Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tetze 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tetze 5760/9 September 2000

Rationales Justifying Collective Punishment of Amalek

Prof. Hannah Kasher

Department of Philosophy


The command to wipe out Amalek is explained in the Torah (Deut. 25:17-19) as their punishment for launching an unfair attack on the helpless Israelites:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

The general command to “blot out the memory of Amalek” was presented in greater detail by the prophet Samuel in his demand of Saul: “Kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses” (I Sam. 15:3). The call for such severe punishment is indeed given a reason in the Torah, yet even the most egregious sin itself cannot invalidate the moral principle according to which “a person shall be put to death only for his own crime” (Deut. 24:16). Indeed, the Gemara (Yoma 22b) puts into Saul’s mouth an argument about the justice in what he was told to do: “The people may have sinned, but how have the animals sinned? And if the older have sinned, how have the younger sinned?” Little wonder that commentators and thinkers throughout the generations have felt a need to understand why the punishment of Amalek should be exacted from those who were not yet born when the sin for which the punishment was decreed was committed.

Some have tried to resolve the moral difficulty by arguing that the duty of blotting out Amalek has no longer been valid since Sennacherib exiled various peoples from their lands so that these nations could no longer be identified (Yadayim 4.4). This solution raises several difficulties. The statement pertaining to Sennacherib relates to the exile of Amon and Moab alone, and not of Amalek, for the mention of Haman as being an Agagite (assuming this means a descendant of King Agag of Amalek) indicates that the name of Amalek had not passed from the world by the time of Ahasuerus.

Even Maimonides, who assumed that “the seven nations have ceased to exist,” expressed the hope in his time that “the Lord will destroy the seed of Amalek entirely and will wipe him out to the last person as He promised, speedily in our day” (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, affirmative mitzvah 188). In fact, some people view the commandment to blot out Amalek as a ruling for the messianic era, since it requires that there be a king over Israel (Sefer Yereim 299), is conditional on conquering the promised land (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, negative commandment 226) and must await the prophet Elijah, who will clarify exactly who is of the lineage of Amalek, in order to be implemented (Sefer Mitzvot Katan, positive commandment 77). Be that as it may, it follows from the above remarks that the commandment to blot out Amalek has not essentially been nullified.

Moreover, it is also hard to accept the argument that the rabbinic ruling which declares that the duty to blot out Amalek is no longer valid is actually expressing a moral reservation, comparable to the reluctance to actually go through with the execution of a defiant and rebellious son. The Halakhic determination that “there never was and never will be a defiant and rebellious son” (Sanh. 71a) stems from the difficulty in demanding that parents put their son to death for gluttony. This cannot be compared to the situation at hand, for according to Scripture the duty to blot out Amalek did exist (when Saul was punished for not doing so), and some say that it will pertain again in the messianic era. The fact that there is no obligation to blot out Amalek today is only a solution for our time but does not provide a comprehensive resolution of the theological question in principle.

Another suggested resolution of the moral difficulty is based on the possibility of rehabilitation. The descendants of Amalek could rescue themselves from the general edict against them by accepting the seven commandments applying to descendants of Naoh or by becoming proselytes. This solution, as well, is neither comprehensive nor does it address the question in principle. For, its basic assumption is that any person descended of Amalek has a death sentence over his head from the moment of birth, even if he himself has committed no sin. His culpability is innate, and only if he accepts the seven precepts binding on Noah’s descendants, fully giving himself over and submitting to the Jewish way, or if he becomes a proselyte (in the opinion of some posekim), can he save himself from this fate. But his conversion itself is likely to be rejected on the grounds of ulterior motives.

Some people turn to various homiletical interpretations indicating that the command to blot out Amalek means something other than wiping out the historical people of Amalek. It is argued that these homilies answer the moral difficulty of collective punishment. Many homilies identify Amalek with Satan, one’s evil inclination, or offenders from within the Jewish people, or enemies from without. These homilies, however, do not explicitly invalidate the plain sense of the commandment. Thus they fall into the same category as the allegory that does not deny the fundamental meaning of the text.

