Dvar Torah: On Amalek and how we read Torah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 February 2013

How do we read Torah?
It is the fundamental question – the one that defines us as Jews, as people.

Classically, Torah was understood as min hashamayim, from heaven – a unified work given in one moment by God to Moses.  In the metaphor of Maimonides, Moses wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation.

It is a view that shaped the whole of Jewish life – out of which came the beauty of midrash – the creative interpretation of Torah – where every letter every vowel carries meaning – contains values, ideas, and potentially law – because every letter carries not just purpose but divine purpose.
Our task as human beings is to try to see it.  And the ancient rabbis revelled in the task in an intellectual exercise unparalleled in literary history.

But as well as inspiring such creativity, reading Torah min hashamayim also closes us down.
It takes away our ability to privilege one law over another, one section of text over another – to say that this carries greater sanctity than that – to acknowledge that some parts are so problematic that, as John Rayner put it, to ascribe them to God is a chillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name.
And Torah Min Hashamayim steals from us the possibility of authors – other than the big author with a capital A – and with those human authors the possibility of different ideology, different values, different theologies, different purpose.

This morning is an example of why the reclaiming of authors for the text by our forefathers in Progressive Jewish thought was so important. Because without it we cannot really understand the text.
Compare the two versions of the story of Amalek in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
In this morning’s second scroll we are told that Amalek was the archetype of evil – he picked the weak Israelites off from the back because he acted without fear of God.
But that is not the story as we read it in Exodus where Amalek and Joshua clash in a set-piece battle, one in which Israel prevail only when Moses’ hands are raised over the battlefield with the help of Aaron and Hur.

Why the difference?
For Torah Min HaShamayim, there is no difference – one is merely the extension of the other.  The contradiction cannot exist.But that is hardly a worthy reading of the text.
But when we allow ourselves authors, we can see that the Torah is exploring different ideas.

In Exodus the battle with Amalek is not about Israel’s vulnerability, but its power – and the importance of the divine relationship.  The message is that when God is with Israel – the metaphor of Moses’ raised hands – Israel is powerful.  Joshua represents human action, Moses represents God’s involvement.  And without the latter there is no success.
It is a statement of chosenness, of the special divine providence for Israel.  And it comes to emphasise God’s redemptive power – that Exodus was not the end, that a people outside the land were still protected.  Indeed, by the end, we are told that God is at war with Israel’s enemy – human beings have disappeared from the picture.

In Deuteronomy the message is different.  Here the Torah, in its own narrative way, is exploring where evil, where wrongdoing, comes from.  The retelling of Amalek is history used for a purpose – it comes to tell us not about God’s power but about us – about what happens when we do not fear God.  And hence it is brought not in the section of Deuteronomy that deals with Israel’s enemies but in a section of law.  As my teacher Diana Lipton taught, Amalek is transformed from external enemy to internal danger.  To a people now safe in the land, the real threat is not from their enemies but from themselves.
And so, too, we can resolve the challenge of the blotting out of Amalek.  Not as a real slaying of an enemy, not as an instruction to genocide – but the blotting out of Amalek within us – as the possibility of evil.

We can see all this only when we recognise the possibility of authorship.
Torah Min HaShamayim actually does the Torah a disservice because it stops us reading it for the extraordinarily layered and polyvocal text that it is – it stops us from recognising that Torah was written by ancestors who had a shared story and were creative with it – not interested in defining rigid truths, not setting out some linear accurate history, not only prescribing law

Our wonderful, creative ancestors were doing something even more amazing – they were also exploring ideas.