In general, religiously motivated action seems to puzzle much of the secularly-oriented West. A former New York Times reporter on religion felt that a good deal of his job “was to ensure editors, no, seriously, some people actually believe this stuff — and act on it.”
In our own neighborhood, secular Israelis are often confounded by what they see as the stubborn refusal of religious identity to dry up and blow away. The oddities of long-term Torah study or keeping kosher, let alone Sabbath observance, make them wonder about religion.
And now we approach the oddest religious event in the Jewish calendar — Purim, the holiday whose central text leaves out any mention of God’s name and whose central ritual revolves upon inebriation. In Israel, children, religious or not, will dress up in costumes, while the adults will enjoy the carnivalesque atmosphere (often with the help of their local liquor retailer). Yet for traditional Jews the world over, this Shabbat, Shabbat Zakhor, recalls the darker side of our revelry — the war against Amalek, the attacker of the weak and the stragglers, Israel’s ancient, yet eternal, enemy.
For many Westerners, the very notion of an enemy, someone out to do you harm, is difficult to fathom. Haven’t we long been taught that down deep we are all the same?
I had a conversation with a former long-term Jerusalem alderman who bemoaned how high drop-out rates among elementary-school-aged children in eastern Jerusalem served to strengthen terror organizations like Hamas by providing them with eager young customers. When I mentioned this to a close friend who is quite well connected to many Islamic activists he laughed. “This is just more liberal, ‘if only’ thinking. ‘If only’ the Arabs had more of this, or that, they would become secular just like Shimon Peres and his ‘peace party’ friends, and our troubles would be over. Hah! What they don’t see is that in the Middle East, it is always the fundamentalist Islamic parties who win any real election. Religion can’t be wished away here!”
With God on their side
But I would like to return to Amalek for help in understanding something about religiously fueled enmity. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Izbica points out a marked disparity between Israel’s first two battles after the Exodus — against the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and against Amalek soon afterwards (Ex. 14 and 17 respectively). The first is marked by a distinctly passive stance by the Israelites. It is God who goes to battle, as Moses tells the people: God will fight for you, and you will be silent (Ex. 14:14). R. Lainer understands that this silence refers even to prayers. Against the Egyptians, it is God alone who goes to war and wins, while the Israelites watch and afterwards celebrate their salvation.
On the contrary, when Amalek attacks, not only must a military force be formed and sent to do battle, but Moses himself physically joins the fight on the heights above the battlefield by raising his arms — according to tradition — in prayer to God. R. Lainer explains that the difference in Israel’s response is due to the difference between Amalek and the other nations. Since other nations doubt that God is in control of the world, it is God Himself who in doing battle not only defeats them for Israel, but essentially proves them wrong.
Israel is asked to step aside so that the true Master of the world can be revealed. However, it is only Amalek who “considers all of his actions as stemming directly from God… [and that] all of his evil is God’s will, for without this being so, he would accomplish nothing.” Therefore, according to R. Lainer, the true task is to show this nation that “the fear of God is in the hands of humankind and that people themselves must work and pray [in order to accomplish what they will].”
R. Lainer’s typology both explains the rationale for many of Purim’s oddities as a “religious” holiday and offers insight into the problems facing modern, secular states today. If the mention of God is noticeably absent from the Scroll of Esther, this is because the struggle against Amalek (the progenitor of the wicked Haman) is part of a struggle against those who claim to be acting in God’s name. Therefore, the removal of any mention of God serves to underscore the need for human action in the face of danger.
We have all been witness to the rise of Islamic-identified terror, yet many Western responses to it have assiduously tried to skate around any recognition of the weighty role that religious feeling, intent and orientation play in such acts. (Perhaps the most glaring example is the way in which much of the US government skirted the religious motivation of the allahu-akbar-shouting religious Muslim shooter who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009.)
Desperation, poverty, suffering, lack of education, humiliation, mental anguish or imbalance — the search for explanations that do not mention religion casts a wide net. Yes, there is a politically-correct discomfiture with touching upon “religion,” a real unease with impinging upon individual rights — freedom of worship being an important cornerstone. But I believe that there is another reason for attempts to dismiss religiously motivated evil as just that.
Those who strike at “infidels” claim that God is on their side. They are God’s party (in Arabic, Hizb-allah), they do His will. Some may think that to fight back on the same playing field is to then proclaim “No! God is on our side!”; and while the more secularly oriented find that impossible, even many religious Westerners — used to pluralism of thought and creed — cannot comfortably bring themselves to proclaim such unabashed chauvinism.
And so, the war against terror, a war in which thousands of good men and women put their very lives on the line daily, hesitates time and again, lest it turn into a clash of religions. So radical Islamists, those whose preach actual jihad, are allowed surprisingly free rein in a time of actual conflict. Old women are asked to remove their shoes at airports, lest sensibilities be offended.
Yet R. Lainer’s understanding of the struggle against dangerous religious fanaticism is not based on this type of religious one-upmanship. His claim here is that human action need be informed by God, and not that humans need to claim to be acting in His stead. The religious attitude is that “fear of God is in the hands of humankind,” writes R. Lainer. Humans are not God’s avengers or holy proxy. Rather, human endeavor finds its value, and in this case its will to risk life and limb to defend itself and it values, from a much more humble place: the “fear of God”—wanting to be Godly and not Godlike.
God can fight His own battles. This much the Israelites witnessed at the Red Sea. The ideal in battling those who claim to be God’s own warriors is to believe that our own values are inspired by God and are thus worth fighting for. I hope that this message of Purim, of human endeavor in the face of evil, may help us win our current battles as well.