The synagogue’s chosen liturgical reading of the prophets for the Shabbat previous to the holiday of Purim, places serious stress on the Jewish ethical self- image.
As Avi Sagi, professor of Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, points out
“Jewish tradition acknowledges the autonomy of morality and assumes that divine commands abide by moral considerations.”
However, in telling how Saul-Israel’s first king- was rejected by God for committing what was considered a rebellious act which “is as the sin of witchcraft” and stubbornness which is as idolatry” (I Samuel 15: 23), this premise is seriously questioned.
Saul’s sin consisted in not having followed the “divine” command to the letter.
“…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,”
Key in understanding the issue at stake is the words in verse 3: ve-ha-kharamtem, translated here as “utterly destroy,” but literally meaning “put to herem.” This is the term for the ancient Near East practice of offering the spoils of war to the deity. Unarguably, Israelites-as well as other nations-engaged in the destruction and consecration of their enemies to their gods
Of Western Semitic origin the root h-r-m stands for that which is ‘separated’, forbidden to human beings and consecrated to God. It is a concept belonging to the idea of holy war: it meant leaving to God the fruits of victory.
In his seminal work on Jewish religion the late Jewish biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann pointed out that
“Although the tribes [of Israel] were not absorbed by the peoples among whom they wandered, they were deeply influenced by their high culture. Israelite religion bears the impress of these various cultures.”
A latecomer, Israel distinguishes itself from the now extinct surrounding nations by its critical and constant re-evaluation of initially accepted common practices. An attitude that in turn, produced a cultural and religious evolution which largely accounts for Israel’s longevity and begetting daughter religions.
It is not hard to notice already in the Biblical texts that the Amalek condemnation, at difference from the proscriptions,-the herem- recorded in the Moabite Stone, erected by the ninth- century king Mesha and the inscription of Utuhegal, king of the Sumeria city- state –state Uruk in the twenty-second century BCE, is an attempt- in the words of Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College Susan Niditch-, to make sense of Israelite banning traditions in terms of right and wrong, good and bad.
In many respects, there is also, in I Samuel, a sympathetic portrayal of Saul which starkly contrasts with his harsh treatment by the prophet Samuel
Professor Sagi stresses the fact that for all its savagery,
“[…] the radical war against Amalek is not longer, as in the original idea of the herem, a product of God’s arbitrary will. A divine command to obliterate Amalek is not sufficient to ensure that this act of punishment is morally justified; to be so, this punishment must rest on rational considerations.”
Not surprisingly Deuteronomy 25: 17-18, a later text than the original account in Exodus 17: 8-17, takes pains to explain what was Amalek’s crime
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt-
how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you we re famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.
The Jewish Foundational Literature is clearly trying to gradually distantiate itself from the enemy’s demonization by grounding war on ethical justifications. Amalek is thus depicted as personifying a way of thinking, the idea that there is nothing to fear about crossing moral lines, the thesis that “crime pays.”
In this sense, as Jeffrey Goldberg points in an article in The New York Times,
““Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.”
So, Amalek whose name is not mentioned anywhere outside the Bible, becomes in Judaism the embodiment of the contra human, the hinderer of what is human in humans. Jews are commanded to maintain this watchful awareness on the what and why of Amalek.
Still, “memory,” says Eliott S. Horowitz, author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence is an aggressive act,” particularly among people with limited access to other forms of aggression. The memory of Amalek, one of the most powerful in Jewish tradition, has taken on […] different forms over the centuries.”
There is a cautionary tale to be told about insisting in “Remembering Amalek,” particularly when “ specific proper names are de- historicized, emptied of their original content, and re- appropriated in ways which on the one hand effectively disenfranchise their original owners and on the other implicate contemporary groups in a negative discourse which they have no means of countering.”
Halakhist Moshe Amielmexpresses what may be taken as the end final of the evolution of the concept of herem:
“the view of Judaism is that evil cannot be extirpated by evil means, terror cannot be eliminated from the world through the use of counter-terror.”
These Biblical texts have the great merit of not hiding the struggles and developments within Israel leading to a desired ethic of “purity of arms.” It is this transparency, expression of desire and will which among other factors makes the 24 books of the Jewish Foundational Literature, the TaNaKh, such a worthwhile literature to be read and to be inspired.
Rabbi Moshe Pitchon