Some argue that the allegorical interpretation pertains to the Divine promise, “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Ex. 17:14); whereas the command to mankind, “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19), stands as stated. (cf. Ha´amek Davar, of the Netziv of Volozhin on this verse; cf. also Sha´arei haLeshem 2.10, by the kabbalistic rabbi Shelomo Elyashuv). It should also be noted that the view that Amalek also includes those “who act as Amalek” on the one hand adds a measure of justice to the command, but on the other is likely to change the moral difficulty with which we are grappling from a halakhah relevant to the messianic era or to something that has passed from the world and transform it into a war of annihilation against a contemporary foe, in which one does not refrain from killing women and children.

The fundamental responses to the problem which we present below have different points of departure. Some people maintain that the question itself is not to the point, while others assert that a religious command should not be challenged in terms of human morality (1), yet others have claimed that there is no fundamental justification for challenging the command since such a stand stems from an overly righteous posture (2). Other responses try to provide a moral explanation of collective punishment, justifying it on the grounds that the great benefit resulting from such punishment outweighs the suffering it causes (3), or supporting it by the view that the death penalty applies by law to each and every descendant of Amalek in his own right (4).

1. Religious commands as superceding obligations of human morality. One way of coping with the problem is by asserting that religious commands are not to be questioned since they are not subject to the rules of human morality. This is essentially the argument that is hinted at in various homiletical interpretations according to which Saul was told, “Do not be more righteous than your Creator/Maker” (Eccles. Rabbah 7, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 43). Rabbi Isaac Arama enlarged on this subject in his work, Akedat Yitzhak (Ch. 42), claiming that revelation should take precedence over moral intuition when there is a conflict between the two:

As we wrote in connection with the deeds of Shechem (Ch. 27), godly people who follow the Torah are those every interest and deed are drawn after their divine and lofty origins, and are not drawn in their interests and deeds after natural origins... [Saul] did not have the divine strength to set his ways and take heed in his deeds according to the Torah and divine precepts, but set them aside and turned them into human ways and practices.

Rabbi Isaac Arama, who justified Simeon and Levi’s massacre of the town of Shechem, viewing Simeon and Levi as people who “were raised from the womb on the roots of the true faith,” condemned king Saul because he acted in accordance with his sense of natural morality and “was guided by his human qualities” ®ibid.). According to his view, human rules of morality, even if they stem from the intuition of virtuous people, ought not to challenge divine commands.

2. The call for morality as expressing excessive righteousness. The argument that one should take care and not harm the descendants of Amalek has on occasion been taken as perverting justice, going beyond proper behavior to a posture of excessive righteousness. Apparently in this spirit we are to understand the remark in the Gemara (Yoma 22b) given in response to the question put by King Saul: “A divine voice spoke out to him and said: ‘Do not overdo goodness’ (Eccles. 7:16). When Saul said to Doeg, ‘You, Doeg, go and strike down the priests’ (I Sam. 22:18), a divine voice spoke out to him and said, ‘Do not overdo wickedness’ (Eccles. 7:17).”
This passage contrasts two events in the life of King Saul: his reluctance to obey Samuel’s command to wipe out Amalek -- “Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Sam. 15:3) – and in contrast, his attack on the priestly city of Nob – “He put Nob, the town of the priests, to the sword: men and women, children and infants, oxen, asses, and sheep – [all] to the sword” (I Sam. 22:19). According to the Gemara, a divine voice spoke out from Heaven against Saul’s behavior in both cases, citing verses from Ecclesiastes that criticize going to excess (“Do not overdo goodness... Do not overdo wickedness”). Further criticism on this matter is found in Ecclesiastes Rabbah (ch. 7), which generalizes about human behavior inferred from the order of events:

Whoever becomes merciful instead of cruel, in the end becomes cruel instead of merciful. How do we know that one becomes cruel instead of merciful? As it is said, “He put Nob, the town of the priests, to the sword.” But Nob was not like the seed of Amalek!

First it is claimed that the tendency to be overly merciful is likely in the course of time to lead to being overly cruel; the mercy that Saul sought to show the seed of Amalek should have guided him, by inference from minor to major, in his treatment of Nob, the town of the priests. The passage at hand seems to be based on the implicit assumption that the affiliation of an individual with a certain group (“Nob, the town of the priests,” or “the seed of Amalek”) is significant in determining how the person should be treated. Perhaps this underlying assumption is like arguing that one would be overdoing goodness to ask that people (elderly, women and children) who belong to the enemy nation be treated mercifully, even if they themselves took no part in hostile action.

