Monday, May 27, 2013

Would you kill an Amalekite?

The other day, while in the beit midrash, I overheard a high school student ask his rebbe, "If you had a person from Amalek in front of you, would you kill him?" [For background on Amalek, see Deuteronomy, the end of Chapter 25.]

The rebbe dodged the question in favor of getting to the topic at hand in his shiur, but he suggested that the student ask me. The student hasn't yet come to me, but I do have my answer ready.

I think it's a good question. I think we should overlook the fact that this mitzvah is not real today - that Amalek may well be ideological, that we don't know who Amalek is, and so on. Yes, eradicating Amalek is not a situation we face. But the point of his question is not this mitzvah, per se; rather, the question is how far you would go in violation of human instinct and social norms to fulfill a mitzvah.

Rabbi, you are horrified by the barbaric murder of a British soldier in London. So, Rabbi, what would you do if you believed that Judaism required you to execute someone?

And my answer is that this hypothetical mitzvah would pose a challenge to my emunah [faith], as do many mitzvot; the difference is simply in degree.

To be clear: It's not about agreeing or disagreeing with a particular mitzvah; I take it as a given that killing people who do not pose any clear threat is something we disagree with. Rather, it's about overall faith in Judaism, and the strength of that faith.

Many (most?) of us who lay claim to belief still live with questions regarding Judaism. We have questions about Gd's actions in the world, the authenticity of our tradition, and so on. The degree to which faith overcomes doubt is the degree to which faith can motivate us to follow Judaism even when our native instincts, or social instruction, would lead us elsewhere.

There are Jews whose faith is strong enough to get them to support Jewish causes with their money, but not enough to get them to run their lives by Judaism's principles.

Some people's emunah is strong enough to lead them to observe Shabbos, or kashrus, but not to "come out" as Jews at work or in a social setting.

Some people's emunah is strong enough for all of these – but they stop short on something more demanding, or more challenging of their belief.

And for many (most?) of us, I expect, emunah would fall short of convincing us to execute an Amalekite who did not appear to pose a threat.

But enough of my response- What would you say to that high school student's question?


  1. It seems that you're saying that to kill the Amalekeit would be an ideal, but one that many (including many rabbis) are simply not ready for.

    Can you differentiate then how your outlook towards Amalekeits differs from, say Al-Quada's regarding appostates, who they believe they have a religious responsibility to kill? Is it that their faith is simply stronger than ours?

  2. We don't face the obligation to exterminate Amaleiq today because the world is a softer place. We no longer live among barbarian tribes for whom the only answer is kill or be killed. Where such violence, and making an example of one people (which is why it's significant that Amaleiq was our first enemy) is the only way not to be eaten alive ourselves and yet also not spend the rest of eternity being one of those barbarian tribes.

    And we can't bring ourselves to do it because we're products of that softer place. Nowadays, even among the most violent, it is sufficient to address the actual enemy, and even respect the minimization of collateral damage to their tribe. (How much respect is warranted, weighing their lives against our lives and our ability to remain moral beings, is a different discussion.)

    IOW, I can't bring myself to separate the practical truth that the mitzvah doesn't exist from our inability to perform it.

  3. Jenny-
    Thanks for you question. See my paragraph beginning "To be clear" - I don't see killing people who do not pose a visible threat as an ideal.

    R' Micha-
    I hear it, but doesn't the ability to override my personal nature come down to an issue of emunah?

  4. Not only on the intensity of the faith, but also its content. I trust with perfect trust that Hashem created the Jewish People and gave us the Torah in order to be a voice toward that nicer, less brutal, world. And so it's my faith that leads me to believe it's impossible I would actually find someone guilty of nothing but being an Amaleiqi, and distrust evidence to the contrary. We're too far down the path from Adam to the mashiach for such a throwback to be plausible.

    This is unlike Islam, at least the classical, unreformed sort, which teaches a vast number of values take higher priority not only one's own life, but others'. Part of that softening of the world is that the majority of Moslems do not follow the authentic message of Mohammed, and reformed it to be somewhat more humanistic than the original.

    (This response really requires a lengthy discussion of the Aqieda. Was Avraham expected to choose Divine command over the morality the self-same G-d imparted to him? How significant is it that Avraham was already told that his legacy would be through the descendants of this as-yet-childless Yitzchaq -- was the test actually one of trust in the face of confusing and conflicting data? There is no end to plausible and proposed theories as to what was going on.)

  5. One could suggest that there is no practical answer to the question since Sancheriv came and mixed up all the nations which means even if someone came and claimed to be an Amalekite we can't trust his assertion.
    Or one could lower the lights in the classroom, light a cigarette, and in a low voice say "There are many ways to kill a man. Yes, there's knives and guns but that's the easy way. There's others and they're more... satisfying." (Take a puff of the cigarette at this point, then continue with eyes narrowed) "You could infiltrate his life, steal his identity and then destroy him slowly, one bit at a time. First his job, then his credit, finally his wife. Turn his kids against him, make him a laughingstock among his friends and family, until finally his psyche is destroyed and he comes to you wishing that you'd simply have put a bullet between his eyes..."

