Yom HaShoah and Amalek

One of the nice things about being essentially skeptical is that I don’t take a prooftext as a definitive answer. One of the bad things about being essentially skeptical is that when a prooftext is adduced as a definitive answer, I sometimes want to hit my head on a desk.

Unfortunately, prooftexts on Yom HaShoah turn out to be no exception.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the various competing theological efforts to grapple with the Holocaust. Whether you take the Haredi approach that the Holocaust was punishment for mass assimilation and apostasy, or an essentially secular approach that says there was never any god acting meaningfully in the world, and the Holocaust is just another example of that, I want you to set that aside for the moment.

I want, instead, to focus on this:

Koren Publishers - Amalek image

This was posted by Koren Publishers on Facebook, and I did a screen capture of this from my Facebook feed. The text reads, “And this [promise] is what has stood by ancestors and us; for it was not only one man who rose up to destroy us: in every single generations people rise up to destroy us – but the Holy One saves us from our hands.” The Hebrew immediately after reads “ve’hi she’amdah la’avoteinu ve’lanu”–the first few words of the English paragraph; these come from the Passover Hagaddah. The image below that shows a yellow star emblazoned with the Hebrew word “Zakhor” – the command to remember – rather than the German “Jude” that would have appeared on many Jews captive in Nazi territories, and some barbed wire. Superimposed on the image is the Hebrew phrase, “Zakhor et asher asah le’kha Amalek,” the Biblical command to “Remember what Amalek did to you” from Deuteronomy 25:17.

What’s my problem? Here’s what all of this says when put together: the Nazis and their collaborators were just another in a line of persecutors that runs all the way back to Amalek. There’s a way of reading Jewish history that would support this; I’m not interested in historiography here, though I tend to be a more happy warrior than the lachrymose folks.

But the Amalek part. That says something more. For two verses later, this command issues: “And when the Lord your God has brought you rest from all of your enemies around you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens–do not forget!” (Deut. 25:19; emphasis is mine, of course.)

So, to sum up: the Nazis are just another form of the many persecutors of the Jewish people over the years, all of whom are Amalek and whose memory should be blotted out. And biblical texts make a point of saying that Amalek should be physically wiped out: after all, in the episode with the witch at Endor, Samuel’s summoned spirit told Saul that he was being punished because he failed to destroy Amalek. (1 Sam. 28:18.)

This, then, is the problem: we find routine uses of really very frightening language about non-Jews as part of a routine posting from a basically non-Haredi publisher, and that language is used on one of the saddest days of the Jewish year. I appreciate the “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” mentality of Jewish holidays to some degree; “let’s kill them back” is more troubling. I recognize that commentators have said that peaceful means must be used first, or that the commandment cannot be applied practically (As quick reference, see the “Ethical Issues” section of the Wikipedia article on Amalek.) I also recognize the tradition of identifying Amalek with the enemy of the Jewish people du-jour, at least as one or another community views its enemies.

But this is really a frightening identification, with potentially dangerous consequences in the current Middle East setting. It is also language that should concern anyone genuinely interested in interfaith dialogue.

Most terrible of all, however, is the basic denial of humanity that comes with identifying someone–anyone–with Amalek.

On Yom HaShoah, we are called upon not to forget. We ought not blot out memory, and we ought not use rhetoric that suggests any people should be blotted out. Doing so is an especially terrible irony on such a day as this.

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2 thoughts on “Yom HaShoah and Amalek

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