Confronting the Legacy of Amalek

The figure of Amalek has been a violent presence in the Jewish psyche for millennia. Jewish writers have used the label Amalek, as well as Esau and Edom, as an “othering” mechanism meant to justify violence, real or symbolic, towards perceived “others.”

Amalek in the Hebrew Bible

Most depictions in the Hebrew Bible present Amalek as the preeminent and irreconcilable enemy of Israel. Amalek’s army attacks the defenseless Israelites as they march through the wilderness, to which YHVH responds: “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven … . The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:8-16.).

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 recounts the episode and provides information about the nature of Amalek’s assault on the Israelites in the wilderness:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.

Deuteronomy is indicative of the way the Amalekites are treated throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible — that is, with vitriol — and this commandment becomes the ultimate justification for eternal scorn.

Amalek’s legacy continued to affect the Israelites when King Saul captured the Amalekite King Agag in 1 Samuel 15. The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to destroy Agag, and all the Amalekites and their cattle, but the king spared Agag and his flocks. The insubordination led to Saul’s downfall as king and the continuation of the Amalekite line in the form of Haman, the genocidal antagonist in the book of Esther. Esther 3:1 describes Haman as the son of Hammedata the Agagite, an Amalekite. Haman served in the Persian King Ahasuerus’ court and became enraged when Mordechai, a Jew, refused to bow to him. Haman’s response was to ask the king for permission to kill the entire Jewish community in Persia. The climax of the book comes as Ahasuerus’ wife, Queen Esther, who was herself a Jew and Mordechai’s niece, reveals Haman’s plot to kill her and her people. The “evil Haman,” the “enemy of the Jews,” was then hanged. Jews then killed Haman’s 10 sons, as well as 75,000 of their enemies. Amalek’s representation as the character Haman has had the most enduring effect on the Jewish consciousness up to today.

Amalek in Post-Biblical Jewish Literature 

In the Second Temple period, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran identify Amalek as one of the Sons of Darkness that will be utterly destroyed by the Sons of Light in the climactic battle at the end of time.

There were three Jewish Revolts in the first and second centuries C.E. that dramatically changed the way Jews wrote about “others” in general, and Amalek in particular. Jews did not fare well in any of the revolts, but the carnage that resulted from the third revolt — the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 C.E. — functioned as a particular watershed moment. The Babylonian Talmud describes the destruction of Betar, the last standing fortress held by the Jewish rebels:

Rabbi Zeira says that Rabbi Abbahu says that Rabbi Yohanan says: These are the eighty thousand officers bearing battle trumpets in their hands, who entered the city of Beitar when the enemy took it and killed men, women, and children until their blood flowed into the Great Sea (b. Gittin 57a).

The rabbis were haunted by the violence visited upon the Jews after the revolt. Only a small remnant of native Judeans survived the trauma in exile, and the Judean Jewish community never recovered. The rabbis understood the successive revolts and their aftermath as a lesson: Jews should engage their inherited tradition by pacifying it. Late Tannaitic and Amoraic rabbis worked to de-escalate the violent tendencies found in Jewish texts and memory that they believed fueled the revolts.

In contrast to the Qumranites, the rabbis relinquished human agency towards Amalek and relegated violence towards him to the Divine realm. Rabbinic literature explains that it is not for Jews to fight Amalek because God will exercise vengeance in the “Age to Come,” as the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael explains: “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 effect is that the rabbinic Amalek tradition can be seen as pacifistic in a practical sense, despite the objectively violent base text from which the rabbis draw. Rabbinic literature thus provides an “out” for later interpreters.

A question remains as to what made Amalek worthy of remaining a potent symbol in rabbinic literature at all. The rabbis clearly understood Amalek to be a character that needed to be engaged and defused, rather than ignored, but why? It appears that Amalek functioned as a sort of pressure-release valve to respond to the continued oppression and subjugation of the Jews under foreign hegemony. This pressure-release valve still exists today in the halakhic, ritualized traditions surrounding Purim. Rather than seeking out and destroying a literal Amalek, Jews “blot out” the memory of Amalek by reading Parashat Zakhor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) on the Saturday preceding Purim, and then by reading the book of Esther while shouting down Haman’s name on Purim. It is through reading that Jews fulfill the commandment to kill Amalek in every generation. By reciting Parashat Zakhor and Esther (thereby ritually killing Amalek over and over), Jews release pressure and thrust cultural animus towards hegemonic powers onto Amalek. Amalek, therefore survives, to this day, as an abstract symbol for the pain and suffering that Jews have endured under gentile hegemony.