3. The moral justification of “great benefit”. One of the arguments used to justify the collective punishment of Amalek is made in the name of the deterrent effect of such punishment. This justification is made by Maimonides in Guide to the Perplexed (3.41). According to him, the precedent of punishing everyone in the entire surrounding is likely to prevent future instances of tribal protection of those committing criminal acts:

To wipe out the “seed of Amalek” -- for just as the individual would be punished, so one ought to punish the entire tribe or nation, in order to deter all tribes from being party to evil. So that they will say: Lest they do to us what they did to the people of such-and-such. So much so that if an evil and destructive person should be born unto them, a person who does not fear causing evil to his soul and who does not think about the evil he wishes to do, such a person will find none in his tribe to aid and abet him in the malignant things he may wish to do.

Maimonides is aware of tribal brotherhood, “all having one father” (ibid. 49), and argues that therefore the edict to blot out Amalek is applicable only when the line of descent is patrilineal (3.50). Maimonides offers an explanaton for why one should actually wipe out an entire group that has a blood relationship, namely that collective punishment of this type would prevent crimes being covered up because of natural compassion. Maimonides’ takes a basically utilitarian approach to punishment and justifies passing the death sentence on individuals or groups according to the leader’s discretion when “the aim is to derive huge benefit for many persons” (Guide to the Perplexed 1.54).

Various homiletical interpretations have justified the command at hand on different utilitarian grounds: blotting out Amalek as a supreme necessity: “As long as the seed of Amalek exists in the world, neither the Name (of the Lord) nor the Throne are complete. When the seed of Amalek has passed from the world, the Name and the Throne will be complete (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, ch. 3). This approach, widely echoed in kabbalistic writings, explains the obligation to wipe out any trace of Amalek on the grounds of the imaginary power of this tribe to harm the heavenly realms.

4. Wiping out Amalek as just personal retribution. The assertion that all of Amalek’s descendants deserve this punishment by reason of their own fault stems from the assumption that each of them is considered a sinner. Avnei Nezer by Rabbi Abraham Borstein (19th century) provides an example of such an assumption: “It is disclosed and well-known to the Holy One, blessed be He, that hate lies in their hearts. Go and see what Haman the Agagite did” (Orah Hayyim, 508). In other words, for reasons that are not spelled out – perhaps genetic or educational -- the descendants of Amalek persist in the ways of their ancestors, “the root of the Amalekites’ sin being that they are in no way willing to subjugate themselves to Israel. So that an individual descendant of the Amalekites not be doomed to death he must prove that he has renounced the deeds of his ancestors. The proof lies in his expressing willingness to be subjugated to Israel, but not by conversion for that would make him an equal of the Jews.

The solutions presented here have different points of departure. We conclude our survey with the interesting remarks of R. Jonathan Eibshitz, from Ya’arot Devash (Part II, sermon 9):

Indeed, Solomon taught us a fine virtue (“If your enemy is hungry give him bread to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink ( Prov. 25:21): not to be vengeful towards our enemies, rather to treat them well when they are at hand. Therefore the Torah had to warn us about Amalek in numerous places, for without the Torah’s words of caution, even though Amalek did Israel wrong, it would be a virtue not to remember their ancient hostility but only to treat them well. Therefore the Torah admonishes us: Do not treat Amalek thus; these people do not show mercy, for the Throne of the Blessed One is not complete. Therefore the Sages refused to write a scroll [ordering the Jews to kill their enemies in Persia], saying, “It will lead to resentment towards us on the part of other nations, for they will consider us to have bad qualities, being vengeful and harboring hatred”( Megillah 7a). For it is not a good quality to take vengeance on one’s enemies; quite the contrary, virtue and intelligence would dictate that they be treated with mercy, tolerance and compassion, showing the difference between Mordechai and the wicked Haman. Only the Divine Spirit instructed that they be avenged, for there is no compassion in the seed of Amalek... Therefore, my brothers, learn what is good without harboring hatred, but on the contrary, be good to one’s enemy. Such behavior well suits human virtue and the bounds of the Torah. This is the glory of Israel, not to harbor hatred; thus our ways will be straight, by nature not being vengeful. Therefore it is said (Megilla 7b), “It is one’s duty to drink on Purim until one cannot distinguish between ...” so that from much drinking one forgets what the Torah commands and follows the natural virtue; then one will not distinguish between “cursed Haman and ...,” for by nature a person is in no way to take vengeance or curse those who seek one’s harm.
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