Purim and Amalek: Bible as Propaganda

We are approaching Purim, a holiday we associate with laughter, with turning authority on its head, with upending power, with the mirth that comes from contrasting the ridiculous with the sublime.

But the text we read in celebration, the Book of Esther, is not without its darker aspects. One is its reliance on the Amalek narrative.

Haman, after all, is the descendant of King Agag, himself descendant of the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites as they fled Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16). During Purim, we blot out Haman’s memory (often by rubbing out his name), symbolically enacting the commandment in Deuteronomy 25:19: “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget.” On Shabbat Zachor, just before Purim, we read this passage in synagogue.

Deuteronomy appears to command the Israelites to destroy an entire people, to commit genocide, in fact.

Or not?

Rabbinic tradition has repeatedly addressed this question, often with surprising results.

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael insists that Jews themselves should not be engaging in a battle against Amalek. Quoting Exodus 17:14-16, in which YHVH himself says he will blot out Amalek, the Mekhilta states: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit upon the throne of His kingdom and His reign will prevail, at that time ‘the Lord will have war with Amalek.’” The responsibility for genocide is conveniently left to God.

A midrash in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana suggests that Amalek’s attack was punishment for unethical behavior on the part of the Israelites. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance. In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.

In Tractate Yoma (22b), the rabbis imagine Saul directly questioning YHVH’s command to blot out Amalek:

Saul countered and said: Now, if on account of one life that is taken, in a case where a slain person’s body is found and the murderer is unknown, the Torah said to bring a heifer whose neck is broken to a barren valley, in the atonement ritual described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9, all the more so must I have pity and not take all these Amalekite lives. And he further reasoned: If the men have sinned, in what way have the animals sinned? Why, then, should the Amalekites’ livestock be destroyed? And if the adults have sinned, in what way have the children sinned?

Saul argues with God just as Abraham argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–33). He loses, as we might expect. “A Divine Voice then came forth and said to him: ‘Do not be overly righteous’” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). Still, protest is articulated.

As it should be: we may not accept any command blindly if we hope to live an ethical life.

In the past many decades, the Amalek narrative has become a propaganda tool in the hands of Jewish leaders: Joseph Soloveitchik equated the Arab world with Amalek. Meir Kahane repeatedly used the Amalek trope to construct an endless battle between Jews and the evil Other, whom he defined as gentiles and Arabs. In 1980, Rabbi Israel Hess published an article entitled “Genocide: A Commandment of the Torah” in which he asserted that the Palestinians deserved the fate of Amalek. The battle ahead, he claimed, would ensure “racial purity.”

Israeli extremists have regularly repeated and amplified such statements.

In our time, Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly invoked Amalek. And what are we now witnessing? The destruction of Gaza and the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. One in six Palestinian children under the age of two is at risk of dying of starvation.

Could we ask with Saul: Hamas has committed an unimaginable horror. And… how do Palestinian children, women, elderly – civilians, in fact – deserve to be killed en masse as a consequence? Why are holy sites and heritage sites demolished? Animal life destroyed? How is it that families are made to subsist on one meal a day and children left to starve? How do children with burns all over their bodies deserve a world in which they have nothing more than two aspirins for their pain? How have doctors deserved conditions in which they must decide who shall live and who shall die because medical resources have been decimated?

In Esther 9:13, Esther asks for a second day to attack the Persians; 75,000 are slaughtered as a result. When members of my community read this verse, they are appalled. Every year we struggle with this awful depiction of wholesale, overwhelming slaughter.

This Shabbat Zachor and this Purim, can we ask as many in our tradition have: May biblical texts ever be used to justify the decimation of a people?

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