Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Amalek Redux

Pagan society was eminently pluralist. Its hallmark was the absence of religious persecution, despite the fact that wars between nations were understood to be paralleled by conflicts between their particular deities. Indeed, historians are at pains to explain the two major exceptions to this rule: the anti-Jewish persecutions of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes and those of the Roman Emperor Aelius Trajanus Hadrian. Ironically, in both of these cases, the persecutions were instigated and guided by individuals who sought to embody the highest ideal of Hellenistic paganism.

In this light, the genocidal plot to destroy the Jews that is described in the Book of Esther is absolutely incomprehensible from a purely historical point of view. Irrespective of the claims of Bible critics, it defies the logic of its own sitz im leben. Cultural and ethnic (or racist) homogeneity were the innovation and the perpetual goal of Christianity and Islam, and the former's secular heirs. In fact, Haman's ideology always seemed more appropriate to Tomas de Torquemada and Heinrich Himmler than to an ancient Persian nobleman.

There is one thing, though, that I do know. The Book of Esther sets forth the pattern of subsequent Jewish History in unmistakable terms (see here for one aspect). It describes the virulent, irrational hatred of the Jew that can hold an entire empire in its grip, on a moment's notice. It is that unending, pathological hatred of the Jew that is represented by Amalek, whose scion Haman was.

Amalek is a very loaded image, especially in light of the Bible's injunction to utter destroy it. It's an image that has been both used, and abused. What has not been understood is its role as a time-transcendent symbol.

Modern man forgets that traditional man lives sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. Traditional man, and here the Jew is assuredly a traditional man, understands his present in light of the past and in anticipation of the future, as Ramban said: The deeds of the fathers are a sign for their children (מעשה אבות סימן לבנים). Upon encountering Jew-hatred, of which modern anti-semitism is but the most virulent strain, the Jew knew that he was encountering Amalek. Knowing of Amalek's existence grounded him. It gave him a context with which to fight to survive and endure. He knew, and knows, that God will not give him totally over to this implacable enemy. 'For I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven' (Ex. 17, 14). [ In a sense, the Polish Jew, the despised ostjude, was better prepared psychically for the Shoah, than was the highly assimilated (and sometimes converted) German Jew, the fabled Deutsche Burgher Mosaischen Glaubens. So many of the latter took their own lives in despair in the 1930's, wearing the iron crosses they had earned fighting for the Fatherland in World War I. Polish Jews had no such illusions.]

Amalek is a potent symbol. It is, a religious and historical reality. As an historian, who has grappled with Jew hatred for his entire life, I must admit that its persistent existence only makes sense to me on a metaphysical plane.

Does recognizing a manifestation of Amalek require the implementation of the Torah's dictate to wipe it out entirely? Absolutely not. To say otherwise is to utterly distort Halakha (and Reb Chaim Brisker's famous observation on the Rambam does not contradict this. ואכמ"ל). The Rambam makes clear (Hil. Melakhim 1, 1) that the eradication of Amalek is a royal (and probably messianic) undertaking.

Have some been guilty of distorting the Law? Tragically, yes. Has this ever been official Israeli policy ? Absolutely not! On the contrary, Israel sacrifices its soldiers (and its civilians) in order to avoid harming non-combatants. Have responsible rabbinic authorities (yes, even among settlers) ever advocated wholesale invocation of the Amalek clause in our ongoing war with the Arabs? Again, no.

Amalek, for us, is a metaphysical reality around which we can organize (if not understand the insane world in which we live), and that constantly raises serious questions of theodicy. It does not dictate policy.

We would do well, though, to recall that our enemies are also traditional people. They also have a principled, integrated world view that is nourished by their own traditions and collective memories. Muslims also understand, interpret and experience their reality in light of the Qur'an and the many traditions of their prophet and his successors. Islam teaches that history, which is for them a sacred science, must also be understood sub specie aeternitatis.

Dhimmis, such as Jews, who do not abide by the terms of dhimmitude are despised because they defy the word of Allah. Attacks on kafir have absolutely nothing to do with specific military encounters, and the casualties they engender. They have everything to do with the refusal of Jews to abide by the Pact of Umar and the fact that this is a blasphemous affront to Allah. Inspiration for the massacre of the martyrs of Merkaz HaRav more likely derives from Hadith passages like this, than from anything else:

The Prophet (sall'Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “You will indeed fight against the Jews and you will kill them to the point where the rock and the tree will say: ‘O Muslim! O ‘Abd'ullah (slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.’

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