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A Question of Race?

Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

This week, following the reading of Parshat Truma, we read a special section of the Torah called Zachor, "Remember":

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it. (Deut. 25:17-19)

This section recounts the commandment to obliterate Amalek. Because this is arguably the most important Torah reading of the year, understanding the substance of the command is of supreme importance.

The commandment appears quite simple: We are told that we must make this world "Amalek free."

There are those who perceive in this precept a racist doctrine; after all, not only are those guilty of perpetrating wickedness to be killed, but also their children. Clearly, the charge is racially linked and motivated. All who possess Amalekian blood must perish.

The moral argument against genocide is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment "Thou shalt not murder" from the mouth of God at Sinai. Therefore, many Jews sense a difficulty with the commandment to destroy Amalek.


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I have heard Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quoted on this paradox, as follows. The Torah is the benchmark for moral behavior. The Torah taught the world the concept of value of human life and the prohibition of murder. If this same document teaches that murder is abhorrent and genocide evil, yet the killing of Amalek is allowed, the situation would be one in which the exception proves the rule. Therefore, the Torah had to command us to wipe out Amalek, who are identified as the epitome of evil, because in other circumstances the Torah prohibits the taking of life.

Killing Amalek may ultimately have little to do with race.

There may, however, be a more direct approach to this paradox. Killing Amalek may ultimately have little to do with race. The litmus test would be the case of a person who changes their "racial status" but not their genetic makeup. We must ask therefore: What is the proper treatment of an Amalekite who convert to Judaism? Is he, because of his birth, still slated for annihilation, or is his new identity the deciding factor? Is the issue a purely racial question, or are other factors equally or even more important? Can an Amalekite lose the status of "Amalek," and no longer be identified as evil?

The simplest way to change one's indentity is through conversion. Judaism recognizes the possibility that an individual born to a different faith may join the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The prototypical example is Ruth, who was born a Moabite, yet changed her national identity and became a Jew.


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But is conversion an option for an Amalekite? The Mechilta which discusses this question seems direct and unequivocal:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: "God swore by His throne of glory, 'If converts come from any nation they will be accepted, but from the progeny of Amalek and his household they will not be accepted.'" (Mechilta, end of B'shalach. Also see Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tezta 11, P'sikta D'rav Kahana 3)

The option of conversion is open for all nations and peoples, with the exception of Amalek, who can never join the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Gemara in a number of places relates that descendants of Haman, who was a prominent member of the Amalek family, did in fact join the Jewish people.

A Tanna taught: "Naaman was a resident alien; Nebuzaradan was a righteous proselyte; descendants of Haman learned Torah in B'nai Brak; descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem; descendants of Sanncherib gave public expositions of the Torah." (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b)

If a descendant of Amalak cannot convert, how can the Gemara declare that these Amalekites learned Torah, in a way which indicates their having joined the Jewish people?


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A careful reading of Maimonides' "Mishna Torah," indicates that Maimonides was of the opinion that a person from Amalek may, in fact, convert to Judaism. Apparently, he preferred the tradition recorded in the Babylonian Talmud to the explicit dictum in the Mechilta. Maimonides writes:

All non-Jews when they convert and accept all the commandments ... are like Jews for all matters ... except the four nations exclusively (who cannot convert) and they are Amon, Moab, Egypt, and Edom. These nations, when they convert, are Jews for all matters with the exception of joining the community in marriage. (Mishna Torah Issuri Biah 12:17).

The inference seems quite clear: the option of conversion is open to the erstwhile Amalekite. Furthermore, Maimonides mentions a second possibility for an Amalekite to lose the status of Amalek without entering the fold of Judaism.

Maimonides (in "Laws of Kings" 6:4) describes the etiquette of war, and says that prior to battle the opposing side should be offered the possibility to accept the commandments and subjugation. This offer is also extended to Amalek. Apparently, when Amalekites accept the seven Noachide laws, they lose the status of Amalek and must no longer be obliterated. In other words, there are three possibilities for an individual born of Amalekian blood:


  1. Maintaining his initial status of Amalekite and thus being slated for obliteration.



  2. Accepting the seven Noachide laws, at which point his status becomes that of a righteous gentile.



  3. Full-fledged conversion.


It is important to consider the other side of this coin: Can a person become an "Amalakite"?


