Dvar Torah – Amalek and who we can be (Kollot)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 28 February 2015

The Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, an early midrash on the Book of Exodus tells us:
It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: “God swore by the divine throne of glory, ‘If converts come from any nation they will be accepted, but from the progeny of Amalek and his household they may not be accepted”.
Meanwhile, we find the following tradition in a couple of places in the Babylonian Talmud:
Mi-b’nei banav shel Haman limdu Torah bivnei barak
Descendants of Haman taught Torah at Bnei Barak

How can this be?  How can we reconcile a tradition that says that descendants of Amalek can never join the Jewish people with one that says that descendants of Haman – the Amalekite par excellence – in blood, and in behaviour – taught in the home of Rabbi Akiva; taught where, as we know, Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azariah, Akiva and Tarfon spent the whole night discussing liberation?

As is so often the case, our tradition preserves two different voices, two different opinions.  Later authorities will try to reconcile these two voices, but without much success.  Because, in this frame of Amalekite conversion, we actually find two very different understandings of the Torah text we are about to read, and our relationship with Amalek.

The Mechilta voice, which in many ways is the dominant voice in much of our texts is one that we may well find hard and depressing.  It is one that holds a circular view of history, one in which we are stuck reliving the enmities of old.
It is a message we find in the way the textual readings for this week are put together.  First we read Deuteronomy 25 – remember what Amalek – a descendant of evil Esau by the way – did to you on your journey.
And then, as a classical haftarah at least, we find Saul’s instruction to utterly destroy the Amalekites under King Agag – every one of them – a divine command that he fails to carry out.
As a result of which, on Wednesday evening, we will read of the genocidal intent of Haman, the Agagite.  A pattern of eternal enmity – destined to be in eternal conflict.
And this enmity – this view gets harder still to bear – is in the blood.
This is an ancient form of psychological essentialism – members of a particular group share an essence it says; in this case a people have an essence which is utterly evil; this behaviour is racially determined – with no possibility of change.
No wonder God would swear on the divine throne that such people can never join People Israel.

It is a deeply depressing understanding of not just Amalek, but of human nature.  We are bound to patterns that we cannot break.

So, thank God for that other voice.

The other voice says that what matters is not someone’s racial origin, their genetic make-up, but who they are, and what their actions say about them.

This voice also finds its way into halachah in Maimonides’ laws of war.  Maimonides rules that it is necessary to try to reach a peaceful settlement with a city being besieged before destroying it – even if that city belongs to Amalekites.
The terms Maimonides would have insisted on would not have been to our tastes – it involves accepting the Noachide laws, OK, and also a state of permanent subjugation, which is rather less OK…
but in itself, the Noachide bit also says something important – the cycle of eternal enmity can be broken.  Amalekites can become righteous gentiles.

On one level all of this is deeply hypothetical.  The peoples of the world are not really so easily identifiable.  The Talmud tells us that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came to power and mixed up all of the nations.  There is no test for Amalekite.

But all of this is not really about Amalek – it is more about how we understand the other.  There are always new peoples who some are quick to call Amalek, to identify as eternal enemies.
So it is important to remember that second voice.
If Amalekites can convert then none of us, even Amalekites, has to be something we do not wish to be.
Our moral choices – for all of us – are not pre-determined for us by genetics, by race, by history.  We are capable of choice and change.  Ultimately, we are free – to be enemies, or to study Torah together.  Whoever we are.

Mi-b’nei banav shel Haman limdu Torah bivnei barak
Descendants of Haman taught Torah at Bnei Barak
Who were these descendants of Haman?  According to one tradition one of them was none other than Rabbi Akiva himself.