Amalek in Contemporary ‘Halakhah’

Amalek therefore remains a part of halakhah. And while the rabbis had worked to make it so that fighting Amalek was relegated to the Divine realm, there are those who argue for its continued existence in the terrestrial realm. The justification is based on a reading of Maimonides’ milhamot mitzvah (“wars of obligation”), which he defines in three ways: the war against the seven nations that occupied the Land of Israel; the war against Amalek; and the war fought against a nation that attacks Israel. These are wars that Jews are required to fight, Significantly, Maimonides states that the memory of the seven nations “has long been perished” (and therefore the commandment to war against them is inoperative). Maimonides does not explicitly repeat the clause “has long been perished” in the following paragraph when discussing Amalek.

Maimonides’ failure to plainly quash the ongoing existence of Amalek along with the seven nations left a door open to later interpretations that assigned Amalek a contemporary identity. Most notably, the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty took the omission in Maimonides’ discussion of Amalek seriously, with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik concluding: “It would appear from Maimonides’ statements that Amalek is still in existence, while the Seven Nations have descended into the abyss of oblivion.”(1) Amalek therefore continues to live on “from generation to generation,” with the most obvious example being the Nazis. In a speech at Yeshiva University that seemed to anticipate the final, dark turn in contemporary understandings of Amalek under extremist ideology, J. Soloveitchik also equated Arab violence towards Israel with Amalek:

“The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16) does not only translate into the communal exercise of waging obligatory war against a specific race, but includes as well the obligation to rise up as a community against any people or group that, filled with maniacal hatred, directs its enmity against Keneset Israel … . In the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis, with Hitler at their head, filled this role. They were the Amalekites, the standard-bearers of insane hatred and enmity during the era just past. Today their place has been taken over by the mobs of Nasser and the Mufti.

It is impossible to overstate the impact that the Soloveitchik family, and especially Joseph Soloveitchik, exerted over Jewish Orthodoxy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and his connection between Amalek and contemporary Arabs has spread among Jewish extremists.

Amalek in Extremist Discourse

On Feb. 25, 1994, an American-born physician named Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians and injured more than others 100 with an assault rifle as they prayed during Ramadan, which overlapped that day with Purim. According to the political scientist Ian Lustick: “By mowing down Arabs he believed wanted to kill Jews, Goldstein was re-enacting part of the Purim story.” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin condemned the attack, calling it a “loathsome, criminal act of murder,” and the Israeli government opened an official inquiry to investigate the massacre. But while many Israelis criticized Goldstein’s actions, a sizable contingent of Jewish extremists celebrated the carnage. Goldstein’s grave was embossed with the inscription, “a martyr murdered in sanctifying God’s name … gave his soul for the people of Israel,” and his tomb has become a shrine and pilgrimage site for militant Jews.

Baruch Goldstein was a close friend and student of the American-born, Israeli ultra-nationalist politician Meir Kahane, whose followers are known collectively as Kahanists. Kahane, an Orthodox rabbi, was a convicted domestic terrorist in the United States due to his activities as founder and ideological leader of the right-wing terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League. Kahane eventually immigrated to Israel, where he founded his own political party, Kach, and secured a seat in the Knesset in the 1984 election. There, he argued that Democracy and Judaism were incompatible, and that the State of Israel should be a Jewish, theocratic state that excluded gentiles. Kahane also openly advocated for violence against non-Jews, suggesting that anyone who is hostile towards Jews can be Amalek:

Amalek’s sin is the waging of brazen warfare against G-d, as they did when Israel left Egypt. Yet when any other nation, as well, curses and fights G-d, Amalek’s sin clings to them and they become like Amalek. Thus, although Amalek, the nation, did not destroy Jerusalem, our sages say that Jerusalem’s destruction constituted Amalek attacking G-d’s throne. This teaches that whoever attacks G-d’s throne is called Amalek. We must understand and remember this principle for our own times. (2)

Kahane thus used Amalek as Israel’s eternal antagonist in order to cloak any perceived enemy throughout Jewish history and to reflect one common, mythical struggle against an evil other. According to Kahane, Jews and gentiles are so fundamentally different that they “constitute two completely separate species,” with Arabs functioning as the gentile par excellence.

Kahane was assassinated in 1990, but Kahanism and its Amalek ideology remain alive and well today. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the former youth coordinator for Kach, now serves in the Israeli Knesset coalition as the Minister of National Security under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A notable fact about Ben-Gvir, beyond his Kahanist background and powerful position, is that he is known to have a portrait of Baruch Goldstein displayed prominently in his living room.

