Synagogues around the world will mark the Sabbath of Remembrance, this weekend by reading the Torah’s charge to obliterate the nation of Amalek, in anticipation of the upcoming festival of Purim. Amalek is known as the arch nemesis of the Jewish people who historically attacks the ancient Israelites at their most vulnerable state. The charge of obliteration of Amalek is understood to be a mass genocide against men, women and children. Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, is a descendant of the Amalekite family. Amid the rapid resurgence of anti-Semitism around the globe, it is easy to apply this archaic model today by labeling all enemies of the Jews as Amalekites. Doing so, however, not only undermines the ethical cornerstone of Judaism but endangers the soul of the Jewish people.
When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu invited Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) into his coalition, he embraced the vile and most hateful strands of Jewish fanaticism. However, Otzma Yehudit members see their political agenda as a fulfillment of the Biblical mandate we read in synagogues this week. Indeed, the Purim story itself ends with the retelling of the reversal of Haman’s plan and details the Jewish people’s mass killing of its enemies.
Baruch Goldstein, who murdered dozens of Muslims worshipping in prayer, took these words to heart shortly after hearing the portion of the Torah calling for the obliteration of Amalek. Meir Kahane saw all perceived enemies of the Jewish people or Israel as modern-day equivalents of Amalek. Such simplistic applications of Amalek to political realities, both old and new, are religious falsehoods and distortions of the Torah’s value of human dignity and of preserving life at all possible costs.
The rabbis of the Talmud, though, go a step further, citing the origin of Amalek as a result of Jewish tribalism. Timna, a princess at the time of the Biblical patriarchs, came before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to convert and they did not accept her, according to the story. She ultimately became a concubine of Eliphaz, the son of Esau, and birthed Amalek. In an unusual reprimand of the patriarchs, the rabbis understand Amalek to be a result of turning away a potential convert (Sanhedrin 99B). Obliterating Amalek, then, is an obfuscation of responsibility of previous Jewish misdeeds. When Otzma Yehudit or Kahanists tout the trope of destroying Amalek, they are neglecting the rabbinic claim that Amalek exists because of their very own nationalistic tendencies.
On Purim, the sages state that a person is obligated to become intoxicated to a point of being unable to differentiate between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman.” In other words, the rabbis claim there to be a religious imperative in not just blurring roles but seeing the enemy as ourselves. For all the religious and secular Jews among us who take this rallying call of excessive drinking to heart, leaving it there would be a base misinterpretation. The application naturally extends beyond physically drinking to spiritual and political realities. Whoever we deem as our foe, whether that’s a Congresswoman or President tweeting anti-Semitic tropes, should serve as a reflection of ourselves.
The philosophy of Otzma Yehudit does not solely dwell in the far corners of the Middle East but can be found even in Washington Heights where Yeshiva University recently sold books penned by the late Meir Kahane. While familiarizing ourselves with diverse ideas is certainly important, the promotion of racist ideas is irresponsible, especially after years of banning his books at this popular site. The National Council of Young Israel, with synagogues across the country, originally supported the Prime Minister’s partnership. We may be called to dismiss these cases as anomalies as they are not the prevalent attitude of modern Jewry, however part of seeing ourselves as a light unto the nations requires such adherence.
Anti-Semitic crime is real. We live in a post-Pittsburgh age where armed security guards rightfully protect Jewish establishments. Taking security measures is crucial to the safety of our people and institutions. However, seeing Amalek wherever we walk is a terrifying way to live.
Fear can be a relentless force. Indeed, the numerical value of the word “Amalek” is equivalent to that of “doubt.” For the mystics then, Amalek exists solely in the spiritual realm of conquering our individual and collective fears. It would be prudent on this upcoming holiday of Purim, and in this Sabbath of Remembrance, to not let our past persecution and victimhood overpower us, letting fear ground our hate. Rather, we must strive to transform and overturn these base instincts into moral pursuits.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base: Hillel; Rabbi Jonathan Leener is co-founder of Base: BKLYN.