את זכר עמלק, ומצות עשה לזכור תמיד מעשיו הרעים  ואריבתו, כדי לעורר איבתו, שנאמר זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק, מפי השמועה למדו זכור בפה לא תשכח  בלב, שאסור לשכוח איבתו ושנאתו. 
Halacha 4: It is a positive commandment to annihilate the seven nations who dwelled in Eretz Yisrael, as it is written [Deuteronomy 20:17]: 'You shall utterly destroy them.' Anyone who chances upon one of them and does not kill him violates a negative commandment as it says [ibid:16]: 'Do not allow a soul to live.' The memory of them has already been obliterated.
Halacha 5: Similarly, it is a positive commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek, as is stated [Deuteronomy 25:19]: 'Obliterate the memory of Amalek’. It is also a positive commandment to constantly remember their evil deeds and their ambush of Israel, to arouse our hatred of them, as it says [ibid:17]: 'Remember what Amalek did to you.' The Oral Tradition teaches: ...’Remember' - with your mouths; ‘...Do not forget' - in your hearts.' For it is forbidden to forget our hatred and enmity for them. (Rambam, Laws of Kings Chapter 5)

The final phrase of Halacha 4 is of critical importance because it renders the commandment to obliterate descendants of the seven Canaanite nations inoperable. This same phrase does not appear at the end of Halacha 5, leading Rav Chaim to conclude that Rambam believed that, unlike the seven Canaanite nations who have been assimilated and who no longer constitute distinct ethnic, tribal or national groups, Amalek lives on as a distinct, identifiable entity! This led Rav Chaim to conclude that Amalek is actually “Amalekism” -  a conceptual category and not merely an historical or genealogical reality. Thus, anyone who behaves like an Amalekite is to be accorded the status of Amalek. Rav Chaim's grandson, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, applied this teaching to the Nazis who adopted an Amalekite worldview, unfortunately with more success than the “original” Amalekites.

What we have, then, is a more complex formula than was originally assumed: Someone born an Amalekite can, through his actions, lose his Amalekite 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 the Noachide laws at least, 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 Shmuel bar Shilat. Other sources identify the descendant with B'nai Brak's most famous citizen, none other than Rabbi Akiva! The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva lived and taught in B'nei Brak:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לב עמוד ב
תנו רבנן: צדק צדק תרדף, הלך אחר חכמים לישיבה: אחר רבי אליעזר ללוד, אחר רבן יוחנן בן זכאי לברור חיל, אחר רבי יהושע לפקיעין, אחר רבן גמליאל ליבנא, אחר רבי עקיבא לבני ברק
Our Rabbis taught: 'Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ This means, Follow the scholars to their academies: [Follow] R. Eliezer to Lydda, R. Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hayil, 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:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כז עמוד ב
נוקמיה לרבי עקיבא? דילמא עניש ליה, דלית ליה זכות אבות.
We can hardly appoint R. Akiva, for he might be (susceptible to) punishment because he has no ancestral merit. [8] (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 27b))[9]

Based on the combination of these sources, there are those[10] who 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 the idea that members of Amalek cast their lot with the Jewish People, converting and following the word of G-d. The Talmud traces the origins of the tribe of Amalek to a failed attempt at conversion to Judaism:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף צט עמוד ב
 מיהת אחות לוטן תמנע מאי היא? תמנע בת מלכים הואי, דכתיב  ]בראשית ל"ו[   אלוף לוטן אלוף תמנע. וכל אלוף - מלכותא  בלא תאגא היא. בעיא לאיגיורי, באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה, הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן  עשו. אמרה: מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו, ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת. נפק מינה עמלק, דצערינהו לישראל.  מאי טעמא ? דלא איבעי להו לרחקה.
…What is the purpose of [writing], 'And Lotan's sister was Timna'? Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, 'alluf Lotan, alluf  Timna'; and ‘alluf’ refers to an uncrowned ruler. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esav, saying, ‘I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ Amalek, who afflicted Israel, was descended from her. 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. 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, the arch-nemesis of the Jewish People, would never have been born. Here, then, is another option for eradicating Amalek, another method of "wiping out the memory of Amalek": Teach them Torah and correct the mistake and injustice perpetrated against Timna long ago.

