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Parshat Zachor 5759

Rabbi Ari Kahn

"Amalek: a Question of Race?"


This week we read the portion of the Torah that 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 G-d at Sinai. Therefore, many Jews sense
a difficulty with the commandment to destroy Amalek. I have heard
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quoted on this paradox: 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. The Torah had to command us
to wipe out Amalek, who are identified with the epitome of evil,
because in other circumstances the Torah prohibits the taking of
life.

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: What is the proper treatment of an
Amalekite who converts to Judaism? Are they, because of their
birth, still slated for annihilation, or is their new identity the deciding
factor? Is the issue a purely racial question, of are other factors
equally or even more important?

Can an Amalekite lose the status of "Amalek", together with all


"rights and privileges"? More generally, how can someone change
their status, their identity? The simplest model would be via
conversion. Judaism recognizes the possibility that an individual
born to a different faith may join the children of Avraham, Yitzchak
and Ya'akov. The prototypical example is Ruth, who was born a
Moavite, yet changed her national identity and became a Jew. Is
conversion an option for an Amalekite? The Mechilta which
discusses this question seems direct and unequivocal:

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It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: G-d 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 can not convert, how can the Gemara


declare that they learned Torah, in a way which indicates their
having joined the Jewish people?

A careful reading of the Rambam, in his legal magnum opus the


Mishna Torah, indicates that the Rambam's opinion was that a
person from Amalek may, in fact, convert to Judaism. Apparently,
the Rambam preferred the tradition recorded in the Bavli to the
explicit dictum in the Mechilta. The Rambam writes:

All non Jews when they convert and accept all the
commandments…are like Jews for all matters,… except the
four nations exclusively[bilvad] (who can not convert) and
they are Amon, Moav, 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, the Rambam mentions a
second possibility for an Amalekite to lose the status of Amalek
without entering the fold of Judaism:

The Rambam (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 Amalek accepts the
seven Noachide laws, they lose the status of Amalek and must no
longer be obliterated. In other words, there are three possibilities for

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an individual born of Amalekian blood: maintaining his initial status
of Amalekite and thus being slated for obliteration; accepting the
seven Noachide laws, at which point his status becomes that of a
righteous gentile; and full-fledged conversion.

It is important to consider the other side of this coin: Can a person


become an "Amalakite"? According to Rav Chaim Solovietchik's
understanding of the Rambam, 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, the
Rambam writes that they have already assimilated among the
nations, and therefore this commandment can not 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 Moavite shall not enter into the assembly of
the Lord'? R. Joshua replied to him: Do Ammon and Moav 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 one mighty 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, the Rambam writes of the
obligation to destroy Amalek. Here the Rambam leaves out this
important caveat. For some reason the Rambam 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.

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 Jewish- can achieve the status of Amalek. 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.

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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:

Our Rabbis taught: 'Justice, justice shalt you pursue.’ This


means, Follow the scholars to their academies. e.g.. R. Eliezer
to Lydda, R. Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hail, R. Yehoshua to
Peki'in, Rabban Gamaliel [II] to Yavneh, R. 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 R. 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.

There is a certain poetic justice in members of Amalek casting their


lot with the Jewish People, converting and following the word of G-d.
The Talmud describes the origin of the tribe of Amalek in a
conversion that didn't happen:

Our Rabbis taught: "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, as it
is written, 'alluf [duke] Lotan, alluf [duke] Timna'; and by
‘alluf’ an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a
proselyte, she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acob, but
they did not accept her. So she went and became a
concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esav, 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)

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Timna was an aristocratic woman who wished to join the Jewish
People. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov rejected her. She chose what
seemed to her the next best thing, and joined Esav, reasoning that
Esav was from the same family. Timna's union with Esav is thus
reminiscent of the midrashic accounts of Hagar's relationship with
Avraham: She, too, was a descendent of royalty. Evidently, the "Beit
Din" of 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.

© 1998 Rabbi Ari Kahn, All Rights Reserved