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The commandment to wage war on Amalek in every generation paradoxically ensures that Amalek is not eliminated from the pages of history. Yoske Achituv attempts to understand the contemporary significance of our biblical arch enemy. Is the eternal war against Amalek the lot of the nation of Israel, or is it the lot of God? And if we compare our current enemies to Amalek, is the implication that we will never be at peace with them?

The commandment to wage war on Amalek in every generation paradoxically ensuresthat Amalek is not eliminated from the pages of history. Yoske Achituv attempts to understand the contemporary significance of our biblical arch enemy. Is the eternal war against Amalek the lot of the nation of Israel, or is it the lot of God? And if we compare our current enemies to Amalek, is the implication that we will never be at peace with them?

The memory of Amalek has not been yet been obliterated, and the problematic commandment to wipe Amalek out is still present in various manifestations and continues to occupy philosophers and halachic experts. The name "Amalek" tops the list of similar concepts, such as the "erev rav" or "mixed multitude" and others, which represent the ultimate enemies of the nation and the God of Israel. Amalek’s place at the top of this list owes to its representation, according to a simple Biblical reading, as a common enemy of Israel and its God, and thus the obligation to hate and completely destroy it.

What can we learn from an examination of Amalek and its function in the sermons of different rabbis in religious Zionist circles today? Although many moderate religious Zionist rabbis warn against any concrete and politically relevant identification of Amalek in our day and against the potentially serious consequences of making such an identification, one cannot ignore other religious Zionist figures occupied with identifying Amalek in our day. These voices are sounded particularly in response to time-bound events, like terrorist attacks. When analyzing various statements on this issue, one must of course differentiate between purely rhetorical use, aimed at expressing the intensity of outrage at the attacks, and calculated and precise intent, on which I shall focus below.

The poem, "Neder," ("Vow") by Avraham Shlonsky
Artist: Shmuel Katz. From Pesach Haggadah,
published by Culture Department, Hakibutz Haartzi, 1964

The explicit conclusions and implications arising from the use of the concept of Amalek are what indicate the intensity of the calculated purpose of this use. This is what arises, for example, from integrating the concept of Amalek with discussion and instructions relating to war ethics and the use of arms. Also, the creation of an appropriate political policy toward the Palestinians that draws its inspiration from the concept of Amalek can attest to the calculated degree of intentional use of the term.

The concrete identification of Israel’s present enemies with Amalek immediately rules out any option of forging a peace or compromise with them, including moderation or restraint in combative activity waged against them. Those who "use" Amalek in this way repeatedly quote the midrashic quotation that condemned Saul for taking pity on the king of Amalek: Resh Lakish taught, "Anyone who becomes merciful to the cruel will, in the end, become cruel to the merciful." (Midrash Zuta, Kohelet, 7:16)

Paradoxically, the biblical injunction to remember and not to forget that which Amalek did to us and God’s declaration of war on Amalek from generation to generation seemingly "promises" that Amalek will never be annihilated at any stage of human history. Its presence is supposed to accompany the people of Israel though every generation.

Nevertheless, the annihilation of Amalek in our day does not necessarily have to involve its concrete identification with any particular nation. It can be expanded to include abstract descriptions of human qualities, or of metaphysical essences that, while not of this world, are present at some level. I will focus on one of the many manifestations that have been applied to Amalek – that which is characteristic of the theology of Rav Kook circles – and will show the range of options opened up by it in contemporary interpretive processes.

This theology can be presented in four short cumulative points: 

  • God is present in all beings
  • Evil is not an independent entity nor is it absolute
  • Evil has a positive (!) role in challenging the good, sometimes relegated to hidden depths, and bringing it out to the light of day by reckoning with it. This refines the world and raises it to higher levels
  • Evil will not be destroyed, but will undergo a transformation and become good.
Based on these four points we can understand the startling words of Rabbi Kook on Amalek, in his essay "Aiyin Aiya" (on Tractate Brachot 8:b) in which he distinguishes between the present need to fight Amalek, without destroying but only weakening it, so that Amalek can continue fulfilling a positive role in presenting a dialectical challenge as an ‘opposing force’ to Israel, thus contributing to the purity of the Jewish people. He says:
Moses, of blessed memory, could not wage war with Amalek himself. Amalek is the antagonist of Israel and their opponent. The eye that sees until the end of time… sees that even Amalek has a purpose, for as long as Israel is not completely purified, a force to oppose them is needed. Therefore ‘the hands of Moses were heavy’…. But Aaron and Chur, who had the appropriate outlook of the generation and the hour, were able to overcome this by supporting his hands. This was achieved by Moses humbling himself… according to the need of the hour – to damage but not completely demolish Amalek. Thus even Joshua was only able to weaken, rather than destroy, Amalek. Thus the stone (that Moses sat on)is an eternal reminder of God’s chesed, that He allowed our enemy to be weakened in our hour of need, even though in the eternal plan, Amalek will still exist.
In this same spirit the following well-known passage was written in Rav Kook’s Orot Hakodesh III:
"When we look at the Midrash that tells how the sons of the sons of Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem, and the sons of the sons of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak….we penetrate a depth of chesed, that we should not be pulled into a stream of hatred, even of the most terrible enemy."
Rav Kook’s disciple, Rabbi Charlap, also suggested conducting the war on Amalek in a non-violent way (in his book Mei Marom, on Parshat Ki Tetzei):  
"Through loving Israel naturally and feeling what Amalek did to us, we come to a natural hatred of Amalek….From this natural love of Israel, we erase Amalek from the world."
In Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Kook’s son, we find an almost opposite "division of labor" between Israel and God in the war on Amalek. Precisely on the human level, the war against Amalek must be real and violent, while on God’s level not only is there no war, but there is even love:

"There are laws against Amalek that the worldly court must uphold. We live in this world, where laws must be upheld. But these do not contradict or deny the supreme ideal, the supreme majesty, the elevation of the internal, and psychological, internal and spiritual transcendence to the foundation of God’s image in human creation: ‘And God created man in His own image.’"

This view is rooted more on the theological, metaphysical plane than on an ethical level, on which, as noted above, interpretive efforts are made to release man from the concrete obligation to fight Amalek. Still, the moral reckoning with the dilemma of Amalek can be resolved – at least in part – as long as the ability to concretely identify Amalek is denied in principle. At this point contradictory versions are espoused by the students of Rav Zvi Yehuda. On the one hand, some argue that he objected to identifying Israel’s contemporary enemies with Amalek. But, on the other hand, there are those who emphasize in his name that "the Arab nations’ hatred of Israel, Jews and Zionism is not about a piece of land; it is not a border or territorial dispute. This is the hatred of Amalek.

Clearly this is a critical controversy, since, as mentioned above, identifying Israel’s wars of Israel in this way rejects outright any possible solutions of compromise and peace.

Yoske Achituv is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches Judaic studies at Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati and the Ya’akov Herzog Center at Ein Zurim. He has an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University for his contributions to religious Zionism and the religious Kibbutz movement.

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