The commandment to wipe out Amalek is binding upon every generation, from the dawn of our history as a nation, because it is the expression of the covenant we forged with the Almighty to rid the world of evil. “Amalekism” is the manifestation of evil in this world, and we have seen that this force takes on various forms. Evil may be embodied by an entire group of people, a tribe or race that perpetrates unspeakable horrors against humanity. Other times, the forces of evil make more subtle inroads into the hearts and minds of men – and we ourselves are not immune. The commandment to destroy Amalek requires us to seek out Amalekism wherever it may lurk, and obliterate it. The tactics we employ to accomplish this goal must be as creative as the enemy itself: All-out war is one option, but not the only one: Evil, we are taught, can be eradicated by replacing it with good. In the words of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook:

הרב אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק, ערפילי טוהר עמוד 39
הצדיקים הטהורים אינם קובלים על הרשעה אלא מוסיפים צדק, אינם קובלים על הכפירה אלא מוסיפים אמונה, אינם קובלים על הבערות אלא מוסיפים חכמה .
Those who are righteous and pure of heart do not 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. (Rabbi A.Y. Kook, Arpilei Tohar p. 39)

[1] For more from Rav Lichtenstein see , especially part 5.
[2] There are those who understand this to be an a priori prohibition: If an Amalekite approaches a rabbi or rabbinical court and asks to convert he should not be accepted. However if a convert is known to have Amalekite ancestry but did, in fact, convert to Judaism, the conversion would be accepted on a de jure basis. See Responsa Likutei Yeshuot Malcho section 15.
שו"ת ישועות מלכו לקוטי שו"ת סימן טו ד"ה מש"כ באות
מש"כ באות י"א בהא דאין מקבלים גרים מזרע עמלק דע דגם אני הרגשתי מהא דבני בניו של המן דלמדו תורה ברבים וע"כ דבדיעבד אם קבלו הוי גירות.
[3] Also see Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tetzei 11; P'sikta D'rav Kahana 3.
[4] Also see Sanhedrin 96b.
[5] See Maharsham volume 3 section 272, who distinguishes between a male descendent who would retain his Amalekite, and a female descendent who would take on her husband’s nationality.
שו"ת מהרש"ם חלק ג סימן רעב ד"ה ומה שהקשה, ר' יוסף ענגל גליוני השס גיטין
ומה שהקשה רו"מ בהא דמבני בניו של המן למדו תורה מהמכלתא סו"פ בשלח דאין מקבלין גרים מעמלק. כבר קדמו בס' עיין יעקב לסנהדרין צ"ו ואולי י"ל דהא באומות הלך אחר הזכר והם הי' גרים מבתו של המן והזכר הי' מאומה אחרת

[6] See Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg’s Tzitz Eliezer, volume 13 section 71.
שו"ת ציץ אליעזר חלק י"ג סימן עא
ולפי חידושו זה של האבני נזר יוצא שאפשר לקבל מעמלק גם גרי- צדק, והדברים עוד ק"ו, דאם בקבלת ז' מצות נקרא כבר אין אוחזין מעשה אבותיהם בידיהם ושוב אין נענשים בעון אבותם (כנימוקו של האבנ"ז) מכש"כ כשמקבלים עליהם להיות גרי - צדק ולקיים כל התרי"ג מצות. וכך יוצא באמת כן גם מדברי הכ"מ ברמב"ם שם שמסביר בפשיטות שלכן מועיל גם בעמלק קבלת ז' מצות מפני שאם קבלו עליהם שבע מצות הרי יצאו מכלל שבעה עממין ומכלל עמלק והרי הם כבני נח הכשרים ע"ש, וא"כ מכ"ש כשמקבלים עליהם להיות גרי - צדק דבודאי יוצאים אז מכלל עמלק, ומקבלים אותם.
[7] See Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s discussions of Rav Chaim’s teaching on this matter in Divrei Hashkafa (Jerusalem: Elinor Publications, 1992) p. 217; Fate and Destiny (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publications, 1990) p. 65, 92-95.

[8] See comments of Rav Nissim Gaon, ad loc:We learn in Sanhedrin …descendants of Sisroh learned Torah in Jerusalem. Who is this? Rabbi Akiva.
רב ניסים גאון מסכת ברכות דף כז עמוד ב
נוקי לר' עקיבא לית ליה זכות אבות. איתה בסנהדרין בפרק כל ישראל יש להן חלק (דף צו) מבני בניו של סיסרא למדו תורה בירושלים ומאן אינון ר' עקיבא ואיתה נמי בפ' הניזקין דמסכת גיטין (דף נז):
[9] See Yerushalmi Brachot 32b.
[10] See Rav Mordechai Cohen, Ishim U’Tekufot (Israel: Yad Rama. 1977) p. 84-91.

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