  6. R' Micha-
    Fascinating approach; thank you.

    Smoking? Smoking?!

  7. I believe as modern day Jews, even with a plethora of rabbinic literature available to help us understand the essence of the mitzvah to destroy Amalaik, we inevitably suffer from an emotional detachment. We do not share in the collective memory that inspired the early generations after the holchei hamidbar to comprehend the insidious danger amalaik posed to their existence due to our temporal distance from these events. It is without this emotional acuteness that the directive to take the life of an amalekeit seems so counter-instinctive.

    I would thus like to argue (much like Micha Berger who says “IOW, I can't bring myself to separate the practical truth that the mitzvah doesn't exist from our inability to perform it.”) that when this mitzvah was in force, you didn’t have to “ go very far” in violation of human instinct and social norms to fulfill the mitzvah.

    David hamelech however, undermines this dichotomy between then and now.

    David, part of the generation who was established firmly in Eretz Yisrael many years after the midbar and Kibbush Ha’aretz was very much like one of us in this sense. He had an emotional distance from the dangers of Amalek and he failed to kill Agag Ha’Ameleiky due to unfitting compassion. This indicates that the mitzvah could still be in place even with weakened sensitivities towards the need to eradicate amalake.

    Perhaps the resolution is that David is a transitionary figure who had the potential to internalize the mitzvah to an extent that putting it into practice was possible, though he failed. We on the other hand are too far gone and so the mitzvah has become correspondingly unrequested of us.

    1. An interesting thought, thank you. (Of course, you mean Shaul, though.)

  8. Your excellent short post seems to me to address central issues of Yahadut today. If I read it correctly, it is not about the Amalekite -- that is an example, albeit one of the most extreme. It is about the increasing strength of faith needed to observe 'the mitzvot' (actually - all of them / any of them) in a world where knowledge and culture suggest that the fundations of religion, including ours, are illusory. I make the following observations:

    1. The orthodox world prefers to ignore this rather than to face it; on the contrary, it has a triumphalist attitude that 'science is only a theory', which is the intellectual equivalent of being a lemming heading straight over the cliff.
    2. Non-orthodox Jews have, of course, been aware of this for decades; perhaps the most honest attempt to face it was Mordecai Kaplan and his theory of Reconstructionist Judaism. In a way, all of us are Reconstructionists to a small degree.
    3. The answer to your question: I could not kill an Amalekite, solely on the grounds of his/her ID. I would take a chance in arguing with G-d (itself a heretical notion). But G-d Himself (Herself?) prevented Avraham from slaying Isaac. One of the most disturbing things I ever heard in recent years was R'Matisyahu Salomon at the BAYT say how Avraham "had to overcome his bitter, bitter disappointment that he was not able to slaughter his son as G-d had commanded him". Was Avraham really disappointed, rather than being overcome with relief?????

  9. And... what was happening in the Akeda? My personal chiddush -- look at the first few vv -- "Va'yaar et Hamakom me'rachok' -- and darshan: 'Abraham saw G-d from a distance'. Abraham's fatal error was that he thought he was very close to G-d, but in fact - he was very far away, to the point where he had lost all sight of G-d's real intentions. Nowadays, a common fault.......

    1. Hello Paul,

      Thanks for both comments; hope all is well. But if you are to say Gd doesn't want Avraham to do it (as I have heard others contend), then how do you explain the berachah Gd gives him at the end?

  10. Great post.

    Actually, everything you wrote is obvious to anyone who's willing to spend 15 minutes thinking honestly about the subject. Unfortunately, that only constitutes around 5% of the population, and an even smaller percentage of the yeshiva-world population.

    Regarding Avraham Avinu, I always wondered how someone could let himself (almost) kill his son rather than ask himself whether the command to do so wasn't possibly a hallucination.

    1. Jay, you need to read Fear and Trembling ( and Heschel

    2. As I mentioned, Avraham avinu had another indication that there was more going on. He was already promised "that from Yitzchaq shall be called your offspring". Yitzchaq had no children yet at the time of the Aqeida, and yet Avraham was told that his heritage will run through Yitzchaq. So as I see it the test wasn't whether he would follow G-d's command or the new morality he was trying to spread. After all, both were from the same G-d -- following one over the other wouldn't prove loyalty. It was a measure of trust in the earlier prophecy that no matter what he did to Yitzchaq, Yitzchaq's story wouldn't end there.

  11. I have to say I'm pretty astonished at the responses. Let's make the question less theoretical. If you were among the Jews living before the Amalekites were interspersed among other nations, would you kill a 100% clearly identified Amalekite BABY?

    How could the answer be anything less than YES?

    Is that baby evil? No! But, who cares? God told me to do something and I do what God says. Isn't that all that Judaism is about? As soon as your moral compass comes into play, as the Rambam says, Ma lanu u'leemunaso - what does your own sense of morality mean against that of God's?

    To Rav Micha, it is cute to say that the mitzvah had certain ethical overtones which are no longer necessary and hence the reason that the mitzvah cannot practically be performed. But, that does not erase the overarching message. There is only one morality in Judaism, God's.

