Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should we skip Biblical passages like wiping out the Amalekites?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: We have just read on Purim about Haman’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. But our own Torah carries injunctions to destroy the Amalekites and other tribes which are hard to digest. Isn't it time that we stopped publicly reading such passages in synagogue?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

There are indeed a number of passages in the Tanach that are disturbing, to put it mildly. Most of these violent passages are narratives that tell of events that occurred long ago. They include the massacre perpetuated on the Midianites (Numbers 31), the merciless annihilation of the indigenous tribes of Canaan (most of the Book of Joshua) and the extraordinary brutality inflicted on the Israelites' enemies ( Book of Judges). As distressing as these texts are, the reader can take comfort in the knowledge that they occurred long ago and as such belong to the mists of history.

But then there are some profoundly violent texts that could only be described as instructive. That is to say they don't simply recall the past but rather they speak across the generations, instructing how we as Jews ought to behave. Your example of the commandment to utterly annihilate the Amalekites belongs to this category. It is, in other words, a mitzvah, no different from, say, observing the Sabbath. Naturally, the problem such texts present are all the more acute. So how does one deal with them? Not by expunging them but by doing something even more creative and radical. The rabbis of the Talmud were already deeply uncomfortable with these texts and so they engaged in a form of exegesis that essentially rendered them inoperable. In the case of the Amalekites, the Talmud assumes that it is no longer possible to identify who are the descendants of the original Amalekites and so the command to eradicate them is no longer a matter of practicality. There are many other examples of creative midrash brought to bear on passages that present serious moral problems. The Bible commands that we stone adulterers, Sabbath violators and rebellious children. Yet, in over two millennia there is no record of such punishments being enacted, thanks to creative rabbinic interpretation.

All three of the Abrahamic religions were born in violence and it is neither useful or fair to use our current sensibilities to judge a faith by the violent texts in its ancient sacred scripture. What distinguishes a peaceful faith from a violent one is how it expresses itself in the here and now. How it wrestles with its violent past, not by ignoring it or brushing it under the carpet, but by reinterpreting it for a new age. Judaism has a long tradition of such interpretation and it is richer and more peaceful because of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

In a time when many are preaching racial extremism or religious hatred, while we are also witnessing the butchery of Islamic State, it does not feel comfortable using a text that could be accused of being akin to genocide. This in turn highlights three problems. The first is what we do with the passage. We could say it was an historical reference that has no relevance to today as Amalekites do not exist, and so there is no prescription for any ongoing violence.

However, Exodus 17.16 declares that the injunction against Amalek is "from generation to generation" and implies that it is an eternal battle. Alternatively, we could say that it was meant to be an attack on the villainy that Amalek represented ("blotting out the remembrance of Amalek"), rather than a licence to wipe out actual people. Thus, we must oppose the sin rather than the sinner, and so it is an ideological battle, not a blueprint for extermination. This is certainly the thrust of Jewish tradition. Similarly, we have found ways of avoiding the implementation of other biblical calls for the death penalty, such as for adultery or for rebellious children.

However, this leads to a second problem: dealing with the scriptures of other faiths. Islam, for instance, is often accused of being a religion of violence because of passages in the Quran that urge war against unbelievers. But if we can interpret away our uncomfortable texts, then we have to allow others to do the same. When Muslim scholars claim a violent Quranic verse only applied to a specific historical situation, then we have to credit them with the same right of contextualisation.

The third problem is that, however much faiths give "no-longer-applicable" interpretations to difficult sections, they still remain on the printed page and can be read literally by those who do not have the benefit of a commentary or sermon explaining them. It might be helpful to put such texts in italics or smaller print to indicate that, whatever their role in the past, we do not act on them today.

Discomfort with certain passages is not new. We already have the tradition of reading quickly the killing of Haman's sons (or dipping wine while reading the plagues at Seder) so as not to gloat on the misfortune of others. Perhaps it is time to extend the principle and highlight other texts that trouble us.

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