by Marc J. Rosenstein
Discuss on Our BlogTherefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Last Sunday, as often happens, Iman, the young Muslim English teacher who was answering questions from a Jewish teen group, was asked about terror and Jihad. She explained that as she understands the term "Jihad," which means "struggle," it refers in the Koran to historical conflicts between Muhammed's followers and other tribes; but in current usage, it refers to the religious struggle of every individual Muslim to purify his/her faith and live a life of righteousness. She rejects the interpretations of those who try to apply the historical text to current political realities, as if the battles in the Koran were still being waged. Iman is not a scholar of Islam; her knowledge comes from her teachers, the media, and the imam of her local mosque. We know that there are Muslims in the world who would not accept her interpretation. It is simply the one she and her community live by.
The next day, in Jerusalem, I attended the evening bet midrash offered to rabbinical students at HUC, taught by Rabbi Shlomo Fox. As it was during the weeks before Purim, we studied texts relating to the Book of Esther and the meaning of the holiday. And we read several interpretations of the above passage from Deuteronomy which is read on the Shabbat before Purim:
Where is Amalek? The answer I once heard from my father is: every nation that seeks to destroy the People Israel turns, according to the halachah, into Amalek… And hence we are commanded to fight against any nation that schemes to destroy us, and it is a "war of mitzvah," [of complete destruction].
-Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, "My Beloved Knocks," 1956 (major American Orthodox scholar and leader)
"Do not forget" this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.
-Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, late 19th century (founder of "modern Orthodoxy" in Germany)
So, is our struggle against Amalek the eternal war of annihilation between Israel and its physical enemies – is every enemy an heir of Amalek whom we are commanded utterly to destroy – or is our struggle against the Amalek within, against the tendency to forget our own moral scruples when we attain power? The similarity between the Sunday and Monday conversations was really striking. Both religions have parallel opposing traditions of interpretation: do we take the historical event as an archetype that keeps on recurring, a drama in which we are destined to play out the same roles over and over – or is the historical experience merely an experience, from which we are supposed to learn a moral lesson that can enable us to repair the world. And are the two approaches in conflict, or can they coexist?
And why does this matter? Because our future here depends on the answer.