  12. I thought I posted a reply to anoynoumous already, but I don't see it, so...

    Agreed that there is only one morality. But there is a major difference in our ability to follow a moral code vs law. We could blindly obey a law without being able to make sense of it; just check if the conditions for its application are met. We cannot apply anything as vague as morality to a particular case without a clearer picture.

    Part of my "cute" answer is the supposition that the morality in conflict, the less brutal world of today, is also G-d's morality -- no less so than the concept behind the mitzvah of Amaleiq. So, if the law were to apply, I might be compelled to obey it. But there would be an unresolvable conflict in the Torah's morality. (And thus my conclusion that it's not "supposed" to apply.)

    My approach also avoids a different problem. We know why we are deprived of the Beis haMiqdash and its mitzvos today. We got nasty to eachother, and then tried to use the avodah in an attempt to ease our consciences and fears of punishment by paying off G-d. So, it's kind of easy to understand how loss of all those mitzvos turned into a net plus.

    But what about value of the mitzvah of destroying Amaleiq to us today? One has to explain why its elimination was a net positive -- either having the mitzvah would lead us astray or having is no longer of value. But you're stuck with the question of why the Author of the mitzvah and of history placed His mitzvah out of reach.

    My answer to that question kills both birds.

  13. > My answer to that question kills both birds.

    Aren't you supposed to send the birds away instead of kill them so you can have their eggs?

  14. Anonymous 12:38 PM-
    I certainly believe that if Gd instructs something, it is meant to be followed as the sole code of morality and law.
    Having said that, I think it would require very, very strong emunah to believe in that code in execution of an instruction like this one.

  15. Rav Micha, is not the basis for your supposition the fact that you can intuit THE (not 'a') moral reason for God's command in this particular instance? Is that not further the height of hubris? True the Rambam tells us that we can "assign" reasons to the mitzvot but claiming that if a mitzvah existed today it would contradict morality is going a step beyond that. Furthermore I'm not sure why we need to say there is a 'net gain' for us not having a mitzvah, I would assume the opposite.

    Rabbi Torczyner, does it require greater emunah than to live as a Jew on a day-to-day basis? The daily or even minute to minute sacrifice of sublimating your ratzon to his in every way possible seems to me to require a much greater amount of emunah than to perform any one specific action.

    1. Anonymous 9:39 AM-
      Yes, I think it does require greater emunah. Have you thought through the actions and emotions involved in the act of killing someone?

  16. It's not hubris, nor intuition. It's called learning Torah. In cases where we can't deduce morality via reason, aggadita and implications from halakhah, Hashem would have legislated a law.

    We have numerous statements that make empathy toward others, even non-Jews, a clear lesson. E.g. the medrash, quoted by the Beis Yoseif and numerous others (albeit not the apparent conclusion of the gemara), that we don't say full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach because we can't feel unmixed joy on a day when His handiwork had to be drowned in the Red Sea. Or the obligations we have toward the Egyptians because they housed us (!?). Seifer Ovadiah. "Zeh seifer toledos adam" -- Ben Azzai's "kelal gadol", etc...

    So given all that Torah, we have to explain the mitzvah's morality. And I can't take out of the mix the fact that the mitzvah and Sancheirev's success share the same author. Maybe someone else could; pesaqim also differ, why not perspectives on morality?

    1. Because we are dealing in absolutes. A psak is not an absolute unless it was received by God. When I go to my local Rabbi and he tells me it is kosher or treif he is not telling me absolute reality, he is telling me his opinion based on the information he was given. Perhaps his reasoning is wrong or perhaps he doesn't have all the information. But I have done my hishtadlut and 'shomer psaim Hashem' hopefully I'm eating kosher.

      Morality does not have room for opinions. Sure, if you want you can feel bad about killing the amaleki, that wasn't legislated by the torah one way or another (although generally we say one should perform the commandments of the king with joy) but you must kill him none the less.

      Can you supply an example wherein a mitzvah is abrogated based on deduced moral sensitivities?

      And, if you cannot, does that not imply that such sensitivities have no bearing on mitzvah performance in general and this mitzvah in specific?

  17. One last time around the circle...

    The mitzvah was abrogated by G-d, not moral sensibilities. I'm saying He did so because following the mitzah today would still be mandatory, but would no longer be moral. The mitzvah was created by HQBH for a particular period of human development; He knew Sancheirev was coming when He wrote the Torah.

    So, it's not a question of morality vs halakhah, it's moral theory ve moral theory. I'm dealing entirely on a mussar plane, not a halachic one. I'm saying it's right for us to be compassionate on our enemies today, that Amaleiq does not enter that discussion, that the mitzvah was situational. There was a time when the only way to minimize death was to make an example of one of the barbarian tribes. We didn't, and because of that weakness, we went from that period to the one of regional empires with more bloodshed than necessary. Which in turn made things like Israelite worship of Molekh more common. Etc...

    This theory about the purpose of the halakhah doesn't change observance -- Sancheirev did that. It is an opinion about Torah morality.