Kahanists have also found success establishing NGOs such as Lehava, an anti-miscegenation nonprofit. Started by Kahane protégé Ben Zion Gopstein, Lehava boasts 10,000 members that operate as patrols to “defend” Jewish women from Arabs and run a hotline to report Jews in interfaith relationships. In addition, Lehava regularly organizes anti-Arab pogroms in which Israelis march through East Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs.” Group text messages among the organizers, whose administrators include Ben-Gvir, have openly expressed violent intent: “We’re burning Arabs today, the Molotov cocktails are already in the trunk.” Kahanist ideology has thus seeped into the Israeli zeitgeist, with Amalek playing a key role in inciting violence towards Palestinians. And while Kahanism represents a minority of Jewish political beliefs, it is a powerful and dangerous minority that uses mainstream precedent regarding Amalek to violently other Palestinians.

Addressing This Challenge

Amalek thus continues to be a compelling figure for Jews to engage. An obvious question remains: What can Jews do to address the interpretations of Amalek that lead to violence? One might suggest eliminating Amalek from our catalog of traditions from which to draw, but I do not believe that is realistic. Jews have spent millennia interacting with Amalek, and Jews today who observe halakhah attend services for Shabbat Zakhor on the Shabbat preceding Purim and read the biblical passages quoted above. Amalek will simply not be eliminated from Jewish consciousness.

Instead, I suggest that rabbis, Jewish lay leaders and educators actively engage Amalek to promote a self-reflective and introspective reading. The Israeli philosopher Avi Sagi describes this attitude as a symbolic approach to Amalek. He explains that such a reading separates the motif from the sort of reading that leads to the identification of contemporary enemies with Amalek. A symbolic, introspective reading of Amalek can reframe Amalek as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination within us. Such a reading is not foreign to historical Judaism. The Zohar (3:160a) explains that the Amalekites represent “the evil impulse, the accuser, denouncing a person, always present in the body.”

In my doctoral dissertation, I offered a post-colonial reading of the Amalek motif influenced by the Jewish intellectuals Emmanuel Levinas, Isaac Deutcher, Hannah Arendt, Albert Memmi and Santiago Slabodsky to model how Jews can actively make the moral choice to reorient the tradition towards a shared sense of solidarity, and ultimately, liberation. According to Slabodsky, for the majority of the modern period, Jews — along with Muslim, African, Latinx, and Native peoples — were considered “barbarians.” It was only during the 20th century that (some) Jews were able to shed their identity as “non-Westerners”’ and become “civilized,” while the majority of “barbarians” remained classified as such.

For Slabodsky, however, this shared identity as barbarians remains poignant, and can form “the basis for a potential epistemological alliance.” The reading I advocate is that Amalek is our inclination to try to separate ourselves, the Jews, from other historically oppressed people and to instead align ourselves with power. In the end, the development of the Amalek motif highlights the fact that Judaism is ambivalent with regard to whether the tradition justifies violence or peace. It is therefore up to Jews to decide whether they want to use their religion to promote peace or violence, and then advocate for either.


  1. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the Voice of my Beloved that Knocketh,” trans. Lawrence Kaplan in Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust, ed. Bernard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992), 116. This essay was originally delivered as a public address at Yeshiva University in New York City on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, 1956;
  2. Rabbi Meir Kahane. Or Hara’ayon = The Jewish Idea, Volume 1. 3rd edition. Jerusalem: Institute for Publication of the Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, 1996. p. 293

 

Endnotes:

Ian Lustick. For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. New York, N.Y.: Council on Foreign Relations, 1988.

Elliott Horowitz. Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Shaul Magid. Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Santiago Slabodsky. Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Adam Strater, Confronting the Legacies of Esau and Amalek: Historical Criticism. Jewish Extremist Violence, and Decolonial Judaism, Doctoral Dissertation, Emory University, 2022.

Watch the Web Conversation with Adam Strater & Rabbi Jacob Staub

3 Responses

  1. The reading I advocate is that Amalek is our inclination to try to separate ourselves, the Jews, from other historically oppressed people and to instead align ourselves with power. agreed

    A symbolic, introspective reading of Amalek can reframe Amalek as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination within us. Such a reading is not foreign to historical Judaism. The Zohar (3:160a) explains that the Amalekites represent “the evil impulse, the accuser, denouncing a person, always present in the body.” agreed

  2. I agree with (almost) Rabbi Strater that “Amalek” is very much a part of our Jewish tradition and that we cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. And I agree that we must act in solidarity with oppressed peoples. But (thankfully) we are no longer an oppressed people. We have (thankfully) become a relatively empowered people.

    One of the strengths of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism is that we do not shy away from rejecting parts of our tradition that are incompatible with our core values. We must acknowledge that “Amalek” and the revenge fantasy aspect of Purim have been blights within our tradition and aspects of our tradition that we utterly reject. Rather than contorting ourselves to purposely misinterpret and “cleanse” this part of our tradition, we must acknowledge that it exists, that it is a blight, and that we reject it.

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