"The Lord is at war with Amalek from generation to generation" Exodus 17:16


One intriguing approach among Jewish thinkers to the famous passages in our sidrah, and in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, concerning the trans-generational struggle against Amalek is exemplified by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his commentary on Beshallach.

For Hirsch, the war of Israel against Amalek is not a physical confrontation but rather an uncompromising contest between two conflicting sets of values. It is a battle between peace and militarism, between spiritual-moral values and brute force, and between building and destruction. In each instance, Israel champions the first ethos and Amalek the second.

In the history of Jewish biblical exegesis there have been those who were troubled by the Torah texts concerning Amalek and those who were not. Rabbi Hirsch clearly belongs in the former category. The effect of his kind of reading is one of radical moralisation. The war against Amalek is transferred from the actual battlefield to the realm of ideas. It no longer even involves the real Amalekite nation. Moreover, in the conceptual confrontation with Amalek which replaces the physical one, it is precisely the values of morality that Israel represents. Hirsch also insists that Israel does not seek even this metaphorical fight, but rather is forced to defend itself.

It is possible to speculate that Hirsch is engaged in apologetics, animated by a desire, particularly given his setting in 19th-century Western Europe, to portray Judaism as a morally sophisticated faith. Yet, at least equally plausible is a more charitable reading of Hirsch, on which he genuinely reads the Torah as a whole in a way that places ethics at the centre of its concerns and which precludes him interpreting the war against Amalek at face value.

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