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Amalek: The First Postmodern Ideology

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Dov Karoll


God has sworn that He will have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Shemot 17:16).

In the reading of Shabbat Zakhor, the Torah uses the word "karekha" ("met you" - Devarim 25:18) to describe Amalek's encounter with the Israelites. The Maharal connects this word to "mikreh," chance, and explains that Amalek represents the ideology that everything in the world takes place by chance; there is no sense, order or plan to the world. Whatever you suggest or believe, the opposite is also possible and feasible. There are no absolutes, no standards.

The Torah's decree that all Amalekites need to be destroyed applies only to those Amalekites who adhere to this ideology. The Rambam rules that battle is only waged against Amalekites who have not accepted the Noachide laws (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:4, as interpreted by the Kesef Mishneh s.v. aval). If an Amalekite rids himself of this ideology, he is no longer deserving of death, and is to be treated like any other person.

It is important to realize that Amalek in the technical sense no longer exists, for the Gemara teaches, "Sancheriv king of Assyria long ago came and mixed up all the nations" (Berakhot 28a). Therefore, the formal mitzva no longer applies. Nevertheless, the ideology of Amalek persists, and it is represented today by postmodernism. This ideology maintains that there are no objective standards, everything is acceptable, and nothing is out of bounds.

We sometimes encounter these claims today with regard to religious pluralism. While we are open to different approaches, and we are not afraid of interaction, we need to recognize that not everything is acceptable. Some things are out of bounds, some things are invalid, and we must come out against them.

This is not to say that we do not try to understand people, to recognize where they are coming from and what they are suggesting. But it is saying that we need to realize that some things are so basic that they are not negotiable or open to debate. Even if we understand, appreciate and work with other groups, this does not mean that we accept their doctrines as viable alternatives.

The Zohar (Bereishit, Hashmatot, page 254b) on Parashat Noach tells us that after Noach exited the ark following the flood, he broke down crying, turned to God and asked God why He had destroyed the entire world rather than showing mercy upon them. God responds:

Your foolish shepherd! Now you say this? Why did you not say this earlier? … All the warnings I gave you were meant to prompt you to ask for compassion upon humanity, yet it never crossed your mind to pray for your fellows. And now that I have destroyed the world, you open your mouth to bring requests for mercy before Me?

The Zohar then cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who asks why Noach indeed did not pray. He answers that Noach was afraid that if he prayed for the others, he might not be saved himself.

In order to pray on someone's behalf, you need to understand where they are coming from, why they are the way they are. You need to have compassion on them, for the fact that they were brought up the way they were, and for all the mitigating circumstances that led to the way they turned out. Noach was afraid that if he would try to understand the people, he would be caught up in their culture. The Charedi world largely takes this approach. We strive to take the approach advocated by God in that passage from the Zohar, to strive to understand our fellow Jews, to pray on their behalf. We need to have compassion on people who were not privileged to be raised in a religious environment, or whatever other circumstances led to their difficulties.

The Amalek approach is to consider every possibility as equally legitimate, to allow every value, along with its inverse, equal weight. We believe in absolutes, in good and evil, in making distinctions. There is one thing for which I give the current US president credit. He speaks of "evil" and not merely of the "enemy." He calls terrorism wicked, and calls for its destruction on objective grounds, rather than speaking in purely subjective terms.

We believe there is meaning in the world, and therefore oppose the ideology of Amalek even when it dresses in religious garb – for example, the claim that everything in the world is the way it is simply because God arbitrarily and randomly decided it should be that way. This kind of approach denies the world reason and meaningfulness, and while it presents itself as "religious," it is actually the opposite.

Yet the fact that the world is meaningful does not mean that one can fully understand it rationally. Today people recognize that the mystery of the world cannot be solved fully through rational means. Neither faith nor apostasy can be proven in a laboratory, so each remains a belief based on equivocal evidence. The person who lacks faith has also reached a conclusion based on objective doubt. Nevertheless, God has "planted" within us a feeling of faith that does not demand proof.

In the Middle Ages, the Rambam and others provided objective proofs for the existence of God. In our day, some people try to provide objective proof from Bible Codes and the like. I do not engage in this, for it is not the tradition we have inherited from our forefathers, and our great commentators did not deal with things like this. Furthermore, some claim you can apply these codes equally to other books, and that you can establish all sorts of ridiculous things through them.

Regarding the creation of the world, I do not even understand the meaning of the terms "tohu" and "vohu." All I know is that God created the world with direction, giving it a purpose.

We need to give thanks to God for the fact that He provided us with the feeling of faith, and we need to have compassion on those who were not granted this gift. We need to pray for them, learning from Noach's mistake.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Vayikra-Zakhor 5763 (2003).]