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According to Rav Chaim Solovietchik's understanding of Maimonides, the answer is affirmative. When describing the obligation to eradicate the seven nations who occupied the Land of Israel at the time of Joshua's conquest, Maimonides writes that by his time they had already assimilated among the nations, and therefore this commandment cannot be fulfilled. The source for this teaching is a tradition cited in the Talmud:

Said Rabban Gamaliel to him: "Is it not already laid down, 'An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord'?"

Rabbi Joshua replied to him: "Do Ammon and Moab still reside in their original homes? Sancherev King of Assyria long ago went up and mixed up all the nations, as it says, 'I have removed the bounds of the peoples and have robbed their treasures and have brought down as a mighty one their inhabitants.' And whatever strays [from a group] is assumed to belong to the larger section of the group." (Brachot 28a)

On the other hand, in the very next law, Maimonides writes of the obligation to destroy Amalek. Here he leaves out this important caveat. For some reason Maimonides believes that the identities of the seven nations have disappeared due to the policy of massive population transfers employed by Sancherev, yet Amalek lives as a distinct, identifiable entity!

Rav Chaim explained that Amalek is therefore a conceptual category and not merely an historical reality. One who behaves as an Amalekite can achieve the status of Amalek. Rav Chaim's grandson, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, applied this teaching to the Nazis who adopted an Amalakian worldview, unfortunately with more success than the historical Amalekites.


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What we have, then, is a more complex formula than was originally assumed. Someone born an Amalekite can, through his actions, lose his Amalekian status, and someone born to any other nation -- perhaps even to the nation of Israel -- can achieve the status of Amalek.

The only Amalekite who is to be killed is the individual who adheres to the teachings of his ancestors.

Thus the original "racist" complexion of the law seems to have dissipated upon analysis. The only Amalekite who is to be killed is the individual who adheres to the teachings of his ancestors (even the presumption that an Amalekite remains true to the Amalekite belief system suffices to warrant execution). Upon acceptance of at least the Noachide laws, this status changes.

The tradition that former Amalekites studied Torah in B'nai Brak has a fascinating post-script. Who is referred to in this passage?

The Ein Ya'akov cites a tradition that the person referred to was Rav Shumel bar Shilat. Other sources identify the descendant with B'nai Brak's most famous citizen, none other than Rabbi Akiva! We know that Rabbi Akiva lived in B'nai Brak from a celebrated passage in the Haggada of Pesach. The Talmud also tells us that B'nei Brak was the home of Rabbi Akiva:

Justice, justice shalt you pursue. This means: "Follow the scholars to their academies. For example, Rabbi Eliezer to Lydda, Rabbi Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hail, Rabbi Yehoshua to Peki'in, Rabban Gamaliel [II] to Yavneh, Rabbi Akiva to B'nai Brak." (Sanhedrin 32b)

We also know that Rabbi Akiva was either himself a convert or a child of converts:

We can hardly appoint Rabbi Akiva because perhaps Rabban Gamaliel will bring a curse on him because he has no ancestral merit. (Brachot 27b. See comments of Rav Nissim Gaon.)

Based on the combination of these sources, there are many that understand that the descendant of Haman who learned and taught Torah in B'nai Brak was, in fact, Rabbi Akiva.


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There is a certain poetic justice in members of Amalek casting their lot with the Jewish people, converting and following the word of God. The Talmud describes the origin of the tribe of Amalek in a conversion that didn't happen:

But the soul that does nothing presumptuously. This refers to Menasheh the Son of Hizkiyahu, who examined [Biblical] narratives to prove them worthless. Thus, he jeered, had Moses nothing to write but, And Lotan's sister was Timna, And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz ... Apropos, what is the purpose of [writing], And Lotan's sister was Timna?

Timna was a royal princess ... desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, "I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation." From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her. (Sanhedrin 99b)

Timna was an aristocratic woman who wished to join the Jewish people. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rejected her. She chose what seemed to her the next best thing, and joined Esau, reasoning that Esau was from the same family. Timna's union with Esau's son is thus reminiscent of the Midrashic accounts of Hagar's relationship with Abraham: She, too, was a descendent of royalty. Evidently, our forefathers felt that Timna should not be accepted into the fold; perhaps they sensed that Amalek would emerge from her. The Talmud, though, concludes that had they accepted her, Amalek would never have emerged.

Our observations began with the stipulation that the Torah portion regarding Amalek is one of the most important of the yearly cycle, and that we are enjoined from generation to generation to wipe out the nefarious memory of our arch-enemy. At this point, we have come to appreciate another option the Torah offers for "wiping out the memory of Amalek": teach them Torah and correct the mistake and injustice perpetrated against Timna long ago.

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